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 What people are saying about Haunting Legacy

"What a terrific book!"

Lesley Stahl, correspondent for 60 Minutes

"This is great narrative history and biography combined to create informative case studies."

Walter Isaacson, president and CEO of the Aspen Institute

"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


To read more reviews of Haunting Legacy, click here.


Q&A with Professor Bartholomew Sparrow

Bartholomew Sparrow, a professor of government at the University of Texas, Austin, is the author of the new book The Strategist: Brent Scowcroft and the Call of National Security.

Q: Why did you choose to write a biography of Brent Scowcroft?

A: After I finished my book on the Insular Cases (the Insular Cases are series of landmark U.S. Supreme Court cases dating from 1901 to 1922 that made the novel distinction between the “unincorporated” and “incorporated” territories of the United States), I was considering starting a new project on how U.S. foreign policy had evolved from the Cold War through 9/11 and up to the present, given the tremendous changes that had happened over this period around the world.

I also thought about writing a historical analysis of how presidents and their advisers administer national security policy, broadly defined, given the multiple stakeholders with simultaneous interests in presidential decision-making—the State Department, Department of Defense, intelligence community, other government agencies, commercial interests, other interest groups, mobilized members of the public, and potentially others.  

But as someone who had already written several books, I wanted to [address] more than political scientists if my subject was suitable to a larger audience. 

Meanwhile, as someone who had followed current events since childhood and who was aware of Brent Scowcroft’s continued presence in national security politics and policy debates over the years, I wondered about writing a biography.  

Although Scowcroft is a fixture in Washington, he has received only sporadic attention, most recently in the summer of 2002, when he made his famous dissent in The Wall Street Journal. And the more I read about Scowcroft, the more the idea of writing his biography appealed to me.

I had written two short stories for my nieces and nephews and had drafted a book-length simulation game for use in one of my classes, so I was reasonably comfortable with the narrative form and the conversational [tone] I wanted to adopt for a biography.

Writing a biography of Brent Scowcroft would thereby meet my several goals. It would allow me to write about the broad arc of U.S. foreign policy from the last third of the Cold War up to the 2010s. It would enable me to analyze the interagency policymaking process and the bureaucratic politics involved in the formation and execution of national security policy. And it would possibly appeal to larger national community of policymakers, historians, policy experts, and interested members of the public.

Scowcroft himself also helped me decide. Once I contacted him to investigate the possibility of his biography, contact possible through the help of several generous intermediaries, and traveled to Washington, D.C., he agreed to cooperate. 

I interviewed him in his office and although he was dubious about having a biography written about him, he agreed to give me access to his high school, U.S. Military Academy, and Columbia University transcripts, his extensive Air Force personnel records, and a scrapbook with some personal clippings and photos that his mother had made for him. 

He also—and this was crucial—allowed me to interview him on a regular basis. He also made it possible for me to talk to his friends, colleagues, associates, and family members. Without this cooperation, I could not have written a book anything like The Strategist, and I would have most likely postponed the project indefinitely or decided to drop it altogether.

Q: How would you describe the dynamic between Scowcroft and Henry Kissinger, with whom he worked for many years?

A: The two have been close friends ever since 1971, when Scowcroft first started working with Dr. Kissinger in his capacity as military assistant to President Nixon and Kissinger was serving as national security advisor. 

Scowcroft and Kissinger shared similar views on U.S. foreign policy and international relation, both were familiar with European, Russian, and world history, and both were expert in nuclear strategy.  

Although they began as boss and assistant when Kissinger hired Scowcroft as his new deputy in 1973—the former a famous Harvard University professor and author, the latter a reserved and not-well-known one-star general—their relationship became more balanced as Scowcroft acquired more experience. 

It especially shifted when Kissinger became secretary of state in September 1973 and Scowcroft acquired more responsibility and then in November 1975 when Scowcroft became national security advisor (Kissinger continued as secretary of state). Scowcroft became more willing to question or disagree with Kissinger and to make independent recommendations to the president.

The two worked well together.  Scowcroft’s personality almost perfectly complemented that of Kissinger, the former being steady, poised, and more straightforward, and the latter often mercurial, intemperate, and less straightforward.  

They continued to work together after the Ford administration. Scowcroft helped found Kissinger Associates in 1982, and they worked together for several years until Scowcroft became national security advisor under Bush 41. 

As national security advisor, Scowcroft consulted frequently with his friend, not that he, President Bush, or Secretary of State James Baker took Kissinger’s advice.  

In the two decades since 1993 and the end of the first Bush administration they have kept in touch, speaking frequently by telephone, occasionally serving on the same boards and discussion panels, and seeing each at the same functions and events.

They have their differences. Scowcroft was typically more cautious on the use of force than Kissinger, as with the Mayaguez incident (where Kissinger was more intent on bombing the Cambodian mainland) and the Korean Tree incident (where Kissinger wanted the U.S. to strongly retaliate against North Korea after the killing of two U.S. soldiers on the DMZ by North Korean soldiers). Scowcroft usually preferred more measured, more muted responses to foreign policy crises.

They disagreed on going to war against Iraq in the aftermath of 9/11, an occasion where Kissinger essentially supported the George W. Bush White House. 

They also conflicted over the desirability of publicly advocating total nuclear disarmament, a goal George Shultz, William Perry, Sam Nunn, and Kissinger proposed in a January 2007 Wall Street Journal editorial. 

Scowcroft regarded such a goal as unrealistic, dangerous, and counterproductive, given the availability of nuclear weapons and the false hopes that such an appeal raised (since as a practical matter it would be foolhardy for the United States to eliminate its entire nuclear arsenal). 

Notwithstanding these and other differences, they are very close and view each other with a great deal of mutual affection and respect.

Q: You write, “The defeat [in Vietnam] scarred Scowcroft and his colleagues...” How did the outcome in Vietnam affect Scowcroft's thinking when it came to future foreign policy decisions?

A: The experience of living through and then being involved with the Vietnam War taught Scowcroft several lessons. One was that the White House had to bring Congress along when making U.S. foreign policy—or at least not alienate important members of Congress—if U.S. foreign policy was to be effective. 

As the chair of The President’s Commission on Strategic Forces of 1983 (also known as the Scowcroft Commission), Scowcroft consulted closely with members of the House of Representatives, especially Democratic up-and-comers Les Aspin and Al Gore. To everyone’s surprise, he and his fellow commissioners were able to get the MX deal through Congress.

Later, Scowcroft worked extremely hard and ultimately successfully to persuade more than a third of the Democratic-controlled Senate from overriding Bush’s presidential vetoes on several occasions, which meant persuading members from across the aisle.

But he was able to do this because he often breakfasted with members of Congress and otherwise met with them to exchange views. His own personal credibility also helped immensely.  

The fact that he faced Democratic-controlled Congresses in both the Ford and first Bush administration meant that he often disagreed with congressional leaders, but he tried to keep the avenues of communication open.

The United States’ failure in Vietnam also made Scowcroft realize how important successful relations with the press were. An administration’s foreign policy could not be sustained unless it were presented and explained to the larger policy community and the American public, and close relations between the White House and the press made this possible.  

So when he became national security advisor Scowcroft often spoke to chief correspondents in the national media, usually on background, and often met with small groups of reporters from different publications and media groups to explain the White House’s perspectives. After he left office, he wrote dozens of op-eds and gave numerous interviews.

The Vietnam War and the Mayaguez incident revealed something else: the importance of inter-service cooperation among the Army, Navy, Air Forces, and Marines, in light of the coordination problems during the Vietnam War and then the U.S. military’s response to the Cambodian seizure of the Mayaguez merchant ship in May 1975. 

Scowcroft, along with others, worked with General David Jones to see to the eventual passage of the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Act for centralizing and clarifying the U.S. armed forces command structure and improving joint service operations.

Perhaps the most important lesson of Vietnam was that the United States had to think through foreign engagements and to consider the larger strategic implications of any policy initiative and the United States’ long-term interests. Scowcroft did not believe U.S. policymakers had ever thoroughly thought through the dimensions and implications of the Vietnam War. 

So when the new Bush administration took office in 1988 and faced the social revolutions in Eastern Europe, the later collapse of the Soviet Union, and Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, Scowcroft, Bush, Baker and their advisers carefully thought through what their ultimate objectives were and how they wanted to proceed.

Q: You begin the book by describing Scowcroft's op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal in August 2002 arguing against a U.S. invasion of Iraq. Why did you decide to open the book with this incident, and what impact did the op-ed have?

A: One reason was to show Scowcroft’s courage by dissenting in public against the standing president of the United States, someone who he knew well and who happened to be the son of his dear friend, George H.W. Bush. 

At the time, moreover, Scowcroft was serving as the chair of the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board (PFIAB), appointed by President Bush in early 2001. 

Scowcroft also showed courage by writing “Don’t Attack Saddam” because the op-ed questioned the judgment of several of Bush 43’s top advisers, several of whom were friends and associates of Scowcroft’s dating back to the first Bush administration.  

And he paid a price for the dissent: for more two years following his op-ed, Scowcroft was shunned by those in the administration and fellow Republicans.

Another reason for beginning with this episode was to signal the biography’s timeliness, since the decision to invade Iraq turned out to be the point of departure for an extraordinarily destructive and costly chain of events, the effects of which clearly remain with us to this day.

A third purpose was that Scowcroft’s writing the op-ed evoked a central theme of the book: the importance of the NSC process—that is, the way that diplomacy, intelligence, the military, and other dimensions of policymaking, such as finance and public relations, are harnessed, coordinated, and directed by American presidents and their staffs.  

The fact that Scowcroft felt he had to write the op-ed speaks to the problems in the quality of the White House policy process. Virtually all of the Bush administration’s high-ranking officials—George W. Bush almost certainly included—already knew Scowcroft’s position on an invasion of Iraq, given the paltry evidence that Saddam Hussein possessed WMDs and had close ties to Al Qaeda.

The op-ed further points to the remarkable longevity of Scowcroft’s career. At the age of 77 he was able to start a national debate about the wisdom of using force against the Iraqi regime and discussion in the press about a possible rift within the Republican Party. 

For a short while, Scowcroft and others who then also spoke out against going to war on Iraq were able to halt the momentum towards precipitous action and deposing Saddam Hussein.

Finally, the fact that Scowcroft wrote the op-ed indicated his deep patriotism—the fact that he was willing to face the ostracism of the White House and many Republicans and neoconservatives given how strongly he felt that war against Iraq ran contrary to the United States’ longer term interests. 

In fact, Scowcroft has been almost continually involved in national security policy since the mid-1970s. He is the writer (or co-author) of over a hundred op-eds in major media outlets on occasions where he felt his voice was needed; he has been a chair, co-chair, or member of over a dozen important commissions; and he has been a confidant and adviser to numerous government officials and even several U.S. presidents over the past few decades. 

In this sense, the op-ed is somewhat misleading: not only did Scowcroft write many, many op-eds (several others in the months after the September 11 attacks, in fact), he usually stayed behind the scenes, proceeding privately and discreetly.

Besides evoking a short-lived debate over the merits of attacking Iraq and making Scowcroft a persona non grata in the Bush White House for a few years and turning other leading Republicans, neoconservatives especially, against him, the op-ed made more Americans aware of Scowcroft. 

Given how the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan played out, more people in Washington and around the country became more appreciative of a more restrained and more practical U.S. foreign policy.

Q: You describe the close working relationship between Scowcroft and George H.W. Bush. How did Scowcroft's relationship with the first President Bush differ from his dealings with George W. Bush?

A: George H.W. Bush and Scowcroft are exceptionally close and they share many of the same values.  They admire, respect, and wholly trust each other.

Their friendship dates back to when Bush was chairman of the National Republic Party and Scowcroft was serving as deputy national security advisor under Nixon.

They have many of the same experiences, growing up during the Second World War and both were pilots, Bush with the Navy and Scowcroft with the Army Air Corps. 

They were both pragmatic internationalists who believed…that personal relationships among heads of state and top officials was crucial for the international system, that the United States needed to create strong working relationship with the People’s Republic of China, and that the U.S. interests were best served by policymakers taking a long-term perspective and by working as much as possible with international institutions, such as NATO, the United Nations, the World Bank, and the WTO (formerly GATT). 

Scowcroft sent the senior Bush a copy of his Wall Street Journal op-ed before it came out, for example, so his friend—who shared his doubts about the wisdom of attacking Iraq—would not be surprised by reading the op-ed in that Wednesday’s paper or learn of it second-hand.

Scowcroft liked and got along well with George W. Bush (21 years his junior), but they disagreed on foreign policy, differed temperamentally, and contrasted stylistically. 

Whereas Scowcroft and the senior George Bush were polite, polished, respectful of other foreign leaders, genteel, and cautious as leaders, the younger Bush was often brash, abrupt with others, impatient with international diplomacy, and zealous.  

The younger Bush believed that his father had failed in important ways: leaving Saddam in power; losing the Republican right in the House of Representatives in 1990; and being defeated in his bid for reelection.  

And Scowcroft, as his father’s right-hand man, was partly responsible for his father’s mixed record as president in George W. Bush’s eyes—with Bush 43 saying during his election campaign that he wanted nothing to do with either Scowcroft or James Baker once he was president.  

Although Scowcroft never spoke to me directly of his relationship with George W. Bush, I think it is clear that he regarded the younger Bush as inexperienced on foreign policy, unreflective and incurious, and ideological—and ultimately as teachable. 

So even though Bush 43 rejected Scowcroft’s advice in 2002 and dismissed him as the chair of PFIAB in 2004, the former national security advisor worked extensively with the administration’s foreign policy advisers—Condoleezza Rice, Stephen Hadley, and, later, Robert Gates—in Bush’s second term in office.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I continue to be interested in the interplay between the United States and the world, but I am now going back in time, to colonial America and the founding of the United States.  

A colleague and I are researching the significance of the fact that more than half of the European immigrants who arrived in the British North American colonies arrived as unfree workers.  

These were indentured servants, a population that included those unable to pay for their passage over, exiled political prisoners, people who were kidnapped or “spirited” from coastal towns and cities, and about 50,000 convicted felons who chose to be transported to New World rather than be hanged. 

Ship captains would then sell these indentured servants and others into bondage upon arriving on American shores, where they would typically spend four to seven years as forced labor.

Although British, American, and Australian colonial historians are well [aware] of this population, those who write of the politics of the founding essentially ignore class. 

Because almost all of this population and their descendants were illiterate, without appreciable property, and located diffusely, they do not have a large presence in American history and our goal is to uncover the effect this population had on the politics of the founding era (1776-1789) and the early United States.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Scowcroft should be viewed as one of the most influential people in the history of U.S. national security policy and as probably the most trusted “wise men” of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, even though he is known to few outside Washington. 

A study of his career—and the contrast between his example and those of other national security advisors and other officials involved in making national security policy—reveals just how much each individual on the president’s foreign policy team matters. 

His career shows just how important the quality of the interaction and chemistry is among a president’s principal advisors, and just how critical the relationship is between the president and the national security advisor. 

This is a relationship analogous to the relationship the president has with the chief of staff with respect to domestic politics and policy. 

But because decision-making in foreign policy is usually more centralized than that of domestic policy, the president’s relationship to the national security advisor is even more determinative of major decisions with respect to U.S. foreign policy.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. This Q&A also appears on


Q&A with Professor James T. Patterson

James T. Patterson is the author most recently of The Eve of Destruction: How 1965 Transformed America, which is now available in paperback. His other books include Restless Giant and Grand Expectations. He is Ford Foundation Professor of History Emeritus at Brown University.

Q: While many historians have focused on 1968 as the crucial year of change, you argue that 1965 is in fact the most important. Why is that?

A: There are a lot of books about 1968, and [other years in] the late ‘60s. For a historian to choose any given year is obviously open to question. The difference between 1965 and 1968—1968 was the most horrific year: the Tet Offensive, the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, the turmoil at the Democratic convention, and on and on.

Nothing quite that disastrous happened in 1965. [But] 1965 was the beginning of the 1960s. A lot of historians are aware that talking about decades as clear events sometimes works, such as the 1930s, but with the 1960s, at least until 1964 so much about American society was not that different from the 1950s. [One difference was that] the civil rights movement had surged ahead, and there had been the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

1965 saw the introduction of ground troops and round-the-clock bombing in Vietnam, the Watts riot, and the Great Society legislation for [President] Johnson. Particularly in the areas of foreign policy and race relations, the years following led to further polarization and unrest so far as Vietnam and civil rights [were concerned].

Q: You write of Bloody Sunday in Selma and the landing of U.S. combat troops in Vietnam, "More than any other happenings, they pulled the United States into the contentious era that Americans now think of as the Sixties." Those two events took place March 7 and 8, 1965. Would you say that two-day period marked the most important turning point for the country during the decade of the 1960s?

A: I would say that if you want to pick two consecutive days, the introduction of ground troops and Bloody Sunday—yes, it was a very important turning point. Bloody Sunday made it certain…there would be a big struggle for voting rights, the unfinished business of the 1964 law. It brought out tensions within the movement, particularly after Watts…there was a greater degree of militancy within the movement and a sense that they should run it, not Johnson…

Q: LBJ was torn between his goals for the Great Society and his wish not to be the president who "lost" Vietnam. In 1965, was it still possible to succeed with both?

A: Historians are very unready to use the word “inevitable.” We talk about contingencies you wouldn’t expect. I would say Johnson’s being remembered as the president who got us into the Vietnam War—I don’t see any way this could have been avoided. 

Three days after taking over [the presidency] he talks to Henry Cabot Lodge, the ambassador in South Vietnam, and says, I’m not going to be the president who loses Vietnam. Johnson was not stupid, he knew it wouldn’t be a cakewalk, he knew it would be a struggle.…

Given Johnson’s being president and the advisers he had who were Kennedy hawks, Robert McNamara, the secretary of defense, Dean Rusk, the secretary of state…almost all his advisers were pushing him in the same direction. And the North Vietnamese had been fighting since 1946; they were not going to settle. It doesn’t mean I think the war was a good idea.

Q: What is the legacy of 1965?

A: It would be events such as the round-the-clock bombing of Vietnam, the introduction of ground troops, the vast escalation—there were 23,000 military advisors in South Vietnam at the start of 1965.

This was around 6,000 more than the 17,000 inherited from Kennedy; at the end of the year there were 184,000. At the end of 1966 there were 400,000. The escalation in Vietnam was the most important single thing for an American historian to want to be concerned with.

The other thing was the increased militancy in the Civil Rights movement, the move away from interracial cooperation, away from [consistent] nonviolence. These two things are important legacies that were playing out in more dramatic ways later in the decade. There’s also the Great Society.

About the book’s title, The Eve of Destruction—I used it as a catchy thing [when describing the book proposal to the publisher, but then didn’t want to use it]….it’s the eve of destruction in terms of what’s going on in Vietnam, but not for liberals who believe what the Great Society did was good…. Johnson got [a substantial number of] laws passed in the 1965 session. Liberalism never had a year like this. Either conservatives are running Congress or there’s polarization….

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. This Q&A also appears on


Q&A with Lt. Col. John A. Nagl (Ret.)

Lt. Col. John A. Nagl (Ret.) is the author of the new book Knife Fights: A Memoir of Modern War in Theory and Practice. He also has written Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife. Dr. Nagl served in the U.S. Army, and cowrote the U.S. Army and Marine Corps counterinsurgency manual. The former president of the Center for a New American Security, he is the headmaster of the Haverford School in Pennsylvania.

Q: Why did you decide to write this memoir, and why did you decide on “Knife Fights” as the title?

A: I wrote Knife Fights in order to capture the reasons the United States was so poorly prepared for the wars it has had to fight in this century, and to attempt to ensure both that we fight fewer wars in years to come—but fight them wisely and well. 

My motivation for those desires is my memory of the many good soldiers and innocent civilians who were killed in Iraq and Afghanistan as we painfully relearned lessons of previous counterinsurgency campaigns that we have intentionally forgotten in the years since we fought them.

“Knife Fights” is a reference both to my first book, Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife, and to the battles I fought on the ground in Iraq and in Washington to help us fight our counterinsurgency campaigns more effectively.

Q: You write that earlier in your career you decided to focus on counterinsurgency in your dissertation because it was “the kind of war that I thought was the most likely emerging challenge for American troops.” How successfully has the United States used counterinsurgency in Iraq and Afghanistan, and what has the impact been?

A: In the words of T.E. Lawrence, counterinsurgency campaigns are messy and slow, like eating soup with a knife. The campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan have been slower and messier than most. After a horrible start to an unnecessary war, Iraq turned out better than we could have hoped--well enough that Vice President Joe Biden in February of 2010 predicted that Iraq “could be one of the great achievements of this administration.” 

Unfortunately, by failing to maintain a long-term American security presence in Iraq after 2011, the United States opened the door for the return of Al Qaeda to Iraq; AQI’s successor organization, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, now controls the western third of the country, ground over which I fought in 2004.

Afghanistan has also been a grinding, difficult campaign, now America’s longest ever. With the peaceful departure of President Karzai and his replacement by Ashraf Ghani, there is every chance for a long-term security agreement between the United States and Afghanistan that will prevent the return of the Taliban to control of that country and give the Afghan people the stable, democratic government they deserve. 

I very much hope that the administration is studying the lessons of the premature American withdrawal from Iraq and will not make those mistakes again in Afghanistan, whose people have already suffered so much.

Q: As someone who’s studied and written about the lessons of Vietnam, how much do you think they are still playing a role in U.S. decision-making today?

A: Attempting to avoid the bitter memory of Vietnam was one of the major reasons the United States was so unprepared for counterinsurgency campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan in the wake of September 11th. 

Unfortunately, those who do not remember their past are doomed to repeat it, and our Army had to painfully relearn how to conduct counterinsurgency 30 years after the end of the Vietnam War—lessons codified in the Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Manual of 2006 that replaced one last updated at the end of the Vietnam War. It is essential that we not yet again forget those lessons and have to pay for them again in blood.

Q: You’re now serving as headmaster of the Haverford School near Philadelphia. How are you enjoying that, and what similarities and differences do you see compared with your previous responsibilities?

A: I feel enormously fortunate to be serving as the ninth Headmaster of The Haverford School, where every day I work with 250 faculty and staff to prepare 1000 boys for life.  

I enjoy managing a large enterprise and building a climate that encourages constant improvement and the creation of a culture of learning. I am pleased to be back in the classroom and on the lecture circuit, teaching and learning about American foreign policy. Most of all, I enjoy working with young people, helping them think about the purpose of their lives and how to best employ their considerable talents.  

Q: Are you thinking of writing another book?

A: I’m currently running at a pace of a book every 20 years! Right now I’m enjoying being a part of discussions about American security policy at a number of great schools across America; I’ve spoken recently at West Point and Annapolis and am scheduled to visit Harvard, Tufts, Notre Dame, Duke, UVA, and Cal-Berkeley over the next few months.  I think my next book may be about being a Headmaster—watch for it in 2034!

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: The most important choices our nation makes are those concerning war and peace. We must learn from the mistakes of the past decade of war and ensure that we follow the instruction of Saint Augustine to never again fight a war without a plan to build a better peace in the aftermath. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. This Q&A also appears on For a previous interview with John Nagl, please click here.


Q&A with military expert Bing West

Bing West is the author of the new book One Million Steps: A Marine Platoon At War. A Vietnam veteran, he served as assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs in the Reagan administration. His other books include The Village, The Strongest Tribe, and The Wrong War. He lives in Newport, Rhode Island.

Q: Why did you decide to focus on the Marines of Battalion 3/5 in your latest book?

A: In my embeds over the years in Afghanistan, it became clear to me that the top command had a theoretical strategy of winning hearts and minds of 9th century tribes, while our troops were fighting for their lives. I wanted to show how our platoons were actually fighting, as contrasted with the foolish theories at the top.

Q: You write, “The counterinsurgency doctrines in Afghanistan and Vietnam were polar opposites in emphasis.” What were some of the key differences, and what impact did the two strategies have on the respective conflicts?

A: In Vietnam (where I served in the grunts), we fought to drive the Viet Cong guerrillas out of the villages. In Afghanistan, our grunts were told to drink tea with the elders, rather than to fight. That order made no sense. South Vietnam fell to the North Vietnamese army with Russian and Chinese tanks and artillery, not to guerrillas.

Q: Looking ahead, what do you see happening in Afghanistan?

A: President Obama will be forced to keep U.S. troops there in combat. Were Mr. Obama to keep his foolish pledge to pull out all U.S. troops before he leaves office, Ms. Clinton would have to run for the presidency while disowning the Obama decision. That will insure the Taliban do not take over the cities, although they will control much of the countryside.

Q: Have you stayed in touch with the Marines you wrote about, and what is your overall sense of how their experiences affected them?

A: Yikes! I have friends in three generations of Marines! My son is a Marine. The generations show marked changes. During Vietnam, coming so soon after WWII battles like Iwo Jima, we accepted heavy casualties and death as normal. Today, fortunately, casualties are fewer and each loss is more publicly grieved.

Separately, the newest generation rely upon IT gadgets for their social interaction. This characteristic is brand new and has consequences for training and for performance in units that we do not yet know how to measure or direct.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I am writing a book with General Jim Mattis, a renowned warfighter, about his leadership style and how it changed as he commanded at higher and higher levels.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: We are at war. The Islamist revolution sweeping the Middle East has not been tamed. Mr. Obama, as our commander-in-chief, has the obligation to explain why this is a war, why we will continue to take casualties and the means by which we must win. He has not done this. So within the American public there remains an unease about our commitment and about the stakes. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. This interview also appears on


Q&A with Professor Randall B. Woods

Randall B. Woods is the author most recently of Shadow Warrior: William Egan Colby and the CIA, a biography of the late former CIA director. His other books include LBJ: Architect of American Ambition and Fulbright: A Biography. He is John A. Cooper Distinguished Professor of History at the University of Arkansas, and he lives in Fayetteville, Arkansas.

Q: Why did you decide to write a biography of William Colby?

A: I teach courses on American history, and I’ve taught a course on the Vietnam War. If you look at the literature of the war, for most scholars, the war ended after Tet in 1968. The number of pieces in the media on Vietnam dropped off. After Mr. Nixon was in office, he and [Henry] Kissinger decided eventually to get out.

Initially, the Johnson administration [followed General William] Westmoreland’s policy of search and destroy. People like Bill Colby in the foreign policy establishment were arguing that this was the wrong way to fight the war—we are trying to build [a country], let the Vietnamese fight their own fight—and they began to turn Johnson around. He authorized CORDS [Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support], which was really a Colby brainchild.

This got me interested in the political, psychological type of warfare, and I began to go back and saw that two cultures developed [in the CIA]—espionage and nation-building.

Colby is an interesting figure….[In the CIA] there are good, principled people doing very bad things, and that makes for nice literary tension….

There were two trajectories—on the ground in South Vietnam, we were building communities and making the countryside more secure; we could never do anything about the government in Saigon. This was a fairly successful operation. It’s as if counterinsurgency and pacification was going in one direction and the White House was going in another. There’s a tragic element to that.

In the military, the CIA, USAID, there were very bright people, a lot had advanced degrees. They were very thoughtful about the war, and very interesting to interview.

Q: What surprised you most as you were researching the book?

A: These people on the ground who worked for Colby…a lot of people came to believe by the end of the war that the National Liberation Front, if not the North Vietnamese Communist Party, were Vietnam’s best chance for [success].

 [Given] the lack of political cohesion in the South, the enemy they were fighting was going to be the country’s salvation. That was very tragic. Colby was a true believer; he never bought into that. His disciples admired him, but they saw him as flawed in that respect.

Colby was trying to organize civilian defense groups. The idea was that the communities fought to defend themselves; that may or may not have been true. From the point of view of the government in Saigon, what Colby was doing was subversive; any independent armed group in the countryside, they viewed as a threat. Colby was trying to create secure communities, while they were trying to undermine it.

There’s been some stuff on CORDS, but the books written have been very bureaucratic and dry. It’s full of stories…there’s a lot of romance.

Q: You write, “In truth, despite his goodwill and good intentions, Bill Colby…would do more to divide and demoralize the CIA than any of his predecessors.” Why was that?

A: It was force of circumstances; he didn’t do it on purpose. He was confronted with the [CIA’s] “family jewels,” [various illegal or controversial tactics or plans that were coming to light in the wake of Watergate and Vietnam], and the White House wanted him to stonewall. He thought that was wrong.

The community is still divided; there are people who think he’s a traitor. On one level, he’s a constitutional lawyer, that’s how he was trained. He perceived that if Congress determined to find out things about CIA, it not only could do that but had a right to. His loyalty was to the Constitution.

Politically, he believed that if he wasn’t forthcoming to Congress and the press, in the wake of the antiwar movement, Congress might do away with the CIA, which he loved. In his eyes, he was making compromises to save the CIA. Others didn’t see that. There were people I interviewed, old professionals, who believe he erred. It’s very much [former CIA director Richard] Helms [versus] Colby.

Q: Colby’s death was mysterious. What do you think really happened?

A: I think he was murdered….You never really leave the CIA. He was involved in things I just caught a whiff of. People were operating out of Australia; he had probably some involvement with the contras. I think he knew the truth about Oswald’s connections with the Cubans. There are just so many things. I think he was killed, but I have no proof about who did it.

Q: What did his family think of your book?

A: They’re deeply divided. The oldest son and youngest son [gave] complete cooperation and encouragement. The middle son was initially cooperative. He’s an independent filmmaker, and made a film on his father that features his mother. [The idea in the film is that] he left and betrayed his family…and drowned himself in a fit of depression….The surviving daughter didn’t like the way I treated her mother, so she’s mad at me.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Eight or nine years ago I did a big biography of Lyndon Johnson, but there was a lot I had to leave out. I’m doing a book on the Great Society as a great reform movement, and trying to compare it with other great reform movements of the 20th century. There are lot of 50th anniversaries coming up…

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: The Phoenix program [in Vietnam] was very controversial at the time. It became a whipping boy for the antiwar movement. We were doing to the Vietcong what they were doing to the South Vietnamese. The Vietcong had terrorist units that were probably responsible for [thousands] of deaths. The Phoenix program was designed to eradicate them.

The idea was that American special forces and Seals would work with the South Vietnamese intelligence and counterterrorism teams, and gather information at the local level, and arrest or kill them.

The Phoenix program is a predecessor to the current drone program; the techniques are the same, the methods are different. It’s an iteration of that. There are shadows of CORDS in Afghanistan. [General] David Petraeus worked for Colby. The issues Colby had to deal with are very much alive today.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. This Q&A is also posted on