Haunting Legacy: Vietnam and the American Presidency from Ford to Obama

Brookings Institution Press
Free sample

The United States had never lost a war—that is, until 1975, when it was forced to flee Saigon in humiliation after losing to what Lyndon Johnson called a "raggedy-ass little fourth-rate country." The legacy of this first defeat has haunted every president since, especially on the decision of whether to put "boots on the ground" and commit troops to war.

In Haunting Legacy, the father-daughter journalist team of Marvin Kalb and Deborah Kalb presents a compelling, accessible, and hugely important history of presidential decisionmaking on one crucial issue: in light of the Vietnam debacle, under what circumstances should the United States go to war?

The sobering lesson of Vietnam is that the United States is not invincible—it can lose a war—and thus it must be more discriminating about the use of American power. Every president has faced the ghosts of Vietnam in his own way, though each has been wary of being sucked into another unpopular war. Ford (during the Mayaguez crisis) and both Bushes (Persian Gulf, Iraq, Afghanistan) deployed massive force, as if to say, "Vietnam, be damned." On the other hand, Carter, Clinton, and Reagan (to the surprise of many) acted with extreme caution, mindful of the Vietnam experience. Obama has also wrestled with the Vietnam legacy, using doses of American firepower in Libya while still engaged in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The authors spent five years interviewing hundreds of officials from every post war administration and conducting extensive research in presidential libraries and archives, and they've produced insight and information never before published. Equal parts taut history, revealing biography, and cautionary tale, Haunting Legacy is must reading for anyone trying to understand the power of the past to influence war-and-peace decisions of the present, and of the future.

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About the author

Marvin Kalb is the Edward R. Murrow Professor of Practice (Emeritus) at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and founding director of the Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy. His distinguished journalism career covers thirty years of award-winning reporting and commentary for CBS and NBC News, including stints as bureau chief in Moscow and host of Meet the Press. His eleven previous books include The Nixon Memo (University of Chicago) and Kissinger (Little Brown). He hosts the Kalb Report at the National Press Club.

Deborah Kalb, a freelance writer and editor, worked as a journalist in Washington for two decades, including writing for Gannett News Service, Congressional Quarterly, U.S. News & World Report, and The Hill. Both authors live in the Washington, D.C. area.

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Additional Information

Publisher
Brookings Institution Press
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Published on
Jun 1, 2011
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Pages
364
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ISBN
9780815721321
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Language
English
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Genres
History / Military / General
History / Military / United States
History / Military / Vietnam War
Political Science / International Relations / General
Political Science / Political Process / Leadership
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Content Protection
This content is DRM protected.
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DIV The Buck Stops Here consists of twenty-eight engrossing accounts of the most important United States presidential decisions in history. They range from the abolition of slavery with the Emancipation Proclamation to the acquisition of vast new territory with the Louisiana Purchase to the establishment of enduring institutions such as Medicare and America’s national parks. These decisions encompass, too, such less-well-known measures as the G.I. Bill of Rights, which cleared the way for more than two million veterans to receive a college education, as well as acts that reverberated worldwide, including Theodore Roosevelt’s construction of the Panama Canal, Harry S Truman’s deployment of the atom bomb, Richard Nixon’s visit to China, and John F. Kennedy’s pledge to put a man on the moon. Thomas J. Craughwell and Edwin Kiester Jr.’s fascinating survey of twenty-eight crucial presidential decisions opens a door into the White House’s corridors of power, giving readers an insider’s view of how and why these decisions were made, while providing a yardstick with which we might, perhaps, gauge the success of current and future presidents. Each chapter places the reader squarely in the historical period while presenting the issues at stake, the interests at work, and the obstacles encountered. This book takes the reader into the minds of some of American history’s greatest leaders and analyzes the enduring, often far-reaching, sometimes unforeseen consequences of these presidential decisions—in their own time, and right up to the present day. Some of these decisions were simply expedient; others required the courage of conviction in the face of intense opposition. Some were motivated by political loyalties, but many were evidently inspired by noble visions of a better nation, a fairer world. All were momentous, and helped define who we are and how we live now. /div
One of the most contentious issues in contemporary foreign policy—especially in the United States—is the use of military force to intervene in the domestic affairs of other states. Some military interventions explicitly try to transform the domestic institutions of the states they target; others do not, instead attempting only to reverse foreign policies or resolve disputes without trying to reshape the internal landscape of the target state. In Leaders at War, Elizabeth N. Saunders provides a framework for understanding when and why great powers seek to transform foreign institutions and societies through military interventions. She highlights a crucial but often-overlooked factor in international relations: the role of individual leaders.

Saunders argues that leaders' threat perceptions—specifically, whether they believe that threats ultimately originate from the internal characteristics of other states—influence both the decision to intervene and the choice of intervention strategy. These perceptions affect the degree to which leaders use intervention to remake the domestic institutions of target states. Using archival and historical sources, Saunders concentrates on U.S. military interventions during the Cold War, focusing on the presidencies of Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson. After demonstrating the importance of leaders in this period, she also explores the theory's applicability to other historical and contemporary settings including the post–Cold War period and the war in Iraq.

Shortly after assuming office in January 2017, President Donald Trump accused the press of being an “enemy of the American people.” Attacks on the media had been a hallmark of Trump’s presidential campaign, but this charge marked a dramatic turning point: language like this ventured into dangerous territory. Twentieth-century dictators—notably, Stalin, Hitler, and Mao—had all denounced their critics, especially the press, as “enemies of the people.” Their goal was to delegitimize the work of the press as “fake news” and create confusion in the public mind about what’s real and what isn’t; what can be trusted and what can’t be.

That, it seems, is also Trump’s goal. In Enemy of the People, Marvin Kalb, an award-winning American journalist with more than six decades of experience both as a journalist and media observer, writes with passion about why we should fear for the future of American democracy because of the unrelenting attacks by the Trump administration on the press.

As his new book shows, the press has been a bulwark in the defense of democracy. Kalb writes about Edward R. Murrow’s courageous reporting on Senator Joseph McCarthy’s “red scare” theatrics in the early 1950s, which led to McCarthy’s demise. He reminds us of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s reporting in the early 1970s that led to President Richard Nixon’s resignation.

Today, because of revolutionary changes in journalism, no Murrow is ready at the battlements. Journalism has been severely weakened. Yet, without a virile, strong press, democracy is in peril.

Kalb’s book is a frightening indictment of President Trump’s efforts to delegitimize the American press—and put the future of our democracy in question.

Not since Pearl Harbor has an American president gone to Congress to request a declaration of war. Nevertheless, since then, one president after another, from Truman to Obama, has ordered American troops into wars all over the world. From Korea to Vietnam, Panama to Grenada, Lebanon to Bosnia, Afghanistan to Iraq—why have presidents sidestepped declarations of war? Marvin Kalb, former chief diplomatic correspondent for CBS and NBC News, explores this key question in his thirteenth book about the presidency and U.S. foreign policy.

Instead of a declaration of war, presidents have justified their war-making powers by citing "commitments," private and public, made by former presidents. Many of these commitments have been honored, but some betrayed. Surprisingly, given the tight U.S.-Israeli relationship, Israeli leaders feel that at times they have been betrayed by American presidents. Is it time for a negotiated defense treaty between the United States and Israel as a way of substituting for a string of secret presidential commitments?

From Israel to Vietnam, presidential commitments have proven to be tricky and dangerous. For example, one president after another committed the United States to the defense of South Vietnam, often without explanation. Over the years, these commitments mushroomed into national policy, leading to a war costing 58,000 American lives. Few in Congress or the media chose to question the war's provenance or legitimacy, until it was too late. No president saw the need for a declaration of war, considering one to be old-fashioned.

The word of a president can morph into a national commitment. It can become the functional equivalent of a declaration of war. Therefore, whenever a president "commits"the United States to a policy or course of action with, or increasingly without, congressional approval, watch out—the White House may be setting the nation on a road toward war.

The Road to War was a 2013 Foreword Reviews honorable mention in the subject of War & Military.

A chronicle of the year that changed Soviet Russia—and molded the future path of one of America's pre-eminent diplomatic correspondents

1956 was an extraordinary year in modern Russian history. It was called “the year of the thaw”—a time when Stalin’s dark legacy of dictatorship died in February only to be reborn later that December. This historic arc from rising hope to crushing despair opened with a speech by Nikita Khrushchev, then the unpredictable leader of the Soviet Union. He astounded everyone by denouncing the one figure who, up to that time, had been hailed as a “genius,” a wizard of communism—Josef Stalin himself. Now, suddenly, this once unassailable god was being portrayed as a “madman” whose idiosyncratic rule had seriously undermined communism and endangered the Soviet state.

This amazing switch from hero to villain lifted a heavy overcoat of fear from the backs of ordinary Russians. It also quickly led to anti-communist uprisings in Eastern Europe, none more bloody and challenging than the one in Hungary, which Soviet troops crushed at year’s end.

Marvin Kalb, then a young diplomatic attaché at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, observed this tumultuous year that foretold the end of Soviet communism three decades later. Fluent in Russian, a doctoral candidate at Harvard, he went where few other foreigners would dare go, listening to Russian students secretly attack communism and threaten rebellion against the Soviet system, traveling from one end of a changing country to the other and, thanks to his diplomatic position, meeting and talking with Khrushchev, who playfully nicknamed him Peter the Great.

In this, his fifteenth book, Kalb writes a fascinating eyewitness account of a superpower in upheaval and of a people yearning for an end to dictatorship.

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