As he finished a two day trip to HanoiDuring his first visit to Vietnam, President Biden on Monday made a point of stopping at a memorial dedicated to his old friend, Senator John McCain, the famous prisoner of war who later played an instrumental role in reconciliation with a former enemy.
Mr. Biden brought John Kerry, another combat veteran turned senator who eventually joined Mr. McCain, to normalize relations between Washington and Hanoi in 1995. For Mr. McCain and Mr. Kerry, the bloody battles of Vietnam changed their lives, leaving scars so indelible that they shaped their thinking and careers for decades.
Mr. Biden’s relationship with Vietnam and the war, however, was radically different. Although he is a contemporary of his two veteran friends, Mr. Biden never served in uniform, nor did he protest the war with others his age. He was too busy, he said, getting an education, starting a family and getting into politics. Although he opposed the war, it did not define him, and he took little baggage when he landed in Hanoi on a diplomatic mission this week.
For Mr. Biden, therefore, accept a new strategic relationship with Vietnam during his trip, it was more about countering China than exorcising the ghosts of the past. It was a pragmatic geopolitical calculation: Vietnam wants more distance from Beijing and the United States wants more friends in the region.
The fact that a large bust of Ho Chi Minh attended the conclusion of the agreement with the Vietnamese communist leader, Nguyen Phu Trong, remained unnoticed. The same was true for the many tons of American bombs that fell on this colonial city. Moreover, the repression exercised by the current government has barely evaluated a few boilerplate phrases uttered by the president.
Instead, Mr. Biden spoke effusively of the virtues of rapprochement. “I am incredibly proud of how our nations and people have built trust and understanding over the decades and worked to repair the painful legacy that war left to our two nations,” he said. declared during his meeting with Mr. Trong.
The two parties demonstrated this on Monday with an exchange of objects symbolizing the way in which they have evolved. Two American veterans have returned a diary found on the battlefield in 1967 to the Vietnamese soldier who wrote it. Vietnamese officials presented Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken with the identification cards of U.S. soldiers still missing in action.
To the extent that the Vietnam War influences Mr. Biden today, it serves as a warning against misguided use of force abroad — a narrative that recently informed his decision to withdraw U.S. forces from Afghanistan after 20 years. In this case, the chaotic withdrawal from Kabul in 2021 reminded many of the burning image from an American helicopter take off from the roof of a building in Saigon in 1975, symbol of the ignominious end of a disastrous war.
“I think he’s learned to dig hard to find out what’s really going on and what the facts are and to not necessarily follow conventional wisdom, but to be wary,” said Mr. Kerry, a Democrat who represented Massachusetts and who is now Mr. Biden’s climate envoy, said in an interview. “He told me he felt a responsibility to make sure that as president you don’t get involved in an unwanted war.”
Former Senator Chuck Hagel, a Nebraska Republican and another Vietnam veteran who served with Mr. Biden in Congress, said in a separate interview from the United States that the future president often reflected on the enduring meaning of that war.
“Biden and I talked often about Vietnam and its aftermath,” said Mr. Hagel, who also served with Mr. Biden in President Barack Obama’s administration as secretary of defense. “How we drifted disastrously into an unnecessary war that cost America more than 58,000 lives and caused political chaos in the United States”
“Lessons learned,” he added. “I think these lessons largely supported Biden’s foreign policy thinking and philosophy: caution. Careful analysis.
Mr. Biden is the fourth member of the Vietnamese generation to be president and the fourth not to have served in the war, but the first for whom it has not been a real political headache. Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Donald J. Trump have all been attacked for the way they avoided Vietnam.
Mr. Biden, four years older than each of these men, received five student deferments while at the University of Delaware and Syracuse University Law School. As he was about to graduate in 1968, he was classified 1-Y after a medical examination, a designation meaning he was unfit for service except in times of national emergency. A spokesperson in 2008 assigned this classification to asthma.
In that sense, Mr. Biden’s record was not that different from that of Mr. Trump, who received four student deferments and then was also classified 1-Y in 1968 because of what he said be bone spurs in his foot. But Mr. Trump’s diagnosis came as a favor from a Queens pediatrician who rented an office to Mr. Trump’s father, Fred C. Trump, and two of the doctor’s daughters. told the New York Times. Mr. Trump once said that “my personal Vietnam” avoided sexually transmitted diseases when dating.
Mr. Biden has received little criticism over his medical classification, even though he played college football without obvious asthma problems. This perhaps reflects the evolution of Vietnamese politics: today’s electorate is much less dominated by voters with personal memories of that era and attentive to whether candidates were fielded or not.
While Mr. Biden never donned a uniform, he also didn’t pick up a protest sign. In the past, he has spoken disdainfully about the student protesters who took over a university office in Syracuse. “We looked up and said, ‘Look at these assholes,’” he recalled in “Promises to Keep,” his 2007 memoir. “That’s how far removed I was from the anti-war movement. “
He made it clear that he did not view the war as a matter of principle. “I did not argue that the war in Vietnam was immoral,” he wrote. “It was simply stupid and a horrible waste of time, money and lives, based on a flawed premise.”
In 1987, when Mr. Biden took his first shot at the White House, he distanced himself from both sides of the war debate. “I’m not a fan of bulletproof vests and tie-dye shirts” he told reporters. “Other people marched. I ran for office.
However, during the election campaign and in office, he spoke out against the war. He opposed it in a speech at the Delaware Democratic Convention in 1972, during his first run for Senate when he was 29 years old. “The soul of America rises in torment, and a generation of Americans believes that “foreign policy” means that only bodies matter. and rubble in what were once peaceful hamlets,” he said, an early use of the phrase “soul of America” that is a staple of today’s speeches in a different context.
Once in the Senate, Mr. Biden voted against aid to South Vietnam, a decision that was later criticized by Republicans who saw it as a betrayal of an ally. “That was part of the deal when we withdrew from South Vietnam, to try to help them survive,” said Robert M. Gates, who served as defense secretary under Mr. Obama before Mr. Hagel. said in a 2014 interview on NPR criticizing Mr. Biden’s judgment on national security.
Over the years, Mr. Biden has sponsored legislation to help Vietnamese refugees and supported initiatives led by Mr. Clinton, Mr. McCain and Mr. Kerry to establish normal relations with Vietnam.
“He always tended to defer to McCain and Kerry on Vietnam issues,” perhaps “because his lack of service made him politically timid about getting involved,” said Frank Jannuzi, Mr. Biden’s longtime Senate Asia adviser. “But he had some pretty strong opinions.”
For Mr. Biden, Vietnam showed the futility of committing vast resources to a fight that cannot be won. “The philosophy that ‘we can’t fight any harder for them than they are willing to fight for themselves’ has been reinforced in Biden’s mind,” Jannuzi said, quoting a phrase regularly used by Mr. Biden. “And I think you saw that decades later in his decision not to roll back Trump’s Afghan withdrawal plan.”
Ron Klain, the president’s first White House chief of staff, said the issues of war and peace were also personal for Mr. Biden. Although he did not serve in Vietnam, the president bore the burden of war on his family when his son, Handsome Bidenwas deployed to Iraq.
“He is always aware that others of his generation served in that war and he did not,” Mr. Klain said. “And aware that the burden of service falls on a small percentage of families in this country – which the Bidens became when Beau served in Iraq. This impacts his views on sending Americans into harm’s way and why he insists there is a clear and compelling justification for doing so.