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kerry and vietnam

photo of kerry on a swift boat

John Kerry's five months of combat duty in Vietnam was a defining experience in the education of a public man. The lessons of that divisive war have stayed with him a lifetime. Talking about this, in excerpts from their FRONTLINE interviews, are his Senate Chief of Staff David McKean, author and historian Douglas Brinkley, New Yorker writer Philip Gourevitch, and Yale classmate and Vietnam veteran Dan Barbiero. These excerpts are drawn from their FRONTLINE interviews.

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David McKean
Kerry's Senate chief of staff.

…I think from the time that John Kerry came back from Vietnam, he has believed that you need to hold government accountable. And that has been a theme that has run through his entire public career. From the time he first came to the United States Senate and launched his first investigation until recently. I mean that's what he's trying to do in this 2004 campaign is to hold government accountable, to say that we can do a better job in government.

Explain to a generation who is younger than we are, why John Kerry sees that as important.

The Vietnam War was an enormously frustrating, terrible experience for this country. … [O]ur government was not honest with us -- didn't tell us the truth about any number of issues. And I think when John Kerry saw that as a soldier who volunteered to go to Vietnam to fight for his country and recognized that we were not living up to our promise as a nation. And then we came back and decided that he needed to end the war and to hold government accountable. And again I just think that has been the theme that has run through his entire public career.

So when he decides as a senator to take on the issue of Contras and potential drug smuggling, he's thinking along those same lines.

Absolutely. …

related links
see a chronology of kerry's life

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douglas brinkley
Author of Tour of Duty - John Kerry and the Vietnam War.

…For a presidential-caliber politician of Kerry's generation to have gone to Vietnam, it was quite easy -- as we all know at the time -- not to go. ... Why did Kerry go?

Well, first off, you have to put into perspective [that Kerry was] waiting enlisted in late 1965. Lyndon Johnson has just started the escalation. It wasn't apparent that we were going to be stuck there for so many years. I think that's always important to keep in mind.

But look, there are a couple things operating in John Kerry. One is his father Richard Kerry's sense of public service. Richard Kerry loved the military. He would've stayed in it if he had not contracted TB. The thought that his son would serve in uniform, even though he was against the policy in Vietnam, made perfect sense in the Kerry household; meaning, his father thought it's a great thing for his sons to spend their time in the military. Richard Kerry was old-fashioned in that way, kind of part of the World War II generation that looked at it as a rite of passage for growing up. Yes, you go to college, but then you have to serve your country for a few years in the military. It's good for you.

So he had encouragement from his father on that score. But more importantly, his two best friends in Skull and Bones, Dick Pershing and Freddie Smith. Pershing, General Blackjack Pershing's grandson, was gung-ho about Vietnam and the military, and was going. Freddie Smith, who used to fly planes with the young John Kerry and went on to found Federal Express, joined the U.S. Marines, and he was gung-ho. So for Kerry, with the group of guys at that age he's with, they're all joining the military.

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. …

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philip gourevitch
New Yorker staff writer who has covered Kerry in the 2004 campaign.

…For Kerry, I think the sensibility he brought, and the habits of mind that he brought to that first important vote [the 1991 vote on the Gulf War] -- [it was] really the first time as a senator that he was called on, or that most of these people were called on in a generation to vote about America deploying massive force abroad to fight another country in an unpredictable war.

I think for them, what really formed them was the experience in Vietnam of being misled, lied to, deceived and the tremendous cost. Remember the tremendous cost of Vietnam. We forget that. We think Vietnam went bad. And then we say, "Oh, maybe Iraq's going bad." But in Vietnam, more than 50,000 American lives [were lost].

These are huge costs. Nobody in a generation untouched. So to them, they were saying, "What are we doing, and for what?" In retrospect, I don't think he would cast the [1991] vote the same way now. ...

In that vote for the Gulf War in '91, he's out there on the Senate floor reading from the classic pacifist novel from World War II, Johnny Got His Gun, about the horrors of war and how people get mutilated in war. And frankly, this is one of the real legacies of the Vietnam War.

The argument that ultimately was used against the Vietnam War is "Too much American life is being lost for nothing." Kerry claims, and has always claimed, that he is not a pacifist. He went and fought. But the argument of somebody who is reluctant to use force, but is not a pacifist, always has to be a kind of cost-benefit analysis. …

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danny barbiero
A classmate at St. Paul's, a roommate at Yale and a fellow Vietnam veteran.

…It is a difficult thing for people to understand now [about] Vietnam, that you could be anti-war -- which John Kerry was beginning to show signs of -- but then he still goes to war. How do you explain what was going on there in 1966?

We talked a lot about this, because I enlisted and he enlisted. ... There was a tremendous amount of patriotism involved in that. We grew up believing that we had been given this tremendous gift of going to St. Paul's, going to Yale -- having essentially the world handed to us -- and that our obligation was to serve our country when called on. That really was a lot of it. It sounds really corny. But that's what we believed, believe it or not, at the time.

The other thing was that we had this rather juvenile attitude that the only way we're going to really find out what was going in Vietnam was to go there; which, in retrospect, is about eight milliseconds after I got there, I satisfied that curiosity, and was ready to go home. But that was a big reason.

We enlisted in the officer corps because we felt that was the best place for us to be. We had this fabulous education. We had Harvey Bundy's Uncle Bill tell us that "This was the thing to do, boys. We need you..."

Bill Bundy was then Secretary of State for Far Eastern Affairs. … And after his speech [at Yale] he came to our room to visit the three of us. And we asked him about Vietnam, you know, what's the scoop here, what's really going on? And he told us that this was a very important part of American policy. That it was critical that we secure this part of the world. I think the domino theory was in full swing at that time. And that we were very much needed to go be in the officer corps and serve our country there.

If you look at the records, I think that you'll see that the class of 1966 had a lot of graduates go in the service. I think 1967, 1968, those classes wouldn't have. We were just sort of on this cusp. When we enlisted, it was 1965 or the end of 1965. What you did is, you enlisted in your junior year, and then you didn't really go in until well after you graduated.

What about John's anti-war feelings at that time?

Well, I don't know that he was anti-war as much as concerned with how the administration was handling foreign policy. He was always a student of foreign policy. I think his focus was more on "Is this foreign policy correct? Are we doing the right thing?" I think "anti-war" was not quite it at that point and time. … I think he was questioning foreign policy in Vietnam.

So how does he exist with the serious questions he has about our involvement in Southeast Asia and the idea that he's going to enlist in the Navy?

We would never have made the jump to disobey a call to arms because we questioned foreign policy. That would have been a huge leap for us to make. It would never have occurred to us.

Yet a few years later, that becomes the norm.

A few years later when we come back, our goal is to get the boys out of that position they're in, because they're not being supported. …

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posted oct. 12, 2004

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