Critics of Senator John Kerry may be barking up the wrong tree when they attack his record in Vietnam, especially when they question whether he deserved the three Purple Hearts he was awarded. The putative Democratic presidential nominee has made his Vietnam service the centerpiece of his political biography, touting his bravery in combat and, most recently, attacking President George W. Bush, "who can't even show or prove that he showed up for duty in the National Guard." But Kerry's problem isn't whether he deserved the medals he was awarded. His vulnerability is his record after the war -- especially his involvement with the radical group Vietnam Veterans Against the War and his role as an apologist for the communists we were fighting in Vietnam.
On April 22, 1971, John Kerry testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, chaired by anti-war critic Sen. J. William Fulbright. In riveting testimony that turned Kerry into an overnight celebrity, the young Vietnam vet accused his fellow soldiers of committing war crimes in Southeast Asia. He recounted stories -- since largely discredited -- of American soldiers who "had raped, cut off ears, cut off heads, taped wires from portable telephones to human genitals and turned up the power, cut off limbs, blown up bodies, randomly shot at civilians, razed villages in a fashion reminiscent of Genghis Khan, shot cattle and dogs for fun, poisoned food stocks, and generally ravaged the countryside of Vietnam ... " A few days later, Kerry went on "Meet the Press" saying that he, personally, had "committed atrocities" in Vietnam, as well as accusing other American soldiers -- the men he now refers to as his "band of brothers" -- of doing the same.
Kerry has since tried to backtrack on what he said three decades ago, last week telling NBC's Tim Russert that he probably shouldn't have used the words "war crimes" or "genocide" to describe U.S. action in Vietnam and claiming -- falsely, since his words belie him -- that he wasn't speaking of the actions of soldiers but rather of political leaders. But he has never made any attempt to explain his defense of the communists we were fighting in Vietnam.
In his testimony, Kerry described the Vietnam War as a "civil war, an effort by a people who had for years been seeking their liberation from any colonial influence whatsoever." That view -- which depicted Ho Chi Minh as a nationalist hero and totally ignored the Soviet Union's involvement in training and funding the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong -- was embraced by na? romantics as well as communist propagandists and apologists in the anti-war movement.
The young Kerry seems to have fallen in the latter category, communist apologist. Under questioning from the Committee, Kerry referred to the democratically elected government of South Vietnam -- our allies -- as a "dictatorial regime, the Thieu-Ky-Khiem regime," while respectfully calling the North Vietnamese communist regime we were fighting by its oxymoronic official name, the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, and the murderous Viet Cong's political arm by their preferred "Provisional Revolutionary Government."
He claimed the Vietnamese people "didn't even know the difference between communism and democracy," saying, "I think you will find they will respond to whatever government evolves, which answers their needs, and those needs quite simply are to be fed, to bury their dead in plots where their ancestors live, to be allowed to extend their culture, to try and exist as human beings." In response to a follow-up question, Kerry said, "you can satisfy those needs with almost any kind of political structure, giving it one name or the other. In this name (sic) it is democratic; in others it is communism; in others it is benevolent dictatorship."
But communist victory in Vietnam did make a difference. The communist victors killed hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese after the fall of Saigon, forced more than 1.5 million into "re-education camps" and caused two million others to flee Vietnam altogether.
Kerry has never retracted his communist apologia, leading Stephen J. Morris, senior fellow at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at the Johns Hopkins University to charge this week that Kerry "sympathized with the communist cause."
Speaking on my syndicated radio program on Monday, Morris said, "John Kerry's life since 1971 with regard to Vietnam and Cambodia has been a policy of attempting to atone for ever fighting against them. ... He has bottled up a resolution from ever appearing in the U.S. Senate concerned with human rights in Vietnam today; he has never once expressed a public criticism of the government of Vietnam with respect to its human rights policy."
John Kerry deserves to make atonement to the Vietnamese people -- not for what he did as a young soldier but for what he has done ever since to justify communist tyranny in Vietnam and elsewhere.
Linda Chavez is chairman of the Center for Equal Opportunity and author of Betrayal: How Union Bosses Shake Down Their Members and Corrupt American Politics .
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