John Kerry seems intent on dragging the Vietnam War into this year’s presidential race. He surrounds himself with Vietnam veterans during campaign appearances and in his TV ads. One ad currently running in Georgia features former Senator Max Cleland telling viewers, “He’s been tested on the battlefield.” His message is simple: strong leadership in Vietnam will mean strong leadership in the White House.
Recently, Kerry even challenged President Bush to a debate on Vietnam. In a letter sent to the White House, Kerry wrote, “If you want to debate the Vietnam era, and the impact of our experiences on our approaches to presidential leadership, I am prepared to do so.” He also seems ready to play the “chicken hawk” card against Republicans. He told George Stephanopoulos on ABC’s This Week, “I don’t know what it is that all these Republicans who didn’t serve in Vietnam or fighting any war have against us who did.”
In the unlikely event of such a debate, Republicans might want to enlist the services of journalist Sydney Schanberg. Recently, the Village Voice, not known for its conservative leanings, ran a long article by Schanberg entitled, “When John Kerry’s Courage Went M.I.A.” Schanberg accuses Kerry of “covering up evidence of POWs left behind” when the U.S. bugged out of Saigon in 1975. He accomplished this, Schanberg writes, during his co-chairmanship of the Senate Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs from 1991 to 1993.
Schanberg has been writing about POW/MIA issues for years. He thinks that “an abundance of evidence” indicates that Hanoi “held back” many more American prisoners than it released after the 1973 treaty. Among the evidence, he points to hundreds of live sightings, radio intercepts, and satellite photography, all of which Kerry helped to suppress. He cites no less an authority than James Schlesinger, who served as both a CIA director and Secretary of Defense from 1973 to 1975. At a committee hearing, Schlesinger was asked “did we leave men behind.” His answer: “I think that as of now, I can come to no other conclusion?Some were left behind.”
But Kerry actively sought to minimize and cover up such evidence during his stewardship of the Senate investigation. He ordered his staff to shred intelligence documents, he refused to subpoena key witnesses and documents, and he had his staff advise North Vietnamese officials how to plead their case before the committee. Of course, the cover-up wouldn’t have been so effective without the complicity of the media. And Schanberg doesn’t think the media will hold Kerry accountable this time around either.
So far, he’s right. After his return from Vietnam, Kerry became an anti-war activist and publicly accused U.S. servicemen of committing unspeakable atrocities on Vietnamese civilians. Last December, a New York Times reporter quoted his 1971 Senate testimony at length on the subject. But on CNN, he denied that he had ever made such accusations. “I never said that,” he told Judy Woodruff. At least she asked; Kerry managed to work in several references to his Vietnam service during their interview, but Stephanopoulos never brought up his anti-war past.