The Magazine

Fahrenheit 1971

From the September 6, 2004 issue: The radicalism of the young John Kerry.

Sep 6, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 48 • By MACKUBIN THOMAS OWENS
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We will not quickly join those who march on Veterans' Day waving small flags, calling to memory those thousands who died for the "greater glory of the United States." We will not accept the rhetoric. We will not readily join the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars--in fact, we will find it hard to join anything at all and when we do, we will demand relevancy such as other organizations have recently been unable to provide. We will not take solace from the creation of monuments or the naming of parks after a select few of the thousands of dead Americans and Vietnamese. We will not uphold the traditions which decorously memorialize that which was base and grim. . . . We are asking America to turn from false glory, hollow victory, fabricated foreign threats, fear which threatens us as a nation, shallow pride which feeds of fear.

John F. Kerry

Epilogue to The New Soldier (1971)

WHEN THE VIETNAM VETERANS' MEMORIAL was unveiled in Washington, D.C., in the 1980s, there was a great deal of talk about "healing" the divisions of the Vietnam war. The controversy generated by the anti-Kerry book Unfit for Command and ads run by an organization called Swift Boat Veterans for Truth criticizing John Kerry's record in Vietnam and his actions after he returned indicates that there is still a lot of "healing" to do. Indeed, the divisions over the Vietnam war may well never heal as long as those who fought it and those who protested it are still alive. This is because the very act of remembering Vietnam places one in the midst of a culture war.

On the one side in this culture war are those who believe that Vietnam wasn't very different from other wars. The cause was just, but it was as affected by ambiguities as any other war, including World War II. In the end, the U.S. defeat was the result of strategic failure, not moral failure. Those who fought it were doing their duty as they saw it, just as their fathers and grandfathers had done theirs when the times demanded it of them.

On the other side are those for whom the Vietnam war represented the very essence of evil. The United States had no business fighting this war and could never have won it. It was not like other wars. All it did was wreck lives, American and Vietnamese. It was one continuous atrocity. War crimes were par for the course. Those who fought it were different from those who fought the "good war." They returned home psychologically if not physically crippled--homeless, drug addicted, and likely to commit suicide.

Some on the anti-Vietnam side have moderated their views in light of what happened in the aftermath of the U.S. withdrawal from Southeast Asia. They stipulate that they were wrong about communism. The cost of American defeat was high, especially to the South Vietnamese and Cambodians. The price of South Vietnam's "liberation" was, in addition to Saigon's war dead, a minimum of 100,000 summary executions at the hands of the Communist liberators, a million and a half "boat people," a like number of individuals sentenced to "reeducation camps," genocide in Cambodia, and a perceived shift in the "correlation of forces" that encouraged Soviet adventurism throughout the 1970s. But as Mickey Kaus admitted in an essay that appeared in Slate in May 2001 amid the furor over whether the killing of certain civilians by men under the command of former Nebraska senator Bob Kerrey amounted to a war crime, those who had moderated their antiwar views still wanted to be honored for their "idealism": "The Thanh Phong story," Kaus wrote, "reminds us that avoiding serving in Vietnam had an honorable and realistic ethical basis (in addition to its realistic selfish basis)."

But others on the anti-Vietnam side of the culture war continue to take their bearings, either directly or indirectly, from the hard-core opinion of those who believe that the Vietnam war represented all that is evil about America--capitalistic exploitation, racism, and imperialism. Noam Chomsky and H. Bruce Franklin exemplify this view. As the latter writes in "The Vietnam War and the Culture Wars," Vietnam, far from being "an aberration, some kind of wayward 'mistake' by a nation long leading the world's march to progress," instead "typified the nation's history from colonial settler regime to global empire." Indeed, for Franklin, the Vietnam war was the culmination of the 600-year-old European crusade to oppress people of color throughout the globe--thus the mass murderer Lt. William Calley (My Lai) was only the latest manifestation of the spirit of that earlier mass murderer, Christopher Columbus.

During his presidential campaign, John Kerry has sought to portray himself as a member of the first group--a veteran proud of his service in Vietnam. In his remarks on July 25 at the Democratic National Convention, Kerry said, "We [veterans] fought for this nation because we loved it. . . . I defended this country as a young man and I will defend it as president." But this sentiment is completely at odds with his infamous testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on April 22, 1971, wherein he said he and those he spoke for were "ashamed of and hated what we were called on to do in Southeast Asia. . . . And to attempt to justify the loss of one American life in Vietnam, Cambodia, or Laos by linking such loss to the preservation of freedom . . . is to us the height of criminal hypocrisy."

The fact is that most Americans have no idea how radical Kerry's views on Vietnam were. His April 1971 Senate testimony (reprinted in full on pages 9-12) could have been written by Chomsky or Franklin. But the larger reality is even more troubling.

In his indispensable America in Vietnam, Guenter Lewy notes the establishment of a veritable war-crimes industry, supported by the Soviet Union, as early as 1965. As Ion Mihai Pacepa, a former Romanian intelligence chief, has recounted, the Soviets set up permanent international organizations--including the International War Crimes Tribunal and the Stockholm Conference on Vietnam--"to aid or to conduct operations to help Americans dodge the draft or defect, to demoralize its army with anti-American propaganda, to conduct protests, demonstrations, and boycotts, and to sanction anyone connected with the war."

Pacepa claims to have been responsible for fabricating stories about U.S. atrocities in Vietnam and "flacking" them to Western news organizations. Lewy writes that "the Communists made skillful use of their worldwide propaganda apparatus . . . and they found many Western intellectuals only too willing to accept every conceivable allegation of [American] wrongdoing at face value." The Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW), a small, radical group that never exceeded a membership of 7,000 (including John Kerry) from a pool of nearly 3 million Vietnam (and 9 million Vietnam-era) veterans, essentially "Americanized" Soviet propaganda. When he testified before the Senate in 1971, Kerry was merely repeating charges that had been making the rounds since 1965.

Kerry also claimed that containing communism was no reason to fight in Vietnam.

In our opinion, and from our experience, there is nothing in South Vietnam, nothing which could happen that realistically threatens the United States of America. . . . I want to relate to you the feeling that many of the men who have returned to this country express because we are probably angriest about all that we were told about Vietnam and about the mystical war against communism.

We found that not only was it a civil war, an effort by a people who had for years been seeking their liberation from any colonial influence whatsoever, but also we found that the Vietnamese whom we had enthusiastically molded after our own image were hard put to take up the fight against the threat we were supposedly saving them from.

We found most people didn't even know the difference between communism and democracy.

Perhaps this perspective explains the fact that John Kerry, as he proudly told the Senate, met with the North Vietnamese and Vietcong delegations in Paris in May 1970. According to his testimony, he discussed the peace proposals advanced by the North Vietnamese--especially the eight points of Madame Binh. This all took place while Americans were still fighting and dying in Vietnam. Shortly before Kerry's Senate testimony, other representatives of the VVAW met with the North Vietnamese and VC delegations in Paris.

MANY OF KERRY'S DEFENDERS contend that anti-Kerry veterans have no right to criticize his speaking out against the war, especially in view of his service in that war. But it is not his protests against the war that anger veterans so much as his method of doing so. In a recent NPR editorial, James Webb, a genuine hero of the Vietnam war (Navy Cross), the author of Fields of Fire, the best novel about Vietnam, and secretary of the Navy during the Reagan administration, observed:

For most veterans it was not that Kerry was against the war, but that he used his military credentials to denigrate the service of a whole generation of veterans. The Vietnam Veterans Against the War was a very small, highly radical organization. Their stories of atrocious conduct, repeated in lurid detail by Kerry before the Congress, represented not the typical experience of the American soldier, but its ugly extreme. That the articulate, urbane Kerry would validate such allegations helped to make life hell for many Vietnam veterans, for a very long time.

There were many individuals who returned from Vietnam troubled about the war. Some were critical of U.S. strategy, operations, and tactics in Vietnam. Others came to believe the war was wrong on moral grounds. But most did not slander their comrades using language that mirrored Soviet or Vietnamese Communist propaganda. Most did not consort with the enemy in a time of war. It was possible to oppose the war without doing what Kerry did.

Look at a contemporary example. On the one hand, there are those whose criticism of Iraq is fueled by a visceral hatred for the American polity. For these critics, the war in Iraq is all about oil and Halliburton, just one more manifestation of American imperialism--Bush is Hitler and the United States is "Amerikkka." This is the perspective of Michael Moore, Ramsey Clark, and MoveOn.org.

On the other hand, there are many thoughtful people who oppose U.S. policy in Iraq. This group includes individuals I greatly admire and whose judgment I would rarely gainsay, such as the aforementioned Jim Webb (a good friend) and retired Marine general Anthony Zinni, former commander of Central Command. Both criticize the policy and strategy decisions of the Bush administration and express concern about the risks associated with these policies. They don't employ the language of the Bush-haters to denounce the United States for conducting an immoral and unjust war.

Kerry's actions after Vietnam are reminiscent of Michael Moore and MoveOn.org today. It was not enough for him merely to criticize U.S. policy in Vietnam. He and his friends in the VVAW were obliged by their radicalism to go after the United States itself.

Kerry could have defused much of the controversy regarding his postwar activities had he simply apologized for his remarks. But he insists on having it both ways: war hero and courageous war protester. The closest he has come was to respond in April 2004 on Meet the Press to Tim Russert's query about the testimony by saying, "I'm not going to quibble, you know, 35 years later that I might not have phrased things more artfully at times."

I will not question Kerry's record in Vietnam. But his actions after the war are a different matter. After all, his radical views regarding Vietnam are not simply of historical interest. As the Wall Street Journal recently observed, Kerry's denunciation of the United States in 1971 "presaged a career in which he has always been quick to attack the moral and military purposes of American policy--in Central America, against the Soviet Union, and of course during the current Iraq war that he initially voted for."

Mackubin Thomas Owens is professor of national security at the Naval War College. He led a Marine infantry platoon in Vietnam in 1968-69.