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Vietnam 30 Years Later: What John Kerry Said on Meet the Press

On May 6, 2001 Tim Russert interviewed Senator John Kerry on Meet the Press. In the course of the interview, Mr. Russert asked the senator about his views on Vietnam.

MR. RUSSERT: You mentioned you're a military guy. There's been a lot of discussion about Bob Kerrey, your former Democratic colleague in the Senate, about his talking about his anguish about what happened in Vietnam . You were on this program 30 years ago as a leader of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War. And we went back and have an audiotape of that and some still photos. And your comments are particularly timely in this overall discussion of Bob Kerrey. And I'd like for you to listen to those with our audience and then try to put that war into some context:

(Audiotape, April 18, 1971):

MR. CROSBY NOYES (Washington Evening Star): Mr. Kerry, you said at one time or another that you think our policies in Vietnam are tantamount to genocide and that the responsibility lies at all chains of command over there. Do you consider that you personally as a Naval officer committed atrocities in Vietnam or crimes punishable by law in this country?

SEN. KERRY: There are all kinds of atrocities, and I would have to say that, yes, yes, I committed the same kind of atrocities as thousands of other soldiers have committed in that I took part in shootings in free fire zones. I conducted harassment and interdiction fire. I used 50 calibre machine guns, which we were granted and ordered to use, which were our only weapon against people. I took part in search and destroy missions, in the burning of villages. All of this is contrary to the laws of warfare, all of this is contrary to the Geneva Conventions and all of this is ordered as a matter of written established policy by the government of the United States from the top down. And I believe that the men who designed these, the men who designed the free fire zone, the men who ordered us, the men who signed off the air raid strike areas, I think these men, by the letter of the law, the same letter of the law that tried Lieutenant Calley, are war criminals.

(End audiotape)

MR. RUSSERT: Thirty years later, you stand by that?

SEN. KERRY: 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.

I mean, you know, we--it was--I mean, we've got to put this war in its right perspective and time helps us do that. I believe very deeply that it was a noble effort to begin with. I signed up. I volunteered. I wanted to go over there and I wanted to win. It was a noble effort to try to make a country democratic; to try to carry our principles and values to another part of the world. But 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. There were great sacrifices, great contributions. And they came back to a country that didn't thank the veteran, that didn't--I mean, everything that the veteran gained in the ensuing years, Agent Orange recognition, post-Vietnam stress syndrome recognition, the extension of the G.I. Bill, you know, improvement of the V.A. hospitals, all came from Vietnam veterans themselves fighting for it. Indeed, even the memorial in Washington came from that.

MR. RUSSERT: By your own comments, Bob Kerrey was not alone in doing the things that he did.

SEN. KERRY: Oh, of course, not. And not only that, we, the government of our country, ran an assassination program. I mean, Bill Colby has acknowledged it. We had the Phoenix Program, where they actually went into villages to eliminate the civilian infrastructure of the Vietcong. Now, you couldn't tell the difference in many cases who they were. And countless veterans testified 30 years ago to that reality. And I think--look, there's no excusing shooting children in cold blood, or women, and killing them in cold blood. There isn't, under any circumstances. But we're not asking, you know, nor is Bob Kerrey saying, "Excuse us for what we did." We're asking people to try to understand the context and forgiveness. And I think the nation needs to understand what the nation put its young in a position to do, and move on and take those lessons and apply them to the future.

MR. RUSSERT: The folks who oversaw the war, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Henry Kissinger, you do not now 30 years later consider them war criminals?

SEN. KERRY: No, I think we did things that were tantamount that certainly violated the laws of war, but I think it was the natural consequence of the Cold War itself. People made decisions based on their perceptions of the world at that time. They were in error. They were judgments of error. But I think no purpose is served now by going down that road. I think, you know, the rhetoric of youth and of anger can be redeemed by the acts that we put in place after time to try to move us beyond that. And I think there are great lessons to learn from it. But we would serve no purpose with that now. But we have to be honest about the mistakes we made. We don't have legitimacy in the world, Tim, if we go to other countries, in Bosnia or China or anywhere else, and not say, "You know, we made some terrible mistakes."

And that honesty, that lack of a sense of honesty is part of what is driving people's anger toward the United States today. That's why we have the vote in the U.N. That's why people--our allies, too--are disturbed by this defense posture. You can't abrogate the ABM treaty and move forward on your own to build this defense in a way that threatens the perceptions of security people have. And if you build a defense system, Tim, that can do what they say at the outside, which is change mutual assured destruction, you have invited a potential adversary to build, build, build, to find a way around it. The lesson of the Cold War is, you do not make this planet safer by moving unilaterally into a place of new weapons. Every single advance in weaponry through the Cold War was matched by one side or the other, and that's why we put the ABM treaty in place, and that's why we need to proceed very cautiously and very thoughtfully.