As it always seems to do, ambition was calling John Kerry 40 years ago next week when he stepped into the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing room in Washington, D.C. and delivered the speech of his life.
Forty years later, Kerry’s speech underscoring the tragedy and immorality of a war fought by brave men and women for all the wrong reasons in the wrong place is frozen in time as his magnum opus. It was an honest speech. We would be well served to hear such a speech today about our seemingly endless involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan.
History has shown we should never have been involved in a war in Vietnam. Iraq and Afghanistan are not Vietnam, but those wars resemble them in length, human tragedy and colossal waste. The lessons and the insights in Kerry’s speech then are relevant today.
It was arguably the speech of an epoch given at a moment in our history when we were a nation locked in social revolution and paralyzed by divisions: old against young; rich against poor; blacks against whites; men against women; and those who wanted to continue the Vietnam War versus those who believed it was immoral and should be immediately ended.
Kerry was 28, his life stretching before him like an endless dream, when he crossed his personal Rubicon and entered the hearing room over which he now presides.
Kerry’s speech about the failure of American policy in Vietnam, broadcast to the nation, galvanized the anti-war movement and set in motion his future in politics. Not in the history of this nation, until that April day in 1971, had a former Naval officer decorated for bravery renounced his medals and the war he fought in with the nation watching and listening.
In the pre-cell-phone, pre-Internet, pre-blogging, pre-Twitter, pre-9/11 world of this era, it was a speech for our time—and not many who were much younger during that day and year can say they missed it.
It was a soaring, epic moment in the life and times of the anti-war movement during the Vietnam War when Kerry strode into the hearing room. He passed by so close to me I could have touched him. I was 21, a senior at American University working in a congressional office on the Hill as an aide. I had been sent to the Senate office building to pick up official papers. It was purely by chance that I was allowed into the hearing room. His Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW) comrades crowding the chamber exploded with applause when Kerry appeared. The applause intensified. It did not stop.
Cameramen from NBC, CBS and ABC adjusted their lenses. They zoomed in on Kerry’s face and his lantern jaw. Then they pulled back to fit his wholesome image full-frame onto the 1971-era television screen.
His VVAW comrades were downtrodden and beaten in appearance with long hair, beards and bandanas, wearing peace signs and tattered fatigues. Some were missing legs or arms. Some were blind or missing eyes and fingers. A few had no faces. More than a few were clearly out of their minds.
After 10 years in Vietnam, we weren’t certain who the enemy was or who we were anymore or exactly why our young soldiers were fighting and dying. As many might say we are today lost in the lifeless desert sands of Iraq and in the unforgiving mountains of Afghanistan, 40 years ago, we were lost in the jungles of Southeast Asia with no sure way out.
Kerry took his seat at the witness table not too far from where he sits today as the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He placed his speech down in front of him. The veterans and protesters waiting for him to speak punctuated lengthy applause with clenched fists in the air and emotional cries of “Right on, man.”
Kerry was serene and alert under the glare of the hot lights, the lonely soldier lost in his own thoughts awaiting battle. His polished combat boots, clean fatigues, and clean, long black hair neatly combed back were in stark contrast to the expensive, finely tailored suits he wears today. The Silver and Bronze Stars and three Purple Hearts Kerry had earned for gallantry in Vietnam were pinned just above the pocket of his Navy-issue shirt in a neat row. He was the quintessence of the Naval officer hero, Yale graduate turned anti-war patriot who was there to awaken the conscience of the nation.
Sen. Fulbright pounded his gavel. The chamber crowd grew silent. Destiny was calling. Kerry introduced himself to the senators and to the nation. He said he was but one voice among many and that he wanted to talk about the feelings of those who had served in Vietnam, who were taught to trade in violence, who were given a chance to die for the biggest nothing in history.
He spoke about their anger and sense of betrayal, of American young men dying in rice paddies and for what—to protect corrupt regimes—and the ultimate indignity told to the nation by the generals leading the war that we were Vietnamizing the Vietnamese.
Kerry said there was nothing whatsoever in South Vietnam that could happen that realistically could threaten the United States.
“We are asking Americans to think about that because how do you ask a man to be the last man to die in Vietnam? How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?”
The chamber erupted. Wild applause went on for about three minutes. A profound message had been sent to the nation. The senators watched with awe.
The Iraq War has lasted nearly a decade. We’ve spent a decade in Afghanistan. The end is in sight, but once again, we are training the Iraqis and the Afghans to protect themselves, just as we were training the South Vietnamese to protect themselves from the North Vietnamese.
The questions raised by Kerry in 1971 are the same questions that should be raised today.
Who has to be the last man or woman to die in Iraq or Afghanistan and what will have been gained for the sacrifice?
Forty years later, he must be wondering, how do you ask a man or woman serving bravely in our armed forces to die for a mistake?
Josh Resnek’s articles have appeared in the New York Times and the Boston Globe. He won an Emmy Award for investigative reporting in 1996. He is the vice-president and executive editor of the Independent Newspaper Group, owners of the Jamaica Plain Gazette.