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Swift Boat Veterans Anti-Kerry Ad: "He Betrayed Us" With 1971 Anti-War Testimony

Group quotes Kerry's descriptions of atrocities by US forces. In fact, atrocities did happen.

August 23, 2004

Modified: November 8, 2004

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Summary

 

"Swift Boat Veterans for Truth" announced a second anti-Kerry ad Aug. 20, using Kerry's own words against him. It features the 27-year-old Kerry in 1971 telling the Senate Foreign Relations Committee stories about American troops cutting off heads and ears, razing villages "in a fashion reminiscent of Genghis Khan" and committing "crimes . . . on a day-to-day basis."

The Kerry campaign called it a smear and said his words were "edited" out of context. The ad does indeed fail to mention that Kerry was quoting stories he had heard from others at an anti-war event in Detroit, and not claiming first-hand knowledge. But Kerry passed them on as true stories.

The ad characterizes Kerry as making "accusations . . . against the verterans who served in Vietnam." The Kerry campaign denies that, saying Kerry was placing blame on the country's leaders, not the veterans. But Kerry  himself said earlier this year that his words were those of "an angry young man . . .  inappropriate . . . a little bit excessive  . . . a little bit over the top."

Kerry's critics point to a 1978 history of Vietnam that challenged some of the witnesses Kerry quoted. But other published accounts provide ample evidence that atrocities such as those Kerry described actually were committed.

Analysis

 

The ad's title is "sellout," and features Vietnam veterans saying Kerry "dishonored his country" and aided the enemy by airing allegations in 1971 of US atrocities in Vietnam.

SBVT Ad

"Sellout"

John Kerry (from Senate Testimony in 1971): They had personally raped, cut off ears, cut off heads...

Joe Ponder: The accusations that John Kerry made against the veterans who served in Vietnam was just devastating.

John Kerry: ...randomly shot at civilians...

Joe Ponder: ...and it hurt me more than any physical wounds I had.

John Kerry: ...cut off limbs, blown up bodies...

Ken Cordier: That was part of the torture, to sign a statement that you had committed war crimes.

John Kerry:...razed villages in a fashion reminiscent of Genghis Khan...

Paul Galanti: John Kerry gave the enemy for free, what I and many of my comrades, in the North Vietnamese prison camps, took torture to avoid saying. It demoralized us.

John Kerry: ...crimes committed on a day to day basis...

Ken Cordier: He betrayed us in the past, how could we be loyal to him now?

John Kerry: ...ravaged the countryside of South Vietnam...

Paul Galanti: He dishonored his country, and more importantly, the people he served with. He just sold them out.

Out of Context? 

On Aug. 20 the Kerry campaign issued a statement  calling the ad an a  smear and a distortion, saying it "takes Kerry’s testimony out of context, editing what he said to distort the facts."

There is some missing context. What's missing from the ad is that Kerry was relating what he had heard at an an event in Detroit a few weeks earlier sponsored by Vietnam Veterans Against the War,  and was not claiming to have witnessed those atrocities personally.

Here is a more complete excerpt of what Kerry said, with the words used in the ad bold-faced so that readers can judge for themselves how much the added context might change their understanding of how Kerry was quoted in the ad:

Kerry Senate Testimony (1971): I would like to talk, representing all those veterans, and say that several months ago in Detroit, 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.

It is impossible to describe to you exactly what did happen in Detroit, the emotions in the room, the feelings of the men who were reliving their experiences in Vietnam, but they did. They relived the absolute horror of what this country, in a sense, made them do.

They told the stories at times they had personally raped, cut off ears, cut off heads, tape 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 country side 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.

The record gives no sign that Kerry doubted the stories he was relating. In fact, he said earlier this year that he still stands by much of what he said 33 years earlier (see below) and that "a lot of them (the atrocity stories) have been documented."

Accusing Veterans? Or US War Policy?

One veteran who appears in the ad says "The accusations that John Kerry made against the veterans who served in Vietnam was just devastating." Kerry's campaign insists his 1971 testimony as "an indictment of America’s political leadership—not fellow veterans." 

As an example, Kerry aides point to a portion of Kerry's testimony in which he places the blame for the 1968 My Lai massacre not on the troops, but on their superiors: "I think clearly the responsibility for what has happened there lies elsewhere. I think it lies with the men who designed free fire zones. I think it lies with the men who encourage body counts." But that statement came only in response to a direct question, long after Kerry volunteered his description of rapes and mutilations.

Earlier in 1971, during an NBC "Meet the Press" interview, Kerry explicitly spoke of "the men who designed the free-fire zone, the men who ordered us, the men who signed off the air raid strike areas" and said he considered them "war criminals." But he did not draw such a sharp distinction between leaders and followers during the"atrocity" portion of his Senate testimony.

Winter Soldier Event Discredited?

Kerry critics have long disputed that atrocities by US forces were as prevalent as Kerry suggested. And at least some of the testimony at the  "Winter Soldier" event was called into question by historian Guenter Lewy in a 1978 book, America in Vietnam. Lewy noted that the event had been staged with financial help from Jane Fonda. He stated that many of the Winter Soldier participants later refused to speak to investigators for the Naval Investigative Service even though they were assured that they wouldn't be questioned about atrocities they might have committed personally. Lewy also suggested that some of the witnesses were imposters:

Guenter Lewy, America in Vietnam (1978): But the most damaging finding consisted of the sworn statements of several veterans, corroborated by witnesses, that they had in fact not attended the hearing in Detroit. One of them had never been to Detroit in all his life. He did not know, he stated, who might have used his name.

Kerry's critics point to that as evidence that he was irresponsibly passing on false atrocity stories. However, there's  no question that events such as Kerry described did happen, as Lewy himself stated:

Lewy: Incidents similar to some of those described at the VVAW hearing undoubtedly did occur. We know that hamlets were destroyed, prisoners tortured, and corpses mutilated.

Some atrocities by US forces have been documented beyond question. Kerry's 1971 testimony came less than one month after Army Lt. William Calley had been convicted in a highly publicized military trial  of the murder of 22 Vietnamese civilians at My Lai hamlet on March 16 1968, when upwards of 300 unarmed men, women and children were killed by the inexperienced soldiers of the Americal Division's Charley Company.

And since Kerry testified, ample evidence of other atrocities has come to light:

  • Son Thang: In 1998, for example, Marine Corps veteran Gary D. Solis published the book Son Thang: An American War Crime describing the court-martial of four US Marines for the apparently unprovoked killing 16 women and children on the night of February 19, 1970 in a hamlet about 20 miles south of Danang. The four Marines testified that they were under orders by their patrol leader to shoot the villagers. A young Oliver North appeared as a character witness and helped acquit the leader of all charges, but three were convicted.
  • Tiger Force:  The Toledo Blade won a Pulitzer Prize this year for a series published in October, 2003 reporting that atrocities were committed by an elite US Army "Tiger Force" unit that the Blade said killed unarmed civilians and children during a seven-month rampage in 1967. "Elderly farmers were shot as they toiled in the fields. Prisoners were tortured and executed - their ears and scalps severed for souvenirs. One soldier kicked out the teeth of executed civilians for their gold fillings," the Blade reported. "Investigators concluded that 18 soldiers committed war crimes ranging from murder and assault to dereliction of duty. But no one was charged."
  • "Hundreds" of others: In December 2003 The New York Times quoted  Nicholas Turse, a doctoral candidate at Columbia University who has been studying government archives, as saying the records are filled with accounts of atrocities similar to those described by the Toledo Blade series. "I stumbled across the incidents The Blade reported," Turse was quoted as saying. "I read through that case a year, year and a half ago, and it really didn't stand out. There was nothing that made it stand out from anything else. That's the scary thing. It was just one of hundreds."
  • "Exact Same Stories": Keith Nolan, author of 10 published books on Vietnam, says he's heard many veterans describe atrocities just like those Kerry recounted from the Winter Soldier event. Nolan told FactCheck.org that since 1978 he's interviewed roughly 1,000 veterans in depth for his books, and spoken to thousands of others. "I have heard the exact same stories dozens if not hundreds of times over," he said. "Wars produce atrocities.  Frustrating guerrilla wars produce a particularly horrific number of atrocities.  That some individual soldiers and certain units responded with excessive brutality in Vietnam shouldn't really surprise anyone."

"A Little Bit Excessive"

Aside from his Senate testimony, the young Kerry spoke publicly in 1971 of "war crimes," and said in his April 18, 1971 NBC "Meet the Press" interview that he had  personally engaged in "atrocities" like "thousands of others" who engaged in shootings in free-fire zones. He said then that he considered the officials who set such war policies to be "war criminals." But 30 years later, anticipating a run for the White House, Kerry took a more conciliatory tone when confronted by NBC's Tim Russert, again on NBC News' "Meet the Press" program:

Kerry (May 6, 2001; Meet the Press): I don't stand by the genocide I think those were the words of an angry young man. We did not try to do that. But I do stand by the description--I don't even believe there is a purpose served in the word "war criminal." I really don't. But I stand by the rest of what happened over there, Tim.

. . . (We) misjudged history. We misjudged our own country. We misjudged our strategy. And we fell into a dark place. All of us. And I think we learned that over time. And I hope the contribution that some of us made as veterans was to come back and help people understand that.

I think our soldiers served as nobly, on the whole, as in any war, and people need to understand that.

And earlier this year, Kerry was again pressed on his 1971 antiwar views, and responded to some of the same points now being raised anew in the Swift Boat Veterans ad. He said his 1971 words were "honest" but "a little bit over the top." 

Q:  You committed atrocities?

Kerry (Meet the Press Apr. 18, 2004:)  Where did all that dark hair go, Tim?  That's a big question for me. You know, I thought a lot, for a long time, about that period of time, the things we said, and I think the word is a bad word.  I think it's an inappropriate word.  I mean, if you wanted to ask me have you ever made mistakes in your life, sure. I think some of the language that I used was a language that reflected an anger.  It was honest, but it was in anger, it was a little bit excessive.

Q:You used the word "war criminals."

Kerry:  Well, let me just finish.  Let me just finish.  It was, I think, a reflection of the kind of times we found ourselves in and I don't like it when I hear it today.  I don't like it, but I want you to notice that at the end, I wasn't talking about the soldiers and the soldiers' blame, and my great regret is, I hope no soldier--I mean, I think some soldiers were angry at me for that, and I understand that and I regret that, because I love them.  But the words were honest but on the other hand, they were a little bit over the top.  And I think that there were breaches of the Geneva Conventions.  There were policies in place that were not acceptable according to the laws of warfare, and everybody knows that.  I mean, books have chronicled that, so I'm not going to walk away from that.  But I wish I had found a way to say it in a less abrasive way.

Q:  But, Senator, when you testified before the Senate, you talked about some of the hearings you had observed at the winter soldiers meeting and you said that people had personally raped, cut off ears, cut off heads, taped wires from portable telephones to human genitals and on and on.  A lot of those stories have been discredited, and in hindsight was your testimony...

Kerry:  Actually, a lot of them have been documented.

Q:  So you stand by that?

Kerry:  A lot of those stories have been documented.  Have some been discredited?  Sure, they have, Tim.  The problem is that's not where the focus should have been.  And, you know, when you're angry about something and you're young, you know, you're perfectly capable of not--I mean, if I had the kind of experience and time behind me that I have today, I'd have framed some of that differently. Needless to say, I'm proud that I stood up.  I don't want anybody to think twice about it.  I'm proud that I took the position that I took to oppose it.  I think we saved lives, and I'm proud that I stood up at a time when it was important to stand up, but I'm not going to quibble, you know, 35 years later that I might not have phrased things more artfully at times.

Sources

 

"Kerry Campaign Statement  on New Swift Boat Veterans for Bush Ad," Kerry-Edwards 2004, 20 Aug 2004.

Testimony of John Kerry, "Legislative Proposals Relating to the War in Southeast Asia," US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations 22 April 1971.

Guenter Lewy, "America in Vietnam" Oxford University Press NY 1978

"Buried Secrets, Brutal Truths: The Series; Elite unit savaged civilians in Vietnam," Toledo Blade 22 Oct 2003.

Michael D. Sallah and Mitch Weiss, "Rogue GIs unleashed wave of terror in Central Highlands," Toledo Blade 22 Oct 2003.

Joe Mahr, " Tiger Force answers still elusive; Washington slow in responding to calls for Army prosecution," Toledo Blade, 12 May Jo2004.

John Kifner, "Report on Brutal Vietnam Campaign Stirs Memories," New York Times, 28 Dec 2003: A24.

Interview with Keith Nolan, 23 Aug 2004.

John F. Kerry, "Meet the Press" NBC News 18 April 1991.

John F. Kerry, "Meet the Press" NBC News 6 May 2001.

John F. Kerry, "Meet the Press " NBC News 18 April 2004.