Marvin Kalb and Deborah Kalb, Haunting Legacy: Vietnam and the American Presidency from Ford to Obama (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 2011), 355 pp., $29.95.
Dov S. Zakheim, A Vulcan’s Tale: How the Bush Administration Mismanaged the Reconstruction of Afghanistan (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 2011), 320 pp., $32.95.
Haunting Legacy: Vietnam and the American Presidency from Ford to Obama FOUR DECADES on, Vietnam remains America’s only major lost war. As prominent journalists Marvin and Deborah Kalb write in their new, quite gripping historical survey, this is a memory that has haunted U.S. policy makers ever since. Indeed, the defeat remains critical to the calculations of the Obama administration as it tries to extricate the United States from Afghanistan while preserving at least the appearance of some success—and the avoidance of obvious failure.
Yet the effects of Vietnam were in fact deeply paradoxical: America’s position in the world changed little and in some ways was better for the war. In Indochina, victorious Vietnam was contained by Beijing. Meanwhile, the memory of the war meant that, very fortunately, Washington did not plunge itself into direct military interventions in developing nations in far-flung lands, which would have brought no gains, only further costs—and more bitter domestic divisions. It is true that the Soviet Union was emboldened and took advantage of the collapse of the Portuguese colonial empire in Africa more aggressively than it might otherwise have done, but this proved utterly irrelevant to the overall balance of power. The USSR collapsed, largely through the colossal military overstretch of its strategic competition with the United States.