(Editor's note: This column first ran in the April 2004 edition of The American Spectator.)
The Vietnam War brought out the best and the worst of America, but we've never really agreed which was which. That's a problem for John Kerry, who played a minor role on one side, then a major role on the other, and now wants to take credit for both. Kerry's combat service in Vietnam was brave but insignificant. His actions didn't change the course of even a small part of the war. But his actions after leaving the war did. He helped to cripple America's war effort as leader of the radical Vietnam Veterans Against the War.
No one questions Kerry's right to protest against what he believed to be an unjust war, just the outrageous manner in which he did it. Kerry came back from Vietnam driven by political ambition, but failed to gain any notoriety until April 1971 when he declared to a Senate committee that war crimes by American soldiers in Vietnam were "not isolated incidents but crimes committed on a day-to-day basis with the full awareness of officers at all levels of command." Of his 1971 Senate testimony Kerry said recently, "If you read what I said, it is very clearly an indictment of leadership.... And it's the leaders who are responsible, not the soldiers." That explanation doesn't wash with many Vietnam veterans. Kerry's statement was a "blood libel," several Vietnam veterans told me.
Kerry demands immunity from criticism for his post-Vietnam activism because, in his view, those who didn't fight that war have no right to criticize those who did, regardless of their later misconduct. But what about former POWs? Even Kerry's closest adherents can't deny their right to judge Kerry. These men were tortured, beaten, and starved by their captors. The abuse, as many have told me, was intended by the Vietnamese to coerce confessions of war crimes which would feed their propaganda machine and galvanize such anti-Vietnam war protesters as Jane Fonda, Ramsey Clark, Tom Hayden, and John Kerry.
The former POWs I spoke to render a judgment that is both harsh and heartfelt. In their eyes, what Kerry and the others did prolonged the war and made worse the abuses they suffered at the hands of the North Vietnamese.
LT. COL. TOM COLLINS was an Air Force pilot shot down in 1965 and held as a POW until 1973. Collins remembers his captors using speeches by Jane Fonda and Kerry's VVAW group in coercive interrogations as a "constant barrage…for the purpose of demoralizing me…[and] as a tool of coercion."
In the later years of his captivity, the VVAW "was thrown up to us on a routine basis," Collins said. His North Vietnamese captors would say, "See? Your fellow veterans, your fellow fighting men, they've gone home and denounced their government…" He added, "There was the old line [the interrogators] often used: 'there are two ways.' You can confess your crimes and denounce your government as…your fellow Americans [the protesters] did and things will be 'very good' for you or you can continue to 'have a bad attitude' and things will be 'very bad' for you. My common sense, logic, and the oath I took as an American fighting man left me, and most others, with only the second choice. So things continued to be 'very bad.'"
Collins told me, "The Vietnamese knew they couldn't win the war on the battlefield. The war was going to be won on the streets of New York, Washington, Chicago, and everywhere back here in the United States. The people who were doing that, in my opinion, were aiding…the enemy."
Collins remembers the time his captors told him about the VVAW demonstration when Kerry and other veterans threw their medals over a fence surrounding the Capitol Building. Collins said his captors told him, "Now you hear the truth about this…This is what your country thinks." Collins said the VVAW demonstration spurred new demands for the POWs to "sign confessions, write letters to the president, make broadcasts" to support North Vietnamese propaganda.
At about the same time Kerry was testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Jack Ensch was flying a Navy jet over North Vietnam. On August 25, 1972, he was shot down. Like the others still fighting the war, Ensch had been acutely aware of the protests before his capture. "For somebody like [Kerry] to come back and to be working against us was demoralizing," he said.
Severely injured when shot down, Ensch was denied medical care and told he would be left to die unless he cooperated. Eventually -- one thumb amputated and his dislocated elbows reset -- he received the same treatment as Collins. "They would play over the camp loudspeakers the propaganda things, touting the fact that people were doing all this stuff back in the United States," he said. At the Hanoi Hilton, where Ensch and many others were held, the POWs were kept in groups numbering four to about twenty. He recalled that they would talk about the anti-war protesters. "Everybody in my group…had feelings that ranged from disgust and contempt to anger to demoralization about what people like Jane Fonda and Kerry and, you know, everybody that was back here in our opinion helping the enemy cause," he said.
Ensch is careful not to disparage what Kerry did on the battlefield but is outraged by what Kerry did off it. In an e-mail he noted, "What disturbs me is his performance after the fact….Disgust for his disgraceful, despicable public behavior and contempt for being associated with the likes of jane fonda (always lower case spelling, as befits her status as a human being).…Especially at a time when well meaning and dedicated members of the armed forces were still in harm's way.…I lost all respect for Kerry at that point and nothing he has done since has done anything to restore it."
DICK VAUGHN WAS AN Air Force fighter pilot. He was shot down after Kerry began his antiwar protests. He was held captive from December 18, 1971, to March 28, 1973. Even before Vaughn was shot down, the protests "affected the way I felt about people such as John Kerry, Jane Fonda, Ramsey Clark, Joan Baez. It made me feel they wanted to apologize for our actions."
According to Vaughn, "The [interrogators] would often say, 'we cannot beat you militarily. However, with friends like Jane Fonda, Ramsey Clark etc. we will defeat you." Vaughn said, "[The North Vietnamese] told us we weren't POWs, we were war criminals.…They would continually use people who came over there, people who protested to wear us down, make us believe we were in fact war criminals, puppets of the Nixon administration and we should help them by signing propaganda statements condemning the war. For the longest period of time, that's what they wanted more than anything else. Not military information. They wanted the confessions."
Doug Clower, a Navy pilot shot down early in the war, was held captive for almost eight years. One of his most vivid memories is of Jane Fonda's radio broadcasts from Hanoi. He and other POWs were forced to listen to her speeches over the radio. Clower remembers listening to one broadcast in which Fonda told the world that the North Vietnamese were treating POWs very well. While she spoke, Clower looked out through a window, watching a friend being beaten severely by some North Vietnamese guards.
John Hurley, chairman of Vietnam Veterans for Kerry, recently told the Washington Times that Kerry's protesting "saved more lives than not." To put it mildly, the POWs disagree. Collins said, "I was in the POW camp a year longer than I would have been but for this activity." Dick Vaughn said, "Kerry gave aid and comfort to the enemy by his actions after leaving the Navy. He said things that prolonged the war, caused more American servicemen to be killed, and in doing such he got POWs tortured even more than they were already....No contest in my mind. Kerry was a traitor."
Is this judgment of Kerry too harsh? Other than the POWs, perhaps the best judge of the protests' effect was General Vo Nguyen Giap, the commander of the North Vietnamese armed forces. In his article, "How We Won the War," Giap said:
Politically, the Vietnamese always believed in the importance of the anti-war movement…They encouraged it as best they could, knowing that creating a climate of opinion hostile to the war would be one important way of ending it. In the end, their victory was accelerated by Congress' refusal to vote more aid. That refusal was a response to a climate of public opinion which the anti-war movement helped to forge.
John Kerry served well during the Vietnam War. Unfortunately for the POWs, he served the North Vietnamese better than he served those held in a brutal captivity.
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