Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts has used his combat record in Vietnam as a major campaign asset in his drive to become the Democratic candidate for president.
His ads feature testimony from veterans, and a number of political pundits have claimed Mr. Kerry could compete with President George W. Bush for the military vote, which normally goes for the GOP. The Washington Post's Mark Leibovich has argued that if Republicans attack Mr. Kerry "as a 'Massachusetts liberal,' Vietnam will be his patriotic armor."
Missing from this coverage of Mr. Kerry's record is what he did when he got home. He immediately entered the political arena with the radical New Left outfit Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW). This was an extremist fringe group. Some 21/2 million Americans served in Vietnam, but by the VVAW's own accounting only 30,000 joined its ranks. This is a very low number given that the Army was filled with draftees during an unpopular war. But then VVAW was not a mainstream organization like the American Legion or the Veterans of Foreign Wars. Its portrayal of U.S. troops as war criminals turned off most vets.
Mr. Kerry testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on April 21, 1971, as the VVAW spokesman. Sen. Kerry's campaign Website mentions this event in passing. The VVAW gives a transcript of Mr. Kerry's testimony on its Website, which it hails as "his greatest contribution to the antiwar movement and to VVAW."
Mr. Kerry opened by stating "war crimes committed in Southeast Asia, [are] not isolated incidents but crimes committed on a day-to-day basis with the full awareness of officers at all levels of command." According to tales related by Mr. Kerry, Americans had "raped, cut off ears, cut off heads, taped wires from portable telephones to human genitals and turned up the power, cut off limbs, blown up bodies, randomly shot at civilians, razed villages in fashion reminiscent of Genghis Khan, shot cattle and dogs for fun, poisoned food stocks, and generally ravaged the countryside of South Vietnam." As to what endangered America, Mr. Kerry stated "the crimes threaten it, not Reds."
The VVAW showed more sympathy for those who refused to serve than those who did. According to the group's own history, "VVAW fought for amnesty for war resisters, including vets with bad discharges."This is an interesting fact to set beside Kerry's attempt today to denigrate President Bush's honorable service as a fighter pilot with the Air National Guard.
The Vietnam War was part of the larger Cold War struggle. Mr. Kerry acknowledged this in his testimony, but attributed it to "paranoia about the Russians." The Soviets provided North Vietnam with the heavy weapons that allowed it to invade South Vietnam -- and to kill 50,000 Americans.
In return for this military aid, the victorious Hanoi regime allowed the Soviets to base bombers and warships at the former U.S. base at Da Nang. This deployment was of strategic importance as it outflanked the U.S.-Japanese alliance which hemmed in Russia's northern naval bases.
VVAW is still active in left-wing circles, protesting American imperialism. Two weeks after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, VVAW issued a statement declaring "The use of massive military power will only escalate the cycle of violence, spreading more death and destruction to more innocent people with no end in sight. ... We see many parallels between Vietnam and Afghanistan."
It went on to blame America for provoking the attacks, saying "our country has to address the reasons behind the violence that has now come to our shores. The seeds of this anger and hatred were sown over many years. For over a century, Western corporations have dominated the Middle East to profit from its oil. For the last 50 years, the United States has supported Israel's occupation of Palestinian lands and has helped prop up corrupt regimes in some Arab countries."
In March 2002, it issued another statement: "We in VVAW call upon all who support peace with social justice to act on their principles and join with others in their communities to oppose the 'war on terrorism' as it is currently being waged, and to oppose domestic terrorism in the guise of 'public safety' as it is codified in the U.S.A. PATRIOT Act." It has, of course, taken part in antiwar protests concerning Iraq, proclaiming "We do not have to go along with this empire building."
Mr. Kerry cannot be held directly responsible for what VVAW has done since he left the group, but neither has he denounced its activities. His campaign Website proudly mentions his VVAW membership, and the VVAW prominently displays its ties to Mr. Kerry.
And many of their public positions continue to match. VVAW thinks "Iraq, along with its oil and humanitarian problems should be turned over to the U.N. and international humanitarian organizations," which is also candidate John Kerry's position. And Mr. Kerry's long Senate career has been marked by opposition to military programs and defense spending.
It would seem Mr. Kerry's service with the VVAW has had much more to do with shaping the senator's public record on the issues than did his military service in Vietnam. He did what he had to do under fire and deserves praise for that. But what he has chosen to do since in politics is the better predictor of what he would do as president.