John McCain erupts at protesters during hearing. Why the anger?

While the Vietnam conflict seems a distant echo to many Americans, antiwar protests serve as a reminder that it was one of the most divisive issues in modern American politics. 

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Protesters interrupt the start of a Senate Armed Services hearing, on Capitol Hill on Thursday, as they shout at former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger (c.), joined by fellow former State Department heads George Shultz and Madeleine Albright. The upheaval came as members of an anti-war group Code Pink called Kissinger a war criminal.

Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona in no uncertain terms Thursday told a bunch of protesters that they weren’t going to be disrupting his congressional hearing.

Senator McCain is the chairman of the Armed Services Committee now that Republicans control the chamber. On Thursday, he invited a contingent of former secretaries of State to speak on global problems and US security strategy. They included Republican George Shultz, Democrat Madeleine Albright, and Henry Kissinger – the dean of the GOP foreign policy establishment and winner of the 1973 Nobel Peace Prize for his role in establishing a cease-fire and withdrawing US troops from Vietnam.

Mr. Kissinger has long been a magnet for demonstrations, and Thursday was no exception. As he walked into the hearing room, protesters identified as members of the Code Pink antiwar group chanted, “Arrest Henry Kissinger for war crimes."

This bothered McCain, a former Navy pilot imprisoned and tortured by the North Vietnamese for more than five years during the conflict.

“I’ve been a member of this committee for many years and I have never seen anything as disgraceful and as outrageous and as despicable as the last demonstration that just took place,” he said.

McCain threatened the protesters with arrest if they did not cease their activities. Most did, but at least one persisted and was removed by Capitol Police.

“Get out of here, you low-life scum," McCain growled at the protester’s back.

Then the panel chairman apologized to Kissinger.

“On behalf of all the members of this committee on both sides of the aisle, in fact from all of my colleagues, I’d like to apologize for allowing such disgraceful behavior towards a man who served his country with the greatest distinction,” said McCain.

Perhaps McCain’s staff should have warned him that Kissinger might draw such a disturbance. Code Pink anti-war protests have been common at all sorts of congressional security hearings since the group was founded in 2002, prior to the US invasion of Iraq.

Last September, for instance, Code Pink disrupted Secretary of State John Kerry prior to remarks before the then-Democratic-controlled Senate Foreign Relations Committee. As Secretary Kerry reminded the protesters at the time, he, too, had been a protester once, as a member of Vietnam Veterans Against the War.

Today, the Vietnam conflict seems a distant echo to many Americans. But the eruption in McCain’s stately hearing room serves as a reminder that it was one of the most divisive issues in the modern history of American politics. At the start of US involvement, most voters supported what they felt was a war against communism. But by January 1973, that support had fallen sharply with 60 percent of Americans saying that sending US troops to Vietnam had been a mistake.

This is where today’s protest may complete a circle. It was in January 1973 – almost exactly 42 years ago – that Kissinger struck the deal that won him his Nobel.

The Paris Peace Accords were signed on Jan. 27. In essence, they called for US withdrawal, return of US POWs (including a young John McCain) and a halt in the fighting between North and South Vietnam.

In practice, they were largely ignored by both Saigon and Hanoi. Two years later, a North Vietnamese offensive routed the South’s government and war truly ended. Perhaps it helps explain some of the emotions, on both sides.

Kissinger and North Vietnam’s Foreign Minister Le Duc Tho won the Nobel for their efforts. The latter did not accept the award. Kissinger did. He remains a controversial figure in US diplomacy, with domestic critics charging among other things that he is complicit in illegal bombing campaigns in Indochina, and that he looked the other way when US clients massacred civilians in Bangladesh and East Timor.

That’s a short summary of the context for today’s protest.  

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