Kerry's Antiwar Activism

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

In response to my
Sunday u201CMemo on the Margin,u201D
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
u201CSwift Boat Veterans for Truthu201D campaign against Kerry in TV spots,
which show him testifying against the war effort in 1971.

One fellow wrote: u201CKerry’s medal chasing jeopardized his mission
and his men. His lies during the Senate hearing were treasonous.
He is no hero.u201D Another website fan who is leaning u201C95% to Bush,u201D
explained the motives of Kerry's adversaries: u201CThese 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.u201D

Yet another website regular put it crisply: u201CI 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

On the other hand, a good summary of the defense of Kerry in Vietnam
came in this e-mail: u201CIt 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.u201D

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: u201CIt 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.u201D

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 u201Cdovesu201D 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 u201Chonorableu201D
way out. In 1968, there were still hopes by the u201Chawksu201D 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 u201Cfriendlieru201D 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, u201Cu2018Let's Wait and See,' Say Senate Doves,u201D we find a Senate resolution
being put on hold as the doves learned of the invasion of Laos by
South Vietnamese troops: u201CTheir 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.u201D By June, I was writing under a headline, u201CSet a Date
for Withdrawing American Troops?,u201D reporting the Nixon position
that no fixed date should be set: u201CIn simple terms, Mr. Nixon believes
a fixed date would remove Hanoi's incentive to negotiate.u201D

A companion piece under the same headline, u201CYes, Say the Doves,u201D
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:

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
could lead 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. u201Cresidualu201D 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:

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 u201Cwar of national liberation.u201D

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 u201Cwaru201D that was lost, but rather a u201Cbattleu201D 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 u201Cas a battle,u201D 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.

26, 2004

Wanniski [send him mail]
runs the financial/political advisory service
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