Accessibility links

Breaking News

Kerry Candidacy Awakens Old Divisions Among Vietnam Vets - 2004-02-26

Vietnam has emerged as an issue in the U.S. presidential campaign. The frontrunner for the Democratic Party nomination, John Kerry, was a war hero, but his role as a spokesman for the anti-war veterans movement has sparked criticism from some quarters. The Kerry candidacy has re-ignited old divisions between veterans of the U.S. war in Vietnam of the 1960s and 1970s.

In 1971, several thousand American veterans of the war in Vietnam descended on Washington to protest the conflict, and a 27-year-old former U.S. Navy lieutenant named John Kerry was thrust into the limelight as a leader and spokesman for Vietnam Veterans Against the War - the VVAW.

Thirty-three years later, many Vietnam veterans are rallying to the Kerry presidential campaign, proud that one of their own is seeking the highest office in the United States. But other Vietnam veterans, bitter about Mr. Kerry's role in anti-war activities, are opposing his presidential campaign.

One Internet website, which calls itself Vietnam Veterans Against John Kerry, labels the U.S. senator and presidential candidate as a radical, hippie-like, anti-war leader.

Terry Garlock was a helicopter pilot in Vietnam. He is angry about Mr. Kerry's leadership of a group that accused U.S. troops in Vietnam of atrocities.

"A lot of good and decent people opposed the war and protested against it because they felt morally compelled to do so," he said. "But you have to ask yourself, how am I conducting myself in my protest? And John Kerry went way too far to the left with [American movie actress] Jane Fonda, and in doing so gave aid and comfort to an enemy that was still killing America's sons. That is the problem I have with him."

Not true, say Mr. Kerry's comrades of the anti-war veterans movement. Joe Bangert says that without their opposition, the war would have been longer and there would be more names of dead soldiers inscribed on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on the Mall in Washington.

"The efforts to shorten the war was not a bad thing, is not a traitorous thing," said Mr. Bangert. "In fact, anyone who goes to the Vietnam veterans memorial, if they look at the panels on the wall at the Vietnam veterans memorial, they have the Vietnam Veterans Against the War to thank for the number of panels that are not extended out further into that mall."

The VVAW came into being in 1967. Mr. Kerry got back from Vietnam two-years later.

The group held public hearings in Detroit in 1970 on alleged war crimes in Vietnam. When that failed to draw widespread publicity as they had hoped, the VVAW organized a veterans' march on Washington, called Dewey Canyon 3, for April of 1971. It was at that time that Mr. Kerry testified before the Senate committee, summarizing the testimony the anti-war veterans had given in Detroit.

"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," he said.

That testimony deeply offended some Vietnam veterans, like Ted Sampley a former Special Forces member who started the anti-Kerry Website.

"It was not true to start with," he said. "In my full two years in Vietnam, I had never seen anything like that. I am not saying that, on occasion, it may have happened. But it was not the policy of the United States.

"And I know that myself in my period, we would not have allowed it to happen," continued Mr. Sampley. "So it was very offensive, and more pro-Hanoi than anything else."

But former VVAW organizer Ken Campbell, who was a Marine in Vietnam and is now a professor of political science, says those who deny the war crimes took place are wrong. He says the anti-Kerry veterans are angry over losing the Vietnam war and are looking for someone to blame for it.

"This is part of that sort of stabbed-in-the-back lessons-of-Vietnam school," he said. "And I think the war crimes issue really rankles them."

In 1971, the anti-war veterans decided to camp out on the Mall in Washington, lobby their congressmen, and ceremonially return their war decorations. The protest came off peacefully, even when the government tried legal avenues to evict the veterans from the Mall.

Later that same year, Mr. Kerry left the VVAW to begin a political career that has culminated in his bid to become the first Vietnam veteran to be president of the United States.