Politics & Policy

The Dangerous Secret

...is what Kerry believes now, not what he did then.

With a real war going on right now in Iraq, why are we arguing about what happened 35 years ago in Vietnam? Here are two answers to that question:

1. Knowing President Bush has no positive achievements to run on, and desperate to prevent revelations under a Kerry presidency of the cooked intelligence and profiteering behind the disastrous Iraq war, the Republican attack machine has orchestrated a professional hit job on John Kerry’s character and military record. The story of Kerry’s wartime heroism puts the Vietnam-era cowardice of the president and vice president to shame. In doing so, the Kerry story exposes Bush’s sham connection between “tough” foreign policy and patriotism. So to win the election, there was no choice for Bush but to destroy Kerry’s reputation–by any means necessary.

2. Knowing that a post-9/11 America will never elect a president with his McGovernite views, John Kerry has deliberately obfuscated his beliefs on war and foreign policy (as he obfuscates nearly all his liberal views). To distract from his dovish Senate voting record and its origins in his radical antiwar activism, Kerry organized the Democratic convention around his Vietnam exploits. Kerry’s fellow veterans had been stewing for years over the fact that he’d thrown away his medals and built a political career by accusing them of atrocities. The thought that Kerry might now become president by actually bragging about his medals, and his plucky band of brothers, was too much for them to take. With the help of the blogosphere, these vets are now forcing the truth about John Kerry’s dovish views onto a liberal media that would rather change the subject.

The outcome of this election may have much to do with which of these two explanations Americans judge to be closer to the truth. I vote for number two. And it’s the last bit–about Kerry’s dovish foreign-policy views–that really counts. Up until now, both sides in this battle have treated the dispute over Kerry’s war record as a question of personal character. And that it is. But the issue here goes far beyond character: The Swift-boat battle is a surrogate for the honest debate about war and foreign policy that John Kerry has so far avoided.

If Kerry had said the war in Iraq was a mistake–that he’d been misled by faulty intelligence into casting a misguided vote for force–this country would now be having a serious discussion about the issue that truly divides us. Nearly all the delegates to the Democratic Convention opposed the war in Iraq; it was almost comical to see them applauding Kerry’s show of military bravado. Yet their enthusiasm was only partly feigned: What excited the delegates was the idea that they’d found a dove like themselves who could nonetheless turn aside accusations of lack of patriotism or weakness on defense.

The truth, however, will out. Kerry knew perfectly well that the country as a whole was not on board with his views–or his party’s views–on war and foreign policy. So he used his Swift-boat story to send a symbolic message that would appeal in different ways to different constituencies. To the country as a whole, the Swift-boat show would say that Kerry was not just another Democratic foreign-policy wimp. But to the party base–which knew Kerry’s history–the Swift-boat story said something else. When Kerry promised he’d apply the lessons he’d learned in Vietnam combat to the war on terror, the Democratic delegates understood exactly what lessons he was talking about.

After all, Kerry had been speaking for years about the lessons of Vietnam. That’s what the Cambodia controversy is really about. Kerry’s claim that Christmas in Cambodia was seared into his memory was made as part of a Senate speech in opposition to aid to the Nicaraguan contras. Just as President Nixon had denied that the war would expand to Cambodia, said Kerry, President Reagan was lying about the dangers of escalation in Nicaragua. Kerry knew, because he’d been in Cambodia at the very moment Nixon had denied our involvement.

So Kerry’s Cambodia story tells us something important about his foreign policy views–regardless of whether he actually spent Christmas there. The Cambodia story has always been treated by Kerry as a defining moment in his life–a moment that connects the lessons of Vietnam to the foreign-policy views of a mature Senator. The Cambodia story was the ultimate symbol of everything from Kerry’s opposition to military weapons systems, to his vote against aid to the contras, to his vote against the first Iraq war.

Let’s say Kerry’s Cambodia story is true. Some might argue that we should be very cautious about using the Vietnam experience as a template for other, different foreign-policy challenges. Others might say the real lesson of Kerry’s story is that the United States should never allow its soldiers to be attacked with impunity from behind another country’s border. That we should openly take a war wherever it has to go in order to protect our soldiers and win. That we sometimes have no choice but to launch covert attacks on enemies who hide behind a non-combatant state. Of course, with al Qaeda hiding in Pakistan–and a raft of other states that find it difficult to openly admit American troops–we face a similar problem today.

It matters a great deal to know that John Kerry’s political life has been thoroughly shaped by his dovish response to attacks on American troops from an enemy hiding in a formally non-combatant country. And it’s all the more striking to think that Kerry might have invented or exaggerated his story–even turning it into the central symbol of his political career–just to make his peacenik point. If the American people were to come to understand how deeply Kerry’s Vietnam experience has shaped his mature politics, I don’t believe they would want him to be commander-in-chief in a post-9/11 world.

But is it fair to take a candidate’s views on Vietnam as a surrogate for his views on the war on terror? In this case, it is. Consider Paul Krugman’s op-ed in Tuesday’s New York Times. The view I presented at the beginning of this piece–option 1–was Krugman’s: After laying into the Bush administration, he goes on to praise Kerry for heroically telling the truth about the supposedly pervasive viciousness and criminality of his fellow soldiers. As far as Krugman is concerned, Abu Ghraib shows that the atrocities of Vietnam are repeating themselves in Iraq. In fact, Krugman’s whole point is that Iraq is a replay of Vietnam–”a war sold on false pretenses that creates more enemies than it kills.” And Krugman’s views are not unusual.

It’s certainly possible to believe that Vietnam and Iraq are very different wars. But the fact of the matter is that a huge chunk of the Democratic base opposes the war in Iraq because it sees Iraq as a repeat of Vietnam. And until he started hiding his views behind a smokescreen of incoherent pronouncements and military symbolism, John Kerry also saw American foreign policy–as did his dovish Democratic brethren–through the lens of anti-Vietnam radicalism. Having recently done everything in his power to disguise this fact, Kerry’s symbolic machinations have backfired, bringing into the open the very truth they were meant to suppress.

The mainstream media do not want to talk about the connection between John Kerry’s Vietnam experience and his views on war and foreign policy. They would prefer to keep the focus on Kerry’s war-hero record, and off Kerry’s testimony about the supposed viciousness and criminality of his fellow soldiers–and of American foreign policy in general. Yet this is what has enraged the Swift-boat veterans; this is what much of their book takes up; and this is what their second advertisement has singled out. The mainstream media know that if the American people were to truly understand how Kerry’s Vietnam experience shaped his views, and what he said and did to protest that war, they would not want him as commander-in-chief. That–and not the details of Kerry’s wounds or travels–is the real secret that threatens to be exposed by the Swift-boat controversy.

Of course, the specific accusations that John Kerry has lied about his service in Vietnam have to be addressed. The Cambodia story, for one, seems mistaken. No doubt Kerry was near Cambodia on Christmas Eve; he might even have been shot at by South Vietnamese when in the vicinity of Cambodia. But his story does depend on actually having been in Cambodia, and he seems not to have been there. What’s telling is the lack of support from even his friendly crewmates, and Kerry’s own prevarications. The Washington Post (no friend of Kerry’s critics) has called Kerry’s conflicting statements on the Cambodia mission troubling. Given all this, I don’t see how the accusations of Kerry’s critics can be dismissed as a smear. Most of the evidence on one important issue is already in their favor.

I do find it hard to begrudge Senator Kerry his wounds and his medals. He may have thrown them away (or have done so symbolically, using someone else’s medals). Yet Kerry was in Vietnam and in harm’s way. Did he deserve every medal he got there? I care about that a great deal less than I care about how Kerry’s Vietnam experience shaped his later life and views. But having been demeaned and dishonored by Kerry, some of his fellow veterans obviously feel differently. That is more than understandable.

The editorial page of the Washington Post has called for Kerry to release his military records and wartime journals. This would seem to be the right thing to do, and may help to clear things up. It is Senator Kerry’s right to withhold those records; if he had not already chosen to show his biographer, Douglas Brinkley, his journals, I would say that Kerry’s privacy should be respected, despite the accusations. But having chosen to use his private journals for a campaign biography, it’s tough now to keep them from the public, given the fact that Kerry’s account has come into question. And of course, it was Kerry who chose to highlight his wartime past in the first place.

The Swift-boat controversy is not an ancient molehill turned into a mountain. It’s how we’re stumbling toward a debate that the Democrats don’t want to have–but that everyone knows exists anyway. The real issue here is Kerry’s views on war and foreign policy. Kerry is a McGovernite–a long-time member in good standing of his party’s dovish wing. Kerry has hidden that fact, but now the truth is slipping out. When Kerry tried to transform his original radicalism into a hawkish parable, those who knew him better rebelled. The ensuing mess has forced the story of who John Kerry is, and always has been, into the public’s focus. Whatever secrets his journals and military files may hold, the secret of John Kerry’s actual views on war and foreign policy is the more dangerous one–for him, and for us.


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