Tour of Duty: John Kerry and the Vietnam War

Tour of Duty: John Kerry and the Vietnam War

by Douglas Brinkley
Tour of Duty: John Kerry and the Vietnam War

Tour of Duty: John Kerry and the Vietnam War

by Douglas Brinkley

Paperback(Updated ed.)

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One of our most acclaimed historians explores the decorated military service of one of America’s most intriguing politicians—the leading Democratic presidential candidate for 2004—and its profound effects on his career and life

In Tour of Duty, Brinkley explores Senator John Kerry’s career and deftly deals with such explosive issues as U.S. atrocities in Vietnam and the bombing of Cambodia. Using new information acquired from the recently released Nixon tapes, Brinkley reveals how White House aides Charles Colson and H.R. Haldeman tried to discredit Kerry. Refusing to be intimidated, Kerry started running for public office, eventually becoming a U.S. Senator from Massachusetts.

Covering more than four decades, this is the first full-scale definitive account of Kerry’s journey from war to peace. In writing this riveting, action-packed narrative, Brinkley has drawn on extensive interviews with virtually everyone who knew Kerry well in Vietnam. Kerry also relegated to Brinkley his letters home from Vietnam and his voluminous “war notes” journals, notebooks, 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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780060565299
Publisher: HarperCollins
Publication date: 09/21/2004
Edition description: Updated ed.
Pages: 592
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, presidential historian for the New-York Historical Society, trustee of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library, and a contributing editor at Vanity Fair. The Chicago Tribune dubbed him “America’s New Past Master.” He is the recipient of such distinguished environmental leadership prizes as the Frances K. Hutchison Medal (Garden Club of America), the Robin W. Winks Award for Enhancing Public Understanding of National Parks (National Parks Conservation Association), and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Lifetime Heritage Award. His book 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 won the Arthur S. Link–Warren F. Kuehl Prize. 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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