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Escaping Quagmires: Ted Kennedy and the Vietnam War

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Escaping Quagmires: Ted Kennedy and the 2003 War in Iraq

Senator Kennedy greets Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld before attending a hearing of Senate Armed Services Committee (2005)

Senator Kennedy greets Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld before attending a hearing of Senate Armed Services Committee (2005)

(This is the second article in a two-part series.)

Senator Ted Kennedy was amongst the earliest critics of the war in Iraq. He had regretted his initial willingness during Vietnam to support U.S. policy and not question America’s involvement earlier. Kennedy was determined not to make the same mistake in Iraq. By the summer of 2002, as the Bush administration was laying the groundwork for war, Kennedy began to mount a counter-campaign cautioning against a quick invasion. While the Senator thought that the U.S. was justified in striking the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks, Al Qaeda and their patrons, the Taliban, in Afghanistan, he was skeptical that a case could be made for invading Iraq. On September 27th, 2002, fourteen years ago today, after the White House asked the Senate to authorize the use of force in Iraq, Kennedy gave his first major speech against the war at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). In the speech, Kennedy argued that Iraq did not pose an immediate threat and that military action would be irresponsible before the U.S. had had the chance to build an international coalition and exhaust all diplomatic and economic options.

Once again, Kennedy found himself the national leader of an anti-war movement, just as he had eventually become during Vietnam. He fought against the 2002 authorization of the use of force in Iraq and gave speeches both on and off the Senate floor making the case against a quick invasion. However, Kennedy faced an uphill battle in Washington, as the post-9/11 climate left many of his colleagues in D.C. reluctant to publically question the Bush administration on national security issues.

Unable to prevent the invasion of Iraq in 2003, Kennedy turned his attention to ending the war. Calling Iraq “Bush’s Vietnam,” the Senator fought to pass a timetable for the drawdown of U.S. combat forces. Kennedy also called for the Bush Administration to keep Congress fully informed and to adopt specific criteria for measuring progress in the war. At the same time, Kennedy fought for funding to help keep the troops in Iraq better protected. In 2005 Kennedy worked with the Hart family, who had lost their son in the war, to pass funding for “up-armored” troop vehicles to defend service personnel from deadly improvised explosive devices placed along roadways.

Kennedy’s principled opposition to the wars in Vietnam and Iraq not only shaped U.S. foreign policy, but also defined his legacy, both as a Senator and as a national leader.

Here are some excerpts from the Miller Center’s Edward M. Kennedy Oral History interviews:

Former Kennedy staffer Carey Parker: In some ways the situation [in Vietnam] seemed to repeat itself when [George W.] Bush went into Iraq, in a similar way to how Johnson used the Gulf of Tonkin episode as an excuse to launch the war in Vietnam. Hindsight is a lot clearer than foresight. Many members of Congress who voted on Iraq remembered the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, and they said, “We think it’s the wrong move. We’re not going to acquiesce just because the President says it’s the right move.”

Senator John Tunney: The thing that I respected about Teddy so much was that he learned the lessons of Vietnam and applied them to Iraq… What it shows me about a guy like Kennedy, who made the same mistake that I made about Vietnam, not understanding the history of Vietnam, not understanding the culture of Vietnam, not understanding what was going on for centuries before the French got involved, not understanding the colonial period. But he learned from that and applied those lessons to Iraq by learning something about the Muslim religion, learning something about the history of the Middle East, the pre-Ottoman Empire, going right back to the early stages. Teddy understood that and he did the right thing, and boy, do I give him credit for that. I think that it was a defining point for our country, a defining point for him.

Former Kennedy Staffer Sharon Waxman: 9/11 happens, and the focus was initially on Afghanistan.  He supported the military operation in Afghanistan.  America had just been attacked; of course we had to respond… When did it begin to change with Iraq? It was in the summer of 2002, and it was very sudden. Vice President [Richard] Cheney delivered a speech at the Veterans of Foreign Wars. Brent Scowcroft wrote a piece in the Washington Post or the New York Times. He called me. It was a Friday afternoon before a holiday weekend, so it must have been just before the end of the summer. Somehow he had connected these dots and he was very worried that something big was coming. I don’t know who he had been talking to.  He did not tell me at the time, but he was obviously right. I remember this so clearly because it was a holiday weekend. He called me and he said, “Maybe I should give a speech…” 

Interviewer Jim Young: And your initial concept, to make this clear for the speech, is that the war on terror is one thing, Iraq is—
Waxman: Iraq is quite another. And Saddam Hussein is a threat but he isn’t the threat that justifies war. The real threat is Al Qaeda. That’s what Tenet said, that is what the record shows, and that’s where we should stay focused, in Afghanistan…
I don’t think anyone really thought we should be going to war, but the environment was so political. It was just before an election. People were really scared. [Thomas] Daschle was running for his political life, and the Democrats felt like they had been on the wrong side of the last Iraq war. Afghanistan was going pretty well.  People believed Saddam Hussein was behind the attack on 9/11.  He wasn’t.  But they thought he was.  I had staff look at the public opinion polls.  People really believed, after 9/11, that Saddam was behind it. It was really interesting to me. Whether they believed it just because he had been the bogeyman for so many years, or because the administration was spinning up—The American people really believed it and it was very hard to take the other side...
There were very lonely times.  He disagreed with the administration, and he was isolated from many in his own party.  He and I would tussle over whether it was productive to force his colleagues vote on these proposals, and I rarely thought it was. He sometimes tended to think, Well, gee, we should be on record and we should be clear. I’d think, You’re on record, you’re clear, the speech is clear, the policy is crystal clear. Introduce an amendment in if you want, but why push it to a vote and go down in flames? All you do is help the administration with a failed amendment and then you put your colleagues in a terrible position.   Let the policy ripen over time.  This was perfectly rational advice, and I know he would normally agree with that, but on this issue he didn’t want to hear it. He did not want to hear any analysis that might have suggested holding back.  It’s not easy disagreeing with Ted Kennedy…
The thing about the whole war period that really struck me was how personal it was for him, how passionate and how intensely focused he was on really trying to stop it. To your point, I have wondered if there was a bit of Vietnam in it, like maybe, “I wish I had done more to stop the Vietnam War. Maybe I waited too long.” I really don’t know. I wasn’t here for Vietnam.  But I felt the Vietnam War was always in the room. 

Brian Hart: John [Brian’s son, Private First Class John Hart] said that they were being ambushed on these roads and that he had body armor on because they were sharing it. They called it hot swapping. He had been assigned to an assault squad, with a squad assault weapon [SALS 249], but they needed armor on their Humvees or else they would get killed on the road. He said it was just a matter of time before that happened to him. He was very matter of fact…. It wasn’t long after John’s death that we decided, “They can’t do anything worse to him. We can piss off anybody we have to…”

We told Senator Kennedy what we knew, that they essentially were running out of ammunition and tourniquets, that they had no blood-clotting agents, that there were five armored Humvees in northern Iraq, and that there was a chronic shortage that enlisted personnel certainly knew about but that somehow wasn’t being reported up the chain of command. We talked for about a half hour, and Senator Kennedy said that this was the first factual information he had heard and he was on the Senate Armed Services Committee. It was confirming rumors that he had heard from Jack Reed and from some of the National Guard families whose sons had been killed in August…
I had found out that the military had been lying about the production rates at the plant [that makes armored Humvees]. I knew but I couldn’t figure out why. I was approached by a person in the audience who had ties to the manufacturing plant, who told me that the purchase orders had not been received, even though the Pentagon was telling the Congress, as late as mid-December, that the plants had received the orders and were running full out. They actually were running at about 25-percent capacity…
Interviewer Janet Heininger: What did you conclude about why the situation was the way it was?

B. Hart: It was about the money.
Alma Hart (Brian's mother): And the election coming up. 
B. Hart: And the election… I found out that the plant had not received the production orders. This was months after generals told Congress in November that they had but the plant was in fact running at only about 25-percent capacity. We started to relay this information to Representative Marty Meehan and to Kennedy…
So we formed a strange relationship with Senator Kennedy that grew into a strong bond and friendship. As Alma and I would find out information from all kinds of sources—like soldiers’ family members calling us anonymously with information—we would pass it to the Senate. Senator Kennedy would ask the questions [at congressional hearings], and the generals would usually be more than happy to answer, because they were the ones being shorted equipment. That’s how we formed a five-year working relationship with Senator Kennedy, and that’s how all the troops, six months after those hearings, got body armor, when a third of them hadn’t had it in October ’03. By 2005, every vehicle that left a base in Iraq was an armored factory-built Humvee or MRAP [Mine Resistant Ambush Protected]. That’s how this happened.

Date edited: 09/27/2016 (9:27AM)


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