Kerry's History With War: It's Complicated

It’s looking more and more as if John Kerry will have (mostly accidentally) averted a war in Syria. His offhand, almost sarcastic suggestion that Syria could avoid a U.S. strike if it surrendered its chemical weapons was inadvertently taken as a serious offer by the international community, and now, the Syrian government has announced that it will adhere to Kerry's proposal. Under the agreement, Syria has one week submit a comprehensive listing of its chemical weapons stockpile, and until 2014 to dismantle it all. (You can read the full framework of the deal here.)

It’s not a done deal yet, but it’s very possible that what was intended as a snarky jab at Syrian President Bashar al Assad’s intransigence may end up both preventing a U.S. military intervention — and removing chemical weapons from the hands of a murderous dictator.

An absurd development? Yes, but when you think about it, it’s not entirely out of character for Kerry. This whole episode is actually something of a beautiful bookend for Kerry’s career in public service, which has hinged largely — but not entirely — on a doveish stance toward American foreign policy.


We begin in 1966, when a dashing 23-year-old John Kerry enlisted in the U.S. Naval Reserve. Kerry performed admirably during his four years of service, commanding boats of troops into enemy territory and earning three Purple Hearts and a Silver Star.

And yet ultimately, the Vietnam war was a catastrophic, monumental failure, as many contemporary historians have noted. At some point during his tour of duty, Kerry realized this and, in 1970, requested an honorable discharge so he could run for Congress.

Anti-War Protester

Kerry was granted the discharge, but didn’t end up running for congress that year. Instead, he joined Vietnam Veterans Against The War, which was basically exactly what it sounds like. It wasn’t an amateur-hour group of pacifist hippies, though; the organization was so successful in its fight against the war in Vietnam that the group, and Kerry in particular, attracted the wrath of President Richard Nixon (which, granted wasn’t all that difficult to do).

Kerry was the first Vietnam veteran to testify against the war to congress, and gave a series of speeches thereafter that got national coverage.

“Someone has to die so that President Nixon won’t be, and these are his words, ‘the first President to lose a war,’” Kerry told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Decades later, he would find himself chair of that very same committee.

Senate Career

During his time in the Senate, Kerry consistently advocated for diplomacy over military action. He pushed for negotiations with the Islamist regime in Iran and the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, and opposed the 1991 Gulf War on the grounds that the U.S. hadn’t assembled a broad enough coalition to support the effort.

“Throughout his nearly 20 years in the Senate, the Massachusetts Democrat has expressed a deep commitment to negotiation and international institutions as a way to advance U.S. interests,” the Washington Post wrote in 2004.

Iraq War and Presidential Campaign

In 2002, we find Kerry gravitating back towards a more pro-war position, if you want to call it that. He voted for President Bush’s authorization to invade Iraq, although he was sure to note that this was “for one reason and one reason only: To disarm Iraq of weapons of mass destruction if we cannot accomplish that objective through new, tough weapons inspections in joint concert with our allies” (sound familiar?).

And yet, as with Vietnam, Kerry ultimately concluded that the war was a folly, and became a vocal opponent. To be sure, this was in part political positioning, as Kerry was running for president in 2004, and the war in Iraq had become massively unpopular by that point. Nevertheless, he once again became the public face of a growing anti-war movement that, as with Vietnam, is now perceived to be “on the right side of history,” as they say.


Kerry didn’t win the presidency, but you can’t call his campaign inconsequential. Remember, it was his 2004 Democratic National Convention that propelled Illinois State Senator Barack Obama to the national stage — and Kerry was the one who selected Obama to speak. As President, Obama returned the favor earlier this year when he appointed Kerry as Secretary of State. When Obama announced his plans to launch a military strike in Syria, Kerry immediately became a vigorous spokesman for the war (which is sort of in the job description of Secretary of State).

And yet once again, he ultimately found himself reversing course. Okay, that’s kind of a stretch, as he still ostensibly supports a military effort in the country. But there’s a sense in which his most recent turn is his most genuine yet. It wasn’t, as far as anyone can tell, a calculated shift made with a political objective in mind. It was a spontaneous slip of the tongue, a window, perhaps, into what John Kerry truly believes is the best solution to the conflict.

Note Kerry’s exasperated, discouraged tone when he makes the offhand proposal. It really sounds as if the diplomatic approach is what he’s wanted this whole time, only to be stymied by the Syrians, the Russians, his fellow diplomats, or just the process in general.

This may be a rose-colored interpretation of events. Still, we can’t help but see this as the return of the anti-war John Kerry we know and love, the side of him that’s waxed and waned in prominence over the last forty years but never disappeared for too long. We welcome his return, even if it was largely accidental.