Chuck Hagel and Vietnam’s shadow

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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ABC News’ Rick Klein observes: “You can’t understand Chuck Hagel or John Kerry without understanding Vietnam.”

This is an interesting point. And while conservatives are largely lining up against Hagel (for various reasons), it is interesting to remember that Ronald Reagan’s foreign policy was, of course, heavily influenced by the shadows of Vietnam.

As Peter Beinart wrote in Foreign Policy,

Sure, Reagan spent boatloads — some $2.8 trillion all told — on the military. And yes, he funneled money and guns to anti-communist rebels like the Nicaraguan Contras and Afghan mujahideen, while lecturing Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to tear down that wall. But on the ultimate test of hawkdom — the willingness to send U.S. troops into harm’s way — Reagan was no bird of prey. He launched exactly one land war, against Grenada, whose army totaled 600 men. It lasted two days. And his only air war — the 1986 bombing of Libya — was even briefer.


… Reagan’s political genius lay in recognizing that what Americans wanted was a president who exorcised the ghost of the Vietnam War without fighting another Vietnam. (Emphasis mine.)

I don’t consider Beinart the last word on Reagan’s foreign policy, but his larger point here rings true. The Vietnam debacle loomed large over Reagan’s (mostly) exceptional foreign policy decisions.

And, for good or ill, the Vietnam experience no longer holds the same sway that it once did. (Operation Desert Storm was likely the “reset” button.)

One day, of course, the Vietnam generation will recede from politics, altogether. This might help exorcise some latent pessimism and defeatism, but as Beinart’s “Icarus Syndrome” suggests, we also seem doomed to repeat our past mistakes.

This is not to say that there was a universal lesson learned by the Vietnam generation. The experience impacted leaders differently. As the Washington Times recently noted, “For John McCain and Colin Powell, it reinforced the view that American power must be projected robustly and definitively. It made others, such as Chuck Hagel and John Kerry, more cautious.”

It is perhaps indicative of Reagan’s oversized influence that his foreign policy fit both descriptions.

For all Hagel’s faults, though, it might not be a bad idea to have someone who was largely influenced by the Vietnam experience whispering in President Obama’s ear.

Matt K. Lewis