WASHINGTON — On a June day in 1966, John Kerry strode in front of his senior class at Yale University and, having thrown away a mundane text, launched into a speech raising doubts about the foreign policy doctrines that were inexorably escalating the Vietnam War in which he was about to fight.
“An excess of isolationism has become an excess of interventionism,” Kerry said.
Now, almost exactly 48 years later, Kerry has come full circle, returning Sunday as the nation’s top diplomat to address Yale’s graduating class. And just as he did as a 22-year-old, Kerry is again exploring the United States’ role in the world. Revealingly, from his new perch, his outlook has markedly changed.
Indeed, in the past few days he has been mulling remarks that would almost exactly reverse the message he delivered as a much younger man.
“We’ve gone from an excess of interventionism probably to an excess of isolationism — an instinct to want to button up in this global world and, you know, not necessarily exercise our leadership,” Kerry said in an interview, between sips of dragonfruit-flavored water, at a State Department office. “I don’t think we can afford to do that. Particularly, I suppose, as secretary of state, looking at the challenges that I see out there.”
Kerry made clear that he wasn’t criticizing President Obama, but he did outline a case for a more robust engagement that he says has grown difficult in times of budget cuts.
What seems clear from interviews with Kerry and a number of his Yale classmates is that the secretary of state, like so many that have held the position before him, is finding that the job requires a constant adjustment as crises erupt and solutions seem elusive.
In his 1966 oration, Kerry questioned what he called the “Rusk doctrine,” referring then-Secretary of State Dean Rusk, who believed in using military force to combat communism around the world.
Now, 15 months into the job Rusk once held, Kerry is developing his own doctrine. But there has been little time to reflect in such a frenetic job; he has already traveled about 420,000 miles and visited 48 countries. So, as he prepared to deliver today’s speech, he consulted with his closest Yale friends, most of whom were part of the school’s elite, secretive Skull and Bones society.
It was a sometimes painful process, inevitably recalling one of the darkest moments of Kerry’s life, when he received word that one of his closest friends had died in a forlorn rice paddy in Vietnam.
“I feel lucky on a career level that it’s brought me to a place where I can go back and share maybe a few thoughts with people, which I hope are relevant,” Kerry said. “And I’m lucky in the sense that I’m alive and able to go. Some of my classmates who were there are not, obviously.”
Kerry had long dreamed of following in his father’s footsteps to Yale. He embraced the Ivy League campus, playing on the soccer and hockey teams, becoming treasurer of the Young Democrats and serving as a leader on the debate team. He was president of the famed Yale Political Union and given one of the 15 positions at Skull and Bones. His political ambitions were so well known that some played a kazoo version of “Hail to the Chief” whenever Kerry arrived.
Kerry bonded with a group of classmates who would become life-long friends. There was David Thorne, who Kerry first met at a greasy spoon diner off the Yale campus called “My Brother’s Place” and quickly learned were dating the same girl, Janet Auchincloss, half-sister of Jacqueline Kennedy. There was Frederick Smith, who Kerry would go flying with and who would later become the founder of FedEx. There was Danny Barbiero, who went to prep school with Kerry and was his roommate at Yale. And, always at the center, was Richard Pershing, bon vivant and grandson of the famed General John Joseph Pershing.
It was a tumultuous four years. President Kennedy was assassinated, the civil rights movement took hold, and American involvement in Vietnam escalated.
By his senior year, Kerry was given one of the top honors, chosen to deliver the class oration at graduation. He wrote a speech and submitted it to be printed in the yearbook. But in the weeks before graduation, Kerry began to question himself. The week before graduation, Kerry and the other seniors in Skull and Bones went to a 40-acre island in the St. Lawrence Seaway. Vietnam was increasingly on everyone’s minds, and Kerry and three of his best friends -- Pershing, Smith, and Thorne – had already enlisted in the military.
It was then that Kerry decided to rip up his first speech. For the next several days, often by candlelight in the woods, Kerry rewrote his graduation speech.
“I do remember him working very hard on it,” said Barbiero, a longtime Kerry friend and fellow Bonesman. “And reading it to us ad nauseam.”
“We’ve always teased him about being pontifical, verbose,” Smith said, who added that Kerry was absolutely right to switch gears on the speech. He knew, Smith said, “ This is the issue of our time and I better address it.”
And so instead of a message calling upon his classmates to do great things, Kerry delivered a 2,779-word outline of his view that there was an “excess of interventionism.”
He said “this Vietnam War has found our policy makers forcing Americans into a strange corner . . . that if victory escapes us, it would not be the fault of those who lead, but of the doubters who stabbed them in the back.”
The speech was not a full-throated opposition to the Vietnam War, but the beginnings of his questioning about the rationale for it.
Later, as Kerry headed to Vietnam on the USS Gridley, an officer came with a telegram that revealed that Pershing had died in combat. An anguished Kerry wrote his parents, “With the loss of Persh something has gone out of me.” He would serve in the war and then lead the protests against it.
Fast forward 48 years from the Yale speech and some things seem not to have changed. Kerry is consulting some of the same friends for today’s oration, and seeing old questions in new ways.
“He’s told me it’s a tough one,” Barbiero said. “It’s not an easy thing to balance between these young people and the world, and who he was as a young person.”
Kerry has also shown a draft to his old friend Thorne, a former US ambassador to Italy who is now a senior adviser to Kerry at the State Department.
“It’s not plain vanilla. It’s complicated. Life and death, roads taken and not taken, and other things like that, that I’m sure everyone faces,” Thorne said.
Kerry last week seemed the picture of establishment Washington as he sat for an interview in an ornate room at the State Department. Portraits of George Washington and James Madison hung on the walls, and a painting of a swift boat like the one Kerry commanded in Vietnam stood on an easel. A window framed a view of the Lincoln Memorial.
But he bristled when asked about the irony of going back to Yale as perhaps the embodiment of the foreign policy establishment.
“I don’t buy that,” he said. “I do not view myself as the establishment when I go out and start yelling about – not yelling, but giving what I hope is a strong speech about climate change in Indonesia and what will be a strong initiative on oceans. That’s not an establishment move . . . The establishment is digging coal and selling it. And building a coal-fired power plant. So I think there’s a distinction here, frankly.”
When his former classmates were informed that Kerry didn’t view himself as part of the establishment, they sounded bemused. “How many years had he been a senator?” Smith said, chuckling.
The Kerry Doctrine
As Kerry prepared for this speech, he was far from writing by candlelight on a remote island like he was 48 years ago. He has had the help of several aides and speechwriters, and he’s been honing it while traveling across the Atlantic Ocean on a Boeing 757 government plane.
Dressed in his usual traveling outfit of jeans and hooded sweatshirt, he tapped away on a laptop while traveling to and from London last week. An aide described how he sat at a desk in the forward cabin, a bottle of water and a sleeve of oreos within reach, gazing out the window while a monitor tracked the plane’s location.
During the interview, Kerry was asked what a senior in college today would make of a Kerry Doctrine. It is too early to answer, he said.
“I presume they would talk about engagement and diplomacy, and, you know, making an effort. Getting caught trying to make peace,” he said. “I think we’ve had some good initiative starts.”
It is an unsettled time, of course. Amid the crisis in Ukraine, Russia and the United States seem to be entering a new phase that some are calling a post-post Cold War. Efforts to broker peace between Israel and Palestinians have so far failed. The civil war in Syria has shattered that country and the president whom the Obama administration hoped to oust, Bashar al-Assad, remains in power. It has been for Kerry, as it would be for any secretary of state, a severely taxing time.
“He still has a couple years left, and he’s energetic, he’s committed, and he’s determined,” said Peter Feaver, a professor at Duke University who was on President George W. Bush’s national security team. “But I gotta believe that he thought even in the darkest days he’d have more to show for it at this point than he does.”
Kerry, meanwhile, highlights what he considers some early successes. He mentions getting 92 percent of the chemical weapons out of Syria, although many say the last 8 percent are the most crucial — and there are new reports that Syria has been using chlorine. He talks about negotiations with Iran, although that’s a work in progress. And he insists he’s not giving up hope on peace between Israelis and the Palestinians.
He returns to the idea that the United States is not engaged enough in the world. One of the reasons, he says, is a lack of federal funds that prevents the United States from investing in development projects the way the country did after World War II. It is a topic he has taken up with Obama and which the administration is trying to address.
But what crucial for for Kerry is the diminished way too many have come to think about American power and influence — not that he is nostalgic for anything like the excesses of aggression he critiqued as an undergraduate.
“I just think we’re not as quick to pick up the baton as we were, perhaps, back then,” Kerry added. “There’s a lot of cynicism around, a lot of doubts about what can be achieved. You know, I think if there’s one dominant feature that sort of characterizes the American political process right now, and even global challenges, it’s frustration.”Matt Viser can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.