The Defining Generation
John Forbes Kerry
One of the best-known
maxims of foreign policy as related to military action is the statement,
"You don’t just send an army to war, you take a country to
war." The fact that both the (Lyndon) Johnson Administration and the
(Richard) Nixon Administrations failed to rally the American public behind
the war is often seen as the cause of our failure in
The reason for the failure of the Vietnam War is more appropriately better elucidated in an equally important maxim of military intervention that says, "Don't go to war without clear objectives." It was the lack of such clear objectives more than anything else that turned American youth against the war in the early days when they were asking insightful questions for which there were no honest or reasonable answers forthcoming.
Ours' was a generation
that grew up under the threat of nuclear attack. With regularity we
watched grainy black and white movies warning us of the evil Communists
that wanted to control the world or teaching us how to survive WHEN, not
IF, an attack came. It think it would be safe to say that for many of us
as we matured and no such attack materialized, Communism began to be
regarded much like the "boogie-man" our parents used to frighten
us into good behavior. There was little opposition to the war in the early
1960s when a few advisors were sent but when President Johnson escalated
the war in 1964-65, we asked questions for which we received only vague
and evasive answers. The excuse the President gave to justify the war, the
purported attack on American ships in the
It is important to remember that the young men and women who "came of age" in the 1960s was the best-educated generation in our history as they fulfilled the dreams of their Greatest Generation parents of getting a college education. In the beginning the anti-war movement was generally young, middle-class college students with unprecedented interests in world affairs and inquisitive minds. They responded well to rational arguments but disdained being patronized, propagandized, or lied to. Rather than responding to their questions about the war, the Administration tried its best to discredit their voices by painting them with a broad brush as being young, naïve, and radical. As the war escalated they were openly portrayed as Communist sympathizers and unpatriotic rebels.
As the movement grew following escalation of the war in 1965-66, so too grew the false profiling of the anti-war protesters as easy-to-disdain "long-haired, drugged-out hippies and Commies." Though the movement's ranks contained far more budding doctors, lawyers, politicians, and business leaders than hippies, this was an effective stereo-type propagated by pro-war politicians, the military, and even the media. Stories of an organized demonstration never showed pictures of well-dressed, neat and articulate young men and women. What generally appeared in the papers was the minority that fit the common profile.
The Johnson Administration was especially effective in its efforts to thus discredit and thereby ignore the growing anti-war movement which included not only the young but leaders who were themselves members of the older generation. Dr. Martin Luther King became the subject of F.B.I. investigation early in the Civil Rights movement and, after he joined the anti-war crusade he became an even bigger target. When efforts to portray him as a Communist failed the Johnson Administration tried to attack his personal character, LBJ himself calling King a "hypocrite preacher." Similar attacks were launched against such other older generation leaders by both Presidents Johnson and then Nixon as Congresswoman Bella Abzug, Dr. Benjamin Spock, and even Senator George McGovern who in World War II had become a war hero.
By 1967 some returning
veterans of the war in
The service of the
Vietnam Veterans who opposed the war, though largely a minority of
returning veterans, was difficult to discredit. Many used G.I. Bill
benefits to enroll in college and pursue distinguished degrees, but a few
dropped out and became part of sub-cultures that were still held in
disregard. As a result the anti-war vets were painted with a stereo-type
that made them generally less respectable in society: they were seen as
long-haired, drug-addicted souls who had committed atrocities that turned
them into psychotic civilians who showed up in military fatigues covered
with medals, patches and peace signs. A small number who did indeed fit
that profile, when found, made it possible to effectively validate the
false assumption that this fit them all. Furthermore, because being an
Such was the stereo-type in 1970 when a returning Navy Veteran became active in VVAW. The man's combat record was undeniable; he wore the Silver Star, Bronze Star, and three Purple Hearts. He was a Yale Graduate and a former officer who, well-dressed and with neat appearance, didn't fit the popular profile of an anti-war activist. His intelligent oratory insured that he could not be ignored by those who preferred to highlight the "way-out-there" veterans, and his service in answer to the call of duty could not be denied. Despite the best efforts of two Presidents, John Kerry remained a voice that couldn't be overlooked and a war hero whose service could not be discredited.
John Forbes Kerry was
born in the Fitzsimons Army hospital at
The Forbes family of
Richard Kerry and
Margaret Forbes met in
John Kerry recalls
returning to the Forbes estate called Les Essarts shortly after the
In 1950 Richard Kerry, with a Harvard law degree, took a job with the Office of the General Counsel for the Navy and one year later moved up to work in the State Department. Living in Washington, D.C. it was unavoidable that the Kerry's would develop an interest in politics that became even more exciting in 1952 when a young World War II Navy veteran from Massachusetts named John Fitzgerald Kennedy was elected to the Senate and seemed poised to become a political "star."
In 1954 Richard Kerry
accepted a high-level position as the U.S. Attorney for
One boy with whom John
did establish a close friendship was Richard Pershing, grandson of famed
World War I General John J. Pershing. The two met while attending the
necessarily academically in the top of his high school classes, John Kerry
excelled at debate--perhaps because it was something he was so good at. In
his sophomore year he founded the John Winant Society to debate current
issues, a club that exists to this day. He got plenty of practice--St.
Pauls' student body was largely conservative and Kerry's Democratic
leanings put him at odds with the popular majority on campus. When
Massachusetts Senator John F. Kennedy, who had been the subject of much
discussion around the dinner table during John's boyhood began his
presidential campaign, he had an ardent supporter at St. Pauls. On
between John Fitzgerald Kennedy and John Forbes Kerry, far beyond their
common initials and their
One month before
entering Yale in 1962 to pursue a degree in Political Science John Kerry
was invited to visit his friend Janet Auchincloss' family's estate in
Kerry then remembered that his hero was a Harvard man and blushed. Kennedy however, quickly put the budding politician at ease. Calling to mind the fact that he had recently received an honorary degree from Yale the President replied, "It might be said now that I have the best of both worlds, a Harvard education and a Yale degree."[iii] It only served to cement the young soon-to-be college student's loyalty and hero-worship of President John F. Kennedy. Later Kennedy, whose affection for sailing was well known, even took young Kerry with him on an outing aboard the yacht.
sophomore year at Yale he became president of the Yale Political Union,
involving himself in sweeping issues like the Civil Rights movement. In
his first semester he was stunned by the death of his role model when John
Kennedy was shot and killed in
including Richard Pershing with whom he was reunited at Yale, were quick
to see that John Kerry was destined for a large role in American politics.
Issues and causes seemed to be his consuming interest, debate was a skill
in which he had no equal on campus, and his eyes shone with an intensity
fueled by an inner drive. When he graduated with a B.A. in 1966, it was
John F. Kerry who was chosen to give the class speech at graduation. It
was an issue-driven commencement address in which he intoned that
One year after graduating from Yale Ensign John F. Kerry was assigned to the U.S.S. Gridley (CG-21), an escort destroyer in the Pacific Fleet. He started as Electrical Officer and performed those duties for four months and then was assigned responsibility for the decks. His unique abilities also resulted in his being assigned duties as the Public Affairs Officer. Captain James F. Kelly, the ship's executive officer who opposed Kerry's 2005 Presidential bid, recalls despite his negative feelings about the young officer's later activities, "I remember him as a serious and intelligent young ensign, seemingly mature beyond his years. The skipper and I were mightily impressed with him in spite of his inexperience… Drafting his fitness reports was an exercise in the use of superlatives. In fact, of the thirty or so officers, I counted him in the top half dozen, no mean feat for an ensign."[v]
Early in 1968 the
Gridley was deployed to the Gulf of Tonkin where it ran routine patrols
and stood by to recover pilots returning from action over North Vietnam
that were forced to ditch at sea. In February Kerry received stunning
news; Second Lieutenant Richard Warren Pershing had been killed in action
on February 17 while searching for a missing soldier after a firefight. He
was subsequently buried at
What Kerry did not know
at that time but would subsequently learn was that four days before
Pershing was killed his friend from St. Pauls, First Lieutenant Peter
Wythe Johnson had also been killed in
Returning home aboard
the Gridley in the spring of 1968 Kerry was promoted to Lieutenant, Junior
Grade (j.g.) on June 16. He had requested to be trained to command a Fast
Patrol Craft (PCF), the Navy's equivalent to the World War II PT Boats and
now called "Swift Boats," and then to be assigned to duty in
Vietnam. He began training on June 20 and arrived in
It should be noted that
military regulations authorize the Purple Heart "For wounds or death
as result of an act of any opposing armed force." There is no
specific regulation regarding the severity of the wound other than that it
require treatment by a medical officer, medic or corpsman. While most
Purple Hearts have been awarded for grievous wounds and many were pinned
to the pajamas of a man or woman recovering in a hospital, there was no
shortage of what we called "band aid" Purple Hearts in
On December 6
Lieutenant (j.g.) Kerry was assigned as commander of PCF-44 operating out
of An Thoi in the delta area far south of
On Christmas Eve Lieutenant (j.g.) Kerry and his crew went up river in a mission he later claimed also took them into Cambodia, a neutral area that provided harbor to the enemy but that was off limits to U.S. Forces until 1970. Despite a Christmas truce PCF-44 suddenly came under mortar attack from hidden Viet Cong soldiers. While returning fire Steve Wasser, Kerry's second-in-command, watched as bullets from his M-60 machine gun cut down what appeared to be an old man tending his water buffalo and behind whom the enemy had hidden their position. The apparent death of an innocent civilian who had been caught in the cross fire of opposing forces made a profound impact on Wasser who says the memories of that moment now prevents him from enjoying Christmas. Kerry himself says he was unaware of that killing until Wasser told him about it in 2003.[vii]
The Vietnam War was indeed a complicated way to fight a war. It was difficult to tell friend from foe; the Vietnamese girl who walked into the base camp each day to clean your hootch might well be pacing it off to deliver accurate coordinates to an enemy mortar team that would drop a devastating bombardment on you at night. American combat troops found themselves confronted with an Army--the North Vietnamese (NVA), an insurgency--the Viet Cong (South Vietnamese Communists), and an innocent population caught in the middle and leaning in loyalty to which ever side posed the least immediate threat to their existence. For that reason some new methods of fighting were developed: "Reconnaissance by Fire" (shooting into a potential area in hopes of killing or flushing the enemy), "Mad Minutes" (a 60-second release of all weapons on a defensive perimeter at varied times throughout the night), "Sterile Boxes" (a 1-kilometer-square grid on the map inside which there was not supposed to be friendly forces or civilians), and the similarly designed "Free Fire Zones." Some American combatants found these as necessary measures to their own survival, others found them to be serious violations of the proper way to conduct a war. Lieutenant (j.g.) John Kerry numbered among the latter.
misgivings that haunted his conscience, as a Naval officer he continued to
perform his duty. It was sometimes difficult to reconcile the two, as on
the night of
In January Kerry's crew was transferred and he assumed command of Swift Boat No. 94 (PCF-94) which had recently been heavily engaged and the skipper wounded. On February 20 when his new boat was attacked while moving up the Bo De River, shrapnel from an enemy Rocket Propelled Grenade (RPG) struck Kerry in the thigh. It was a minor wound and doctors decided it better to simply suture the wound without removing the shrapnel rather than inflict further damage through surgery. He returned to duty and the shrapnel remains in his body to this day. It marked award of his second Purple Heart.
Eight days later PCF-94 was patrolling with two other Swift Boats when they came under fire. In violation of protocol Lieutenant (j.g.) Kerry directed all three boats, which were under his tactical command, to beach and pursue the enemy. It was an act some might perceive as an expression of frustration at being shot at by an enemy that hit and ran, by others as a dangerous decision that could endanger his craft and crews. The great Marine Corps icon General Chesty Puller once told a comrade that "There is only a hairline's difference between a Navy Cross and a general court-martial." Lieutenant (j.g.) Kerry was initially concerned that he might indeed be court-martialed, instead he was awarded the Silver Star--one step below the Navy Cross.
On March 13 Lieutenant (j.g.) Kerry received a third shrapnel wound for a third Purple Heart, a ticket home under Navy policy. Before his force of Swift Boats could return to base however, an exploding mine or rocket threw him against the bulkhead injuring his arm and tossing James Rassmann, a Special Forces advisor along for that mission, into the water. Kerry's subsequent actions in returning to the scene to rescue Rassmann from the water earned him a Bronze Star in addition to his other awards. After a final patrol on March 26 John Kerry came home to serve as a personal aide to Rear Admiral Walter Schlech.
A rally in November
drew 250,000 protestors to
With the words of Judy
Droz haunting him and seeing more and more veterans joining the anti-war
crowd, John Kerry requested and received early discharge from active duty
early in 1970. He had served three years and eight months including a
deployment aboard the U.S.S. Gridley in the waters of the
In February Kerry, now a civilian on Navy Reserve status, mounted a brief campaign for a vacant Massachusetts Third Congressional District House Seat under an anti-war platform. Ultimately, in the citizens caucus he withdrew and put his support behind anti-war Democrat Robert Drinnan who won election and later repaid Kerry with critical support to his own political ambitions. In May Kerry married his girlfriend of six years Julia Thorn, drawing attention from the New York Times which reported: "Miss Julia Stimson Thorne, whose ancestors helped to shape the American republic in its early days, and John Forbes Kerry, who wants to help steer it back from what he considers a wayward course, were married this afternoon at the 200-acre Thorne family estate (on Long Island).”[ix]
In November Kerry gave
his first speech as part of his efforts to "steer (his country) back
from (its) wayward course" during a VVAW rally at
Soldier Hearings remain one of the most bitterly remembered and
divisive protests of the Vietnam War. Based upon the testimony of 108
veterans and a few civilians who had worked in
John Kerry did not personally participate in those hearings but his role as a leader in VVAW and his subsequent Senate testimony linked him inexorably to the event. Senator Fulbright, who as Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee had held continuous hearings that expanded upon the 1968 testimony of General Shoup, heard three days of testimony in April 1971. John Kerry was the first called to testify in the televised event.
Dressed in green Navy
utility shirt and with the ribbons for his medals above his left breast
pocket, Kerry testified from a prepared statement with the oratorical
skills for which he had become already renown. Speaking for the
1,000-member VVAW he told members of the Committee, "In our opinion,
and from our experience, there is nothing in
Recalling the hearings in Detroit two months earlier he noted: "we had an investigation at which over 150 honorably discharged and many very highly decorated veterans testified to war crimes committed in Southeast Asia, not isolated incidents but crimes committed on a day-to-day basis with the full awareness of officers at all levels of command....They told the stories at times they had personally raped, cut off ears, cut off heads, taped wires from portable telephones to human genitals and turned up the power, cut off limbs, blown up bodies, randomly shot at civilians, razed villages in fashion reminiscent of Genghis Khan, shot cattle and dogs for fun, poisoned food stocks, and generally ravaged the countryside of South Vietnam in addition to the normal ravage of war, and the normal and very particular ravaging which is done by the applied bombing power of this country."[xi]
Those few sentences came to define John Kerry more than any other words of the anti-war movement. Thousands of veterans felt then, and remain convinced today, that a former Swift Boat commander had impugned the nature of their honorable service and portrayed them all as war criminals. Those sentences may well have cost him the Presidential election of 2005. At the time however, before a generally sympathetic panel of Senators, his testimony demonstrated his keen mind and finely-tuned oratorical skill. His clean-cut, All-American image on television confronted the false image many Americans had of the members of the anti-war crowd. In fact, in that moment the face of the Vietnam War protester morphed from being that of a drugged out rebel to the face of an heroic former Naval officer. The face of John Forbes Kerry may well have become the face of the anti-war effort. Mention it today and John Kerry is often the first person to come to mind.
Following the Senate
Hearings Kerry, in cooperation with VVAW, published The New Soldier,
containing his Senate testimony, details from the Winter
Soldier Hearings, and his reasons for opposing the war in
Over the next year
Kerry continued his high-profile efforts to bring the war to a quick end
though not without opposition. Many Vietnam Veterans were outraged at his
testimony, perhaps with good reason, though the conviction of Lieutenant
William Calley for the murders at
In 1972 John Kerry
became less active in VVAW and, buoyed by his high public profile, ran
again for a Congressional Seat in
Kerry's detractors, generally unable to discredit his distinguished service, sometimes resorted to attacking his character. Some have intoned that his anti-war activism was simply an opportunistic rally to an issue that could get him before the public. Even his friends acknowledge that John Kerry was always an opportunist. Ironically, in The Land of Opportunity, being an opportunist is not always seen as a good thing--especially when it defines an individual who remains as controversial thirty-five years after the war as he was during the war.
Love him or hate him, believe him or revile him, there is no doubt that John Forbes Kerry sincerely believed what he said, said it with eloquence, and accepted the consequences. If in fact there were only limited consequences in the 1970s, there can be little doubt he paid for exercising his right of free speech in 2005. In a close Presidential election Kerry lost, perhaps because of the activist opposition of former Vietnam War comrades who refused to forget or forgive.
Free speech is a fundamental of our American society, a safety-valve to force us to see both sides of every issue. When voicing a dissenting opinion however, free speech may be a costly right to exert. For John Kerry, expressing his dissent came at a very high cost.
* Another daughter, Diana was born in 1947 and a second son, Cameron was born in 1950.
Kranish, Michael, Brian C. Mooney & Nina J. Easton, John F.
Kerry-The Complete biography by the Boston Globe Reporters who Know
Him Best, Public Affairs, New York, 2004, p 23.
[ii] Ibid, p 32.
[iii] Ibid, p 32.
[iv] Ibid, p 54.
[vi] Kranish, Michael, ibid, P 65-66
[vii] ibid, p 88.
[viii] Ibid, p 113.
[ix] Ibid, p 115
Kerry, John F., Testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations
The Defining Generation: Copyright © 2006 by Doug and Pam Sterner
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