There he was, the 27-year-old John Kerry, hair spilling down over his eyes, Kennedyesque a's (as in "cahn't imagine") rolling off his tongue, and lanky legs seeking room on the cramped talk show set. C-SPAN was rebroadcasting an episode of "The Dick Cavett Show" from 1971. Opposing Kerry was a hard-charging, highly intelligent Vietnam veteran named John O'Neill, who gave the future senator no quarter.
It was just two months after Kerry's pyrotechnic performance before the Senate Foreign Relations committee, in which he had famously declared that American soldiers in Vietnam had "personally 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 South Vietnam."
I will admit to being a sorehead about Vietnam. I'm one of those people who resents the fact that Kerry's side is so often portrayed as having been right in that terrible argument, when as we know, the fundamental struggle against communism was moral and honorable, whatever may be said about the advisability of putting American troops on the ground in that place (a decision taken not by Nixon, Kerry's nemesis, but by John F. Kennedy, Kerry's hero).
But the producers at C-SPAN doubtless had other reasons for rebroadcasting that 33-year-old program. If offers a rare insight -- 90 minutes worth -- into the thinking of a man who now asks to sit in the Oval Office and who vaulted himself into the national spotlight by slandering 2.5 million of his fellow veterans.
On this subject, O'Neill, who had served in the same unit as Kerry, though not at the same time, was loaded for bear. He noted that he had served in Vietnam for 18 months, in contrast to Kerry's four, and had seen nothing to "shock the conscience." He demanded to know if Kerry had personally committed war crimes. Kerry squirmed. O'Neill persisted.
Kerry elected to say that, well, he had participated in burning the huts of noncombatants, which qualifies as a war crime under the Geneva Convention.
O'Neill replied that when he had been in the region, their unit had received heavy fire from all directions. What O'Neill did not say, but might have, is that it was often difficult in that frustrating and murky war to tell the soldiers from the civilians. That was in large part because the Vietcong dressed as civilians and used civilians as human shields.
Still, burning down someone's straw hut, while not exactly polite, is far from the sort of war crime Kerry had conjured in his Senate testimony. As for all the soldiers Kerry had quoted, the Naval Investigative Service attempted to interview all 150 of them to get names, dates and places. What they discovered, as B.G. Burkett unveiled in his groundbreaking book "Stolen Valor," is that many of those so-called Vietnam Vets had never even been to Vietnam. Among those who had, many had never seen combat but had technical or service jobs. None was able to sign an affidavit attesting to actual atrocities.
Kerry did make a provocative point when he asked whether it was fair to continue the war when we had already decided to withdraw (the United States was then engaged in the "Vietnamization" policy, which was intended to transfer war fighting gradually to the South Vietnamese). Some soldier, Kerry said, "is going to be the last guy to die for an admitted mistake." What Kerry failed to see, and still fails to see, judging by his votes regarding the Iraq War (he voted for the war but against the funds to see it through), is that there are consequences to cutting and running in ignominious fashion.
Cavett attempted to remain neutral, but it was ultimately too much for him. Not only did he agree with Kerry, but O'Neill tried his patience by interrupting repeatedly. With barely concealed sarcasm, Cavett said: "Nobody believes that there will be a blood bath if we withdraw. That was a cliche we used to hear a lot. Neither of you believes that do you?" Kerry's answer was emblematic of the antiwar left. He said he thought it was a "baiting argument" by the pro-war side since "there'd be no interest on the part of the Vietnamese to start massacring people after people (the United States) had pulled out."
Following America's withdrawal and Congress' decision to cut off every penny for Southeast Asia, there was a terrible genocide in Cambodia, so terrible that it overshadows the horror of what befell Vietnam. Roughly 800,000 boat people chose to take their lives in their hands rather than remain in communist Vietnam. Some 65,000 were executed, and this does not include those who slowly starved in concentration camps.
Wonder if the senator would care to revise and extend his remarks?