Haunting Legacy

Vietnam and the American Presidency from Ford to Obama

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.

For all the latest information from the authors and to view their Q&A series, visit the book's website.

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Praise for the book:

"What a terrific book! Scrupulously researched and beautifully told, Haunting Legacy proves that try as they might, our past seven presidents have—one after the next—failed to exorcize the ghost of Vietnam. From Ford to Obama...each one has seen the Vietnam War intrude on his campaigns (think draft dodging and swift boating) and his decisionmaking (think military action). It’s a fresh look at late 20th/early 21st century American history."—Lesley Stahl, correspondent for 60 Minutes

"The ghost of the Vietnam War has influenced and haunted two generations of American policymakers. Now, a brilliant two-generation team looks at that legacy in an insightful and fascinating way. This is great narrative history and biography combined to create informative case studies."—Walter Isaacson, president and CEO of the Aspen Institute

"By God, we’ve kicked the Vietnam syndrome,’ crowed President George H. W. Bush when he repelled Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1991. He was wrong. The Vietnam debacle continues to haunt America’s political leaders, military men, and population. Marvin Kalb and Deborah Kalb’s account of this phenomenon is studiously researched, vividly narrated, and, above all, highly readable. It will stand as a major contribution to the subject."—Stanley Karnow, author of Vietnam: A History and winner of the Pulitzer Prize

"More than three decades after its end, the Vietnam War continues to influence American attitudes toward sending troops abroad. In readable prose, the Kalbs's book skillfully and perceptively analyzes this haunting legacy from the administration of Gerald Ford to that of Barack Obama."—George C. Herring, author of America's Longest War: The United States and Vietnam, 1950-1975

"Vietnam continues to be an albatross, circling the White House. In a compelling and totally accessible book, the Kalbs (father and daughter) show how profoundly America’s defeat in Vietnam has affected one U.S. administration after another, over the course of the past thirty-six years. If you wonder whether Vietnam still matters, it does. Read this book and discover why and how."—Ted Koppel, anchor of ABC’s Nightline for twenty-five years

"Haunting Legacy is a gripping, fascinating account of how the Vietnam War has lived on in the psyches of our national leaders and put its stamp on our foreign policy ever since. This powerful and insightful book shows us how that long and painful war has never really ended in Washington."—Elizabeth Drew, political journalist

"A clear-eyed look at the Vietnam War's fateful consequences—especially subsequent wars—up until the present in Afghanistan. It could not be a more timely and thoughtful contribution to the literature."—Jamie Stiehm, Huffington Post