Both sides in debate about Kerry’s Vietnam service ignore the truth of the war

By Robert Jensen

Published in ZNet · September, 2004

It’s ironic that John Kerry’s character is under assault for the most courageous political act of his life — his opposition to the Vietnam War.

It’s pathetic that instead of highlighting that part of his political history, Kerry is downplaying it.

But the saddest aspect of the whole affair is that a campaign controversy that could help the United States come to terms with bigger truths about its brutal history of empire building is being used by both parties in ways that obscure the truth.

On one side is the “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth,” a group of Vietnam veterans playing the role of Bush campaign surrogate pit-bull to call into question Kerry’s record as a young naval officer in Vietnam. On the other is the Kerry campaign, taking every chance it can to portray the candidate as a Vietnam War hero and ignore his history as an antiwar activist.

This Swift boat group doesn’t hide the motivation for their attacks: They are still angry that Kerry returned from his tour of duty as an opponent of the war and talked openly about U.S. war crimes in Southeast Asia. The group’s website denounces Kerry and the group he was part of, Vietnam Veterans Against the War, for what it calls a “war crimes disinformation campaign.” Translated, that means that Kerry and VVAW tried to speak honestly about the horrific nature of the U.S. attack on South Vietnam, North Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.

These Swift boat commanders who oppose Kerry reject his 1971 claim that those boats fired on civilians; they contend that “our consistent policy was to take every precaution to avoid harming civilians.” Whatever the facts of any single commander’s decision in the field, it is clear that U.S. military policy in Southeast Asia was hardly geared to avoiding harm to civilians. Saturation bombing of civilian areas, for example, tends to harm large numbers of them, as U.S. war planners were well aware. (For details, see the proceedings of the International War Crimes Tribunal headed by Bertrand Russell in 1967, And just as clear is that routine practices in the field sometimes crossed the line into direct attacks on civilians and war crimes, of which the My Lai massacre was only one small example. (For details on one recent investigation into such practices, see the Toledo Blade’s Pulitzer Prize-winning work on the Tiger Force,

In 1971, Kerry was one of the Vietnam veterans who tired to force the country to face these realities. In a powerful speech before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he spoke not of isolated incidents “but crimes committed on a day-to-day basis with the full awareness of officers at all levels of command.” He went on to question the rationale policymakers gave for the war:

“[T]here is nothing in South Vietnam which could happen that realistically threatens the United States of America. 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, and it is that kind of hypocrisy which we feel has torn this country apart.”

Some Americans have never been able to face that truth. Kerry was. Now — in campaign stops, commercials and conventions — Kerry is making sure no one forgets he is a combat veteran, but he seems to be hoping that people will ignore what he later said about that combat experience.

In that massaging of his own history to emphasize his Vietnam service but downplay his critique of the war, Kerry has become precisely the kind of hypocritical politician he once condemned. Never was that clearer than when at the Democratic convention he proudly proclaimed, “I defended this country as a young man and I will defend it as president.”

Defended the country? In a war that Kerry once said couldn’t be sold as a defense of the United States? What would a young John Kerry say about candidate Kerry today?

A young Kerry likely would critique candidate Kerry’s current manipulative use of his Vietnam service. He also might have something to say about the candidate’s pro-war position on Iraq — not just his 2002 vote to authorize the president’s illegal invasion of Iraq (see, but his refusal today to call for an end to the ongoing U.S. occupation.

Has Kerry the elder forgotten what he once knew? Or is it cynical posturing so he can look tough on “national security”? This is not merely an academic debate; how we understand the United States’ attempts to dominate the world in the last half of the 20th century affects how we understand similar attempts going on today.

The standard story in the United States is that in our quest to guarantee peace and freedom for Vietnam, we misunderstood its history, politics and culture, leading to mistakes that doomed our effort. Some argue we should have gotten out sooner than we did; others suggest we should have fought harder. But the common ground in mainstream opinion is that we were well intentioned.

The truth, unfortunately, is less noble. After World War II, the United States supported and financed France’s attempt to retake its former colony. After the Vietnamese defeated the French in 1954, the Geneva Conference called for free elections in 1956, which the United States and its South Vietnamese client regime blocked. In his memoirs, President Eisenhower explained why: In free elections, the communists would have won by an overwhelming margin, which was unacceptable to the United States.

U.S. policy in Vietnam had nothing to do with freedom for the Vietnamese people or defending the United States. The central goal was to make sure that an independent socialist course of development did not succeed. U.S. leaders invoked Cold War rhetoric about the threat of the communist monolith but really feared that a “virus” of independent development might infect the rest of Asia, perhaps even becoming a model for all the Third World (see Noam Chomsky’s “American Power and the New Mandarins” or “World Orders Old and New”).

To prevent the spread of the virus, we dropped 6.5 million tons of bombs and 400,000 tons of napalm on the people of Southeast Asia. Saturation bombing of civilian areas, counterterrorism programs and political assassination, routine killings of civilians and 11.2 million gallons of Agent Orange to destroy crops and ground cover — all were part of the U.S. terror war in Vietnam, as well as Laos and Cambodia.

This interpretation is taken as obvious in much of the world, yet it is virtually unspeakable in polite and respectable circles in this country. In many ways, the Vietnam War was the defining act of the United States as empire — a grotesque aggression that was condemned around the world and at home, but pursued even as the body count went into the millions. Lying about that is crucial to our mythology.

George W. Bush, the Republican Party, and conservatives are deeply invested in that mythology. Sadly, so are many liberals. Perhaps some believe it. Perhaps others feel they must pretend to believe it if they want to position themselves as centrists in elections. Whatever the case, telling the lie over and over again keeps people not only from understanding history, but also from seeing the present and our future choices honestly.

When Kerry began his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention in July with a crisp salute, he was “reporting for duty,” of a certain kind. Instead of the honorable duty of leaders — to tell the truth, no matter how painful, and help people come to terms with the consequences of that truth — he has chosen the more common approach of those who lie, distort and obfuscate to gain power.

In 1971, Kerry said he hoped that in 30 years Americans would look back and appreciate the courage of vets who opposed the war as a moment when “America finally turned” away from the lies and toward justice.

More than 30 years later, candidate Kerry has chosen the hypocrisy he once condemned over the courage he once called for.