IN 1965, John Kerry, a junior at Yale and the newly appointed head of the Yale Political Union, was invited to give a speech at Choate, the tony Connecticut prep school known mainly for its most famous alumnus, John F. Kennedy. Like Yale, Choate is in Connecticut, so Kerry didn't have to travel far. He went with his best friend, David Thorne, whose sister, Julia, would one day be Kerry's first wife. When they arrived at Choate, Kerry and Thorne, accompanied by the school's administrators, were led on a VIP tour of the facilities. Kerry's name was announced on the loudspeaker. A reporter from a Hartford radio station was there, too, for an interview with Kerry, who was all of 21-years-old.
The head of the Yale Political Union is a high-profile position, having launched careers both literary--William F. Buckley Jr., for example--and political (think Joseph Lieberman). Yet it was unusual, Douglas Brinkley tells us in Tour of Duty, his biography of Kerry, for a junior in college to be treated as a special guest speaker at a place like Choate. Word of Kerry's debating skills, it seems, had spread. Kerry, dressed in his "handsomest suit," his rhetoric polished, his hand gestures rehearsed, spoke to about 30 high school students for nearly an hour. The topic was the war in Vietnam. Kerry was against it.
And he was nervous. "I hadn't any time to go over my speech at length before I gave it, and I was afraid that I would be too glued to my notes," Kerry wrote to Julia Thorne afterward. "But when I got up there, I felt sharper and more confident than I have ever felt before." A feeling of confidence enveloped him. He looked at his notes only rarely. He was pleased with how the question and answer session went as well. In fact, he wrote, "I really was pleased to pieces and very encouraged by the whole visit."
The speech--the snippets of it that have come down to us, anyway--remains interesting, if only as a historical artifact. Over the last two weeks, of course, a group of anti-Kerry Vietnam veterans have run ads questioning John Kerry's service record and antiwar activities. The ad criticizing Kerry's antiwar stance focuses on his testimony, as a leader of Vietnam Veterans Against the War, to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on April 22, 1971. But there is a problem with this narrative. It is incomplete. Kerry was against the war before he went to Vietnam, too.
Look at the speech he gave at Choate that winter day in 1965. Kerry "declined to offer any proposals for ending the conflict," writes Douglas Brinkley. Instead, he waxed historical. The talk "outlined the history of Vietnam, covering everything from French colonialism to the rise of Ho Chi Minh to the lessons of the 1954 Geneva Conference, which had partitioned the country into two uneasy nations," Brinkley continues. Kerry's position on the conflict was--you guessed it--nuanced. He told the high school students that "he had originally supported a complete U.S. withdrawal on the grounds that the South Vietnamese government had fallen into disarray, anti-Americanism pervaded Southeast Asia, the Johnson administration's policies were failing, and the domino theory was a myth." But there were no easy answers. Kerry also understood "how important it remained for the United States not to lose face." Hence, Brinkley says, Kerry felt the Johnson administration had two options in Indochina: "Score a military victory" or "negotiate a peace."
"In the future," the Yale junior intoned, "the U.S. must fix goals which are tenable." The war in Vietnam wasn't such. What's more, "these goals should recognize priorities," and those priorities should "correspond minutely with our best national interests." The Cold War's Manichean worldview--"Us" (the free world) against "Them" (the Communists)--was a troubling dichotomy. "We should concern ourselves less with other ideologies and attempt to apply a policy which is both sensitive and compatible with the expressed desires and cultures of the people involved," Kerry said. The lesson, in other words, was that American involvement in Vietnam was a mistake. And it should not be repeated.
Over the next year, as Kerry matured intellectually, and as the United States continued to entangle itself in Vietnam, the future senator's positions grew more strident. For Kerry, we are told, these were difficult conclusions to reach. According to the Boston Globe biography John F. Kerry,"as a student and later a senator, Kerry often internally debated an issue before making up his mind in a process that could take weeks." In 1996, in one of his last interviews, Kerry's father Richard told the Globe that, while he always "thought [Vietnam] a serious policy mistake," his son's attitude early on was "gung ho: had to show the flag." Richard Kerry scoffed and said, "He was quite immature in that direction." But things changed; military service loomed; soldiers continued to die in the rice paddies and dark jungles. "As a senior," Richard Kerry said, John "matured considerably."
As John Kerry's antiwar stance developed, so did his profile at Yale. In March 1965, he won the Ten Eyck Speech Prize, which came with a $125 award. This was for another speech on Vietnam. Kerry had expanded his thematic palette: "The theme of his competitive address," Brinkley writes, "billed as a search for a modern-day Prometheus--was the inherent danger of America's stretching itself too thin in its international commitments." Wars like Vietnam were "self-defeating," Kerry said. Indeed, he continued, "'It is the specter of Western Imperialism that causes more fear among Africans and Asians than communism." And self-defeating conflicts led inexorably to imperial hubris. Kerry said the United States was "grossly overextended" in "areas where we have no vital primary interest."
KERRY DIDN'T LIMIT his thoughts on the war to debate matches and public speeches. He talked often about the war's shortcomings with his friends, who, when drinking, were not inclined to debate geopolitics. Often his impromptu talks were with other "Bonesmen," members of the secret society Skull & Bones. One Bonesman, a man named Alan Cross, tells an interesting story in John F. Kerry: "When Johnson had greatly increased the troops being sent into Vietnam," Cross said, "Kerry sort of made a spontaneous speech to the others of us in the audience decrying the implications of this political event and what this meant in terms of our engagement in Vietnam." For Cross, Kerry's words expressed not so much outright opposition as concern: "I think he was alarmed by what we were doing," he told the Globe. "That doesn't mean we were opposed to what we were doing. He saw this growing quagmire we were heading into with good intention and certain results," Cross went on. "My recollection of that talk is that it was not so much a statement of opposition but was really a clarion" for action. It was a clarion call that Kerry sounded repeatedly.
Kerry's most famous college speech was on June 12, 1966, when he delivered the Yale class oration. This was--and is--quite an honor. Kerry was 22. He was told he would give the address sometime in the spring, and by a week before graduation he'd cobbled together a treacly address on "life after graduation." This first draft of the speech, Kerry said later, was "sophomoric." One night in June, on an island in the St. Lawrence river in upstate New York where he was vacationing with friends, Kerry had a revelation. "I decided that I couldn't give" the speech he wrote as a first draft, he later told Joe Klein in the New Yorker. So instead Kerry stayed up all night, writing and writing, "with a candle" providing the only light in the room, and then, as the night drew on, "rewriting and rewriting," until he had completed a new draft, which, he said, was the best expression of "what we were all thinking about": Vietnam.
Kerry's class oration is notable for many reasons. It is notable for its rhetoric, which echoes, somewhat amateurishly, that of the Kennedys, and which Kerry would echo in all his subsequent political speeches. "Where we should have instructed," Kerry said, "it seems we did not; where we should have been patient, it seems we were not; where we should have stayed clear, it seems we would not."
The oration is notable for its rejection of American exceptionalism. "It is misleading to mention right and wrong in this issue," Kerry said, "for to every thinking man, the semantics of this contest often find the United States right in its wrongness and wrong in its rightness." On American power, Kerry continued, "the United States must . . . bring itself to understand that the policy of intervention"--meaning, intervention against Communism--"that was right for Western Europe does not and cannot find the same application to the rest of the world." And again:
What was an excess of isolationism has become an excess of interventionism . . . And this Vietnam War has found our policymakers forcing Americans into a strange corner . . . that if victory escapes us, it would not be the fault of those who led, but of the doubters who stabbed them in the back--notions all too typical of an America that had to find Americans to blame for the takeover in China by the Communists, and then for the takeover in Cuba.
And the speech is notable for its echoes of Kerry's contemporary critique of the Bush administration: "Never in the last 20 years," Kerry said, "has the government of the United States been as isolated as it is today."
Read it closely, however, and what strikes you most about the speech isn't its pretension. Or its Ted Sorenson-like flourishes. You are struck by the way in which it summarizes, so neatly and so early in his career, John Kerry's central critique of American foreign policy--the way in which the speech enumerated the ideas Kerry used when he talked about foreign policy until the 1990s. The John Kerry who spoke on June 12, 1966, was the same John Kerry who, the war long behind him, spoke to the Fulbright Committee on April 22, 1971; the same Kerry who spoke out against Reagan's funding of the anti-Communist contras in the 1980s; the same Kerry who spoke out against the first Gulf War. John Kerry's skepticism toward American intervention in foreign crises isn't a battle scar left from Vietnam. It is who he is.
Matthew Continetti is a reporter at The Weekly Standard.