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[talking politics]

West Wing (continued)

Once his task was completed, Kerry began to talk. It became clear that with the perspective of three decades he is able to move beyond the shibboleths of both the right and the left in his discussion of Vietnam. In particular, Kerry is able to criticize his comrades on the left during that time — something that would have been impossible 30 years ago. He still believes the war wasn’t worth it, but now that 10 years have passed since the end of the Cold War, Kerry is able to empathize with those who argue that Vietnam was a “necessary struggle” against the expansion of communism.

Kerry’s newfound openness is evident in the ease with which he — a proud sailor — relates to other veterans of all ages. On Patriots’ Day, for instance, Kerry visited an American Legion post in Auburn to pin missing medals on an elderly veteran of D-Day. Sitting at a table of World War II vets, he held court like one of them. Two days later, he was the only speaker to focus on Representative Joe Moakley’s military background at a ceremony honoring the South Boston congressman. Kerry lauded Moakley as a “man of the Navy” and a “citizen soldier.” Three decades ago, Kerry says, he could not have interacted with World War II vets the way he can now. “Thirty years ago, those guys would not have understood what we were saying,” he says.

For Kerry, the war didn’t assume major significance until after President John F. Kennedy’s assassination and the 1964 Tonkin Gulf Incident, which prompted President Lyndon Johnson to announce a muster of 100,000 troops headed for Vietnam. Motivated by a sense of duty, a “semi-hawkish” Kerry enlisted in the Navy and applied for Officers Candidate School, a posting as difficult as getting into law school. At that point, Kerry thought a “thoughtful, moderated” response in Vietnam was preferable to “all-out war.”

Yet news of the Viet Cong’s Tet Offensive hit while Kerry was on his way overseas in January 1968. The powerful January 31 offensive, named for the Vietnamese New Year, marked a turning point in American perceptions of the war. Before that time, most of the American public believed that US forces were drubbing the Viet Cong. Tet demonstrated that the Pentagon had been shading the truth. Kerry’s reaction was in line with many Americans’. He recalls being “taken aback that the Vietnamese were able to mount that kind of offensive, contrary to what most of the military people had been prognosticating at that point.”

Whatever his reservations, Kerry went into his mission gung-ho. After a stint patrolling the coastline, his job shifted to performing search-and-destroy missions in the canals and small rivers that snaked through the Mekong Delta. The mission, in Kerry’s words, was “to take the fight to the enemy’s back yard.”

And that enemy, as he is now willing to say, was “engaged in terrorist tactics throughout the region.” Antiwar activists rarely acknowledged such things in the 1960s and ’70s, and Kerry himself told of America’s own atrocities in Vietnam when he later testified on Capitol Hill. But today he says of the Viet Cong: “They were going into villages, killing known South Vietnamese sympathizers, taxing people — basically setting up their infrastructure to fight the war.”

As hard as Kerry drove himself and his crew, the young officer and his comrades quietly began to question US policy. “Once I got in country and began to see what was happening with my own eyes and make my own judgments about how the war was being fought, I began to turn against it,” he recalls, saying that he saw American lives being risked for a South Vietnamese government that was not motivated or able to defeat the enemy. The men hashed over everything from tactics and strategy to the “overall goals and objectives of the Vietnam struggle itself.”

Challenging established practice would thrust Kerry into the role of hero. One day in February 1969, his boat, which ordinarily carried seven men, was weighted down with roughly 20 while making its way down a river beset by Viet Cong fire. His experiences had caused Kerry to question the wisdom of merely continuing down the river. If the approaching fusillade comes mostly from light-caliber weapons such as AK-47s, he thought, why not attack? “I figured rather than sit broadside for a long period of time, this was the perfect opportunity to surprise them and try a new tactic,” Kerry says. When attacked, he ordered his boat and two others to steam toward the ambush site. Once there, Kerry leaped off and personally pursued one of the attackers. Soon the Americans overpowered the enemy. “We destroyed the bunkers,” he says. “We killed a bunch of them — captured their weapons and ran right over the ambush.” The episode won Kerry a Silver Star.

KERRY RETURNED from Vietnam opposed to the war, and he wanted to do something about it. But first he had to finish out his military service, which he did by working for an admiral in New York City. It was in New York that he confronted the animosity of the left for the first time. Kerry remembers dirty looks and harsh language from others opposed to the war. “There were hippie protesters here and there who objected to people in uniform,” he says. “On a couple of occasions I heard people say ‘baby killer.’” Friends of his, Kerry says, were even spat on by antiwar types.

Despite the scorn he encountered, when the Navy mustered Kerry out of active service he planned to run for Congress from Massachusetts as a protest candidate against Representative Phil Philbin, a pro-war hawk. But state Democrats thought Boston College Law School dean Robert Drinan, a liberal Jesuit priest, was a better choice, so Kerry backed Drinan and joined up with the nascent VVAW. Their first action was the Winter Soldier Hearings in Detroit, which publicized American atrocities.

Black-and-white footage in An Unfinished Symphony shows a boyish-faced Kerry with sideburns wearing a dark turtleneck underneath a groovy, multipatterned long-collared shirt. “Is there something that you really kinda want to say about the crimes and why they happened?” he earnestly asks another vet. “I’d almost need a book to answer that, man,” responds the vet, a wide bandanna wrapped around his head. Basic idea? American soldiers in Vietnam were a group of bloodthirsty maniacs ruining somebody else’s country for no apparent reason.

“I had some misgivings about Detroit,” says Kerry now. “In the end I think it was too harsh — too difficult for Americans to connect to.” He doubted that simply stacking up US atrocities against Vietnamese ones would help people understand the war. These reservations ultimately led him to the antiwar action for which he is most remembered — testifying before the Senate on April 23, 1971. Kerry thought a more broad-based critique of the war would be more successful in reaching Middle America. Wearing old fatigues, he testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee as a spokesman for VVAW, reciting a litany of American atrocities committed in Indochina. He had learned these stories two months earlier at a VVAW inquiry in Detroit: “They told stories that at times they had personally raped, cut off ears, cut off heads, taped wires from portable telephones to human genitals and turned up the power,” Kerry stated before going on to his main point about the need to end the war, the line everyone remembers.

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