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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 novelist and scholar Viet Thanh Nguyen

Viet Thanh Nguyen is the author of the new novel The Sympathizer. He also has written the academic book Race and Resistance. His stories have appeared in various publications, including Best New American Voices and TriQuarterly. He teaches English and American Studies at the University of Southern California, and he lives in Los Angeles.

Q: How did you come up with your main character, the narrator, in The Sympathizer?

A: One of the more fascinating kinds of characters from the history of the war was the communist spy who had infiltrated the South Vietnamese military, government, or civil society.

The most famous was a journalist who became the confidante of the most influential American reporters, and whose secret reports were so important that he was promoted to general during his clandestine service.

When it came time to write the novel, this kind of character leapt immediately to mind, because I knew I could hang a compelling story of intrigue on him.

I made him of mixed-race background because there were many Eurasians present in Vietnam as a result of French colonization, and it seemed to me that such a person likely would experience ambiguity if not outright conflict around his identity.

This kind of ambiguity or conflict would be perfect for discussions of cultural misunderstandings and divisions between East and West, but would also transform him as a spy, from someone who was simply living among his enemies to someone whose personal struggles would affect his political sympathies. Not only would be he be a man of two cultures, but a man of two beliefs as well.

Q: The narrator seems torn or divided in many ways. Can you say more about why you made that a key part of his persona? And how was the book’s title chosen?

A: The country itself had been divided by the French when they colonized it, into Tonkin, Annam, and Cochinchina. Then the country was divided again by the great powers of the Soviet Union, China, and the United States in 1954, into north and south.

So conflict and division were fundamental aspects of Vietnamese history in the 19th and 20th century, and our narrator's personal and political divisions are both a product of that history and come to represent that history.

Because he personally experiences what it means to be divided and rejected by others because of his mixed-race background, he becomes someone who is able to see both sides and sympathize with both sides.

This is the more subtle meaning of sympathy in the title. It seems to me that what is necessary in colonizing a people, or going to war with them, is the refusal of sympathizing, so the narrator's insistence on sympathizing with everyone is meant to be an antidote to such a worldview.

But the other meaning of "The Sympathizer" as a title is that it refers to someone who's taken sides with some ideology, which our narrator has also done. So he's torn again--between taking sides and sympathizing with all sides. That's his drama, his tragedy, and his absurdity.

Q: What do you think are some common perceptions and misperceptions about the impact of the Vietnam War, and what do you hope readers take away from your novel?

A: Perhaps the most common is that the war was fought in Vietnam and involved only Americans and Vietnamese. The war was also fought in Cambodia and Laos to devastating effect, and the postwar ramifications extended into those countries as well.

And while the Soviet Union and the Chinese helped the north, the Americans pulled in many countries to help them in the south, including South Korea, whose economic takeoff was enabled by what the U.S. government paid for the use of South Korean troops and corporations. In short, it was not a "Vietnam" war but a global one condensed into one region. 

I hope that readers take away that it was not a war about right versus wrong but right versus right, which is what defines tragedy, according to Hegel.

And what that means, why the novel has any universal meaning, is that we, each of us, will also be confronted at some moment in our lives with having to choose between right and right, as our narrator must.

In that situation, what is required is sympathy--the sympathy needed to make a choice and take a side, and the sympathy needed to see how all sides might be doing the right thing.

Q: You’ve also written nonfiction, as well as short stories. How do your various types of writing complement one another?

A: My nonfiction has taken the form of blog-writing and academic writing.

Blog-writing has been key to developing a more audience-friendly voice in which humor can play a key role. It was really through writing my blog (my essays can be found on , the leading online source on Vietnamese and diasporic arts, culture and politics) that I learned how to be more playful and funny. That shows up in the voice of my narrator.

As for my academic writing, I am a scholar of literature, ethnicity, war, and memory, and my reading into historical matters and literary and cultural theory has deeply informed the novel.

Choosing a narrator who is torn between two sides and who is capable of sympathizing with anyone is an outcome of my academic thinking about how relations with self and other are fundamental to how war and imperialism are carried out, as well as movements of resistance to them.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I'm finishing an academic book, War, Memory, Identity, which I think of as the critical bookend to a creative project whose fictional bookend is The Sympathizer.

War, Memory, Identity makes explicit my theoretical thinking about war, memory, and the other that the novel deals with through plot, character, theme, and symbol. After that, I'll turn to writing the sequel to The Sympathizer.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Thanks for giving me this opportunity!

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



Q&A with author David J. Morris

David J. Morris is the author of the new book The Evil Hours: A Biography of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. A former Marine infantry officer, he was a reporter in Iraq from 2004-2007. His work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The New Yorker and Slate.

Q: Why did you decide to write about PTSD and your own experiences with it?

A: I had always been generally aware of the idea of PTSD. My dad was a Vietnam vet, and many of my neighbors were. I grew up near Miramar air base. I grew up with Vietnam being this fraught thing.

When I first went to Iraq as a reporter, I came back in 2004 and…I felt apart and different from the average American. [I felt] upset about the way the war was prosecuted...I didn’t feel that the deep moral violation in Iraq was appreciated in the United States.

In 2007…an IED blew up the rear half of the Humvee [I was riding in]. That was obviously a significant experience.

In 2009, I was in a movie theater watching an action film with my girlfriend—an…explosion was depicted, and it freaked me out. I blacked out, and when I came to, I was in the hallway of the Cineplex.

It was one of the hints I had that I was on the other side of something. I tried to understand it, and began researching about PTSD.

I wanted to find something like Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory, or Kay Redfield Jamison’s [work], something vested in the literature that would give me a greater literary sense of what PTSD was, that would give me some of the history and situate it in the literature of post-traumatic stress.

Q: You write, “For better or worse, the popular image of PTSD is derived primarily from the image of the war-torn American veteran.” How complete is that image?

A: It’s really incomplete in a sense. The popular concept and the body of research relating to PTSD is heavily skewed to American veterans. It’s not a complete picture. PTSD emerged from the veterans’ experience in Vietnam, a group of [antiwar] veterans advocated for what became the PTSD concept.

For a very good reason, it’s associated with military service, but if you could line up every PTSD sufferer on the planet, you would see more female rape survivors. The PTSD diagnosis rape for rape survivors is [about] 50 percent. For American military veterans, it’s 12 to 15 percent….

Q: In the book, you review the experiences of servicemembers in wars before Vietnam, as well as more recent conflicts. How was post-traumatic stress viewed in the conflicts before PTSD was recognized?

A: Post-traumatic stress evolved over time. British researchers at King’s College went back and looked at accounts of British veterans who served prior to the era of film, and there was no evidence of the flashbacks associated with PTSD. American Civil War veterans were more likely to report visitations by spirits or demons. There are aspects that are immortal…but some aspects do evolve.

Q: What do you see as the most effective ways to help those dealing with PTSD?

A: It’s important to recognize that every survivor’s experience is different. There’s no magic bullet. Trauma can result from millions of different situations. You have to address the type of trauma, and the person in question needs to be addressed. You cannot really expect that one particular therapy is going to resolve all symptom areas.

To look at the VA’s number one therapeutic modality—people tend to take their cues from the VA…prolonged exposure. It works for about 60 percent of veterans. I was not among those 60 percent. It has pretty significant side effects.

The second one, even more popular in the civilian sector, is cognitive processing therapy, an outgrowth of cognitive behavioral therapy. It’s a nice go-to, a lot less risky…

One friend who is a rape survivor [found that] prolonged exposure did not work for her. She was not interested in reliving the event. She found yoga helpful for her. It’s one reason I wrote the book the way I did; it’s important to have a chapter on alternatives.

The VA will tell you something will work for you, but a survivor needs to have [his or her] own journey. It’s one of the deeper themes about PTSD…it’s helpful for survivors to make their own exploration and find what works for them…

Q: What worked for you?

A: The second therapy, cognitive processing therapy, was helpful. Additionally, on a non-therapeutic basis, I interviewed experts…the intellectual exploration, keeping a journal, coming to conclusions on a personal basis was helpful for me…

Q: You write that “many people do, in fact, grow from trauma and become better human beings as a result of almost dying.” Does that apply to your own experiences?

A: Yeah, particularly after having written this book. The number of discoveries I made…I did not want to put myself into in as many dangerous situations. I believed there was an almost mystical value to be gotten at by putting myself in harm’s way. I try to value normal life….

Winston Churchill said nothing is so exciting as being shot at without results. You take insights from that moment, to try to live life in that manner and understand how close you are to dying. It’s a powerful life philosophy that I came to see in my own life.

Q: Two of the writers whose work you cite frequently in the book are Tim O’Brien and Alice Sebold. What about their writing is especially compelling for you?

A: Tim O’Brien is the most influential war writer of our time, even apart from his obvious talent and the power of his work. [Writers about Iraq] like Phil Klay, Ben Fountain, Kevin Powers, particularly with Powers and Klay, there’s a sense of O’Brien’s work echoing for them.

My response is that I’ve always appreciated his ability to play with time. In The Things They Carried, you see veterans with a very dynamic experience with memory. In In the Lake of the Woods, there’s an iterative revisiting of traumas that mimics the actual experience, the aliveness of memory, the way it lives in all trauma survivors. It tends to evolve and shift and haunt us…

Alice Sebold’s work is impossible to ignore if you’re trying to understand a rape survivor’s experience. The literature of rape is very thin... There’s no peer to Alice Sebold’s Lucky as a memoir. There are millions of war memoirs, but almost no rape memoirs. It’s exquisitely well-written, and it allows you a window into the experience….

I was able to interview Sebold in the course of writing the book and trying to write about rape as a man. [Her work became] this guiding spirit for me.

Q: How was your book’s title chosen?

A: The title was taken from one of the other [guiding] spirits of the book, Siegfried Sassoon. In Sherston’s Progress, he was talking about shellshock and how evil lies not necessarily in the heat of combat but [in the suffering that comes later].

That was the first title I picked…I spoke with other trauma survivors, and they said it worked. I spent a lot of time on the issue of time in the book. The pain tends to come in waves. The idea of hours being evil, and living through an hour of intense suffering, is more reflective of the experience itself. The title seems apt.

Q: Are you working on another book?

A: I’ve started playing around with some ideas. I have a novel I want to write, and there’s another nonfiction book I’m toying with.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I originally thought of PTSD as a boring subject. Most of the coverage tends to be two things: a recapitulation of symptoms [or a portrait of] a sad soldier and his…wife. I discovered there’s a very rich literature relating to PTSD. There’s a lot of rich literary and emotional ground to cover.

If you step back from the issue, the really central question is, How do you live after you’ve almost died? No one had posed the question that way. The most central concern of all humans—we know we’re going to die…if you’re given the privilege [of an early look at it], what are you going to do with that knowledge?

For me, it’s far more than a soldier’s problem. It’s a very central human concern.

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


Q&A with Professor Quan Barry

Quan Barry is the author of a new novel, She Weeps Each Time You're Born, and a new book of poetry, Loose Strife. Her other work includes the poetry book Water Puppets. She was born in Saigon and raised on Boston's north shore, and she is a professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for your character Rabbit?

A: I visited Vietnam in 2010 and toured around the central highlands with two local guides on motorcycles. A few days into the trip, we stopped at a memorial for the northern war dead. One of my guides said that he knew the family who maintained the memorial, so we knocked on the door of the nearby house. A man answered and invited us in for tea.

During the course of our conversation (which my guide translated), the caretaker mentioned that Phan Thi Bich Hang was going to be coming to visit the memorial. He was obviously very excited by this fact.

When I asked who she was, my guide explained to me that she is the "official" psychic of Vietnam. In a nutshell, she was bitten by a rabid dog as a child, and when she came out of a coma following that event, she woke up with the ability to hear the voices of the dead.

Since then she has traveled all over the country helping the government locate the bodies of those who went missing in the war. She has also helped them locate the remains of national heroes who died in previous conflicts and other notable citizens as well.

Q: You begin the book with a first-person section, including a character named Amy Quan. Why did you decide to structure the book this way and include this character?

A: In an earlier draft of the book, the novel ended with a chapter that was essentially a travel log as experienced by a character named Amy Quan. I included it because in many ways, She Weeps Each Time You’re Born is a kind of ghost story.

By including a character with my actual name, I wanted to give the novel an air of the possible, as if to say, see, Amy Quan was literally in this place and experienced these things, so maybe this isn't just a ghost story but something that really happened. In the process of revision, I moved that character up to the very beginning of the book, and I also changed the ending.

Q: How was the book's title selected, and what is its significance to you?

A: I actually like the mysterious quality of the title--it does get addressed in a somewhat oblique manner in the book so I'd prefer to let people make their own interpretations as to who it refers to and how it applies to the text.

For me, especially as a poet, I like when I'm asked to do some interpretative work when reading a book--true, if the reader is asked to do too much work, that can be overbearing, but hopefully in this case the reader won't feel overwhelmed.

I will say that I wanted to have a title that also echoed the book's atmosphere and language, so I hope that the title manages to convey some of the novel's lyric and ethereal feel.

Q: In addition to your novel, you've recently published a new book of poetry, Loose Strife. What was the inspiration for these poems, and what can you tell us about the art exhibit on which you collaborated with visual artist Michael Velliquette?

A: The visual artist Michael Velliquette asked me if I would collaborate with him to mount a gallery show at a local college, so we put our heads together to come up with a theme for our work.

Ultimately we settled on the idea of loose strife, which is an invasive plant whose name comes from the Ancient Greek and literally means to loose battle, to sow chaos.

At first, we thought about this idea of how violence is let loose in the world via Aeschylus's trilogy the Oresteia, which details the fall of the house of Atreides. Many people might be familiar with one of the plays that chronicles the murder of Agamemnon by his wife.

A lot of what happens in the plays goes back to the Trojan War, but we began to think about the ways that strife and chaos are still very much a part of our world. Consequently I began to write poems that consider strife and chaos in many different contexts including things like war but also global climate change, domestic violence, invasive species, and even love.

Q: Do you find your writing process is very different when you're writing a novel as opposed to poetry?

A: Yes. Somewhere I heard someone once say that writing a novel is like running a marathon, and writing poetry is like running the 100 yard dash. They're both in the same sport (running), they both involve lots of training, but you come at both races in very different ways.

When writing a novel, I have to be more disciplined about sitting down for much longer stretches at a time. I also can't keep the whole book in my head at once, the way I can with a poem, so I need much more help from outside readers to aid me in seeing what exactly it is that I'm up to, i.e. what's working and what's not.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: When I write, things are always in a state of evolving, so I don't like to talk about what I'm up to too much because it could radically change by the time it's done.

Having said that, I will say that the story I'm working on once again takes place in Asia, only this time in Mongolia, and this time, there are much more overt Buddhist elements in the story, which I hadn't planned on--I'm not a Buddhist, though I definitely find myself drawn to much of the teachings.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: In our culture, the word Vietnam has become shorthand for a whole lot of things (like a military quagmire or a fight you can't win) but the history of the country of Vietnam is so much richer than that.

In my book, I really wanted to give people a snapshot of the last hundred years of Vietnam, from the French in colonial times to the Japanese in WWII to after the American War. This isn't a history book, but I hope my novel will help people realize that Vietnam isn't just a metaphor for American military power gone wrong.

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


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