Back in 1991, a president named George Bush basked in a quick, low-cost victory in Iraq and declared, "By God, we've kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all." Yet here we are, 13 years later, with another George Bush in the White House and U.S. troops back in Iraq, engaged in another debate about the history and legacy of the Vietnam War.
Vietnam has long shadowed American presidential elections, going all the way back to 1968, when a burgeoning antiwar movement drove Lyndon Johnson from the White House. Yet in no previous race has Vietnam played such a curious role as in this one. With a host of domestic and international crises clamoring for attention, the current campaign seems to turn -- for the moment, at least -- on what the two candidates did or did not do more than 30 years ago.
The reasons for Vietnam's current salience are not difficult to discern. Notwithstanding George W. Bush's much-ballyhooed "Mission Accomplished" aircraft carrier landing more than a year ago, U.S. soldiers continue to fight and die in Iraq (and on the largely forgotten battlefields of Afghanistan), conjuring up images of Vietnam-like quagmires. As in Vietnam, the stated rationale for the Iraq war has turned out to be wrong. But the most important reason is simply Sen. John Kerry, a man whose own conflicted relationship with Vietnam, first as a decorated combat soldier and later as an antiwar activist, embodies the nation's still unresolved feelings about that war.
Kerry himself has made his status as a Vietnam vet the cornerstone of his candidacy. From the first sentence of his convention speech ("I'm John Kerry, reporting for duty.") to his frequent appearances with his Navy crewmates, he has wrapped himself in the camouflage cloth of 1969 rather than the senatorial suits he has worn since the mid-1980s. Perhaps his strategy will succeed. But Kerry should hardly be surprised that his Vietnam gambit has torn open old wounds.
In the current partisan climate, it is easy to forget that, when it began, Vietnam was a consensus war, prosecuted by presidents of both major parties, with broad, bipartisan congressional support. If Republicans and Democrats today tend to see the conflict differently, it has less to do with the actual historical record than with the different postures each party adopted in the aftermath of the conflict -- postures symbolized by two former presidents, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan.
Carter's rise from political obscurity to Democratic Party nominee began just months after the last helicopter had risen from the roof of the American embassy in Saigon. His road to the White House was largely propelled by popular disillusionment with the war. As a candidate and later as president, Carter stressed two lessons from the Vietnam experience. The first was the importance of living up to the nation's own principles and values in the conduct of foreign affairs. The best insurance against future Vietnams, he told voters, was enacting "a foreign policy that reflects the decency and generosity and common sense of our own people." The second was the need to acknowledge "limits" -- to recognize that the United States, as powerful as it was, could not simply shape the world to its will.
Carter's combination of idealism and restraint resonated with voters still reeling from Vietnam and Watergate, but three years later, in the face of the seizure of 52 American hostages in Iran and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Carter's approach came to seem like a policy of abject weakness and surrender. Reagan swept into office in 1980 as the anti-Carter, offering manly strength in place of hesitancy, moral clarity in place of relativism and an utter repudiation of Carter's emphasis on limits. America's "best days are in front of her," Reagan assured voters; it was still "morning in America." (In his convention speech last month, Kerry lifted both those lines, a testament to the greater political appeal, if not the greater wisdom, of Reagan's vision over Carter's.)
Not coincidentally, Reagan offered a radically different understanding of Vietnam, portraying the war as "a noble cause" that could and should have been won. While others spoke of imperial overreach or a traducing of American principles, Reagan spoke of a failure of will, even of betrayal. Tapping into a well-established populist vein, he asserted that American soldiers had been stabbed in the back by "bureaucrats," weak-willed politicians and, most importantly, by an irresponsible antiwar movement spearheaded by hippies and spoiled college students. The implication, as inescapable as it was historically inaccurate, was that the war had been lost by the Democrats and their followers.
In the years since Reagan, Republican leaders have hewed to this same line, portraying themselves as the party of strength and steely resolve and the Democrats as weak, irresolute, incapable of guarding the nation's security. Democrats who have attempted to rebut such allegations have been largely ineffectual and at times comical. (Who can forget the image of a helmeted Michael Dukakis at the controls of a tank?) At best, such efforts play into Republican hands, lending credence to the notion that strength in the international arena is chiefly a function of force of will and demonstrations of "toughness." As recent events have shown, this can be a dangerously naive belief.
In nominating a decorated combat veteran as their candidate, Democrats clearly hoped to claim the high ground on the Vietnam question. Like President Bush, with whom he overlapped at Yale, Kerry could easily have avoided service in Vietnam, but he volunteered and served with distinction. While Kerry later opposed the war, he did so not as a "hippie" or "draft dodger" but as a soldier who had fought and bled for his country. In both incarnations, he offered a stark contrast to Bush, Dick Cheney, John Ashcroft, Paul Wolfowitz and other administration "chickenhawks" -- tough talkers on defense issues who contrived to avoid serving in Vietnam themselves.
The Republican response to Kerry's candidacy has been predictable in direction, if quite shocking in its shamelessness. While Bush himself has professed to "honor" his opponent's service, Republican proxies such as the so-called "Swift Boat Veterans for Truth" have attacked it, offering a variety of unsubstantiated or false claims about Kerry's military service. In contrast to the 1988 Dukakis campaign, which endured weeks of "Willie Horton" advertisements before mounting an effective response, Kerry and his campaign appear to have repelled the attack, a task made easier by a series of media reports exposing the inconsistencies and inaccuracies in the charges, as well as the group's intimate relationship with Republican Party officials and donors. But in the days that the story ran, it certainly damaged Kerry, sowing niggling doubts about his wartime record.
At the same time as they seek to tarnish Kerry's military service, Bush supporters have highlighted his antiwar activities, casting him as a kind of Hanoi Jane. What did Kerry mean when, in the Winter Soldier Investigation of 1971, he accused American soldiers of committing "atrocities" against Vietnam civilians? What exactly did Kerry throw over the White House fence -- his medals or merely the ribbons -- during Vietnam Veterans Against the War protests? How could a loyal soldier speak out against the war when his comrades remained in the field? Former GOP senator Bob Dole, on a recent talk show, even went so far as to suggest that Kerry owes his fellow soldiers an apology for dishonoring his military decorations and making irresponsible accusations about atrocities.
Recent history suggests large returns from such attacks. But they are also fraught with peril. Whatever the facts of Kerry's military record, at least he has a record, unlike Bush, who apparently used family influence to secure a billet in the Texas National Guard. The problem is compounded by the unexplained gaps in Bush's service record. While the allegedly "accidental" destruction of Pentagon records may preclude any definitive accounting, the impression lingers that Bush was AWOL during some portion of his final year in the Guard. The White House's recent release of records of an Alabama dental examination in order to prove that Bush fulfilled his obligation did little to dispel the issue. (Over the years, Americans have grown accustomed to the grim use of dental records to identify soldiers missing in action in Vietnam, but this was surely the first time such records were used to establish the whereabouts of someone living in the White House.)
The Democratic strategy is equally clear, and equally rife with irony and peril: ignore Kerry's antiwar opposition and emphasize his military valor, implicitly contrasting his sense of duty with Bush's ersatz patriotism. While numerous speakers at the Democratic convention expressed opposition to the current military adventure in Iraq, they steered clear of the candidate's opposition to the earlier adventure in Vietnam. Kerry's own speech was a strangely incongruous affair, offering his experience in Vietnam as his most important qualification for the presidency and yet sedulously avoiding any discussion of what the experience meant to him or of any lessons he learned that might be relevant today.
At first glance, it seems a prudent strategy, especially in a campaign whose outcome (the conventional wisdom tells us) will be decided by "swing" voters in a few blue-collar states. But several liabilities of this approach are already apparent. Most obviously, it opened the door to brutal cross-examination from the "Swift Boat Veterans for Truth" group. More broadly, the Democrats' strategy essentially ratifies the post-Reagan Republican orthodoxy on Vietnam, which contrasts the courage of soldiers on the battlefield with the timidity and treachery of antiwar protesters at home. Such an argument not only distorts history, but it does a real disservice to Kerry himself, whose public opposition to that war may represent the most politically courageous act of his career.
The Democrats' approach also makes it virtually impossible for Kerry to articulate any credible critique of the current morass in Iraq, a conflict in which the confusion of American war aims and the loss of American international prestige do indeed evoke echoes of Vietnam. Having cast himself as the loyal soldier -- and having dutifully voted for the October 2002 resolution authorizing the use of force against Saddam Hussein -- Kerry is now hard-pressed to attack Bush's failings in Iraq. Any criticism is immediately greeted by Republican charges of "waffling," of flip-flopping in pursuit of political advantage.
Kerry has yet to find a way out of this Republican box. Each new distinction he offers -- about the failure of American intelligence, the flouting of allies, the astonishing absence of any plans for winning the peace -- is dismissed by Republicans as yet another "nuance" from a politician who paints the world in endless shades of gray.
The irony in all this is that much of what John Kerry said in his brief career as a war protester was palpably true. American soldiers were placed in an impossible position in Vietnam, defending the "freedom" of people who often regarded them as occupiers rather than liberators. Young Americans continued to be dispatched to Vietnam and to die there long after the folly of U.S. policy was apparent to leaders of both parties, demonstrating, for neither the first nor the last time, that wars can be easier to enter than to exit. Whether any of these truths are pertinent to the current situation is an open question, but neither party is willing to risk that debate. And if the Democrats won't risk it now, with a medal-laden veteran as their candidate, one wonders if they ever will.
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