Vietnam War, Peace Pivotal in Kerry's Life
"We were," Kerry replied, "and we thought [our superiors] were nuts for making us do it."
Kerry was awarded a Silver Star, a Bronze Star and three Purple Hearts in Vietnam. But it was not his bravery in battle that finally distinguished him; many others, whether recognized or not, were just as brave.
What made Kerry stand out was that he did not try to forget about the war, put Vietnam behind him and get on with his life. He became a leader of Vietnam Veterans Against the War, took part in protests and testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Elected to the Senate in 1984, he returned to Vietnam in May 1991. Frances Zwenig, his chief of staff at the time and later the staff director of the Senate Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs, recalled that even before returning to Washington, Kerry had instructed her to try to organize another trip to Vietnam by the leaders of American veterans organizations.
"This was totally his idea, and it was the right idea," Zwenig said. "If these people could see the need for going forward, that was exactly what we needed politically."
Bob Wallace, now executive director of the Veterans of Foreign Wars' Washington office, was among the veterans who returned to Vietnam in July 1991, when the United States was allowed to open a U.S. office for POW/MIA affairs in Hanoi.
"It came about because of John Kerry," Wallace said. "We had breakfast, and he said that the Vietnamese would welcome a trip from the veterans organizations. We firmly believed that if we wanted to make our point about the POWs and MIAs, we had to do it face to face. He was the catalyst."
Both countries were cautiously seeking a better relationship. In 1990, President George H.W. Bush announced a "road map" to normalization, inviting the Vietnamese to take a series of steps and promising a positive U.S. response.
The critical hurdle was the more than 2,200 Americans who were unaccounted for from the Vietnam War era. The families of the missing yearned for answers and had organized themselves into a politically potent force. Since the war ended, some had come to believe that Americans had been left behind in Southeast Asia and were alive. A cottage industry grew up around the issue, encouraging the darkest conspiracy theories about a coverup of their fate.
The issue was further inflamed in the early 1990s by the publication of a photograph purporting to show three such Americans being held in Southeast Asia. (The photograph was later shown to be a fake.) The Senate responded by passing a resolution, sponsored by Sen. Robert C. Smith (R-N.H.), that created the Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs. Its task was to try to get to the truth.
The Vietnam veterans who were in the Senate at the time were expected to serve on the committee, and they did -- reluctantly. It was seen as a time-consuming and thankless task, certain to be controversial and probably inconclusive, a distraction with no political upside. "It was a no-win situation," McCain said.
Kerry's staff unanimously urged him to reject the chairmanship, but he accepted it. "I thought as a Vietnam veteran that I had an obligation to my fellow Vietnam veterans and to all veterans to get the answers," he said.
The committee's hearings were contentious. Years of uncertainty had left relatives of the missing with raw emotions, and some of them lashed out.
"All of us who were veterans were accused of being murderers, being traitors," Kerrey said. "It got very, very ugly. People treated John McCain worst because he had been a POW and John Kerry the second-worst because he was chairman of the committee."
© 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)