Politics & Policy

Overspun Defense

Why two of John Kerry's critics were defending him in 1996.

The Kerry campaign clearly didn’t want Swift Boat Veterans for Truth to go unanswered this week. A candidate who had rocketed to the Democratic nomination on a war-hero biography and by referring to his service in Vietnam in almost every answer to every question, including ones on animal rights, didn’t need a boatload of his former commanders declaring him “unfit to be commander in chief.”

So after Swift Boat Veterans for Truth made their presentation at the National Press Club Monday, the Kerry campaign arranged for two of the candidate’s crewmates to appear at a later news conference along with positive evaluations from his former commanders.

The Kerry campaign also showcased what it appeared to believe was a smoking gun: video of two of Kerry’s critics, Capt. George Elliott, and retired Cmdr. Adrian Longsdale, at a 1996 news conference at the Charlestown Navy Yard.

Navy Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, who commanded U.S. Navy forces in the Vietnam War, also appeared with Kerry that day. His son, retired Lieutenant Colonel Jim Zumwalt is among the Kerry critics. The Kerry campaign also made sure reporters got a sheet of quotes from the press conference eight years ago.

But they appear to have omitted that the veterans’ 1996 appearance wasn’t a typical, “hey,-isn’t-John-Kerry-a-great-guy-who-should-be-reelected” backslapping photo opportunity.

They were there to defend Kerry against the charge of committing a “war crime” from a Boston Globe columnist.

On October 27, 1996, nine days before Election Day, Kerry was locked in the fight of his political life against Republican Governor William Weld. In the Sunday edition of the biggest paper in the state, business columnist David Warsh wrote about discrepancies in recent accounts of day that Kerry won the Silver Star.

According to the citation, “. . . an enemy soldier sprang up from his position not 10 feet from Swift boat 94 and fled. Without hesitation Lieutenant (junior grade) Kerry leaped ashore, pursued the man behind a hootch and killed him, capturing a B-40 rocket launcher with a round in the chamber.”

Twice more the expedition came under fire before returning safely to base, according to the citation. Ten Viet Cong were killed during the day and one was wounded; many weapons were captured; no Americans were hurt.

Last Monday, as he described the long-ago events to me, Tom Bellodeau said with no inflection in particular, “You know, I shot that guy. He jumped up, he looked right at me, I looked at him. You could tell he was trying to decide whether to shoot or not. I expected the guy on Kerry’s boat with the twin 50s to blast him but he couldn’t depress the guns far enough. We were up on the bank.” Bellodeau said he fired at the man, wounding him.

But didn’t Kerry shoot him? “When I hit him he went down and got up again. When Kerry hit him, he stayed down,” said Bellodeau….

What’s the best interpretation? That a breathless young lieutenant, his pulse pounding with the exhilaration of battle, ran some distance from the river bank in pursuit of a soldier, turned the corner behind the hootch and came face to face with an enemy ready to kill him–and that he fired in self-defense.

What’s the ugliest possibility? That behind the hootch Kerry administered a coup de grace to the Vietnamese soldier–a practice not uncommon in those days, but a war crime nevertheless, and hardly the basis for a Silver Star. And that he went back the next day with a movie camera, perhaps to build his own case for what happened. Different people will draw different conclusions from the limited information that is available, depending on their experiences.”

Kerry was outraged, and his Senate reelection campaign quickly set out to refute the allegation.

Zumwalt, who commanded U.S. Navy forces in the Vietnam War, said at the conference that the column “was such a terrible insult, such an absolutely outrageous misinterpretation of the facts, that I felt it was important to be here.”

The Boston Globe reported:

Kerry said that his fatal shooting of the Vietnamese soldier, who was carrying a loaded rocket launcher, occurred in full view of Belodeau and crewmember Michael Medeiros.

“I was never out of sight of Tom Belodeau or Mike Medeiros,” Kerry said. “I went straight out from the boat to the path so I had a line of fire. I never went behind the hootch, and this is the first time in 30 years that anybody has suggested otherwise.”

Zumwalt said he traveled to Boston from Washington because “a wartime commander has a lifetime responsibility to look out for the guys under him.” Kerry’s conduct on that day was also commended by retired Capt. George Elliott, Kerry’s commander at the time; and retired Cmdr. Adrian Longsdale, who supervised shoreline operations.

Kerry was helped by the fact that Belodeau stood beside him and said he had been misquoted.

“This man was not lying on the ground. This man was more than capable of destroying that boat and everybody on it. Senator Kerry did not give him that opportunity,” Belodeau said. He also said that he was not sure whether or not he had hit the attacker.

Kerry went after Warsh personally at the press conference. “This was a firefight, life or death, and it was that way every single day, and for some desk jockey who wants to come in, who hasn’t seen a firefight in his life, to try to say that, it’s just wrong. Period. Wrong.”

It’s worth noting that Lonsdale and Elliot didn’t say during that conference what a great president Kerry would make, or that his accusations of war crimes in 1971 weren’t distortions or a hurtful betrayal, or even that they endorsed him for the Senate. They just said that they believed Kerry earned his Silver Star in that encounter and that they recalled nothing to justify an accusation of war crimes.

The controversy burned out as quickly as it flared up. Weld didn’t touch the issue, and the column didn’t make much impact on the rest of the race. The Globe’s Ombudsman, Mark Jurkowitz, later wrote, “Warsh may have added something–the possible wounding–to the record. But the evidence does not justify raising even the specter of a “war crime” by a senator in the final days of a bitter and close election campaign. Not by a long shot.”

Does the appearance of Lonsdale and Elliot at a 1996 event to fortify Kerry’s denial of war crimes invalidate what they have to say about Kerry’s war protests today? Not by a long shot.

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