John F. Kennedy had said, "Pay any price, bear any burden." Lyndon Johnson had won in 1964, a landslide. This was the Democrat Lyndon Johnson's war, from Kerry's perspective. There's no guarantee by signing up to the Navy that he was going to see combat in Vietnam at that point. He might go there for a tour of duty.
But [aside from] that, it seemed like a great adventure. Again, he loved the stories of the young Theodore Roosevelt and the Rough Riders. He loved the stories of Winston Churchill and the Boer War. He loved the stories of John F. Kennedy in PT-109.
The great moment of Kerry in Vietnam is his Silver Star. He's the only one in his division to get it, and that's when he's going up a river, and suddenly there's a guy on the bank that's putting up a weapon. It's aiming at him.
Regulations say you keep going straight ahead. Kerry makes the snap decision to turn his swift boat and run it right into the bank. The opponent is not ready for that. That's a move they haven't seen before. Suddenly, the VC guerilla falls back out of the spider hole, picks up his weapon, starts running. John Kerry leaps off the boat, chases him down a garden path and kills him, shoots him dead while the guy's fleeing.
That's a metaphor for John Kerry's political career. You think you're taking aim at him. You may have fired on him for a while. Suddenly, he will come at you with a kind of vigor and strength; and go not just to wound you, not to get in a clever jab, but to knock you out of the game completely.
Tell us what happened to Pershing.
Dick Pershing was the real life of the party at Yale. He's a larger-than-life figure. All women wanted to hang out with him. He was a great flirt. All the guys wanted to be like him. If you look at pictures of him from Vietnam that exist, you'll see as close a figure as Rambo as you'll ever see.
When you're in your teens, you look up to somebody like that. John Kerry used to go with Dick Pershing to Park Avenue and see all the General Blackjack Pershing artifacts that just filled the penthouse in New York. Blackjack Pershing was one of John Kerry's heroes, too.
So Dick Pershing goes in and he gets blown up. He gets killed. Kerry, at this point, gets the news while he's on the USS Gridley. A telegram's handed to him. He gets nauseous, and he grabs a hold of the railing and he reads it. His buddy, the guy he most looked up to, the seminal reason that he joined the military and bought into the Vietnam venture, has been snuffed out.
This angers him tremendously. He writes these impassioned letters to his future wife, Julia. He writes a Mom and Dad letter and says, "I'll never be the same again. This, I will never forget that my friend is no longer here for this stupid war in Vietnam."
Why was he feeling it's stupid already in 1968? He had been reading a lot. He had been reading Bernard Fall. He had read Arthur Schlesinger. He had read Bobby Kennedy's To Make a Newer World. I saw in Kerry's library the copy of that book, which is so heavily underlined, it's almost unreadable. He had memorized Bobby Kennedy's view of the war. That book came out in 1967. It was a dissenting view of what was happening there. He had heard Eugene McCarthy speak at Fenway.
So Kerry is already feeling -- He's a Democratic dove on Vietnam. He's in uniform, and now Dick Pershing's gone. I think the prospect of corrosion starts in. You can feel every day his soul getting more and more destroyed by what's going on in Vietnam. He now is starting to almost do a study of the absurdity of U.S. government policy in Vietnam. …
How is he as a commander, a leader to a group of men who were from a very different background from his own?
Remember about John Kerry -- he's six-four. Tall. Extraordinarily athletic. When he's running for president in 2004, he played hockey with Boston Bruins up in New Hampshire, and held his own at age 60. He was an extraordinary hockey player when he was young, great soccer player. Lacrosse, sailing, downhill skiing. So he's a very physically fit, athletic guy, and that counts a lot for men in their 20s. I mean, you can't call him a wimp, or he's not somebody who's a desk officer type. He's physical.
I think that endeared him to his men, the fact that he, in many ways, could outperform them on anything. ... That physical, athletic side of him, and his physical presence, the largeness of these hands -- they're these giant mitts he has -- I think stopped him from being considered effete.
Now did some people find him aloof? Sure. Did some people find him a Boston Brahmin? Yes. Did some people think he thought he was too good for them? A little bit. But once you got to know the guy, and he was so physical, he was able to fit in with the working-class people. I've interviewed dozens of people in Vietnam. Anybody that really was on a boat with John Kerry, except for one guy, will all tell you how incredible he was as a commanding officer on the boat. I mean, it's believable, because he grew up on water. He was a natural sailor. His father had trained him.
He spoke French, and the navigational maps the swift boat guys were using in Vietnam, were French maps. He could talk to native people in French if they couldn't communicate sometimes with English.
He's a politician at heart. So he knew how to kind of win these guys over. He worked them a little bit to get their loyalty as their commanding officer. He let them call them John while on a swift boat. When they were back at shore, he was Lieutenant Kerry. But he was able to break down and really become a band of brothers. It's not phony when you go and watch John Kerry in 2004 in the campaign. I know who Drew Whitlow from Oklahoma is, or who Skip Barker from Alabama is, or Jim Wasser from Illinois. And these guys are standing by their former commanding officer, because he brought them home alive, and he was a first-rate skipper. ...
Any incidents from combat that particularly stand out in your mind or in his mind?
First off, as much as he likes, I think, to be a hero, I mean, if he is a war hero or has a sense of romance of what that means in military history, he was not looking for hard duty in Vietnam. To the contrary. He simply, from January to June of 1968, was on the USS Gridley. His job on the Gridley was maintenance, to spic and span polish the Gridley. He had one captain that was good. But he had another captain barking at him all the time. "Kerry, there's dust here, Kerry."
So his view is, " I'd love to get off this assignment on being maintenance guy on the Gridley." He sees in Danang Harbor in the spring of 1968 a 50-foot aluminum swift boat, shiny, beautiful little boats, just made out from Louisiana starting in 1965. He decides, "How do I get one?"
He finds out you apply to swift boat school. If you get accepted in swift boat school, this is what happens to you. First off, they send you home. You get off the Gridley. He could go see his girlfriend Julia in Massachusetts, which he did for two months -- no duty -- great two months with your girlfriend in New England for the summer. Then in August, you get to go to swift school at Coronado, beautiful San Diego, for six weeks, where you're trained how to ride these beautiful, brand-new 50-foot boats. Then you go to become a member of Operation Market Time in Vietnam, whose sole job is to patrol the coast of Vietnam, 1,100 miles of Vietnamese coastland and coastline. You're doing Coast Guard duty. That's what Kerry put into.
He gets there, and Operation SEALORD is enacted. Now they're being sent into the river systems, and Kerry never bargained for that. And not only are they being sent into them-- The engines of those boats are heard from two miles away. It's like a Harley-Davidson roar. So if you're a Viet Cong sniper and you're a guerrilla, and you hear [this sound] coming, you go right to the main grove thicket, point up your weapon; it's like shooting fish in a barrel. Kerry was just simply tired of being shot at, tired of not having helicopter cover.
On each mission, as Admiral Zumwalt himself said, "You had a 70 percent chance of being maimed or wounded." Kerry's saying, "None of us guys in the Navy should have to put up with that." Every mission he went on was a possible death mission. So Kerry started thinking for himself on how [he] can survive. ...
Why did Kerry keep such an extensive record of his thoughts in the form of letters and tapes? Most people don't do that, particularly the tapes. Is it a sense of destiny or history about himself, or a form of therapy, or what?
I remember Charles de Gaulle once used to say, "I'm going to be the next Joan of Arc of France." I think John Kerry knew that he was already somebody, which was John Kerry.
He had a very healthy sense of himself. He loved to write, and still loves to write. It's a natural form for him. I think sometimes he's better on paper than he is maybe interacting at a cocktail party.
It also was a place to pour his angst, his emotions. I've noticed a difference between the diaries and interviewing all the guys that that served with him in Vietnam, because in the diaries, he can talk to the heart. It was the real Kerry, and he's setting a record. I think he was setting a record against the U.S. government from the start, that he was going to document the absurdity of what the U.S. government was doing. He had in mind Wilfred Owen, Seigfried Sassoon in these types, and that it was going to be OK to be the dissenting soldier.
When he had to lead men on PCF-94, he couldn't tell them his anguish. He had to lead them. "We're going to pull through the firefight. We're going to make it out the canal. You'll be home next Christmas. We're going to get our mail tomorrow." He had to be cheerleader for his crews, which he did day after day, hour after hour. The diaries are where the reflected Yale intellectual, who's interacting with blue-collar workers, most of them never went to college…..He's able to be the intellectual John Kerry, the soldier statesperson, the Churchill -- you know, the Kennedy -- in those diaries. I think it was a form of survival and therapy for him. …