Joe Biden once explained his lack of interest in the Vietnam War protest movement — for many, the defining cause of his generation — with a simple answer.
“I wore sports coats. You’re looking at a middle-class guy,” Biden told reporters in 1987. “I am who I am. I’m not big on flak jackets and tie-dyed shirts and — you know, that’s not me.”
On Sunday, the man in the sports coat will finally arrive in Vietnam.
Biden visits Hanoi on a stop aimed at reorienting the Pacific region as a counterbalance to China. As he is feted by his hosts, he will seek to launch an elevated partnership. He will also offer to help find remains of Vietnamese soldiers who went missing during the war.
It will be the first time that Biden, who has visited dozens of nations and whose generation was engulfed by the Vietnam War, has set foot in the country.
The trip will not be complicated by the personal history that many Americans of his generation have with the region. Biden never served in Vietnam, unlike the late Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), whom he befriended; gave soaring antiwar speeches, unlike Robert F. Kennedy, whom he admired; or agonized publicly over the conflict, unlike John F. Kerry, whom he worked alongside for decades and who will be joining him on the trip.
Yet the visit could cement a remarkable shift in U.S.-Vietnam relations, from bitter enmity during America’s most polarizing war to a pivotal alliance.
“This trip is different,” said Thomas Vallely, a Marine veteran who has participated in planning Vietnam trips for nearly every president for decades and will be in Hanoi for this one. “This trip is changing the dynamic between the two countries into a strategic partnership. Historically, this is the biggest trip — this is the biggest trip of the presidents so far.”
Bill Clinton, whose own presidential candidacy was nearly derailed by a controversy over his draft deferments, was the first U.S. president to visit Vietnam after the war, heading there in November 2000. Since then, every president has traveled to the country.
President Barack Obama and the late Anthony Bourdain met in Hanoi in 2016 for bun cha and beer. It was the scene of Donald Trump’s meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in 2019. Senators have made pilgrimages there as well — most famously McCain, who in 2009 visited the prison known as the Hanoi Hilton, where he was tortured and held for five years as a prisoner of war.
Former senator Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), a friend and Senate colleague of Biden’s for many years, said Biden sought to learn the lessons of Vietnam despite not personally experiencing the conflict.
“I don’t think it was a dominant frame of reference, but it was a frame of reference,” Hagel said. “We all learn from history, or we should. With Joe’s immense focus on foreign policy … sure, he used Vietnam as a frame of reference, lessons learned.”
Biden, born in 1942, was in many ways part of the ’60s generation, but his sister once said he was not the kind to join street demonstrations. He has been a respecter of institutions, one who tries to change them from within rather than protest from the outside.
“That’s Joe,” Valerie Biden Owens told biographer Jules Witcover. “He wasn’t the equivalent of a woman bra-burner.”
Biden received five draft deferments, mostly as an undergraduate at the University of Delaware and a law student at Syracuse. In 1968, following a physical exam, he was exempted from service because he’d had asthma as a teenager.
Biden once recalled walking with law school classmates to the Varsity Pizza Shop when they spotted antiwar student protesters hanging out of windows after taking over an administrative building. “We looked up and said, ‘Look at those assholes,’” Biden later wrote. “That’s how far apart from the antiwar movement I was.”
But when he ran for Senate in 1972, his campaign was built on recruiting young students who could vote at 18 for the first time, many of them animated by the antiwar movement. Biden has long shown a knack for finding the political center of gravity, and he told reporters as he announced his campaign that the United States should have left Vietnam years earlier.
“For God’s sake, stop the Madison Avenue, sugarcoated garbage,” Biden said in prepared remarks for a June 1972 campaign speech, according to the Wilmington Journal. “Don’t talk to us 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.”
He promised to stand up to Richard M. Nixon’s efforts to escalate American operations. But he saw the war more in economic terms than in moral ones, viewing it as “a horrendous waste of time, money, and lives.” It was civil rights that was the moral cause of his generation, he felt, not Vietnam.
“I was one of those guys opposed to Vietnam, but I never bought into the moral argument against never using force,” he told the Hill in a 1999 interview. “If you are going to make war, make sure there is a good reason for making war. I never believed Vietnam and the dominoes” theory of Southeast Asian nations following Vietnam into communism.
That practical calculus was echoed during Biden’s first year as president, when he pulled U.S. troops out of Afghanistan not because he believed it was wrong for them to be there, but because he argued that the war had become ineffective.
The 1972 messaging worked, as Biden narrowly upset a two-term Republican incumbent. “He’s a senator because of antiwar sentiment,” said Vallely, who has known Biden for decades and who is now a Southeast Asia expert at Harvard’s Kennedy School.
Yet the Vietnam issue continued to haunt Biden, as it did so many of his age.
At a 1987 news conference during his first run for president, Biden was asked how he could run to represent the baby-boom generation when he was not a child of the protest movement. He launched into a lengthy, somewhat defensive answer.
“Look, I was 29 when I ran for the Senate, folks. Other people were marching, carrying banners — I was down here voting against the war. I came down here, at 29 years old, you know, and the war was still on,” he said. “I am not culturally one of those guys who likes to — I don’t fit very well, with — I’m not a joiner. I was, I was out of sync with — by the time the war movement was at its peak, when I was at Syracuse — I was married. I was in law school. I wore sport coats. I was not part of that. I’m serious!”
He drew a distinction between the early 1960s, when he was on campus, and the later part of the decade when protests were more widespread. And he pushed for change as a young senator, prodding the entire Senate Foreign Relations Committee to meet with President Gerald Ford to ask about his plan for ending the war.
In Biden’s telling, he was the only one to ask tough questions during that meeting, despite being only 30.
“Everybody played pattycake — everybody went down and said, ‘Yes, Mr. President, no, Mr. President.’ They were very polite,” he said, adding, “I was so nervous, asking a question, but I said, ‘Mr. President, what is the plan?’”
During his time in the Senate, Biden developed a close friendship with McCain, despite their different party orientations. But certain topics were off limits.
They never talked about the death of Biden’s wife and daughter. And they never spoke of McCain’s imprisonment and torture in the Hanoi Hilton.
“The pain was significantly different,” Biden said in 2022, when posthumously awarding the Presidential Medal of Freedom to McCain. “But somehow, we seemed to sort of understand one another.”
He did talk about the war in general, with McCain and others.
“We talked about my experience a bit, and the right and wrong of the war and should we have gone,” Hagel said. “We both agreed, no, it was a mistake. He falls into where I think today most people are on the Vietnam War — that it was a mistake.”
Hagel said he took several trips to Vietnam but that Biden wasn’t part of them. Biden’s former staffers say he was more focused on European alliances and traveling to countries like China and South Korea, or Iraq and Afghanistan.
As vice president, Biden in 2015 hosted a luncheon in Washington in honor of Vietnam’s general secretary, Nguyen Phu Trong, marking the 20th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the two countries.
“As remarkable as the past two decades have been, I believe … that our relationship is just getting started,” Biden said.
Eight years later, Trong is now a more powerful leader and Biden is president. And the two will meet again on Sunday.
The world is different now, with the United States focused urgently on forging alliances to help confront China. Biden said recently, “I never thought, as a kid coming out of the Vietnam War era, that we would have Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos wanting closer relationships with the United States of America.”
Alice Crites contributed to this report.