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

Author:Gutierrez, Edward A.
Position:Book review
 
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Haunting Legacy: Vietnam and the American Presidency from Ford to Obama. By Marvin Kalb and Deborah Kalb. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 2011. 355 pp.

Thirty-seven years after the last American helicopter flew away from the U.S. Embassy in Saigon, the Vietnam War still lingers in America's subconscious. Haunting Legacy begins where David L. Anderson's edited volume, Shadow on the White House: Presidents and the Vietnam War, 1945-1975 (University Press of Kansas, 1993) ended. Anderson's book argued that no president could ignore Vietnam, as Southeast Asia pulled each commander in chief, starting with Harry Truman, into its vortex, and in Haunted Legacy, the father and daughter journalist team of Marvin and Deborah Kalb conclude, "Vietnam has infiltrated the presidential DNA" (p. 3).

The Kalbs establish their central thesis in the introduction and then examine each president from Gerald Ford to Barack Obama. They contend that beginning with Ford, all post-Vietnam presidents live with the legacy and burden of the Vietnam War--each president fears to sink into another Vietnam quagmire, by applying military force against another country, and especially hesitates to deploy ground troops into hostile territory. The authors establish two presidential foreign policy models: the Gerald Ford and the Jimmy Carter. The former consists of President Ford and both Bushes, men more aggressive and willing to use military force, while the latter model consists of Presidents Carter, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton--men more reluctant to use military offense. The Kalbs show an interesting unwillingness to categorize the incumbent; they believe that President Obama fits both models, so far.

The authors state that President Ford did his best to help South Vietnam, but Congress (and society) refused. Not wanting anyone to perceive him or the country as a "paper tiger," Ford utilized military force against the Khmer Rouge after they seized the SS Mayaguez. The authors venerate President Carter for his success with the Panama Canal Treaty, the Camp David Accords, SALT II (never ratified), and the strengthening of ties with China, but then blame bad luck rather than indecisiveness with Carter's failure to control the Iranian hostage crisis. In addition, Carter and National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski receive gentle treatment for their backing of the Mujahideen in Afghanistan, which would have disastrous consequences in the future, a point that...

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