fb-pixel Skip to main content

In Chuck Hagel and John Kerry, a wariness of war

Both Cabinet picks draw on Vietnam experiences

President Obama’s pick to lead the Pentagon, Chuck Hagel, and Senator John Kerry, nominee for secretary of state, share a history of service in Vietnam.Getty Images Photos

WASHINGTON — President Obama’s nomination on Monday of Chuck Hagel for secretary of defense, coupled with his pick of Senator John F. Kerry for secretary of state, would put two Vietnam veterans known for their cautious approach to the use of military force at the helm of American defense and foreign policy.

Hagel has come under fire from fellow Republicans for comments about the undue influence of the “Jewish lobby” and what they see as his lukewarm support for Israel and reluctance to support tougher actions against Iran. The stances, along with his 1998 criticism of an openly gay diplomat, have also alarmed some Democrats.


If Hagel survives a nomination fight, the former Republican senator from Nebraska would be working closely with Kerry, the Massachusetts Democrat, to carry out Obama’s foreign policy — with a vision rooted in lessons learned from Vietnam, where both of them served and were wounded.

“Their experience in Vietnam will most certainly temper their propensity for military adventurism,” said Peter Mansoor, a retired Army colonel and professor of military history at Ohio State University. “It is very unlikely, absent a threat to vital national interest, that either of these men would recommend going to war in the manner that the Bush administration did in Iraq in 2003.”

In naming the 66-year-old Hagel — the first Vietnam veteran and former enlisted soldier nominated to the Pentagon post — Obama cited his military service.

Hagel “knows that war is not a distraction and that sending young Americans to fight and bleed in the dirt and mud is something we only do when absolutely necessary, “ Obama said in announcing his selection to replace Leon Panetta, along with the nomination of the White House counterterrorism chief, John Brennan, to run the Central Intelligence Agency after the resignation of David Petraeus.


Kerry’s Vietnam experience similarly played into Obama’s thinking when choosing a replacement for Hillary Clinton as the nation’s top diplomat.

“Having served with valor in Vietnam, he understands that we have a responsibility to use American power wisely, especially our military power,” Obama said in nominating the 69-year-old Massachusetts senator on Dec. 21. “And he knows, from personal experience, that when we send our troops into harm’s way, we must give them the sound strategy, a clear mission, and the resources that they need to get the job done.”

The proposed elevation of Hagel and Kerry marks a victory of sorts over their fellow Vietnam veterans who also went into politics, most notably Senator John McCain, the Arizona Republican who lost the 2008 presidential election to Obama and has espoused a more muscular vision of American power in Iraq, Afghanistan, and even toward Iran and Syria.

“All of those fellow veterans who fought in Vietnam are good personal friends and I can vouch for all of them,” said former senator Charles Robb, a Democrat from Virginia and a member of a tight-knit group of about half a dozen members of both parties who were elected to the US Senate beginning in the 1980s. Robb is a self-described member of the McCain camp.

“There is a bond between all of us that transcends our differences in policy,” he said.

But the differences among the Vietnam veterans-turned-senators over when to use military force has been on display for years.

Hagel voted to authorize the use of force in Iraq in 2002 but became the first Republican to break with President George W. Bush and oppose involvement. Kerry, similarly, voted for the use of force but later said that was a mistake based on faulty intelligence about Iraq having weapons of mass destruction.


“We’re locked into a bogged-down problem, not dissimilar to where we were in Vietnam,” Hagel said in the summer of 2005, after more than two years of war. “We should start figuring out how we get out of there.”

Hagel and Kerry also opposed the Bush administration’s surge of US troops in Iraq in 2007, which McCain backed. Hagel did not support McCain’s presidential bid in 2008 and he traveled with then-candidate Obama to Iraq. Now Hagel will have his confirmation hearings before the Senate Armed Services Committee, where McCain is the top minority member.

Robb said the fight over Hagel will strain the bonds from the Vietnam experience. “This will test that,” he said.

McCain, while lauding Hagel’s service in Vietnam, said in a statement Monday that he has “serious concerns about positions Senator Hagel has taken on a range of critical national security issues in recent years, which we will fully consider in the course of his confirmation process.”

Former senator Max Cleland, a Georgia Democrat who lost both his legs and an arm in Vietnam, said Obama’s nomination of Hagel and Kerry to run the Pentagon and State Department sends a “powerful message” to the world. “These are people who have been to war and are going to do their damnedest to stay out of other stupid engagements in which young Americans are going to get blown up.”


The focus of Hagel’s confirmation hearing is likely to be how his world view has shaped his positions on Israel and Iran. His comments about the influence of the “Jewish lobby” and criticisms of Israel have drawn rebukes from both parties, including Democratic Senators Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut and Charles Schumer of New York, who were noncommittal in their support for his nomination Monday.

But the ire over some of Hagel’s previous opposition to gays serving in high government positions — which he has since apologized for — may have ebbed.

“I was hoping the president wouldn’t nominate him,” former representative Barney Frank, the openly gay Newton Democrat who has suggested he be an interim replacement for Kerry, said in an interview.

“As much as I regret what Hagel said, and resent what he said, the question now is going to be Afghanistan and scaling back the military. In terms of the policy stuff, if he would be rejected [by the Senate], it would be a setback for those things. With the attack coming out of the right, I hope he gets confirmed.”

Brian Bender can be reached at bender@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeBender