Kerry's Antiwar Activism
Jude Wanniski
August 24, 2004


Memo: To Kerry Campaign Advisors
From Jude Wanniski
Re: Let Kerry Be Kerry

In response to my Sunday “Memo on the Margin,” in which I argued that Lieutenant Kerry deserved the decorations he got in Vietnam, I got at least a dozen letters from men who insist they can never vote for him as President because of his antiwar activities in his post-Vietnam civilian life. This seems to have been the primary reason for the “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth” campaign against Kerry in TV spots, which show him testifying against the war effort in 1971.

One fellow wrote: “Kerry's medal chasing jeopardized his mission and his men. His lies during the Senate hearing were treasonous. He is no hero.” Another website fan who is leaning “95% to Bush,” explained the motives of Kerry’s adversaries: “These Swifties see JK as an opportunist of the worst sort, one who exaggerated his role while in Nam and then besmirched the reputations of themselves and all Vietnam vets when he returned home. Also, I think some of them may believe that JK should be honored for his actions in Nam that were heroic yet still see JK's other actions, exaggerations/outright fabrications of actions, and behavior while in Nam and after which may disqualify JK as C-in-C material in their eyes.”

Yet another website regular put it crisply: “I know nothing about serving in the military, but I have deep convictions about supporting our chosen leaders and military in time of war, whether I agree with them or not. This is necessary to create unity when your country goes to war. Divisiveness and dissention is unacceptable in the warring situation. Kerry did the unthinkable in my mind after returning from Vietnam, I cannot forgive that and believe it is basic character flaw. Anti-war activities should be saved for when the crisis is over, not during it. He is a traitor, and thus is unfit to be my President.”

On the other hand, a good summary of the defense of Kerry in Vietnam came in this e-mail: “It is amazing that a good propaganda machine can destroy the reputation of a person who volunteered to go to Vietnam and received five medals for valor and being wounded. The sheer idiocy of the idea that anybody would volunteer to go into war and would seek to get wounded three times (which would clearly be suicidal) and would get awarded two medals for valor despite being a coward is stunning. It is depressing that the average voter could believe such nonsense. Even more amazing is that a high percentage of veterans appear to have been influenced by these ads. They should know better.”

On Kerry’s actions in the antiwar movement when he returned home, here is another supporter who takes issue with Kerry’s position on Iraq: “It took courage and guts to question the Vietnam war the way Kerry did. I wish he could find the same courage and guts to question the Iraq war.”

This last comment I found most interesting as it is correct in both particulars and helps get us to a better understanding of what this fracas is all about.

First, it did take courage and guts for Kerry to question the Vietnam War the way he did. While I did not pick him out of the antiwar crowd in those years when I covered the politics of the war in Washington for the old National Observer, I did appreciate the position of the congressional “doves” who by 1971 were arguing for a Vietnam exit. If you are under 50 years of age, probably 55, you can’t possibly appreciate the fact that all of Washington knew the war was lost by that time, and that President Nixon was trying to find an “honorable” way out. In 1968, there were still hopes by the “hawks” of victory over the Viet Cong (South Vietnamese rebels) and North Vietnam, but the Tet Offensive of the North Vietnamese and VC in June of that year ended those hopes. It became clear the North had the upper hand, willing to suffer massive casualties in order to inflict them on the U.S. troops.

When the peasants of South Vietnam knew their future was with Hanoi, they became “friendlier” to the VC as one might expect. By 1969, on Kerry’s tour of duty, our troops found themselves being gunned down from villages they had expected to be hostile to the VC, and wound up in frustration and outrage responding with gunfire and grenades that took civilians with the VC. Kerry never said he witnessed such action. He did include the statements of soldiers who had testified to having witnessed such atrocities, as he appealed to Congress for a withdrawal from the battlefield instead of continuing to send young men to die in the Vietnam jungles with no prospect of victory.

By 1971, I was writing regularly about the debate in Washington, which was then solely devoted on the best way to get out. On February 15, “’Let’s Wait and See,’ Say Senate Doves,” we find a Senate resolution being put on hold as the doves learned of the invasion of Laos by South Vietnamese troops: “Their resolution would require Mr. Nixon to keep his word that the troop level would be down to 284,000 by May 1. It would further require that all troops be out by the end of this year.” By June, I was writing under a headline, “Set a Date for Withdrawing American Troops?,” reporting the Nixon position that no fixed date should be set: “In simple terms, Mr. Nixon believes a fixed date would remove Hanoi’s incentive to negotiate.”

A companion piece under the same headline, “Yes, Say the Doves,” by my colleague, James R. Dickenson,” is the more relevant in getting us into Senator Kerry’s head at the time. Here are the opening paragraphs:

To antiwar critics who advocate setting a firm deadline for U.S. withdrawal from South Vietnam, the guiding principle is that the best way to do something is simply to go ahead and do it.

They concede that setting such a date entails some risks. It could result in South Vietnam’s coming under Communist domination. It couldlead to a bloodbath, as some Americans fear. It could result in a tipping of the balance of power in Asia detrimental to U.S. interests.

But they think the chances are good that none of this will come about. On the contrary, they argue that setting a withdrawal date is the sort of dramatic stroke that, like any bold investment, could pay handsome dividends. To begin with, it would result in the cessation of hostilities and the saving of lives, both American and Asian, that otherwise would be lost. It is the fastest way, they believe, to reach agreement on the return of prisoners of war. It is the best way, the argument continues, to foreclose the possibility that U.S. “residual” forces will remain in Vietnam, taking casualties, for years to come. And finally it is the best way to establish political stability in Indochina – and future stability in the rest of Asia as well.

A report signed by the leading doves, including Sen. George McGovern, Democrat of South Dakota, and Sen. Mark Hatfield, Republican of Oregon, contains the following summary, which seemed risky at the time, but which seems much less so now:

The Vietnam experience has clearly shown that the United States cannot establish a bridgehead in an Asian nation in defiance of indigenous forces of nationalism. Our continued involvement in what is widely regarded as a colonial war… will seriously undermine our credibility in the region. The war has been advertised as a deterrent to Communist expansion in Asia, but thus far has succeeded chiefly in being a magnet for it. [It has resulted in the spread of Communist influence into Laos and Cambodia… and has} drawn the Communist Chinese into unequivocal support of a ‘war of national liberation.’

By the end of 1971, U.S. troop strength had been cut to 160,000, and the pressure from the doves had much to do with the withdrawal. The war did drag on with the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) taking over on the ground while the U.S. provided air support. It ended on April 30, 1975, when the ARVN collapsed in a final offensive by the North. Casualties: 47,000 Americans killed, 305,000 wounded; 250,000 ARVN killed, 600,000 wounded; VC and North Vietnamese 900,000 killed, 2,000,000 wounded.

I’ve made the point several times since that Vietnam should not be considered a “war” that was lost, but rather a “battle” in the larger Cold War, which of course the United States did ultimately win as the Communist powers threw in the towel. It now seems fairly clear to me that it was absolutely necessary for the U.S. government to recognize Vietnam was lost “as a battle,” and that it was pointless to send thousands more young men into battle as cannon fodder, and that Senator Kerry was not too early in taking up that cause. Indeed, he showed real leadership in stepping into the political arena when he did and acting as he did. There were dozens of members of Congress who had already become persuaded that Vietnam was a goner by 1971, but none had the decorations that Kerry had to make the case on the platform of a war hero. He should be prepared to discuss this period of his life now, and I agree with the fellow who wrote the e-mail that he should now be showing the same courage and guts in questioning the Iraq war instead of worrying that his antiwar past will make him seem like a pacifist pushover in the war on terrorism. That’s what this is all about, I think.