Politics & Policy

John Kerry’s Other Vietnam War

Why would we trust this man to be our president?

John Kerry has fought this election campaign as a political moderate. Certainly his main foreign-policy advisers are moderate Democrats. But that campaign posture disguises his 34-year record in public life–which produced no legislative achievement, but featured a well-documented obsession with Vietnam and Cambodia that continues to the present day. Kerry made his four and a half months of service in Vietnam an electoral issue, but it’s his 34 years of political activism on Vietnam and Cambodia that go to the heart of his political outlook and character.

In 1970, while still a reserve officer in the U.S. Navy, Kerry undertook his own private meetings with the Vietnamese Communist delegations in Paris. He joined Vietnam Veterans Against the War, a radical-Left organization viewed favorably by Hanoi, membership of which was less than one half of one percent of the 2.8 million Americans who served in Vietnam.

Kerry is remembered and reviled by many veterans for his 1971 speech before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, in which he accused American soldiers of committing widespread atrocities and war crimes. He specifically asserted that U.S. soldiers were not only carrying out the cruelest tortures, with full knowledge of their commanders at the highest level, but were also “murdering” 200,000 Vietnamese each year. Many of Kerry’s sources–the witnesses at the Winter Soldier Investigation paid for by Jane Fonda–were later exposed as frauds who had never served in Vietnam. Kerry’s blanket libel of American troops was in stark contrast with his silence over the well-documented record of atrocities by the Communists, which were a matter of policy.

But what has been largely overlooked in Kerry’s 1971 speech is that he also supported the Vietnamese Communist cause, mouthing every plank of their political platform as his own. He not only favored immediate unconditional withdrawal of American troops, and creation of a coalition government. He also denounced the then elected government of South Vietnam, where political opposition thrived, as the “Thieu-Ky-Khiem dictatorship.” By contrast he referred to the North Vietnamese Communist dictatorship by its Orwellian official title of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, and to Hanoi’s southern apparatus as “the Provisional Government.”

Were Kerry’s extremist views merely the misadventures of a war-embittered youth? Hardly.

When Kerry joined the Senate in 1985 one of his early appointments as legislative assistant on foreign affairs was Gareth Porter–an academic with a long record of denying any evidence of major Communist atrocities in Indochina. Porter’s 1976 book, Cambodia. Starvation and Revolution, denied that the Khmer Rouge holocaust was taking place. Of course Kerry himself had been conspicuously silent on postwar Khmer Rouge atrocities while they were happening.

Kerry continued to support some of Hanoi’s foreign-policy interests in the Senate, even at the expense of his often-stated preference for the U.N. In 1990, in a rare act of post-Cold War political unity, the U.N. Security Council approved a plan to end the war in Cambodia with a U.N. Temporary Administration of Cambodia to organize elections. Yet Kerry opposed it. Instead, he wanted the Vietnamese-installed ex-Khmer Rouge Hun Sen to organize elections.

Kerry has been claiming credit for solving the problem of American POWs missing in Vietnam. This is false. Kerry had been determined for years to normalize relations with the government of Vietnam–ending trade sanctions and opening up diplomatic relations. The demands of families of Americans missing in action, that Hanoi account for the fate of their loved ones who were known to have been alive when captured, but who never returned, had for years prevented U.S. moves to normalization. So in 1992 Kerry chaired the Senate Select Committee on POWs and Missing in Action from the Vietnam War. Kerry set the bar very low: Instead of focusing on what the Communists could do to explain what had happened to their American prisoners, Kerry focused on whether there was evidence of any Americans still alive in Indochina. Lacking sufficient intelligence from U.S. intelligence services, Kerry and his committee members decided to travel to Vietnam, ostensibly to see for themselves if any Americans were being hidden in various places where live sightings were alleged. The Vietnamese Communists were asked to make sites accessible. So the American media were invited to join the intrepid senators, traveling the Vietnamese countryside looking for American prisoners. This political theater would have been comic had it not been so pathetic. Why, if the Vietnamese government were secretly holding American prisoners, would it allow them to be discovered by visiting senators? Over the years, when foreign visitors, including humanitarian organizations, inspected their political prisons, the Vietnamese Communists would always empty the cells of emaciated Vietnamese prisoners and fill them with healthy, happy prison guards in disguise. Naturally, on this occasion the Vietnamese played along. No live Americans were found. In December 1992 the Senate Committee concluded that there was no evidence of Americans still living in Indochina. The path to normalization seemed clear–until one stumbling block suddenly appeared.

In the winter of 1992-93, while a fellow at Harvard University, I was researching the history of the Vietnam War in recently opened Soviet Communist Party archives in Moscow. By chance I discovered a secret Soviet military-intelligence document concerning American POWs once held in North Vietnam. The Russian-language document asserted that in September 1972 hundreds more American POWs than Hanoi had admitted to holding were being secretly held in North Vietnam. If true, this meant that hundreds of living American prisoners were never released at war’s end. In February 1993 I contacted the Clinton administration, and met Deputy NSC Adviser Sandy Berger in Washington about this. In April I provided the document to the New York Times. The front-page Times story created enormous media and public interest. Senator Kerry appeared on ABC’s Nightline with me to discuss the issue. But he was skeptical then and showed no further interest–until his public disparagement of the document’s contents caused me to criticize him in the Boston media. Then Kerry suddenly took an interest, and phoned me, asking me to meet him in his Boston office on the weekend. There I told him, as I had told Sandy Berger in February, that this document was the tip of an iceberg. The ultimate fate of those missing Americans could be determined not from this document, but from other secret documents in other parts of the Russian archives to which I had not been given access. President Boris Yeltsin, eager for American assistance at the time, could give the U.S. access. I offered Kerry, as I had Berger, to help them in any way. Kerry said he would pursue the matter. But I never heard from him on this matter again. Kerry, it seems, only wanted to silence the source of a politically inconvenient controversy, which was impeding his political priority of normalization–not determine conclusively the fate of hundreds of missing American heroes.

Ties with Vietnam were eventually normalized. And Kerry’s support for the dictatorial regime–his apparent indifference to human rights in Indochina–continues to this day. Ever since the U.S. House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly in 2001 for Vietnam human-rights efforts, Kerry has bottled up this bill in his Senate committee, preventing it from reaching the floor for a vote.

He has treated Cambodia with the same disdain. The non-Communists, whom the U.S. government had been aiding during the 1980s (in the face of Kerry’s rabid opposition), won the 1993 U.N.-sponsored elections. But the Vietnamese-installed Communist ruler, Hun Sen, whose forces the U.N. had failed to disarm, refused to accept the result, and demanded a share of power. The Clinton administration and the U.N. caved in to his threats. Still not satisfied, in 1997 Hun Sen launched a bloody coup d’état to seize total power. Democratic opponents of the Communists were tortured to death in the most grisly manner. Yet Kerry still embraced the former Khmer Rouge commissar as Cambodia’s legitimate ruler. Kerry’s staff even blocked Sam Rainsy, the leader of Cambodia’s terrorized democratic opposition, from testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Is this the kind of person that the American people would want to have making judgments about the direction of U.S. foreign policy? How could he be relied upon to make wise judgments about dealing with North Korea–a nation in the process of acquiring a nuclear arsenal? North Korea is a totalitarian state that is related to the kinds of regimes with which John Kerry has shown such affinity over the years. North Korea’s nuclear arsenal poses an immediate threat to Japan and South Korea, and it will soon have missile delivery systems capable of striking Los Angeles and San Francisco. And should the erratic tyrant Kim Jong-Il choose to proliferate nuclear weapons the way he has proliferated missiles, he could provide al Qaeda with the ability to devastate major American cities.

John Kerry’s sympathy for totalitarian states in the past has resulted in the slander of millions of American Vietnam veterans, not to mention the betrayal of hundreds of missing American POWs. If he is elected president, in dealing with more powerful and dangerous totalitarian enemies like North Korea, his flawed judgment and values could have devastating consequences for all the people of America, and the world.

Stephen J. Morris is a fellow at John Hopkins University’s Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, D.C. He is the author of Why Vietnam Invaded Cambodia.


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