An expert's point of view on a current event.

Born on the Seventh Floor

John Kerry is about to get the secretary of state job he was always meant to have.


With a little prodding, Sen. John Kerry once reluctantly showed me his childhood passport. It was tattooed with border crossing stamps from almost all the Western European countries. From 1951 to 1954, his father Richard Kerry, a career Foreign Service officer, worked as an attorney for what was then called the Bureau of United Nations in the State Department. But when John was 10 years old, Richard Kerry was assigned to Berlin to serve as legal advisor at the U.S. mission in the divided German city.

From that Cold War outpost base, young John was taken sailing by his father across the vast fjords of Norway. He wandered the beaches of Normandy collecting shell casings from D-Day. He studied history and learned languages in a Swiss boarding school among the sons and daughters of other American diplomats. But young John’s most memorable experiences came as a Cold War kid in a Berlin divided between East and West, split between democracy and communism, watching allied American, British, and French troops guarding their own sectors of the city. On one occasion, Kerry mischievously rode his bicycle into Soviet East Berlin, where he saw starkly just how polarized daily life was on sides of the city, from the fear of those living under the yoke of communist oppression to the gratitude and goodwill toward an America that had liberated a former enemy.

Kerry recalled vividly sitting on a train watching an American officer who had the diplomatic pouch handcuffed to his wrist.  Along with the crowd deboarding the military train, Kerry stood at attention as an Army band played patriotic tunes. His heroes back then were — naturally — the names he heard around the dinner table: President Dwight Eisenhower, and diplomats George Kennan, Dean Acheson, and George Marshall. His passport had him at 4 foot 3 inches tall.

By the time Kerry enlisted to serve in the Vietnam war in 1966, he was 6 foot four and conversant in five languages. Like his father, he was attracted to the world of diplomacy. Because he was a student at Yale University, he perhaps could have finagled out of the draft. But Kerry was raised to be a public servant. He and his closest classmates — including future Ambassador David Thorne, the future founder of Federal Express Fred Smith, and the grandson of General "Black Jack" Pershing — together pledged to join the military. Pershing would never return from the war.

Kerry chose the Navy because of his interest in all things nautical. From 1966 to 1970, he served on the guided-missile frigate USS Gridley, spending time in the Gulf of Tonkin in North Vietnam, at Subic Bay in the Philippines, and in Wellington, New Zealand. Later, he reported for duty to Coastal Squadron 1 of Cam Ranh Bay, South Vietnam, the strategic nerve center for the U.S. Navy’s MarketTime anti-infiltration operations, which since 1965 had searched half a million vessels. He’d been attracted to the squadron’s small boats because they offered a young officer the chance for a command. As a Swift boat lieutenant in South Vietnam, Kerry was wounded, awarded three Purple Hearts, while probing enemy strongholds and sanctuaries in and about the river mouths, inlets, caves and canals of coastal Asia. He was awarded both the Silver Star and Bronze Star with Combat V for valor and meritorious action in combat.

In 1969, Kerry came back to the United States, where he served as an admiral’s aide in New York. But he continued to be troubled by the war and haunted by the deaths of close friends. He felt compelled to speak out as an activist — an activist disillusioned by the widening of the war into Cambodia, questioning the strategy of American military intervention in Southeast Asia in general. For Kerry, it was an at times uneasy plunge into the anti-war movement. He was uncomfortable with the radicalism of some, or the broader agenda others crusaded for. Still shaped by his own childhood experiences, Kerry was not a pacifist or a doubter of America’s ability to make a difference in the world or of the occasional necessity to use force. Diplomat Richard Holbrooke would later describe Kerry as "an eloquent but moderate member of the anti-war movement."

Kerry’s best-known moments came as an eloquent spokesman for Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW), a group whose singular mission was to end U.S. military involvement in Southeast Asia. Famously, he testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on April 22, 1971 asking; "How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?" But in that very testimony, Kerry offered other powerful observations about a war he felt had gone off course, including his disenchantment over the absurdity that "American lives are lost so that we can … Vietnamize the Vietnamese." Many others in VVAW hated the war passionately. Kerry, though, seemed to be probing deeper questions about a foreign- policy strategy he found unsustainable and a poor use of American power and influence. It was Vietnam — both his battlefield heroism and anti-war dissent — that brought Kerry to the nation’s attention, and it was also Vietnam that doomed his first run for Congress in 1972 in Lowell, Massachusetts. His voice breaking, Kerry in his concession speech said simply, "If I had to do it all over again, I’d still stand with the veterans." But a political future appeared off the table.

Fast forward 12 years, and, after time as a prosecutor taking on organized crime and modernizing a sleepy backwater of a district attorney’s office in Middlesex County, Kerry, a Democrat, won a difficult race for the open Massachusetts Senate seat, defeating Republican Raymond Shamie and bucking the tide of a reelected Ronald Reagan who for the second time would carry the Bay State. The once shaggy haired anti-war activist was now Ted Kennedy’s junior Senate colleague, and he requested and was assigned a seat on the Foreign Relations Committee — the same panel before which he’d delivered the testimony that 13 years before had earned him a place on Richard Nixon’s enemies list.

Kerry’s life had come full circle. Inside the Senate, the former outsider at times bristled inside clubby Washington. Unusual for a Senator, let alone a freshman, he gravitated toward difficult foreign-policy assignments. In 1991, Majority Leader George Mitchell (D-Maine) tapped Kerry to chair an investigation into the fate of Americans missing in Vietnam. Kerry seized an opportunity to begin to heal the wounds of the war in which he’d served. He became unlikely friends with Sen. John McCain, a former prisoner of the North Vietnamese, and together they unified a diverse and ideologically disparate Senate Select Committee behind the investigation’s historic finding that there were no living American POWs left in Vietnam. In so doing, Kerry demonstrated an intensity rarely seen on Capitol Hill, making 14 trips to Vietnam — fourteen! — searching for answers and securing the Vietnamese government’s cooperation.

Kerry’s engagement with Vietnam didn’t stop there. He partnered again with McCain and President George Herbert Walker Bush’s national security advisor Brent Scowcroft, and later with President Bill Clinton, to lift the trade embargo with Vietnam and normalize relations. One wonders if, standing in Hanoi as Clinton in 2000 became the first U.S. president to visit Vietnam since the end of the war, Kerry wistfully harkened back to his own antiwar testimony — and his hopes then that one day "small boys" would talk about Vietnam and think not of a war but of "the place where America finally turned and where soldiers like us helped it in the turning." Indeed, Kerry had done exactly that. He had achieved in the reconciliation process what had so eluded him both in the war and in the antiwar movement: a place of comfort and peace.

Over the years, his closest Senate friends became men like John McCain, Chuck Hagel, Max Cleland, Bob Kerrey, and Chuck Robb — all Vietnam vets. They shared the same high-minded covenant, you might say: a willingness to serve America in any capacity. Kerry was attracted to other diplomatic assignments unusual for a senator. He amended U.S. policy to press for free elections in the Philippines, was appointed by President Reagan along with Sen. Richard Lugar to observe that election, and helped exposed Ferdinand Marcos’s voter fraud, leading to the United States separating itself from its corrupt Cold War ally and ushering in a democratic Philippines. During the Clinton administration, he revived the U.N.’s moribund genocide tribunal effort with Cambodia and over successive weekends in 2000 flew to both Phnom Penh and Havana to negotiate with Prime Minister Hun Sen the very genocide tribunal structure that has in recent years led to trials and convictions for war crimes of former Khmer Rouge officials. He had learned — and applied — a lesson his father had taught him: that a good American diplomat is one who "advances America’s interests by learning to see the issues through the eyes of another country."

Now that it looks like Kerry will be President Obama’s nominee for secretary of state, it’s worth pondering his record to understand his intellectual predisposition and modus operandi. While Hillary Clinton, the current occupant of Foggy Bottom, earned her Senate spurs on the Armed Services Committee, Kerry has been on the Foreign Relations Committee since 1985. His orientation tilts toward the art of diplomacy even as he understands war in personal ways. He has championed free trade, supported U.S. intervention in Kosovo and Bosnia, partnered with Sen. Bill Frist to write and pass the first global AIDS bill (which President George W. Bush turned into PEPFAR), fought against the trafficking of persons, led relentless investigations into Panamanian strongman Manuel Noriega’s involvement in illegal narcotics that laid the predicate for the invasion of Panama and Noriega’s arrest, exposed the Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI) for illegal money laundering that funded global criminal activities including Osama bin Laden’s former base in Sudan, and earned his spurs on global climate change as Al Gore labeled him "the Senate’s best environmentalist."

If there is such a thing as a Kerry Doctrine, it is a clear-eyed willingness to pursue engagement and test the intentions of other countries, even present and former enemies or difficult partners on the world stage. Just as Kerry used to journey to Vietnam searching for POWs, he now regularly travels to Afghanistan and Pakistan as a high-octane negotiator for the White House. As chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee since 2009, he played a trouble-shooting role for President Obama in reaching agreement with President Karzai on a run-off election in Afghanistan to avert a constitutional crisis, negotiated with Pakistan’s President Asef Ali Zardari and General Ashfaq Kayani on the release of American contractor Ray Davis and the return of the American helicopter’s tail following the Osama bin Laden raid. On Sudan, Kerry parlayed several trips to the region into a special easing the peaceful and successful independence referendum in the south. He is committed to the Middle East peace process and America’s special relationship with Israel, a country he feels deeply about as someone whose grandparents were Jews and whose own brother converted to Judaism. On Iran, he is a hawk. (There is no such a thing as containment, Kerry says: Tehran simply won’t be allowed to have nuclear weapon.) Quite unusual for a Washington insider, Kerry flat out refuses to use the phrase "Arab Spring." He prefers "Arab Awakening." His reasoning is simple: Seasons like spring come and go. An "awakening" is the beginning of a true democratic reform movement that is just getting started.

Kerry — patient but quick to see opportunities — has a negotiator’s mindset. Working on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for 27 years has honed his skills as a dealmaker — and a legislator in a Senate where those skills are now in short supply. After Democrats were walloped and Obama’s agenda endangered by the 2010 midterm elections, with steely determination Kerry led the improbable fight to ratify New START, the president’s nuclear arms treaty with Russia, in 2010 even as others urged Kerry to wait for a smoother legislative calendar. He got 71 votes.

As secretary of state, Kerry would no doubt invest enormous time leveraging his relationships on Capitol Hill and selling the president’s agenda in the Senate and on the committee he now chairs. And he would make great use of the friends and contacts he’s made around the world in his three decades quietly and diligently working on foreign policy. There is no learning curve for Kerry at Foggy Bottom.

And Kerry would be a great pick to lead the State Department at this specific moment in time. Just as he learned everything he could about Southeast Asia from the 1960s to the 1990s, Kerry has amassed an encyclopedic knowledge of the Middle East — often putting him ahead of his potential future boss on the region’s urgent crises. He was the first senator to call for President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt to step down, pressed the administration to create a no-fly zone in Libya to topple Muammar al-Qaddafi, and has been a sharp critic of Syria’s murdering of its own citizens, having meticulously tested Bashar al-Assad’s willingness to change his ways in 2009 and come away unimpressed. Consider the grace with which Kerry has handled his 2004 presidential defeat. Instead of retreating into bitterness and self-doubt, he put his shoulder to the wheel and worked. Much like his evergreen heroes of the early Cold War — Eisenhower, Kennan, Acheson, and Marshall — Kerry exudes noblesse oblige. But his courtesy and diplomatic finesse can mask a toughness and a willingness to speak hard truths. That’s what he learned all those years ago in Vietnam: that loving his country could mean both picking up arms and speaking out against a failing war. And that’s why America needs him as its top diplomat today.

Douglas Brinkley is professor of history at Rice University and author of Tour of Duty: John Kerry and the Vietnam War.
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