Weekly Standard: Kerry Was Always a Peacenik
Matthew Continetti, in the Weekly Standard (Sept. 6, 2004):
IN 1965, JOHN KERRY, a junior at Yale and the newly appointed head of the Yale Political Union, was invited to give a speech at Choate, the tony prep school known mainly for its famous alumni Franklin Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy. Like Yale, Choate is in Connecticut, so Kerry didn't have to travel far. He went with his best friend, David Thorne, whose sister, Julia, would one day be Kerry's first wife. When they arrived at Choate, Kerry and Thorne, accompanied by the school's administrators, were led on a VIP tour of the facilities. Kerry's name was announced on the loudspeaker. A reporter from a Hartford radio station was there, too, for an interview with Kerry, who was all of 21 years old.
Head of the Yale Political Union is a high-profile position, a launching pad for careers both literary (William F. Buckley Jr., for example) and political (think Joseph Lieberman). Yet it was unusual, Douglas Brinkley writes in Tour of Duty, his biography of Kerry, for a junior in college to be treated as a special guest speaker at a place like Choate. Word of Kerry's debating skills, it seems, had spread. Kerry, dressed in his "handsomest suit," his rhetoric polished, his gestures rehearsed, spoke to about 30 high school students for nearly an hour. The topic was the war in Vietnam. Kerry was against it.
And he was nervous. "I hadn't any time to go over my speech at length before I gave it, and I was afraid that I would be too glued to my notes," Kerry wrote to Julia Thorne afterward. "But when I got up there, I felt sharper and more confident than I have ever felt before." A feeling of certainty enveloped him. He looked at his notes only rarely. He was pleased with how the question and answer session went as well. In fact, he wrote, "I really was pleased to pieces and very encouraged by the whole visit."
The speech--the snippets of it that survive, anyway--remains interesting, if only as a historical artifact. Over the last two weeks, of course, a group of anti-Kerry Vietnam veterans have run ads questioning John Kerry's service record and subsequent antiwar activities. But this narrative is incomplete. Kerry was already against the war before he went to Vietnam.
Look at the speech he gave at Choate that winter day in 1965. Kerry "declined to offer any proposals for ending the conflict," writes Douglas Brinkley. Instead, he waxed historical. The talk "outlined the history of Vietnam, covering everything from French colonialism to the rise of Ho Chi Minh to the lessons of the 1954 Geneva Conference, which had partitioned the country into two uneasy nations," Brinkley continues. Kerry's position on the conflict was--you guessed it--nuanced. He told the high school students that "he had originally supported a complete U.S. withdrawal on the grounds that the South Vietnamese government had fallen into disarray, anti-Americanism pervaded Southeast Asia, the Johnson administration's policies were failing, and the domino theory was a myth." But there were no easy answers. Kerry also understood "how important it remained for the United States not to lose face." Hence, Brinkley says, Kerry felt the Johnson administration had two options in Indochina: "Score a military victory" or "negotiate a peace."
"In the future," the Yale junior intoned, "the U.S. must fix goals which are tenable." The war in Vietnam wasn't such. What's more, "these goals should recognize priorities," and those priorities should "correspond minutely with our best national interests." The Cold War's Manichaean dichotomy--"Us" (the free world) against "Them" (the Communists)--troubled him. "We should concern ourselves less with other ideologies and attempt to apply a policy which is both sensitive and compatible with the expressed desires and cultures of the people involved," Kerry said. The lesson, in other words, was that American involvement in Vietnam was a mistake. And it should not be repeated....
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