The Contenders: Defining Issues
Vietnam War, Peace Pivotal in Kerry's Life
By Edward Walsh
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 3, 2004; Page A01
Eighth in a series of occasional articles
In November 2000, the twilight of his presidency, Bill Clinton traveled to Vietnam, a place that he and thousands of other young Americans tried to avoid in the 1960s. He spoke at the Vietnam National University of Hanoi, and among those in the audience that he singled out for recognition was a tall man from New England who had been to Vietnam many times before.
His name was John F. Kerry, and he had played a key role in bringing about the first visit to Vietnam by an American president since Richard M. Nixon briefly met with U.S. troops there in 1969.
The Vietnam War was the defining event in Kerry's life, as it was for so many others of his generation. Today, as the Massachusetts senator seeks the Democratic presidential nomination, the war provides a critical underpinning for his candidacy. Kerry, a decorated combat veteran, would not easily be portrayed by President Bush and the Republicans as soft on national security issues.
But Kerry's time as a combatant, and his equally well-known role as a leader of the veterans who returned from Vietnam and opposed the war, account for only part of his personal odyssey involving the war and its aftermath that symbolically culminated in Clinton's visit to Hanoi. More than any other member of Congress, it was Kerry, with his ally Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who cleared the way for normal diplomatic relations between the United States and Vietnam, beginning the process of healing the deep wounds of war.
They did so largely out of the limelight, in the tedious and grinding work of a special Senate committee that was appointed to investigate the fates of Americans still missing from the war and the rumors that some of them were alive and being held captive in Southeast Asia. When the committee completed its work, Kerry, the chairman, had produced a unanimous, 585-page report that declared: "There is, at this time, no compelling evidence that proves that any American remains alive in captivity in Southeast Asia."
McCain was the lightning rod for critics of the committee's more than yearlong search for the truth, but it was Kerry who held the enterprise together. A lawyer by training, he used his skills to mediate vast differences of opinion on an emotional topic within the committee and with many of those who appeared before it. According to those who watched the process, he was invariably calm, evenhanded and, above all, persistent.
"Kerry was always there saying, 'Hey, everybody calm down,' " said Mark Salter, McCain's chief of staff. "He kept it going. It should have imploded."
The committee's report did not eliminate the explosive POW/MIA issue, but it did much to defuse it and lift the cloud that had been hanging over the country since the fall of Saigon in 1973. A little more than a year after the report was issued in 1993, Clinton ended the U.S. trade embargo against Vietnam; the next year, the United States established formal diplomatic relations with the Vietnamese. Both steps were preceded by passage of Senate resolutions, co-sponsored by Kerry and McCain, urging the actions.
Kerry was only one of many who eased the country down the long road to reconciliation with a once-bitter enemy, but other participants in the process describe his role as "pivotal" and that of "the catalyst."
"John, on behalf of this nation, brought us back to Vietnam with our heads held high," said former senator Bob Kerrey (D-Neb.), who lost part of a leg and was awarded the Medal of Honor as a Navy Seal in Vietnam. "I think only John could have done it."
Shadow on the Trail
The Vietnam War shadows Kerry on the campaign trail. Part of this is by design. He does not dwell on it, but he almost always mentions the war in his speeches as a way to remind his listeners of who he once was: Lt. John F. Kerry, USN, commander of one of the "swift boats" that patrolled Vietnam's interior waters, frequently clashing with enemy forces.
There are often Vietnam veterans in Kerry's audiences, and they seek him out to share their experiences. Jim Cisco, 60, an Air Force veteran who was stationed in the Mekong Delta, recently told Kerry in Mount Pleasant, Iowa, how he and other airmen at the base would watch the heavily armed patrol boats careering along the Mekong River.
"We thought, damn, these guys are nuts," Cisco said.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) and Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 9127 Commander John Feller sing "God Bless America" at a Kerry campaign stop in Des Moines in May.
(Charlie Neibergall -- AP)
A Jan. 3 article on Sen. John F. Kerry's Vietnam War experience misstated the year of the fall of Saigon. It was 1975.
About This Series|
For each of the Democratic presidential candidates, there was a subject that so engaged them that it provides a lens through which to view their careers. These occasional stories examine the candidates and their signature issues.
_____Defining Issues Series_____
The Politician Of Protest (The Washington Post, Jan 13, 2004)
Patient Welfare a Cornerstone of Edwards's Platform (The Washington Post, Jan 2, 2004)
Gephardt Keeps Talking Trade (The Washington Post, Dec 27, 2003)
Kucinich Stresses Civil Liberties (The Washington Post, Dec 24, 2003)
Dean's Care For All, Built Part by Part (The Washington Post, Dec 21, 2003)
Clark's Role in Kosovo Exemplifies His Traits (The Washington Post, Dec 17, 2003)
In Braun-Helms Fight, Senate Searched Soul (The Washington Post, Dec 12, 2003)
Lieberman Versus Hollywood (The Washington Post, Dec 8, 2003)