Tour of Duty: John Kerry and the Vietnam War

Tour of Duty: John Kerry and the Vietnam War

by Douglas Brinkley


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Covering more than four decades, this is the first full-scale, definitive account of Kerry's journey from war to peace. Brinkley has drawn on extensive interviews with virtually everyone who knew Kerry in Vietnam. Kerry also relegated to Brinkley his letters home from Vietnam, voluminous "war notes" journals and personal reminiscences written during and shortly after the war. This material was provided without restriction, to be used at Brinkley's discretion, and has never before been published.

Throughout, Brinkley deftly deals with issues such as U.S. atrocities in Vietnam and the bombing of Cambodia. Using information from the newly released Nixon tapes, Brinkley reveals how White House aides Charles Colson and H. R. Haldeman tried to discredit Kerry. Refusing to be intimidated, Kerry ran for public office, eventually becoming a Senator from Massachusetts. But he never forgot his fallen comrades returning to Vietnam numerous times to look for MIAs and POWs. When President Clinton officially recognized Vietnam in 1995, at long last Kerry's thirty-year-long tour of duty ended.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780060565299
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 09/21/2004
Pages: 592
Sales rank: 775,257
Product dimensions: 5.31(w) x 8.00(h) x 1.33(d)

About the Author

Douglas Brinkley is the Katherine Tsanoff Brown Chair in Humanities and Professor of History at Rice University, a CNN Presidential Historian, and a contributing editor at Vanity Fair.  In the world of public history, he serves on boards, at museums, at colleges, and for historical societies. The Chicago Tribune dubbed him “America’s New Past Master.” The New-York Historical Society has chosen Brinkley as its official U.S. Presidential Historian. His recent book Cronkite won the Sperber Prize, while The Great Deluge: Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans, and the Mississippi Gulf Coast received the Robert F. Kennedy Book Award. He was awarded a Grammy for Presidential Suite and is the recipient of seven honorary doctorates in American studies. His two-volume, annotated Nixon Tapes recently won the Arthur S. Link–Warren F. Kuehl Prize. He is a member of the Century Association, the Council on Foreign Relations, and the James Madison Council of the Library of Congress. He lives in Austin, Texas, with his wife and three children.

Read an Excerpt

Tour of Duty
John Kerry and the Vietnam War

Chapter One

Up from Denver

The sun was glaring through the windshield of Richard J. Kerry's single-engine light aircraft as he prepared for takeoff from a runway in northern Virginia on February 27, 1954. Mild, with temperatures in the mid fifties, no clouds in sight, it was a perfect day to fly. During World War II Kerry had served the United States government as a pilot in the Army Air Corps, flying DC-3s and B-29s. Now he was based in Washington, D.C. , serving as an attorney for the State Department's Bureau of United Nations Affairs. This was, however, to be his final flight. With his eleven-year-old son John sitting in the rear seat, Kerry, now a civilian,started the engine and checked his navigational charts. Everything was in working order. "Don't touch the stick," he cautioned his son before takeoff. "Not until you're older."

Anybody who knew the austere and hardworking Kerry well thought of him as a man with an intense, careful disposition, a pilot whose logbook was as tidy as an accountant's ledger. This particular book, beige in color and three-quarters full, had been kept since 1940. During World War II he had crisscrossed America numerous times, including long stints in Alabama, Ohio, California, and Colorado. Today was no different from any other flight day: he carefully scrawled "Alexandria Local Aeronca" in his book. He was hoping to give his son an aerial view of metropolitan Washington sites. Usually Kerry never editorialized in his log: just the no-nonsense facts. But on this last flight he made an exception, writing something personal: "Flight over Mt. Vernon with Johnny."The flight lasted for only a brief forty minutes. But forty years later he sent the logbook and wings to his son with a note on his law firm stationery: "Is this last entry prophetic?" Richard Kerry was probably referring to his son's passion for flying, but the flight over Mt. Vernon may inadvertently touched a different prophecy.

Even when he was an eleven-year-old boy, there was a feeling that John Forbes Kerry was touched with destiny -- or, more accurately, that public service was instilled in him by his parents. There was, however, a touch of the parvenu in all of this, a fierce family belief, not unlike that which Joseph Kennedy imposed on his four sons, that the Kerry boys -- John and Cameron -- could accomplish any feat, no matter how dif ficult. But to do so would take discipline. A touch of old-fashioned chauvinism, however, prohibited Richard Kerry from fully instilling the same attitude in his two daughters, Margaret (Peggy) and Diana. What was important was that his two sons were not slouches. Concepts like diligence, duty, and loyalty were instilled in them, with tenderness usually coming last. Like the fathers in so many second-generation immigrant families, Richard Kerry believed his boys could accomplish anything in America, even following in the oversized footsteps of George Washington, making it all the way to the White House. "Excelling was the Kerry family ethic" is the way Washington Post reporter Laura Blumenfeld explained it. She gave an example as a case in point: Richard Kerry taught his sons how to steer a boat under a blanket, so they would learn to navigate in the fog. "He definitely promoted tough love," Peggy recalled. "He wanted us to be equipped with the harsh realities of the real world."

The story of Richard Kerry's rise is one of overcoming obstacles. Born in 1915 in Brookline, Massachusetts -- the same Boston suburb where John F. Kennedy was born two years later -- Richard Kerry was a handsome, erudite boy, always fighting against the odds. His father, Fredrick A. Kerry, was actually a Czech Jew named Fritz Kohn who had fled the aggressive Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1905, brutalized by anti-Semitism. Three years before his arrival in America he married Ida Lowe, a beautiful Jewish musician from Budapest. According to the Boston Globe, the young couple simply studied a map of Europe, found County Kerry in Ireland, and chose it as their last name. Baptized as Catholics, they moved to Chicago with their young son Eric, where Fredrick (or Fred as he was called)earned a living as a business manager. Eventually they moved to Brookline, known as the "town of millionaires" in the early 1900s, had two additional children, Richard and Mildred, and earned a reputation as good neighbors. The local newspaper deemed Fredrick "a prominent man in the shoe business"; his shop was located at 487 Boylston Street in the Back Bay neighborhood of Boston. He seldom missed attending Catholic church services on Sunday. (He kept it secret that he was of Jewish descent.) With a two-story, Arts and Crafts-style house in Brookline -- designed by John C. Spofford -- located at 10 Downing Road, a black Cadillac parked in front and three healthy children running happily about, it seemed, to the outside world, that the Kerry family exemplified the American dream.

That notion was brutally dispelled on November 23, 1921, when a depressed Fred Kerry, wandered into the Copley Plaza Hotel in Boston, walked into the men's room, and shot himself in the head. The Boston Globe published a short story about the suicide, which took place at 11:30 A.M., claiming he had died instantly. "Kerry had been ill for some time, and he became despondent as a result," the obituary read. "He left his home about the usual hour this morning, and his spirits seemed to be low. After going to his place of business he came out and went to the hotel where he took his life."

It's hard to fully understand how such a grisly death affects a six-year-old boy, but Richard seemed to internalize the suicide. Thinking of it as a badge of shame, he coped with the loss of his father by ignoring it ...

Tour of Duty
John Kerry and the Vietnam War
. Copyright © by Douglas Brinkley. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Table of Contents

Author's Notexiii
Prologue: April 22, 1971 (Washington, D.C.)1
Chapter 1Up from Denver18
Chapter 2The Yale Years39
Chapter 3California Bound65
Chapter 4High Seas Adventures77
Chapter 5Training Days at Coronado98
Chapter 6Trial by Desert117
Chapter 7In-Country129
Chapter 8PCF-44154
Chapter 9Up the Rivers188
Chapter 10Death in the Delta209
Chapter 11Braving the Bo De River231
Chapter 12Taking Command of PCF-94254
Chapter 13The Medals281
Chapter 14The Homecoming319
Chapter 15The Winter Soldier346
Chapter 16Enemy Number One378
Chapter 17Duty Continued412
Epilogue: September 2, 2003 (Charleston, South Carolina)435
Selected Bibliography498


An Interview with Douglas Brinkley

Barnes & What made you want to write this book about John Kerry? When you began it, did you think that Kerry could win the Democratic presidential nomination?

Douglas Brinkley: People assume I had some kind of wisdom about Kerry's ascendancy, but I actually started this book several years ago. I wanted to do a project about United States senators who were Vietnam veterans. Kerry had never written about his experiences, and I saw him as a perfect vehicle for telling a coming-of-age story through his combat experience in the Mekong Delta and his leadership in the antiwar movement. I originally planned to do only an article on Kerry and then found he kept voluminous war diaries -- this was back in 2002, and he had not formally announced he would run for the presidency. His was a great story to tell, and I then decided it would make a good book.

B& Did Kerry's upbringing affect his decision to enlist to fight in Vietnam, rather than seeking a draft deferment?

DB: His father, Richard, was a test pilot during World War II. He flew planes at very high altitudes and contracted tuberculosis. His father always wanted to serve his country. But because of his tubercular condition, he moved into the Foreign Service. Richard Kerry believed very strongly that communism had to be defeated. But he was opposed to the Vietnam War since he thought it was the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time. Still, in 1966, when John Kerry graduated from Yale, there was no thought that he would not serve or would try to seek a deferment instead or an seek easy billet in the National Guard.

B& How did Kerry come to oppose the war?

DB: In Kerry's diaries, letters, and journals you can see how anguished he was about the absurdity and immorality of trying to win over the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese people. He didn't agree with burning their villages in "order to save them" and wrote his mother and father that he was "an uncommitted soldier." When he returned to the United States in March 1969 after winning three Purple Hearts, he continued as a U.S. naval officer and served as an admiral's aide, all the while looking for a way to get out of uniform and take to the streets to add his voice to the antiwar movement. That opportunity came in January 1970, when he was able to leave the Navy, and he became the spokesman for Vietnam Veterans Against the War.

B& As part of a 1971 Washington demonstration against the Vietnam War, Kerry threw away his ribbons but kept his medals. Why didn't he throw away the medals in the protest too, since in keeping them it seems to suggest that he had some kind of ambivalence about discarding them?

DB: There was no ambivalence at all. Most of this criticism of Kerry regarding his not giving up the medals has come from the far right, from people like Rush Limbaugh.

In April 1971, Kerry was the organizer of a demonstration denouncing the Nixon's administration's incursion into Cambodia and Laos. This demonstration was intended for veterans to give something back to the government in protest such as a ribbons, dog tags, berets, and enlistment papers. He was wearing all of his ribbons at the time. He gave away those ribbons. He would have looked like a jerk wearing dangling medals. When they organized the demonstration, they didn't even know they were going to give back something to the government. At the time, he was in Washington organizing this, and his home was in Boston -- that was where his belongings were. Very few veterans were wearing medals at that demonstration. They were giving back ribbons and papers. The main thing is that is was a symbolic gesture. It is true that the ceremony rankled a lot of veterans. It upset John McCain.

B& What did Kerry say on behalf of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War when he was selected to testify against the war before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee?

DB: At the beginning of that week, Kerry appeared on Meet the Press, and he then met Senator William Fulbright at a cocktail party. Fulbright was so impressed with Kerry that he invited him to testify before the committee. In his testimony, Kerry gave the famous line, "How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?" All three network news shows seized on that. And it drew attention to Vietnamese Veterans Against the War.

B& How do you see Kerry using his Vietnam service and subsequent opposition to the war in the presidential campaign? Will the issue help or hurt him?

DB: Certainly his Vietnam service will help him. People care about his service and foreign affairs experience.

B& Will Kerry's service in Vietnam in comparison to President Bush's service in the National Guard continue to be an issue?

DB: It's a back-burner issue. It helps define both men's biographies. Kerry certainly has the more triumphant saga of how he spent his youth, but people are not going to vote over each candidate's military service.

B& What lessons might Kerry draw from his naval service in Vietnam that might affect a Kerry presidency?

DB: Kerry's most famous quip is, "I know something about aircraft carriers, for real." Someone who has seen combat knows that you go to war only as a last resort. Anyone who has spent time seeing people getting shot up knows that the glamour of the battlefield is nonexistent. That experience will affect the most difficult choice of sending troops abroad. A President Kerry would send troops into action only if all diplomacy fails.

B& What will your next book be about?

DB: Later this year [2004], Viking will be publishing my edited version of Jack Kerouac's journals. It will be called Windblown World: The Journals of Jack Kerouac, 1947-1954.

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Tour of Duty: John Kerry and the Vietnam War 3.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 13 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
In Tour of Duty, author Douglas Brinkley presents a thoroughly researched account of Senator John Kerry's years as a Naval Lieutenant in Vietnam. From the authors interviews with people who were actually there, we are led to the indubitable conclusion that Kerry, one of the most highly decorated swift boat officers during the Vietnam War, deserved his accolades. The book puts to rest the politically motivated revisionist spoutings of the so-called 'Swiftboat Veterans for Truth'. Also explored with great detail are Kerry's antiwar activities following his Vietnam service. It is interesting to find that the vast bulk of Kerry's work during this period was aimed at fighting for improved medical care and VA funding for injured and war-torn vets, demands that the Nixon administration ignored outright. Also notable is the fact that Kerry, when he senced that Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW) was turning radical, resigned from the group in protest. This is something the SBVT and other Bush front groups certainly don't want the public to know about during this election cycle. Finally, we learn that the tactic of going back and attempting to discredit the service of honorable veterans is a remnant of a deplorable tactic used by the Nixon administration and Republican operatives some thirty years ago. Some things never change.
Spikeritz More than 1 year ago
What a load of crap. His silver star (yes I am a combat vet) looked like a normal day in combat to me. Wounded three times and sent home? Wow I wish I would have gotten sent home for three scratches. Pure hack stuff and garbage. He is every bit the blowhard I thought him to be!
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book makes a good case that John Kerry's military service was honorable. It also deals with his growing frustration with the war and eventually speaking out against the war when he came home. Personally, I think speaking out against the war was the right thing to do. He never blamed the enlisted men or low-ranking Officers. He blamed the Goverment and the Pentagon. And his predication that Vietnamzation would fail was right on the money.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Nice filler. ;)
Guest More than 1 year ago
I served in Vietnam with the US Army, 25th Infantry Division. The effect of that service on my thinking was remarkably similar to that of John Kerry. Perhaps some who have not experienced the waste and destruction of war cannot understand how one might be of the utmost patriotic service to one's country in protesting such involvement. To wage war without clearly defined objectives, without clearly demonstrated imminent danger to our nation, purely for political agendas; that is a dis-service to our nation and to our soldiers put in harm's way. This book not only provided an insight into his anti-Vietnam war stance, but also helped me to understand much about John Kerry's character and determination to fight for the causes in which he believes. *** Keep up the fight!
Guest More than 1 year ago
It is obvious from reading this book that John Kerry is blessed or cursed with an overabundance of self awareness, sees most things in terms of his own mortality. He is capable of writing the definitive book on the V N War but but that same awareness makes him think twice about everything. Possibly a great writer, not a great leader.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Douglas Brinkley is an excellent writer, and I really enjoyed the Kerry book. As I read through the pages, I definitely had mental pictures of Kerry, the boats, crews, and physical nature of the delta. I liked that very much. It was interesting to learn Brinkley's point of view of the Vietnam War and has prompted me to think that I would like to read more on the subject. Nice read!
Guest More than 1 year ago
John Kerry's fascinating life is detailed sensitively and brilliantly by Mr. Brinkley. It paints a very different picture of all the negative, partisan rhetorical views of John Keryy that has been bandied about unfairly by a few other reviewers here and in the media. John Kerry is portrayed as a man who was born into privilage, but did not feel that this privilage was a 'free ride'. When you read 'Tour of Duty', you will discover that John Kerry IS a regular guy and he genuinely cares about his family, his constituents, and the nation. He is not some stoic and dull boor...he is an emotional and deep man, and you will see that he is based upon his own journals and thoughts that Mr. Brinkley had full access to when writing this book. John Kerry comes accross as a man who was born to lead and he does so with honor and courage, both in the face of personal tradegy and in public life. He comes accross as someome who thinks things through and considers all sides, someone who is fair and non-partisan ( as his well known friendship with Sen. John McCain should point out to anyone.). This book is a MUST read for anyone who truly wants to know more about John Kerry, the man.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book prints factual, truthful information about John Kerry's tour of duty in Vietnam. It is obvious that one of the reviewers did not bother to actually read the book. He merely spouted Rove-isms. This guy Kerry is the real deal, if we do indeed want a pragmatic president rather than one whose dogmatic aggression has put our defense in peril. Kerry fought gallantly in Vietnam despite misgivings about the war. He did his duty to the military and then returned home to do his duty for the people of the U.S. He may not be 'perfect' but he is definitely a big step up for the Oval Office (if only we can remove all of the current oil stains).
Guest More than 1 year ago
Anyone curious as to how John Kerry surged to the front of the Democratic presidential race need only read this tremendously well-written and -researched account of his gallant tours of duty in Vietnam and beyond. Historian Douglas Brinkley does a terrific job of telling Kerry's heroic story, and traces the compelling path of a thoughtful and highly principled politican. It hardly seems a coincidence that this book came out right before Kerry's leap to the top of the Democratic pack--anyone who reads it will see just how much this brave onetime Navy lieutentant could bring to the presidency. And whether one agrees with Kerry's politics or not, Brinkley's book offers not only a fascinating assessment of a crucial era in recent American history but is also just a darn good read.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Based on other accounts of John Kerry's time in Vietnam and his voting record and public comments whiel in the Senate, this book seems more like propaganda than a purely factual history. Since when is it brave or noble to 'chase down and finish off a wounded and retreating enemy solider' as one acount tells of Kerry's silver star. Never more has the saying three sides to every story seemed more true. Each side has their verson and the truth is somewhere in between.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Why write about him being so brave and tenacious as a soldier if all he did and does is against war, he was no soldier, a real soldier is honored to fight for their country, and doesnt come back and throw 'their' medals onto the White House lawn, even though they werent his medals. I wouldnt really give this book a star at all but one means poor, and that explains this book.
Guest More than 1 year ago
By reading this book you will truly realize that Kerry never really did much of any thing in Vietnam. His record of lies to date is longer than that of his service record and there really is no reason what so ever to even have wrote a book about his service in Vietnam. If you can truely read this book and enjoy and get something out of it you must be a flaming Liberal.