Kerry, Hagel — Vietnam’s lessons and legacies

By nominating Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) as secretary of State and former Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) as secretary of Defense, Barack Obama is the first president — and maybe the last — to have Vietnam War veterans as the two top members of his national-security team. 

In many ways, these two men could not be more different in background and political philosophy. Kerry is a Yale graduate from Massachusetts with a consistent liberal voting record. Hagel’s consistent conservative record was frequently to the right even of President George W. Bush — for example, he voted against Bush’s No Child Left Behind education reform law and his Medicare prescription drug bill. 

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Despite many of these sharp political differences, however, their service in Vietnam in the late 1960s suggests three common lessons and legacies from that tragic war that are likely to influence their policy recommendations to the president for whom they work. 

First, they both learned the same lesson as Gen. Colin Powell from the Vietnam experience — what has become known as the “Powell Doctrine:” Don’t send U.S. men and women into war without a commitment of overwhelming force to win and get out as quickly as possible when the mission has been accomplished (i.e., the opposite of Vietnam). 

That leads to the second post-Vietnam lesson they appear to share: a heavy aversion toward any U.S. military intervention, especially on the ground, unless clear U.S. national-security interests are at risk. Thus, while both men voted for the Bush Iraq war resolution in 2003, both turned against the war, supported an early-exit deadline, and support President Obama’s commitment to get out of Afghanistan as quickly as possible. 

Third, Vietnam created a generation of American leaders who lean heavily in favor of solving global disputes through diplomacy and multilateral coalitions, as opposed to unilateral actions on the part of the American military. It is likely that secretaries Kerry and Hagel will give similar advice to Obama, reinforcing his own instincts, to increase diplomatic efforts to reconcile differences and reduce tensions with Russia and China, and perhaps even with such virulent adversaries as North Korea and Iran. 

However, there appear to be major differences between these two men on two critical foreign-policy issues: Iran and Israel, apparently both instances in which the lessons of Vietnam are not applicable. 

Kerry has supported strong sanctions against Iran and has implied support for a military strike if Iran does not desist from development of a nuclear weapon. He has been a consistent and outspoken supporter of Israel and has opposed any dealings with terrorist organizations such as Hezbollah and Hamas. 

Hagel has questioned the value of at least some Iranian sanctions, favors negotiations with Hamas, has often been critical of Israel and, as noted in this space last week, used the expression “Jewish lobby” — an ethnic and religious expression that offends many members of the American Jewish community — which he has now called a poor choice of words. 

On the other hand, Hagel’s voting record as senator was usually one in favor of military aid and support of Israel, and there can be no doubt — no doubt — that he will follow the policies of the president of the United States, not his prior positions as senator.

The Vietnam War generation began running America in 1992, when Bill Clinton defeated President George H.W. Bush, the last representative of the World War II generation of presidents and leaders, which began 40 years before with the election of Dwight Eisenhower in 1952. 

In Kerry and Hagel we have, perhaps, the last of the Vietnam War veterans to assume major national leadership positions in America. But they have been hired by the first post-Vietnam War president, Obama, whose views reflect similar lessons of Vietnam as interpreted by Kerry and Hagel, i.e., to resist unilateral U.S. military interventionism as strongly as possible where direct U.S. security interests are not threatened. 

Whether Hagel decides he cannot support a presidential decision to launch a military attack to stop Iranian development of a nuclear weapon is an intriguing question and remains to be seen. Let’s hope and pray that such a decision by Obama is not necessary and that Iran reverses its present course that so endangers the world. 


Davis, the principal in the Washington law firm of Lanny J. Davis & Associates, which specializes in legal crisis management, served as President Clinton’s special counsel (1996-98) and as a member of President George W. Bush’s Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board (2006-07). He currently serves as special counsel to Dilworth Paxson and is a partner with former Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele in Purple Nation Solutions, a public affairs-strategic communications company. He is the author of the forthcoming book Crisis Tales – Five Rules for Handling Scandal in Business, Politics and Life, to be published by Simon & Schuster. He can be followed on Twitter @LannyDavis.

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