Vietnam War, Peace Pivotal in Kerry's Life
McCain, a Navy pilot who spent more than five years in Vietnamese POW camps, recalled that when he came under attack during the hearings, Kerry would frequently "put a restraining hand on my arm" in a silent show of support. "I became very grateful that he did," McCain said.
Anthony Lake, who was Clinton's first national security adviser, said the missing from the Vietnam War constitute "a difficult and emotional issue because, even though there are huge numbers of Americans missing and unaccounted for from World War I, World War II and the Korean War, we hadn't lost those wars. The issue of the return of the remains to their families is very important psychologically, not just to the families but as part of a sense of closure, of being able to put it behind us. If the families couldn't have that closure, it's hard to argue that the nation would."
There were divisions within the committee as well. Smith, sponsor of the resolution that created the panel, tended to side with those who were most distrustful of the government's handling of the POW/MIA issue. "Smith had been fed a lot of strange and unusual information by strange and unusual people," said retired Army Gen. John W. Vessey Jr., who was appointed by President Ronald Reagan as liaison to the Vietnamese on the POW/MIA issue in the 1980s.
Smith clashed frequently with the volatile McCain; it fell to Kerry to mediate their sharply different points of view. "Smith came in pretty much convinced that there were still a large number of Americans being held captive in Vietnam," McCain said. "That's why John did such a miraculous job in getting every member of the committee to sign off on the phrase that said there is no compelling evidence that there are [captive] Americans alive in Southeast Asia. Our hearings were so exhaustive and thorough that you couldn't arrive at any other conclusion."
The committee's final report was hammered out in Kerry's conference room during negotiations that stretched over days. Salter, McCain's chief of staff, said it took "an unbelievably skillful, herculean effort" by Kerry to produce the unanimous result.
Not everyone was satisfied with the outcome. Ann Mills Griffiths, executive director of the National League of Families of American Prisoners and Missing in Southeast Asia, said the committee never focused on the key question, which, she said, was the degree to which Vietnam was cooperating with American authorities on the issue and whether it could do more. "That is still the question," she said. The report "was done for conscious reasons. They had an agenda to normalize political relations with Vietnam."
Smith, who now sells real estate in Florida, signed the report but later tried to distance himself from some of its conclusions. "I didn't believe the Vietnamese were totally forthcoming with us. I still don't think they have been completely forthcoming," he said.
In the end, the select committee under Kerry's leadership turned out to be "a springboard to normalization," Smith said. That is not at all what he had in mind when he started the endeavor, he said.
One Last Obstacle
The select committee issued its report on Jan. 13, 1993, one week before Clinton took office. By then Kerry and McCain, initially distant when McCain entered the Senate in 1987, had forged a strong friendship. Together, they set out to move the new administration the next steps along the road to normalization.
Kerry said he began to think about that subject in the late 1980s. He traveled to the Far East, saw the emergence of China, began to think about his own country's long-term interests in the region.
"I felt that it was important to the United States, in terms of the region and our own security interests and our long-term interests, to begin to get over the past, the war relationship," he said.
Kerry said he also realized that some resolution of the POW/MIA issue was necessary before normal relations with Vietnam could even be considered.
"I knew it was a step in moving in that direction," he said. "So did others [on the select committee] who resisted. . . . It happened to be a step that was critical, but it also absolutely had to be resolved on its own merits. You couldn't live as a country with people who had serious evidence that you may have left some soldiers behind and you didn't care."
After Kerry's committee completed its work, one more political obstacle remained: the newly elected president and his history as an opponent of the Vietnam War who had avoided military service during the conflict.
© 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)