WSJ: What John Kerry Said About Vietnam in 1992





From the editorial page of the WSJ (Feb. 5, 2004):

(Editor's note: Sen. Kerry delivered this speech on the Senate floor Feb. 27, 1992. The previous day, Sen. Bob Kerrey, a Vietnam veteran and candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, spoke in Atlanta, where he criticized fellow candidate Bill Clinton for his lack of military service during Vietnam.)

Mr. President, I also rise today--and I want to say that I rise reluctantly, but I rise feeling driven by personal reasons of necessity--to express my very deep disappointment over yesterday's turn of events in the Democratic primary in Georgia.

I am saddened by the fact that Vietnam has yet again been inserted into the campaign, and that it has been inserted in what I feel to be the worst possible way. By that I mean that yesterday, during this presidential campaign, and even throughout recent times, Vietnam has been discussed and written about without an adequate statement of its full meaning.

What is ignored is the way in which our experience during that period reflected in part a positive affirmation of American values and history, not simply the more obvious negatives of loss and confusion.

What is missing is a recognition that there exists today a generation that has come into its own with powerful lessons learned, with a voice that has been grounded in experiences both of those who went to Vietnam and those who did not.

What is missing and what cries out to be said is that neither one group nor the other from that difficult period of time has cornered the market on virtue or rectitude or love of country.

What saddens me most is that Democrats, above all those who shared the agonies of that generation, should now be refighting the many conflicts of Vietnam in order to win the current political conflict of a presidential primary.

The race for the White House should be about leadership, and leadership requires that one help heal the wounds of Vietnam, not reopen them; that one help identify the positive things that we learned about ourselves and about our nation, not play to the divisions and differences of that crucible of our generation.

We do not need to divide America over who served and how. I have personally always believed that many served in many different ways. Someone who was deeply against the war in 1969 or 1970 may well have served their country with equal passion and patriotism by opposing the war as by fighting in it. Are we now, 20 years or 30 years later, to forget the difficulties of that time, of families that were literally torn apart, of brothers who ceased to talk to brothers, of fathers who disowned their sons, of people who felt compelled to leave the country and forget their own future and turn against the will of their own aspirations?

Are we now to descend, like latter-day Spiro Agnews, and play, as he did, to the worst instincts of divisiveness and reaction that still haunt America? Are we now going to create a new scarlet letter in the context of Vietnam?

Certainly, those who went to Vietnam suffered greatly. I have argued for years, since I returned myself in 1969, that they do deserve special affection and gratitude for service. And, indeed, I think everything I have tried to do since then has been to fight for their rights and recognition.

But while those who served are owed special recognition, that recognition should not come at the expense of others; nor does it require that others be victimized or criticized or said to have settled for a lesser standard. To divide our party or our country over this issue today, in 1992, simply does not do justice to what all of us went through during that tragic and turbulent time.

I would like to make a simple and straightforward appeal, an appeal from my heart, as well as from my head. To all those currently pursuing the presidency in both parties, I would plead that they simply look at America. We are a nation crying out for leadership, for someone who will bring us together and raise our sights. We are a nation looking for someone who will lift our spirits and give us confidence that together we can grow out of this recession and conquer the myriad of social ills we have at home.

We do not need more division. We certainly do not need something as complex and emotional as Vietnam reduced to simple campaign rhetoric. What has been said has been said, Mr. President, but I hope and pray we will put it behind us and go forward in a constructive spirit for the good of our party and the good of our country.

Mr. Kerry, who served as a Navy lieutenant in Vietnam, is a Massachusetts senator and candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination.


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