AUSTIN, Texas – Secretary of State John F. Kerry discussed the driving role of the Vietnam War in his life’s work at a conference on the war Wednesday night, talking in unusually personal terms about his experiences as a combatant and a protester.
In a speech at the LBJ Presidential Library, Kerry had to pause and regain control of his emotions while recalling his most famous statement ever while testifying before a Senate committee after he returned from Vietnam and became a leader of Vietnam Veterans Against the War.
Kerry rarely discusses in public his time as an anti-war protester. His pointed remarks suggested that the poised, silver-haired diplomat who negotiates ceasefires and treaties is just an evolution from the angry, shaggy-maned protester who posed the rhetorical question of how to ask a man to be the last to die for a mistake.
“In 1971, when I testified against the war in Vietnam,” Kerry said, “I spoke of the determination of veterans to undertake one last mission so that in 30 years, when our brothers went down the street without a leg or an arm and people asked why, we’d be able to say ‘Vietnam’ and not mean a bitter memory . . ..”
Then Kerry stopped, seeming to choke back tears and taking a chug from a water bottle before he composed himself and completed the thought.
“. . .. a bitter memory,” he continued, “but mean instead the place where America turned and where we helped it in the turning.”
Now, 45 years later, Kerry said, the corner has been turned in Vietnam, a country he will visit next month accompanying President Barack Obama on a trip that will highlight mutual economic and strategic interests.
The few hours Kerry spent at the Vietnam War summit felt at times like paging through a Kerry scrapbook, infused with sights and sounds that reached deep into his memory banks.
Touring the LBJ Library, he paused before an exhibit that explained 385,000 U.S. troops were in Vietnam in 1966.
“I was one of those 385,” Kerry said, before moving on to another placard saying fewer than half of Americans supported President Johnson’s policies in Vietnam by 1967, a timeline he expressed surprise over.
In the background could be heard strains of a soundtrack of the Johnson era, a video featuring clips of newscasts reporting battles in Vietnam, civil rights marches and protest songs. David Thorne, a senior advisor to Kerry who was with Kerry on the tour, said it brought back a flood of memories.
“You feel the tension, the edge of the time,” said Thorne, who has been a close friend of Kerry’s since they attended Yale and, after graduating, enlisted to go to Vietnam. “It was a sense of, my God, the world’s gone mad.”
Early in his speech, Kerry said that a 10-part documentary in the works by filmmaker Ken Burns will vindicate critics of the war.
“Those who expressed concern about the way the war in Southeast Asia was conducted were, I think this film will show, clearly justified in those concerns,” he said. “I’m not going to dredge up all the old arguments – that is well-trodden ground by myself and by others. I know we’re gonna be reminded by Ken Burns’ documentary, there were mistakes in leadership, mistakes in communications in strategy. There were huge mistakes in the basic assumptions about the war. So it’s not a surprise that public support virtually disappeared at a critical point in time.”
Kerry also said the blame some Americans placed on U.S. servicemen and women was “tragically misplaced.”
“I know that well as one of the four founders of the Vietnam Veterans against the War,” he said, citing inadequate benefits for veterans, as well as homelessness and trauma.
“So when we talk about the lessons of Vietnam – here’s number one: Whether a war is popular or unpopular, we must always – always – treat our returning vets with the dignity and respect they have earned by virtue of their service to the nation.”
Kerry called for Americans to move forward from the war’s lingering pains and divisions.
He recalled working with Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., to investigate whether any Americans were still alive as POWs, at times climbing into deep pits where planes had crashed looking for human remains. At one point, they even dug under the tomb of Ho Chi Minh investigating a report Americans were captives there in a subterranean prison. Their efforts paved the way for normalization of relations with Vietnam, and the search for remains of Americans missing in action is ongoing.
“This process of accounting tells you something not only about us as Americans and keeping faith those who fall in battle,” he said. “It also tells you something about the incredible openness of the Vietnamese people, who helped us search for the remains of our fallen troops even as the vast majority of theirs, a million strong probably, would never be found. They allowed helicopters to land unannounced in hamlets that brought back bitter memories of the war itself.”
In an onstage talk with Burns, Kerry said he is reminded of Vietnam’s lessons when he is involved in negotiations aiming to end wars in far-flung locales.
Kerry told Burns he had “deep reservations” about an all-volunteer military.
“I think that there should be shared responsibility among all Americans,” he said. “I think that’s one of the best ways that you don’t have wars.”
Though he stopped short of endorsing a draft, he expressed support for some form of national service.
“I think every American ought to find a way to serve somehow,” he said. “It doesn’t have to be in the military. There are plenty of things to do. But I rather like still the idea that everybody ought to give back something.”
Kerry repeated a theme he has frequently mentioned, rooted in his war experience “If you are gonna ask young men and women to go and put their lives on the line, and if not die suffer perhaps grievous injury and live with whatever kind of injury for the rest of their lives, you’d better make damn sure you tried everything possible that is legitimate to first exercise diplomacy and make war the last resort.”
But Kerry said he is not a pacifist, citing the military campaign against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.
“We’re living in a period where we have to call on people to go into harm’s way, particularly against Daesh, some other people who threaten us and with whom there is nothing to negotiate,” he said, using the Arabic acronym for the group.
Kerry said he was one of the lucky ones, who returned from Vietnam whole. “I am now in a position of responsibility, to live my beliefs, to live my lessons,” he said.
As Kerry left the stage, a loudspeaker played the ’60s anti-war anthem by Peter, Paul and Mary, “Blowin’ in the Wind.”