1987: Update on the Kennedy Doctrine

Joe Biden believed that the U.S. should only “pay the right price and bear the right burden” as it defended its dominant role in the world.

Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. announcing his candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination.  (Photo by Cynthia Johnson/The LIFE Images Collection via Getty Images/Getty Images)
Sen. Joe Biden announces his candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination on June 1, 1987. Photo: Cynthia Johnson/The LIFE Images Collection via Getty Images

As Joe Biden prepared to launch his first failed bid for the presidency in May 1987, he gave a major foreign policy address. Speaking at the Harvard Kennedy School, Biden said that President John F. Kennedy’s “pay any price or bear any burden” vision for U.S. foreign policy needed to be updated. “We must pay the right price and bear the right burden,” Biden declared. “Military interventionism — as embodied in the Reagan Doctrine — is in tatters.” He added, “It has led to deceiving our allies, trading arms for terrorists, circumventing Congress, and most profoundly, losing the confidence of the American people.” He called for legislating requirements that must be met in order for the president to use military force, except in cases of imminent threats. Biden, then 45, would go on to officially announce his candidacy in June.

In October 1987, Biden’s presidential ambitions were brought to a halt after it was revealed that he had plagiarized speeches. He pivoted back to his work as a lawmaker, and in an effort to repair his reputation, began making a series of big proposals. Among these was presenting his long-litigated case that the War Powers Act needed to be overhauled.

At the time, the Reagan administration was asserting sweeping executive powers to conduct covert operations throughout the world, with Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger arguing that the War Powers Act should be abolished. Weinberger said it “is an unconstitutional invasion of the president’s power to take the kind of action that you have to take immediately, without waiting for committee discussion and without waiting for long debates and things of that kind.” The Reagan administration made clear that under no circumstances would it comply with the law. Biden took aim at that position and said he wanted to ensure that Congress preserved its constitutional authorities on war. “After 14 years in which every president from Nixon to Reagan has refused to acknowledge the constitutionality of this law — 14 years in which the law has failed to operate as envisaged — a review is clearly called for,” he said.

In 1988, Biden headed a Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee to study ways the War Powers Act could be overhauled. A year later, he said the issue was “at a full constitutional impasse.” To this day, despite Biden’s consistent efforts and proposed changes, the act has been neither amended nor repealed.

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