Listening Again to Lt. John Kerry on Vietnam

Listen: Hear John Kerry's 1971 Statement Before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Plus Excerpts of Further Testimony

John Kerry speaks out against the Vietnam War on 'Meet the Press', April 18, 1971.

hide captionJohn Kerry speaks out against the Vietnam War on Meet the Press, April 18, 1971.

Bettmann/Corbis
John Kerry speaks out against the Vietnam War on 'Meet the Press,' April 18, 1971.

hide captionJohn Kerry speaks out against the Vietnam War on Meet the Press, April 18, 1971, four days before he testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

© Bettmann/Corbis

The first time I heard the words "John Kerry" and "president" at the same time was the spring of 1971. John Forbes Kerry, 27 years old, a Yalie, a Navy vet wearing battle ribbons on a rumpled Army fatigue shirt, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that he could not support the war in which he and other veterans had risked their lives and killed Vietnamese.

"Thirty years from now," he told a rapt audience, "when our brothers go down the street without a leg, without an arm or a face, and small boys ask why, we will be able to say 'Vietnam' and not mean a desert, not a filthy, obscene memory, but mean instead the place where America finally turned, and where soldiers like us helped it in the turning."

Highlights of Kerry's 1971 Senate Appearance

Hear Kerry On:

Listen Atrocities of War

Listen Anger of Vietnam Veterans

Listen A Turning Point for America

"I wish John Kerry was running for president," said my mother as we watched. She was a staunch Chicago Democrat. "He's got a JFK accent. JFK hair."

"He's got JFK's initials," said my Aunt Chris, an equally stalwart Illinois Republican.

(The speech has audible Kennedy accents. Adam Walinsky, who had been Robert Kennedy's most acclaimed speechwriter, lent John Kerry advice. But he did not write the speech, as Richard Nixon's White House operatives suggested.)

Thirty-three years later, John Forbes Kerry is running for president. The testimony you can hear here ignited his political career.

But just as obviously, it still infuriates some Vietnam veterans who believe that young John Kerry veered from protest into slander when he told senators he had heard other vets confess that "they had personally raped, cut off ears, cut off heads, (and) taped wires from portable telephones to human genitals and turned up the power..." Some veterans still blame John Kerry's testimony for lending credibility to a caricature of Vietnam veterans as lunatic baby-killers.

Before he became the presidential nominee, many Democrats enthusiastically compared John Kerry's honored military service with President Bush's spotty record with the Texas Air National Guard. The scene of John Kerry and his old shipmates sailing into the wind across the Charles River toward the Democratic convention in Boston was a photo-op to make Karl Rove grind his teeth.

But the young man who once testified, "(W)e are ashamed of and hated what we were called on to do in Southeast Asia... We wish that a merciful God could wipe away our own memories of that service," made his war record the metaphorical heart of his acceptance speech. Is John Kerry a mature man who is finally reconciled to his memories? Or is he a striving politician who now has the chance to make use of his past?

Interestingly, a number of John Kerry's supporters now say they wish he would denounce this administration's war in Iraq as powerfully as he once condemned the war in Vietnam. "(H)ow do you ask a man to be the last man to die in Vietnam?" he so hauntingly asked senators in 1971. "How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?" Does Senator Kerry think the Iraq war was immoral — or merely mishandled?

Many Americans believe the American public turned against the war in Vietnam in the wake of John Kerry's testimony and scores of protest marches. Millions certainly did. All of the music, films, and popular icons of the time that we know, from John Lennon (in his rumpled fatigues), to the doctors on M*A*S*H (in their rumpled olive drabs) certainly shore up the impression that America had turned, in John Kerry's phrase.

But American voters elected Richard Nixon in 1968 and 1972 — the second time overwhelmingly, over a peace candidate, George McGovern, who had been a decorated WWII combat bomber pilot. Whatever their qualms and anguish, the majority of American voters supported the war in Vietnam until U.S. troops departed in 1975.

I doubt that John Kerry, who has scrapped his way to three senate terms in Massachusetts's rambunctious politics, has forgotten that fact. To hear his testimony from 1971 might help us see both the young vet who knew how to motivate men, and the aspiring politician who knows how to speak the language of his time.

NPR's Scott Simon is host of Weekend Edition Saturday.

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