The Magazine

Never Apologize, Never Explain

From the November 1 / November 8, 2004 issue: John Kerry's real record as an antiwar activist.

Nov 1, 2004, Vol. 10, No. 08 • By JOSHUA MURAVCHIK
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JOHN KERRY SAYS HE IS "PROUD" of his activities in opposition to the Vietnam War. Why, then, have he and his spokesmen consistently misrepresented them? Indeed the Kerry camp has been so effective in obscuring this history that both the New York Times and the Washington Post were forced to run corrections on the subject recently because their reporters relied on misinformation that the Kerry camp had succeeded in putting into wide circulation.

When the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth unveiled the fourth in their series of television ads--this one accusing Kerry of having "secretly met with the enemy" in Paris--both papers went into full debunking mode. The Post ran 600 words under the headline: "Ad Says Kerry 'Secretly' Met With Enemy; But He Told Congress of It." The story explained that the Swifties were "referring to a meeting Kerry had in early 1971 with leaders of the communist delegation that was negotiating with U.S. representatives at the Paris peace talks. The meeting, however, was not a secret. Kerry . . . mentioned it in testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in April of that year."

The next morning the Post ran a correction. The previous day's story, it noted, "incorrectly said that John F. Kerry met with a Vietnamese communist delegation in Paris in 1971. The meeting was in 1970." The correction did not acknowledge, however, that this apparently minor error invalidated the entire point of the Post's impeachment of the Swifties' ad. Kerry's visit to Paris took place in or around May 1970, eleven months before his Foreign Relations Committee testimony. In other words, his meeting with the Communists (while he was still a reserve officer in the U.S. Navy) appears to have been kept secret for nearly a year.

In downplaying Kerry's meetings with the Communists, campaign spokesmen have deliberately sown the impression that Kerry was in Paris on his honeymoon, a story that has been repeated in the press and on the Internet. The Boston Globe reported: "After their May 1970 marriage, Kerry traveled to Paris with his wife, Julia Thorne, on a private trip, [Kerry spokesman Michael] Meehan said." But various biographies agree that Kerry and his bride honeymooned in Jamaica, an ocean away. The exact dates of their trip to Paris have not been established: It came just after or before or even in the midst of this honeymoon, and the trip seems to have been made expressly for the purpose of meeting with the Communists, although Meehan denies this.

Almost immediately upon returning from his discussions with Communist leaders (and perhaps at their suggestion), Kerry joined the Vietnam Veterans Against the War. (Over the previous months he had garnered attention by speaking out against the war but had operated independently.) He was immediately appointed to the group's executive committee by its director, Al Hubbard, a radical affiliated with the Black Panther party. From then on, Kerry twinned with Hubbard as the organization's principal spokesmen.

One thing that may have contributed to the Post's confusion about the year was that Kerry did go to Paris to meet the Communists in 1971, some time during the summer, probably in August. But this was a second trip, and Kerry's advocates have done their best to veil the fact that there was more than one trip. Indeed, FBI files reveal that Kerry planned a third such trip together with Hubbard for November of that year. But, as it turned out, Hubbard went without Kerry, perhaps because the two had by then fallen out over revelations that Hubbard's repeated claims to have been an officer and a Vietnam vet were fabricated. (He had been an enlisted man and had never been in Vietnam.) The fact that there was a second and a planned third trip exclusively to meet with the Communists strengthens the inference that this was also the nature of the first trip, despite Meehan's denials.

The correction that the New York Times ran also stemmed from the Swifties' ad. It had to do not with the date of Kerry's visit to Paris but with the identity of his interlocutors there. "In another broadside against Mr. Kerry," the paper had reported, "the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, whose past accusations have frequently been unsubstantiated, says in a new commercial that Mr. Kerry went to Paris in the 1970s and 'secretly met with the enemy.'" Then the Times rejoined: "Mr. Kerry testified shortly thereafter that he had met with both sides at the Vietnam peace talks to discuss the status of prisoners of war." In a follow-up two days later, the paper repeated this account.

The next week, however, the Times's correction acknowledged that it had "misidentified the parties with whom Mr. Kerry said he had met at the Paris peace talks. . . . The parties were the two Communist delegations-North Vietnam and the Viet Cong's Provisional Revolutionary Government." The Times clearly exonerated Kerry of its error, noting that "he did not say he had met with 'both sides.'" This is true to a point. In 1971 when Kerry described his first Paris meeting, he said he had talked to "both delegations" and went on to explain that he meant both Communist delegations. But when the issue of Kerry's dealings with the Communists had resurfaced earlier this campaign year, his aides characteristically fudged the issue. The Boston Globe, again relying on what it was told by Kerry campaign spokesman Michael Meehan, reported that Kerry had met with "members of both delegations to the peace talks," which certainly gave readers the impression that he had met with both sides. Globe correspondent Patrick Healy confirms that this is what he understood Meehan to mean.

Why all the obfuscation from the Kerry camp? Because his activities were not as innocent as he would like them to be remembered. The antiwar movement, broadly speaking, had two wings. To one, the war was a tragedy: America's actions were well-intentioned but misguided. To the other, the war was a crime: America's motives were less worthy of sympathy than those of its enemies. Kerry sometimes sounded as if he were in the former camp, as when he warned against being "the last man to die for a mistake." More often, he was in the latter camp, as when he accused American forces of "crimes committed on a day-to-day basis with the full awareness of officers at all levels of command," a kind of language he never used about the behavior of Communist forces.

America had gotten so far off track that we needed a "revolution" to recapture our founding principles, Kerry said, while also suggesting that our enemies were more in tune with those principles. Ho Chi Minh, he declared, was "the George Washington of Vietnam" who was trying "to install the same provisions into the government of Vietnam" that appeared in the U.S. Constitution.

This attitude underlay his trips to meet with the Communist delegations in Paris. Although he accused American leaders of lying, he returned from Paris to endorse the Viet Cong's "peace plan" as if the pronouncements of Communist leaders deserved to be taken at face value. The Viet Cong's foreign minister, Madame Binh, had told him, he said, that "if the United States were to set a date for withdrawal, the prisoners of war would be returned." The fact that she said so, he suggested, proved that President Nixon was lying: "I think this negates very clearly the argument of the president that we have to maintain a presence in Vietnam, to use as a negotiating block for the return of those prisoners. The setting of a date will accomplish that."

Today, Kerry and his surrogates make it sound as if his meetings with Communist officials were motivated by concern for American POWs. But this stands history on its head. Disregarding entirely the Geneva convention in their treatment of American prisoners, the Communists used the POWs as hostages, pressing America to capitulate in order to get its men back. Some of the more extreme antiwar leaders collaborated with Hanoi in this extortionate game, leading to deep resentment among most POWs for dishonoring and sabotaging the cause for which they had sacrificed so much.

Vietnam Veterans Against the War, the group Kerry led, was squarely in the radical wing of the antiwar movement, which is the reason for another of Kerry's misrepresentations. VVAW was so extreme that at its November 1971 leadership conference in Kansas City a motion was tabled to resort to terrorism and commence assassinating America's elected officials. Although the motion was voted down after lengthy debate, the very fact that it was given serious consideration shows just how far-out VVAW was. Probably for that reason, Kerry had denied being present at the meeting in Kansas City. Gerald Nicosia, author of a highly sympathetic account of veterans' antiwar activities, reported in the Los Angeles Times earlier this year that "several people at the Kansas City meeting recently said . . . that they had been told by the Kerry campaign not to speak about those events without permission." However, when FBI files released under the Freedom of Information Act placed him at the meeting, Kerry withdrew his earlier denial, admitting he may have been there but saying he had "no personal recollection" of it.

The FBI files, however, don't just reflect Kerry's presence. They show a raucous two-day debate, changing venue midstream when someone announced excitedly that the meeting hall was bugged. The highlight of the gathering was a bitter running battle between Kerry and Hubbard, the two former friends and co-leaders. The brouhaha culminated with Hubbard pulling down his pants to show his scars and Kerry finally resigning from the organization which he had so famously led. Participants interviewed by reporters--including Kerry supporters--scoff at Kerry's claim to have forgotten his starring role at this climactic event.

After the war, when Communist repression spread over South Vietnam sending hundreds of thousands of "boat people" to face likely death at sea, dozens of former antiwar leaders led by singer Joan Baez took out newspaper ads decrying the abuses. Those who joined in the statement did not say that they regretted opposing the war, but they faced up to some sense of responsibility for the painful consequences of what they had advocated. The signers included many from the moderate antiwar camp and even some radicals like the priests Daniel and Philip Berrigan, but John Kerry's name could not be found among them.

Just as he has never brought himself to apologize for having said that committing war crimes was the norm for American soldiers in Vietnam, so Kerry could never voice remorse for what happened to the South Vietnamese when the Communists took over. Although his campaign themes often sound like a litany of second-guessing (in Iraq, Americans did too much of the fighting; in Afghanistan, Americans did too little), Kerry seems never to second-guess himself. Whatever he did, he's proud of it, even if he has to misrepresent it. That would be a worrisome trait in a president.

Joshua Muravchik is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.