Presidential Debate 2004: “It’s Vietnam, Stupid!”

John Wohlstetter
Discovery Institute
September 29, 2004
Print ArticleFormer President Clinton called from his hospital bed to advise John Kerry to stop talking about a war that ended three decades ago and instead discuss issues. Sound advice for Kerry but not for voters. Kerry’s focus on Vietnam is ideal because that history reveals to voters the essence of John Kerry.

Rating John Kerry and George Bush on the issues is a snap. Only the politically challenged cannot tell Texas conservatives from Massachusetts liberals. Voters already know who Bush is. But those with no memory of Vietnam must be able to answer one vital question: ”Just who is John Forbes Kerry?”

The period that formed Kerry’s character and worldview covers college, Vietnam and his antiwar-leader years. How remote is that time? A 50-year-old in 2004 was 19 in 1973 when the Paris Accords were signed and the prisoners of war came home. Memo to voters with parents under 50: Ask a grandparent.

A 1968 Christmas patrol inside Cambodia’s border while President Nixon denied any U.S. presence there is “seared” in Kerry’s memory. But records show that he was not then inside Cambodia, and Nixon was still President-elect. Memory transposition is a more likely explanation than an easily checked lie. Vietnam is his political North Star, so he reconstructs events to amplify his war narrative.

More than any political figure of his generation Kerry was molded by Vietnam combat and his nationally visible antiwar leadership at home. He contrasts his record with Bush’s National Guard stint and rejects criticism of his antiwar role, despite sure political gain from repudiating antiwar hyperbole. Why? Because any major concession implodes Kerry’s foreign policy moral calculus.

Kerry’s incessant reference to Vietnam has attracted attention from political pundits and late-night comics. But a candidate who harps on a particular life experience sends a self-revelatory message. That Kerry constantly trumpets his Vietnam bio as his flagship campaign theme places his service—and the postwar advocacy he mentions less often—squarely in issue.

Swing voters will learn nothing useful about Kerry from his recitation of canned positions on issues, crafted to blur the rough edges of a New England liberalism they do not share. Vietnam greatly amplified Kerry’s bedrock “’60s” convictions: (1) American power often serves amoral or fraudulent purposes while blocking legitimate aspirations of post-colonial peoples; (2) the United Nations should take the lead in securing world peace; (3) international and domestic dissenters who opposed America’s Vietnam intervention were—and remain—morally right.

Kerry dismisses as mere word-quibbling calls to retract past accusations that American soldiers routinely committed Vietnam atrocities. For him moral validity trumps factual precision. His clear preference for Iraqi war opponents France and Germany over staunch allies like Britain and Australia tracks his distrust of American power. His vote against funding postwar Iraq democracy parallels the UN Charter’s domestic blank check given dictatorships.

Kerry did support humanitarian intervention in Bosnia, Kosovo and Haiti, but his vote against the 1991 Gulf War is a better proxy for his terror policy: States aiding terror indirectly need not fear regime change; America will fight only if attacked directly and target only the attacker. Kerry’s Vietnam worldview augurs a terror war fought along pre-9/11 lines, one more narrowly focused and reactive than Bush’s post-9/11 wide-open, proactive war.

Voters need all facts behind Kerry’s Vietnam obsession to fully take his measure. But Kerry’s selective disclosure blocks measurement while his attack on Bush’s non-combat service—after giving Bill Clinton a pass on going to Oxford—deflects inquiry. (Bush’s National Guard service is irrelevant, because it played little if any role in defining who Bush is; and in the event Bush will be judged not by his biography but on his performance as President.) Candidates are neither sole owners of their campaign biography nor entitled to their own facts. Kerry biographer Douglas Brinkley has called on Kerry to release his service record. Full disclosure will give undecided voters the necessary “Kerry key.”

Kerry’s shift to an all-out anti-Iraq war position returns to his Vietnam roots. Ironically, Kerry pays a stiff price both for not recanting post-Vietnam canards and for being politically expedient on Iraq. Better to have followed Jane Fonda’s lead and apologize for Vietnam era excess; better to have affirmed his Vietnam worldview by voting against authorizing Iraqi Freedom—in 1991 he voted against an Iraq war that even the UN and his favorite allies supported. Policy consistency would have enabled Kerry to credibly carry the 2004 antiwar banner.

“It’s Vietnam, stupid!”

John C. Wohlstetter is a Senior Fellow at the Seattle-based Discovery Institute.