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Marvin Kalb: 'Rabin Opposed 'Overwhelming' US presence in Vietnam'

Yitzhak Rabin

Yitzhak Rabin privately expressed his opposition to America's use of “overwhelming military force” in Vietnam and was concerned the Arabs would misread the U.S. defeat as a sign it could no longer keep its word to an ally, according to Harvard University Professor and veteran network correspondent Marvin Kalb. The interview was recorded at IsraCast Studios in Jerusalem.

 “Back in 1975, Yitzhak Rabin told me – and he had visited Vietnam and seen the military operation there – that he was very unhappy with the way in which the U.S. was so completely dependent in its operation in Vietnam upon overwhelming military force,” said Kalb, author of the newly published Haunting Legacy (Brookings Institution Press) in an audio interview with Inside Israel's Mordechai I. Twersky on JPost.com. “He thought it was a far more complicated war. It involved a different approach.”

Marvin Kalb (photo: The Kalb Report)

Rabin, according to Kalb, kept quiet at the time. “He was a great admirer of the United States,” Kalb recalled. “He appreciated what the U.S. was doing for Israel, and and so he did not publicly criticize the United States at the time.”

After the U.S lost in Vietnam in 1975, a question arose in the minds of Israeli strategists, according to Kalb. “What would happen if we, in Israel, were under the gun?” he asked. “Would the United States come to help us, or would they abandon us, as they had, in effect, abandoned the South Vietnamese in pursuit of the deal with the North Vietnamese? Would they also abandon us Israelis?”

According to Kalb, who in his book examines how America's trauma from the Vietnam War has continued to influence the war and peace decisions of every U.S. President since Lyndon Johnson, Rabin and other Israeli leaders answered that question “very forcefully at the time,” rejecting the possibility of U.S. troops ever fighting in a war alongside Israel and instead preferring a package of sustained American aid.

“That has always been the Israeli position, to the best of my understanding,” said Kalb, Professor of Practice at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government and host of The Kalb Report at the National Press Club. “I think right now, it is not a matter of Israel getting into trouble and requiring American troop assistance, so much as it is requiring American diplomatic, military and economic support. Not to the degree of sending U.S. troops, but to the degree of maintaining a consistent support role for Israel, as Israel faces its many challenges.”

Kalb predicted a sustained American involvement in the Middle East Peace process for the foreseeable future.

“I think the U.S. will remain involved in the Middle East for several reasons,” he said. “One of them is oil. O-I-L. Until the United States, somehow, resolves that problem, it is going to remain in that one part of the world, which has so much oil.”

Kalb said the United States has “very, very, powerful commitments – especially to a country like Israel.” “There is no indication whatever, whether it is a Democratic or Republican – that any American President is going to abandon that. No indication of that at all,” he said.

 

TRANSCRIPT OF INTERVIEW WITH MARVIN KALB, CONDUCTED BY MORDECHAI I. TWERSKY

MT: This is Mordechai Twersky reporting from Jerusalem.

To war? Or not to war?

This is the question, according to respected, veteran journalist Marvin Kalb in his latest book, “Haunting Legacy,” and it has been a particularly vexing question for every American president since the trauma of Vietnam – so much so, contends Kalb, that it continues to influence fateful war and peace decisions more than four decades later.

In today's rapidly changing world, a fresh, new slate of foreign policy challenges confronts President Obama and certainly awaits the winner of the upcoming Presidential elections in 2012.

Just what are the practical implications of that legacy today for an America that is clearly turning inward, hemorrhaging economically, itching to bring its troops home from Afghanistan and Iraq, and losing its patience with its NATO partners not doing their fair share?

How has this “Haunting Legacy” influenced US policy toward Israel? Can this haunting legacy potentially prevent the United States from sending American troops to aid Israel in a future war?

Marvin Kalb joins me to discuss “Haunting Legacy,” which he authored together with his daughter, Deborah, a journalist in her own right.

Marvin Kalb is the Edward R. Murrow Professor of Practice at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government and founding director of the Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy. His distinguished journalism career covers 30 years of award-winning reporting and commentary for CBS and NBC News, including stints as the bureau chief in Moscow and host of “Meet the Press.” Prof. Kalb, who is the author of eleven books, hosts the “Kalb Report” at the National Press Club.

Prof. Marvin Kalb, welcome. It's a great pleasure to have you on the broadcast.

MK: It's my pleasure to be with you, Mordechai.

MT: Prof. Kalb, what prompted you, and your daughter, Deborah, to explore this so-called “Haunting Legacy?”

MK: We were prompted by one very simple fact. And that is, that when a great power like the United States of America loses a war, what effect does a lost war have upon its capacity to function effectively in the world?

The United States had never lost a war in its history. And then, it loses in 1975 to North Vietnam – a country that President Lyndon Johnson once called a “raggedy-ass little fourth-rate country.” The humiliation that everyone felt after that stinging defeat was awesome. Every President since that time  had one thing in mind when facing a war and peace decision: “How can I possibly not lose this war? That cannot happen on my watch or on any Presidential watch.” So, the effect of a lost war on a great power is what prompted us to write the book.

MT: Prof. Kalb, can you discuss briefly some of the practical implications of that legacy, as you do in your book?

MK:  What happens is, that when a President comes upon a situation such as, let us say, President Ronald Reagan, in 1983:  Two-hundred and forty-one American marines are killed – murdered – in their barracks in Beirut, Lebanon. What does President Reagan do? He knew exactly who the terrorists were. He knew where they were. Retaliation was the obvious order of the day. And yet, he did nothing. In fact, he pulled American forces out of Beirut at that time. He said: “The American people had already been 'spooked'” – that's his verb – “spooked by the experience of Vietnam. I cannot put them through another experience like that.”

And yet, another President, let us say, George H.W. Bush, with the Persian Gulf War, he sent 500,000 American troops, when 100,000 would have done the job, because he wanted to make absolutely sure that when you commit troops to fight, you send more than enough people to do the job. You go in, you do it quickly, and then you get out.

So, different Presidents responded in totally different ways to a military challenge. But they were all influenced heavily by what had preceded in Vietnam.

MT: It's also interesting to note, Prof. Kalb, from your book, that the enemies of the United States seem to be watching very closely and seem to have learned lessons of their own from the actions of the United States over the course of the decades.

MK:  And that's a very, very important point, Mordechai, because, time and time again in America we tend to get absorbed with what we do. We don't take into account what other people see. What they experience. How they respond to a situation.  The rest of the world looked upon the American defeat and drew certain conclusions from that.

The Russians, for example – then the Soviet Union – looked upon the American defeat in Vietnam in 1975 and said, “Aha!  Now we see that within their Communist mindset, now we see that we can actually expand Communist influence  all over the world, and the Americans will not be able to stop us anymore because they were so badly defeated in Vietnam.” And they, the Russians, went on the offensive in Africa, in Afghanistan, as we remember, in 1979,  and so time and time again, people around the world check on what it is the U.S. does, and draw certain conclusions from that, and then take certain actions based upon it.

Nasrallah, the head of the Hezbollah group in Lebanon. He saw what happened in Vietnam and advised a whole range of his people: “Don't trust the United States anymore, because the United States will abandon you.” That was his point. So, in other words, people all over the world draw different conclusions when a country as great as the United States suffers a defeat.

MT:  You begin your final chapter, Prof. Kalb, with a quote from Nasrallah, if I'm not mistaken, as well as with a very interesting quote from General Petraeus. I wonder if you could talk about that for a moment.

MK:  Well, Petraeus says that this is a war – he's talking about the war in Afghanistan, but in a way he's talking about a larger war that has to do with the war against global terrorism – what he says is that this is a war that could go on “for generations.” That our grandchildren may have to deal with this war, too. He didn't mean, literally, that our grandchildren would deal with the problem of Afghanistan, but problems like Afghanistan, when they crop up, in different parts of the world.

What is the United States supposed to do, now, if a guerrilla group or a terrorist cell takes action against America or its allies? Is it supposed to sit back and do nothing? No. That was proven in Afghanistan in 2001 by George W. Bush. So, the pressures on the United States to act are obvious. It is not obvious what kind of action ought to be taken. That is the issue that now faces every single President.

MT: Finally, Prof. Kalb, you mentioned the word, “allies.” I would like, with your permission, to ask you your view as to how the “Haunting Legacy” might have influenced U.S. Policy toward Israel, and can it potentially even prevent the United States from sending American troops to aid Israel in a future war?

MK: It's a very interesting and pertinent question. My own feeling – it's a very strong feeling, Mordechai – is that the United States and Israel have a “special relationship.” Back in 1975, Yitzhak Rabin told me – and he had visited Vietnam and seen the military operation there – Rabin said that he was very unhappy with the way in which the U.S. was so completely dependent in its operation in Vietnam, upon overwhelming military force. He thought it was a far more complicated war. It involved a different approach. However, he was a great admirer of the United States. He appreciated what the U.S. was doing for Israel. And so he did not publicly criticize the United States at the time.

However, after the U.S lost in 1975 in Vietnam, the question obviously came into the minds of any Israeli strategist: “What would happen if we, in Israel, were under the gun? Would the United States come to help us, or would they abandon us, as they had, in effect, abandoned the South Vietnamese in pursuit of the deal with the North Vietnamese? Would they also abandon us Israelis?”

The question that was answered by Israeli leaders such as Rabin – very forcefully at the time – “Yes, the question is in our minds. However, we do not want U.S. troops to fight our war. What we want from the U.S. is aid – of an economic and military nature. We want our military superiority to be sustained. We will take care of the fighting ourselves.” That has always been the Israeli position, to the best of my understanding. So, I think right now, it is not a matter of Israel getting into trouble and requiring American troop assistance, so much as it is requiring American diplomatic, military and economic support. Not to the degree of sending U.S. troops, but to the degree of maintaining a consistent support role for Israel, as Israel faces its many challenges.

MT: Is it safe to say that the United States, Prof. Kalb, can be expected to maintain its so-called involvement in the Middle East as long as, perhaps, they don't have to pay that particular price?

MK: I think the U.S. will remain involved in the Middle East for several reasons. One of them is oil. O-I-L. Until the United States, somehow, resolves that problem, it is going to remain involved in that one part of the world, which has so much oil.  Another reason is that the U.S. has very, very, powerful commitments – especially to a country like Israel – and there is no indication whatever, whether it's a Democratic or Republican – that any American President is going to abandon that. No indication of that at all.

MT: Prof. Marvin Kalb, author, together with Deborah Kalb, of “Haunting Legacy,” I'd like to thank you ever so much for being with us.

MK: It's my pleasure to be with you, Mordechai.

MT:  Reporting from Jerusalem, this is Mordechai Twersky.

Mordechai I. Twersky

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