Marvin Kalb is a former network correspondent and is an emeritus professor at Harvard and a co-author of “Haunting Legacy: Vietnam and the American Presidency from Ford to Obama.”
TEN years after the start of the war in Afghanistan, an odd specter haunts the Obama White House — the specter of Vietnam, a war lost decades before. Like Banquo’s ghost, it hovers over the White House still, an unwelcome memory of where America went wrong, a warning of what may yet go wrong.
When the United States loses to a “raggedy-ass, little fourth-rate country,” as Lyndon B. Johnson described his North Vietnamese foe, the loss leaves an unshakable legacy. There is no escape from history. Every president since Gerald R. Ford has had to weigh the consequences of the Vietnam defeat when he considers committing troops to war.
Ford, for example, was concerned that the United States might be seen as a “paper tiger” after the Communist victory in Vietnam on April 30, 1975. And so, two weeks later, he decided to use overwhelming military force against a handful of Cambodian boats that had seized an American merchant ship, the Mayaguez, in an act that Ford denounced as “piracy.” In 1979, when Soviet troops swept into Afghanistan, an angry Jimmy Carter organized an unofficial alliance to give the Soviets “their Vietnam” (which Afghanistan became).
In 1984, when Ronald Reagan withdrew from Lebanon after 241 American servicemen were murdered in their Beirut barracks by Islamic fanatics, he told a friend that the American people had been “spooked” by Vietnam and that he didn’t want a similar experience in the Middle East. By 1990, President George Bush was willing to send a half-million-strong army to drive Iraq out of Kuwait, but he did so under the Powell Doctrine, drawn from the Vietnam experience: get Congress to approve; use huge firepower; get in and out on a timetable of your choosing.
Of all the presidents since Vietnam, Mr. Obama may be the most fascinating, because — unlike Bill Clinton and George W. Bush — he was too young to have fought in Vietnam or to have gamed the system and avoided service in it (as both Mr. Clinton and Mr. Bush did).
Barack Obama was 3 when Johnson escalated the war, and 13 when Ford ordered Americans to leave Saigon. As David Axelrod, one of Mr. Obama’s political advisers, explained, “the whole debate about Vietnam — that was not part of his life experience.” Nevertheless, time and again, he has found himself entangled in its complexities.
During his presidential campaign, he visited Iraq and Afghanistan accompanied by two senators. What did they discuss on the long flights to and from the war zones? Mr. Obama kept asking: What could we learn about Vietnam that should now be applied in Afghanistan?
At his first National Security Council meeting, in January 2009, he stressed that “Afghanistan is not Vietnam.” Nevertheless, it echoed. Recent intelligence had suggested that only an increase in American military aid could eliminate the chance of a Taliban triumph. Mr. Obama, a Democrat who had never served in the military, did not want to be saddled with a defeat. He ramped up American troop strength, linked the problems in Afghanistan to those in Pakistan and ordered a total review of America’s war strategy. Bruce O. Riedel, a former C.I.A. officer who wrote the review, kept running into the Vietnam legacy wherever he turned. “Vietnam,” he recalled, “walked the halls of the White House.” And none of the president’s close advisers saw Vietnam more as a cautionary tale than the late Richard C. Holbrooke, a diplomat who had gripping memories of Saigon in the early 1960s, when he worked there as a young Foreign Service officer.
In the summer of 2009, when the president ordered another review of his war strategy, it was marked by bitter leaks and obvious distrust between the White House and the Pentagon. At the heart of the disagreement was an old argument about Vietnam, emerging from two radically different books. “Lessons in Disaster,” by Gordon Goldstein, served as a lesson for the White House: America blundered and lost because the president and his advisers knew nothing about Vietnam. At the Pentagon, the best seller was Lewis Sorley’s “A Better War,” which argued that Vietnam could have been won — if only the White House had not lost heart and Congress had not cut funding.
As President Obama was considering a deeper American commitment to Afghanistan, he would occasionally slip into an aide’s office, lean on his desk and wonder aloud whether he was making the same mistakes Johnson had made. Finally, under enormous pressure, he decided to send more than 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan while also announcing a July 2011 date to begin a withdrawal from Afghanistan. In, but at the same time out.
Vietnam was like a terrier snapping at his heels. In his televised speech announcing his decision, he made the point three times that any comparison between Vietnam and Afghanistan was a “false reading of history,” and yet he was the one raising the comparison.
That changed a bit as he began his re-election bid last spring: he dropped explicit references to Vietnam, but it made little difference in his message. He and his senior advisers still had Vietnam in the bloodstream of their calculations, as they showed with code words or phrases.
When Mr. Obama announced that American troops now had a “clear mission,” he evoked a time nearly 40 years ago when they didn’t. When he stressed the need for an “exit strategy” in Afghanistan, he knew there had been none in Vietnam. When he promised Americans that their nation’s military action against Muammar el-Qaddafi’s Libya would be measured “in days, not weeks,” he signaled that he knew the dangers of “mission creep.” And, when, months later, with the United States still militarily engaged in Libya, Congress raised the question of whether he was in violation of the 1973 War Powers Act, the real issue was unchecked presidential power during wartime. Nixon had gotten away with it in Vietnam. Now Mr. Obama was in Libya.
Journalists also used code words, like “quagmire” or “over-committed.” The resonance was plain.
Up to Vietnam, the United States had never lost a war. The defeat was a humiliation, and it stripped the country of its illusions of omnipotence. From boundless self-confidence, Americans descended into self-doubt. Though politicians still talk of American “exceptionalism” and “uniqueness,” and although the United States remains a great power with enviable resources and talents, it lives in a post-Vietnam world — grappling with the uncomfortable but undeniable fact that L.B.J.’s “fourth-rate country” had routed it from Saigon in unquestioned defeat.
Vietnam took a high toll, but perhaps, as the current anguished calculations about Afghanistan indicate, it left the United States a more mature, sensible and smarter country. Perhaps.