Next Secretary of State? Kerry’s Vietnam experience gives him an edge

Walter Shapiro
Yahoo! News

By Walter Shapiro

A quarter century ago, in 1988, World War II veterans George H.W. Bush and Bob Dole battled for the Republican presidential nomination. Now Bush and Dole are in their late 80s and mostly confined to wheelchairs, as was evident when Dole appeared on the Senate floor last week.

The men who won World War II have long since departed the corridors of power in Washington. But without trumpets or fanfare, another generation is leaving as well: the men and women whose worldview was shaped by Vietnam.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is a prime example – a woman who in the early1960s was a Goldwater girl from the Chicago suburbs but who ended the decade a passionately antiwar commencement speaker at Wellesley College.

Barack Obama was in 8th grade in  Hawaii in 1975 when South Vietnam fell to the Communists, so he may not instinctively place a premium on Vietnam experience when choosing his second-term national security team. But I believe such experience is an important factor to consider, especially in an administration with a post-Vietnam president.

This is particularly true at the State Department, where Clinton is expected to step down soon. The leading contenders to replace her are Susan Rice, an Obama contemporary from the post-Vietnam generation, and Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, whose career was forged by his experience as a Navy Swift Boat captain in Vietnam and later, his anti-war advocacy.

Most of the discussion of the backstairs battle for State has pivoted around the over-wrought Republican reaction to Rice’s mid-September comments on circumstances behind the murder of the U.S. ambassador to Libya in Benghazi. And some Democrats fear a Kerry appointment to State would open up his Senate seat to Scott Brown, a Republican who lost re-election this year.

Lost in the shuffle over the politics of Benghazi and Massachusetts are the unique credentials that Kerry would bring to the job.

In 1971, after his return from Vietnam, Kerry addressed the Senate Foreign Relations Committee about the folly of the decade-long war in Southeast Asia. Today, Kerry chairs that committee.

Kerry’s words that day are almost as searing today as they were four decades ago, “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die in Vietnam? How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?”

Others in the Obama administration have first-hand memories of Vietnam. Vice President Joe Biden was already a young senator from Delaware when Saigon fell, while Defense Secretary Leon Panetta -- expected to depart from the second-term Cabinet along with Clinton –- served in Army intelligence during the mid-1960s. National Security Adviser Tom Donilon was a college student during the war’s tumultuous final years.

But there are few in the senior ranks of the Obama administration who remember first-hand the Tet offensive and the secret bombing of Cambodia. As the president mulls a new secretary of state and a new Pentagon chief, it is worth asking: Does Vietnam still matter? And how important will it be during an international crisis to have someone in power who vividly recalls America’s most tragic war?

One can argue that Vietnam has become almost irrelevant to contemporary American security concerns. The inequitable draft that provided most of the war’s manpower has long been replaced by a professional military. The Cold War is over and the nominal Communists who rule Vietnam are now ardent capitalists.

But I still staunchly believe that Vietnam holds enduring lessons for the Obama administration and future presidencies. (I will concede that my viewpoint may be partially shaped by my own 1960s antiwar heritage).

Vietnam was a Democratic war.  It had its roots in the muscular foreign policy of John Kennedy’s administration, which inspired David Halberstam’s bitterly ironic book title, “The Best and the Brightest.”

Vietnam is forever associated with Lyndon Johnson, the president who also gave the nation gave the nation landmark civil-rights legislation and Medicare. The march of folly that produced Vietnam is not something that can be fobbed off solely on the escalation and bombing campaigns of Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger.

Democrats can easily point to Republican responsibility for another ill-conceived war: the Iraq invasion of 2003. Vice President Dick Cheney, who took several deferments to keep from serving in Vietnam, worked with former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to persuade their boss, President George W. Bush, that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction despite all evidence to the contrary.

The Iraq war -- which Kerry, Clinton and Biden all voted to authorize in the the Senate -- lasted more than 8 years and took the lives of more than 3,500 service members.

The Iraq conflict instructs us about the disasters that flow from a lethal mixture of faulty intelligence, rigid ideology and American hubris. But the messages from Vietnam are not so easily cubby-holed.

There never was a single triggering event, never a moment when a president decided that Vietnam was worth the lives of more than 58,000 Americans.

Virtually every troop escalation, every expansion of the war into Cambodia and Laos, every bombing campaign against Hanoi was regarded as a final step -- an action that would pave the way to victory or at least bludgeon North Vietnam into a negotiated settlement. No president wanted to be the one to lose a war and, as a result of this refusal to withdraw, they all lost Vietnam.

During the early stages of his 2004 race for the presidency, Kerry often spoke passionately about the antiwar movement that had toppled Lyndon Johnson. Standing in a back yard in Londonderry, N.H., Kerry talked about the insurgent political army in 1968 that “sent the president of the United States a message that he couldn’t continue to be president of the United States and wage that war.”

John Kerry remains a complicated political figure, but his lesson about how a once-popular president was driven from office by his stubborn refusal to abandon an ill-considered war is an integral part of his personal experience and public persona.

During the next four years -- as Obama deals with threats ranging from Iran’s nuclear program to the shakiness of the Pakistan government – I want someone at the table in the White House Situation Room who knows how quickly things can go wrong in foreign policy and military interventions. That’s why Kerry embodies for me the best sadder-but-wiser choice for Secretary of State.