Biden began his career opposing the Vietnam War. It’s shaped his approach to Afghanistan

How Biden ends America’s longest war could wind up defining the terms of his presidency, writes Eric Garcia

Friday 09 July 2021 01:00 BST
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<p>US President Joe Biden, flanked by First Lady Dr Jill Biden, uses paper to trace the name of veteran Dennis F Shine as they visit the Vietnam Veterans Memorial for National Vietnam War Veterans Day in Washington, DC, on March 29, 2021</p>

US President Joe Biden, flanked by First Lady Dr Jill Biden, uses paper to trace the name of veteran Dennis F Shine as they visit the Vietnam Veterans Memorial for National Vietnam War Veterans Day in Washington, DC, on March 29, 2021

During his press conference regarding the US withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, President Joe Biden said a Taliban takeover of the nation was not inevitable. Similarly, when a reporter asked if there were any parallels between the US withdrawal from Vietnam and this one, Mr Biden said there was “none whatsoever.”

“The Taliban is not the North Vietnamese Army,” Mr Biden said. “There’s going to be no circumstance where you’ll see people being lifted off the roof of an embassy of the United States from Afghanistan.”

But how Mr Biden ends America’s longest war could wind up defining the terms of his presidency – and therefore the end of his political career – much in the way the war in Vietnam defined much of his early political action in his first Senate campaign in 1972.

Mr Biden was a young man when the Vietnam War raged. In a commencement address at Syracuse University, his law school alma mater, in 2009, Mr Biden recalled the raging dissatisfaction felt in 1968 after the Viet Cong launched the Tet Offensive, when most Americans had thought the war was almost won, and the image of a Vietnamese police chief shooting a handcuffed soldier.

“That one bullet not only pierced that soldier’s skull, but pierced America’s consciousness as well,” he said. “There was no light at the end of the tunnel.”

Of course, the war would drag on for years afterward and doom Lyndon Johnson’s presidency, leading to the election of Richard Nixon, who himself would prolong the war in Vietnam and cost more lives before ultimately ending the war.

Those words echoed when Mr Biden mentioned in his address on Thursday that the US would exit by 31 August of this year.

“Nearly 20 years of experience has shown us, and the current security situation only confirms, that just one more year of fighting in Afghanistan is not a solution,” he said. Mr Biden outlined how in the past two decades, there had been plan after plan to exit Afghanistan, which was not unlike how president after president promised an end to hostilities in Southeast Asia in the 1960s and 1970s only to continue escalating.

Mr Biden was a Senator when President George W Bush began the US engagement in Afghanistan; was Barack Obama’s vice president when Mr Obama escalated the war; and defeated Donald Trump, who had gone from criticising the war to also escalating it.

Still, Mr Biden did not join the hordes of people protesting Vietnam, saying “I was married, I was in law school. I wore sport coats.” But when he chose to run for Senate at the height of the conflict, he campaigned on a quick end to the Vietnam War and narrowly beat Delaware’s incumbent Republican senator, despite the fact Richard Nixon won in the same state in his 1972 landslide.

At the same time, Mr Biden also has the opportunity to rectify his own sins in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. As a freshman Senator, he criticised Gerald Ford’s administration for not informing Congress about the number of refugees arriving from Vietnam. Similarly, Mr Biden rejected the Ford administration’s call to spend $300m to evacuate both Americans and their dependents along with 175,000 South Vietnamese, as The Atlantic reported earlier this year.

“I feel put upon in being presented an all-or-nothing number,” Mr Biden said at the time. “I will vote for any amount for getting the Americans out. I don’t want it mixed with getting the Vietnamese out.”

This time around, Mr Biden has been adamant that translators who assisted Americans during the war effort will be helped, and he said his administration will begin relocation flights for special immigrant visas for Afghans applicants who chose to leave.

“Our message to those men and women is clear,” Mr Biden said. “There is a home for you in the United States if you so choose. We will stand with you just as you stand with us.”

If Mr Biden is sincere about these words, then it means he will have also learned to correct his mistakes and also set a precedent to ensure that those who are affected by America’s drawn-out wars don’t get left behind.

Mr Biden’s age was often a point of criticism when he ran in the Democratic primary in 2020, and then-President Donald Trump (who was only four years younger than Mr Biden) used it to give him the moniker of “Sleepy Joe.”

But as a result of his long time in politics, he also has a long memory of one of America’s long wars that was dragged out over multiple presidencies. There are pros and cons to both: Mr Biden risks being a captive to the past. It also means he is able to see both how The United States’ involvement in Afghanistan and Vietnam did not improve national security and only demoralised the homeland and respond accordingly.

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