The Vietnam War has been over for 10 years, but not here. It has blazed up as an issue in the slam-bang Senate fight between conservative Republican Ray Shamie and John Kerry, a much-decorated combat veteran who came home to lead the Vietnam Veterans against the War in the most powerful and moving protest of the time.
Gen. George S. Patton III, the flamboyant field commander who once said he "loved to see the arms and legs flying" in battle, came to Boston to blast Kerry for "probably" causing "some of my guys to get killed" by his dissidence. "There's no soap ever been invented that can wash that blood off his hands."
The son of the famous World War II "blood and guts" general went too far in his attack on Kerry, even by local standards, and Shamie immediately declared that "enough s enough" and accepted Patton's resignation as honorary chairman of Veterans for Shamie.
Patton's offensive was launched at a press conference called by the John Birch Society, with which Shamie briefly flirted in 1975 -- he went to one meeting and found the members to be "normal folks," he said, although he has "divorced" himself from their beliefs. Society spokesman John McManus branded Kerry a "communist sympathizer."
Vietnam, it should be noted, was also crucial in the primary. Kerry's chief opponent, Rep. James Shannon, the knowledgeable young congressman who was Tip O'Neill's favorite to take Paul Tsongas' seat, indiscreetly baited Kerry for being initially "wrong" about the war. Kerry pounced on a slur against all Vietnam vets, and the dispute shaped the outcome.
Shamie's people, juggling the two grenades, claim that charges that Shamie is a right-wing kook are as serious as attacks on Kerry's patriotism.
"Ray is no more a Bircher than John is a communist," says Shamie's media adviser, Todd Domke. "What happened long ago is not an issue in this campaign."
But Bay State Democrats are pretty churned up about one ghost or the other. In a beautiful Cambridge mansion, the gentry blanch at the thought of the once most progressive state sending a right- wing extremist to the Senate. At a working-class fund-raiser in Dorchester sponsored by Mayor Ray Flynn, a World War II veteran was beside himself about the general .
"Listen," he said, grabbing the candidate's lapels. "They don't give Purple Hearts for nothing. You know it and I know it."
Kerry has three Purple Hearts and both Silver and Bronze Stars for his naval service in Vietnam.
Shamie lieutenants concede that the furor has slowed down the drive of the self-made millionaire. Both sides seem to think that the outcome may be decided elsewhere, in Kansas City to be exact, when Reagan and Mondale meet for their second debate. If Reagan does well, Shamie could hope to overcome Kerry's present nine-point lead. Massachusetts went for Reagan once and could again, despite Mondale's strong showing in the first debate.
Shamie is not only a Reagan echo and shadow on substance. His style is an exact reflection of Reagan's. The 63- year old tycoon has a soothing, smiling on-camera presence.
He is also, like his hero, sometimes shaky on the facts, but great at slogans.
He comes across to Mayor Flynn, a popular populist, who serves as Kerry's ambassador to the blue-collar world, as "a warm American." Shamie has a Reaganesque allure for denizens of three-deckers.
His style enabled him to bury Elliot Richardson, the pride of the Yankees and the hope of the state's dwindling Republican moderates, under a 2-to-1 margin in the primary election. That, and the fervor of conservatives who revere Shamie for taking a dive against Edward Kennedy in 1982, and doing better than any previous kamikaze candidates.
Kerry is aristocratically tall and handsome, well-versed, well-spoken and well-mannered. But his approach is lofty and his tone in debating the chatty Shamie is rhetorical almost to the point of pomposity. The South Boston Irish find Kerry "slick," "too pretty" and "ambitious."
The tribal pull exerted by the Kennedys, who were at least some of the above, is absent.
"At the Eire pub, they don't think he's one of them," a regular observed. "He's half wasp, you know. His mother was a Forbes."
Shamie, an industrialist, has spent so far in the primary and the general election campaign a million dollars of his own money. Kerry, who refuses PAC funds, is hard up and only this week has been able to air television commercials to counter a Shamie barrage showing him as a bigger spender than Mondale .
Massachusetts is a state that forgets nothing. They remember the war, which they passionately opposed. They remember that the John Birch Society was founded within its borders. And they remember Jimmy Carter, who had their deepest antipathy. Mondale broke that tie in his first debate.
But the past is powerful and operative here, and nobody is making any bets.