Joe Biden and the long shadow of the Vietnam War

  • Themes: America

Joe Biden's political career began during the Vietnam War and the shadow of that conflict has profoundly shaped his view of America's role in the world over the five decades since.

Joe Biden and Jill Biden at the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington DC, March 2021. Credit: UPI / Alamy Stock Photo
Joe Biden and Jill Biden at the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington DC, March 2021. Credit: UPI / Alamy Stock Photo

When Joe Biden ran for president in 2020, few candidates could match his foreign policy experience. Along with the assignments he had handled as vice-president, Biden could point to his more than three decades of membership on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, having joined just after the end of the Vietnam War, and he chaired that legislative institution during the first and last years of the George W. Bush administration. Biden had also been a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee and travelled widely, meeting many foreign leaders, including Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping.

Biden’s biographer, the journalist Jules Witcover, once wrote: ‘In this whole range of engagements abroad, Biden came off as impressively well-versed in the history and the complications of the world of international diplomacy and conflict.’ More recently, his close ally Senator Chris Murphy remarked: ‘He’s got fluency on foreign policy that gives him confidence – he knows he can win the argument. It allows him to act with boldness and confidence, even when a decision he’s making may be ripe for political criticism.’

Biden entered American politics as a senator from Delaware in 1973, having won election at the age of only 29. The arc of his career tracks American power through the Cold War, the unipolar moment, the War on Terror and the return of great power politics. In looking for the roots of Biden’s thinking and approach to foreign affairs, most commentators focus on his later years, especially his prominent role as a senator during the wars in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s and then his support and later criticisms of the George W. Bush administration’s policies in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Yet Biden’s lengthy career in foreign relations began as America was seeking to extricate itself from the Vietnam War, and that conflict and its lessons played an essential part in the development of Biden’s approach to US foreign policy. In April 2024, Biden reflected to an interviewer: ‘I hope my legacy is that I kept my word. I said that the reason I was running was to help the life of ordinary people and reduce the prospect of war… because of Vietnam.’

No American president served in the Vietnam War, but all who have held the office since have grappled with its legacy as they approach the issues of foreign policy, conflict, and America’s standing in the world. It was a war in which the optimism, military power and technological prowess of the United States were thwarted by a small insurgency in South-east Asia. Nearly 60,000 Americans died, part of an estimated one and a half million people who were killed in the war.

Even a half-century after its end in 1973, the Vietnam War echoes in contemporary politics. The uncle of Robert F. Kennedy Jr, the major third-party challenger in the 2024 election, was John F. Kennedy, the president who began America’s military commitment in Vietnam; his father was assassinated in 1968 while running a presidential campaign built on opposition to US involvement in the war. Neither Biden nor Donald Trump, the major presidential candidates, served in Vietnam, but they came of age amid the conflict and resulting social upheaval. Both Biden’s and Trump’s advanced ages mean that 2024 could be the last election fought in the long shadow of the Vietnam conflict – the passing of an era in American history.

Biden’s attitude towards the Vietnam War and the Vietnamese people in the 1970s is an important foreshadowing of his attitudes toward the end of American involvement in Afghanistan, the conflict in Ukraine, and the crisis in Gaza. Biden did not enter politics in 1972 promising an idealistic vision of America’s future, and his career is marked by episodes of calculated caution and restraint. His actions in the era of the Vietnam War showed him as a conventional and often superficial thinker on foreign policy, attuned closely to the tide of public opinion and inclined to tailor his positions accordingly. At the same time, they also reveal Biden’s self-styled position as a cold-blooded realist about America’s ‘interests’ – an attempt to distinguish himself from the moralist rhetoric of his Democratic party rivals. The total result is less a picture of ‘boldness and confidence’, as Murphy argued, and more what one critic calls ‘a continuing pattern of indecision from this president, a man who wants the popularity and adulation of the job and who often seeks some middle path that ends up satisfying no one’.

Biden was born in November 1942, as the United States joined the Second World War and stood on the cusp of its supremacy in the West. By the 1960s, amid the Civil Rights revolution and the escalation in Vietnam – where the United States supported and then fought with its ally, South Vietnam, against a Communist insurgency – domestic upheaval swelled. Although Biden has, more recently, sought to make himself out as someone who participated in the great social movements of the 1960s, he was anything but an activist in his youth. Raised in a moderately prosperous, Catholic family in Scranton, Pennsylvania, Biden began his first campaign for the presidency in 1987 with a frank admission about himself in the 1960s: ‘I wore sports coats. You’re looking at a middle-class guy. I am who I am. I’m not big on flak jackets and tie-dyed shirts and – you know, that’s not me.’

Over two million Americans were drafted in the Vietnam War, but a combination of student deferments and his asthma kept Biden out of the military – though he had played American football through high school and college. Biden’s friends recalled him as opposed to the Vietnam War but preoccupied with finishing his law degree in Syracuse, New York. His long-time political adviser Ted Kaufmann described him as ‘more of a system person rather than working outside the system. He wore a sports jacket, not a flak jacket’. In fact, Biden later confessed he had a certain contempt for demonstrators. He recalled walking with law-school classmates to a local pizza shop and seeing antiwar protestors hanging out of an administrative building they had occupied. ‘We looked up and said, “Look at those assholes.” That’s how far apart I was from the antiwar movement.’

Biden was first elected to a city council position in 1970 but soon turned his focus on higher office. He had, writes Witcover, ‘a knack for finding the political centre of gravity’, and that meant denouncing the, by then, very unpopular Vietnam War.

Referencing Richard Nixon’s expressed hope for a ‘generation of peace’, Biden declared during his campaign for the Senate: ‘For God’s sake, stop the Madison Avenue, sugar-coated garbage. Don’t talk about a generation of peace when every day hundreds of planes cut through the skies of Indochina, and countless women and children and old men run from their liberators, their flesh burned with napalm – while the soul of America rises in torment and a generation of Americans believe that “foreign policy” means only body counts and rubble in what once were peaceful hamlets.’

Biden’s rhetoric paralleled that of George McGovern, the Democrat presidential nominee in 1972, with an emphasis on emotional and moral arguments against the war. ‘We were being told the war in Vietnam was winding down, but the casualties were arriving at Delaware’s doorstep. Every week young American men were being shipped to the mortuary at Dover Air Force Base in body bags.’ Biden continued: ‘How many mothers lay awake at night wondering how their sons might return, and wondering what exactly they were risking their lives for?’

Biden later claimed in his memoirs that: ‘I didn’t argue that the war in Vietnam was immoral; it was merely stupid and a horrendous waste of time, money, and lives based on a flawed premise.’ This was convenient amnesia from Biden and part of his effort to portray himself as a sensible foreign policy realist. As he campaigned for the Senate, Biden, like many Democrats in 1972, recognised that even though Nixon had withdrawn most American troops and casualties had been greatly reduced, the moral argument against America’s involvement would mobilise young voters.

The 26th Amendment to the US Constitution, ratified in July 1971, granted the vote to younger people and Biden’s narrow, upset victory against Republican Senator Caleb Boggs owed a great deal to his mobilising the newly enfranchised 18- to 21-year-old voters and their opposition to the war in Vietnam. Thomas Vallely, a South-east Asia expert who knew Biden for decades and would later arrange his trip to Vietnam as president stated plainly: ‘He’s a senator because of antiwar sentiment.’ Although Biden adjusted his views over time, with a keen eye on public opinion and sentiment within his own party, Biden never forgot that his entry into national politics had been delivered by his opposition to the war.

After his victory in the Senate race, personal tragedy – his wife’s and daughter’s death in a car accident, and the injuries to his two sons – kept Biden in a low political profile for the next two years. He was, however, a co-sponsor, along with most of his Democrat colleagues, of the War Powers Act of 1973, which sought to restrict a president’s power to deploy American forces overseas.

In 1975 Biden lobbied for, and was granted, a highly sought-after seat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. It is not too speculative to argue that Biden’s desire to be on the committee reflected developing presidential ambitions, as the significance of foreign policy issues during the Cold War afforded such senators national media attention.

Biden received his first moment in the spotlight in April 1975, as South Vietnam was collapsing under the North Vietnamese invasion. President Gerald Ford’s administration made an emergency request for $722 million of military assistance to help stabilise the situation and enable the Saigon government to resist the North Vietnamese onslaught sweeping down the peninsula. General Frederick Weyand, chief of staff of the United States army, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the money would give the Vietnamese a chance, but Biden proclaimed to reporters after the meeting: ‘I think it’s hopeless.’ A week later, on 14 April, in what at the time set an extraordinary precedent, President Ford met personally with the committee to push for assistance, now conceding that some of the money would have to be used to evacuate Americans and Vietnamese.

When Biden ran for president, he exploited and exaggerated his role in the unprecedented meeting. He championed his antiwar credentials by saying that he was the only member of the committee who asked tough questions of Ford and, from that, helped end the conflict. ‘Everybody played patty cake – everybody went down and said, “Yes Mr. President, no Mr. President.” They were very polite.’

Biden claimed that he challenged Ford in the meeting, saying: ‘Mr. President, what is the plan?’ During his run for the presidency in 1987, Biden argued that his questioning of Ford prevented the United States from intervening again in Vietnam. ‘I did more in that meeting than a lot of people did that marched,’ he stated. ‘I ran for office, got elected to the United States Senate at 29, and came down here and was one of those votes that helped stop the war. And I’m proud of it.’

The archival transcript of the meeting is much less dramatic and reveals Biden’s exaggeration of his role. His primary concern was only for evacuating Americans as soon as possible. In responding to Ford’s comment on getting Americans and possibly 175,000 Vietnamese out, Biden complained that Assistant Secretary of State Phillip Habib had promised the committee a plan to get Americans out and that ‘nothing has happened’. In his view, Biden wanted a plan for evacuating Americans and considered the question of the Vietnamese and military aid for Saigon as separate. ‘I will vote for any amount for getting the Americans out. I don’t want it mixed with getting the Vietnamese out.’

Leaving the meeting, Biden appeared on the nightly news on all three television channels – preserved for the historical record by the Vanderbilt Television News Archive. Biden proclaimed that it would be a ‘cold day in hell’ when he would vote for the administration’s request and emphasised that he felt no ‘moral obligation’ to assist the Vietnamese with evacuations. Showing a propensity for hyperbole, Biden told reporters: ‘I don’t want another Gulf of Tonkin Resolution,’ referring to the resolution Congress had passed overwhelmingly in 1964 to support Lyndon Johnson’s bombing of North Vietnam, which opened a new phase in America’s war. It was an odd comparison given the context, but it appealed to the more than 80 per cent of Americans who opposed any more money for the war in Vietnam.

Saigon and the South Vietnamese government fell on 30 April 1975. Joe Biden voted against Ford’s request for refugee assistance appropriations, both for Vietnam and Cambodia. ‘I’m getting sick and tired of hearing about morality, our moral obligation,’ Biden remarked. ‘There’s a point when you are incapable of meeting moral obligations that exist worldwide.’

Considering the well-documented suffering of many Vietnamese and Cambodian refugees after the communist takeover, and the dangers for those who stayed, Biden’s position seems unusually callous. It was, however, the popular stance. Polls showed that most Americans wanted to wash their hands of Vietnam and there was significant opposition to assistance for refugees. Biden also connected his position on the president’s actions with the recently passed War Powers Act, which limited the president’s direct control of military action, arguing that the legislation did not permit the president to use American forces to assist the Vietnamese. He justified his vote against refugee assistance because the president had not informed Congress about the number of refugees that would be brought to the United States.

Nearly 50 years later, the chaos that ensued after Biden’s withdrawal of the American military from Afghanistan carried echoes of the fall of Saigon. It is hard not to see in Biden’s approach to the Vietnamese fleeing the communists a foreshadowing of his relative indifference to the desperation of Afghans who feared the rule of the Taliban.

Over the next years, Biden took an active role in foreign policy issues, especially those involving the Atlantic alliance and US-Soviet issues in the Cold War. He relished the opportunity to involve himself in important foreign policy questions, such as the negotiations over the SALT-II treaty, and he met frequently with foreign leaders, including German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt and Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev.

Biden frequently invoked Vietnam as an analogy to warn of the dangers of an unrestricted commitment to an issue beyond what he perceived as being in America’s core national interests. As early as October 1975 he voted against an American role in guaranteeing an Israeli-Egyptian agreement over the Sinai – occupied by Israel during the Six-Day War of 1967 – complaining about ‘binding agreements’ made by the president without consultation with Congress.

In the 1980s he was a vocal member of the Democratic party’s opposition to Reagan’s foreign policy, at one point calling the Strategic Defense Initiative ‘one of the most reckless and irresponsible acts in the history of modern statecraft’. He also developed a friendship with fellow senator, and former prisoner of war in Vietnam, John McCain, and the two men travelled abroad together. Biden played no role, however, in McCain’s efforts to normalise relations with Vietnam, and never accompanied him on his frequent visits there. According to his biographer, one of the topics that the two men never discussed was McCain’s time in a North Vietnamese prison, the so-called ‘Hanoi Hilton’, and the torture to which he was subjected.

Throughout his life, Joe Biden expressed a particular antagonism toward Henry Kissinger, who in their first meeting – when Kissinger was secretary of state – had mispronounced his name as ‘Bid-den,’ to which Biden responded by calling Kissinger, ‘Secretary Dulles’.

After Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, Kissinger testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and argued that a perception of a weak commitment by the United States to the Persian Gulf would undermine regional stability and America’s allies in the region. Biden turned folksy and quipped: ‘Boy, oh boy, here we go again.’

‘I came to the Senate in 1972 because I was so tired of hearing that we were unknowingly playing into the hands of Ho Chi Minh when we disagreed with [Nixon] administration policy,’ Biden told Kissinger in the hearing. ‘Now I hear today we are unknowingly playing into the hands of Saddam Hussein.’ Just like in Vietnam, Biden argued, no one had ‘laid out clearly what our vital interests are sufficient to have 10,000, 20,000, 30,000, 40,000 Americans killed. I have not heard that one yet.’ Biden went on to join ten of his Senate Democratic colleagues in voting unsuccessfully against the Joint Resolution authorising President George H. W. Bush to go to war to liberate Kuwait. The measure passed 52-47.

The rapid success of the Gulf War may have been a political liability for Biden and influenced his decision not to challenge Bush for the presidency in 1992. However, his position on the conflict was not unpopular at the time, especially among Democrats.

To some extent, just as George H.W. Bush hoped that success in the Gulf War helped America ‘kick the Vietnam syndrome’, during the 1990s Biden shifted with his party and became more supportive of using military force after the end of the Cold War. He was particularly outspoken about preventing ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, becoming one of the first senators to label Serbian actions as genocide and arguing for US military intervention.

In the 1990s, when the United States was the undoubted hegemon, Biden was more comfortable with the hard edge of American power. In a 1994 interview, he told the journalist Charlie Rose: ‘The truth of the matter is no one doubts our power… No one is going to fool around with the 800-pound gorilla.’ Yet Biden retained a realism toward people and areas beyond America’s urgent national interest. He contrasted the possibility of intervention in the former Yugoslavia and Haiti – where the United States deposed the military regime led by Raoul Cédras – in 1994 and concluded: ‘If Haiti just sunk quietly into the Caribbean, or rose up 300 feet, it wouldn’t matter a whole lot in terms of our interests.’ Biden echoed the sentiments of the American public about how unpopular intervention in Haiti was, and fundamentally to Biden, America’s interests lay primarily in Europe and the Atlantic Alliance.

The prospect of ‘another Vietnam’ haunted America’s political and military strategists after the 9/11 attacks. For some, it was a syndrome to be broken by learning the lessons about warfare and waging successful conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq; for others, it loomed as the model of American hubris. Joe Biden supported American intervention in Afghanistan and voted to authorise the younger George Bush’s invasion of Iraq. However, by the time he ran for president in 2008, he opposed the war in Iraq. As Barack Obama’s vice president, Biden was a vehement opponent of those who sought a counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan – a policy that carried echoes of the same method that kept America tethered to Vietnam. The Vietnam War served as a warning for Biden about the dangers of campaigns in distant areas and for goals beyond the United States’ core national interests. In Afghanistan, he thought, he could see it all playing out again.

As president since January 2021, Biden, in response to both Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the Israel-Gaza War, has sought to calibrate his first instincts – supporting Ukraine and Israel – with the changing dynamics in American public opinion and his own caution about over-commitment. The result has been a policy of ‘too little, too late’ in providing weapons for Ukraine, placing that country in a perilous situation, while in Israel, the attempt to placate a vocal progressive and pro-Palestinian constituency in the Democratic party has led to an incoherence and failure to influence Israeli conduct of the war. The withdrawal from Kabul was a hurried, haphazard affair that brutally revealed the futility of America’s long campaign against the Taliban.

The lasting influence of Vietnam upon Joe Biden reflects the extent to which it has become a synecdoche of more than a war in American life. In popular memory, Vietnam is the place where the idealism of the 1960s died; where despite all of the United States’ advanced military prowess, it could not defeat Communism. It is a warning that still lingers.

Robert Gates, George W. Bush and Obama’s secretary of defense has offered one of the most quoted criticisms of Biden. Confessing that ‘Joe is simply impossible not to like,’ Gates lamented that Biden ‘has been wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades.’ More sympathetically – though revealingly – former Senator Chuck Hagel, another Vietnam veteran, defense secretary and friend of Biden, reflected that he ‘falls into where I think most people are on the Vietnam War – that it was a mistake’. For Biden, any foreign policy judgment that lands where ‘most people are,’ captures the essence of his approach to decision making.

Trump did not serve in the Vietnam War either; he received draft deferments due to bone spurs in his feet. Trump once told an interviewer: ‘You know, if you’re young, and in this era, and if you have any guilt about not having gone to Vietnam, we have our own Vietnam – it’s called the dating game.’ Avoiding sexually transmitted diseases during his youth was, for Trump, ‘like being in Vietnam. You’re the equivalent of a soldier going over to Vietnam’. As president, it was reported that Trump once refused to visit the graves of American soldiers, saying, ‘Why should I go to that cemetery? It’s filled with losers.’ It is unsurprising why two thirds of voters are unhappy with the choice between the two oldest presidential candidates in American history. America wants to move on.


Thomas A. Schwartz