Henri Huet  /  AP
More than 58,000 American lives were lost in the Vietnam War.
By Tom Curry National affairs writer
updated 4/27/2004 5:53:15 PM ET 2004-04-27T21:53:15

Nearly 30 years after the last United States soldier left Vietnam, the question of whether that war was worth fighting and which American men had the courage to fight there continues to roil American elections.

As Democrats question the service record of President Bush and Republicans wonder aloud about Sen. John Kerry's medals, does it matter to voters on Election Day if a man who seeks to be president served or didn’t serve in Vietnam?

There is persuasive evidence that voters have already settled the question with a decisive “no.”

In 1992, and again in 1996, voters elected a man who, as a 23 year-old in 1969, had reneged on his promise to join the University of Arkansas ROTC program.

“I want to thank you,” wrote Bill Clinton to ROTC commander Col. Eugene Holmes on Dec. 3, 1969, “for saving me from the draft.”

Clinton successfully “gamed the system” to avoid going to Vietnam. By the time he submitted to the draft, Congress had instituted a lottery system and Clinton luckily drew a high number, 311, which put him safely out of reach of going to war.

And as a young Clinton himself admitted to Holmes, “I decided to accept the draft in spite of my beliefs for one reason: to maintain my political viability within the system. For years I have worked to prepare myself for a political life characterized by both practical political ability and concern for rapid social progress.”

In the decades after writing those sentences, Clinton surely proved that he had “practical political ability,” enough of it in 1992 to weather the media firestorm over how and why he avoided serving in Vietnam.

Defending Clinton in February of 1992, Sen. John Kerry said, “We do not need to divide America over who served and how. I have personally always believed that many served in many different ways. Someone who was deeply against the war in 1969 or 1970 may well have served their country with equal passion and patriotism by opposing the war as by fighting in it.”

A plurality of voters decided to follow Kerry’s advice in 1992, accepting Clinton’s draft avoidance, and even disregarding his statement to Holmes that he found himself “loathing the military.”

Clinton’s 1969 phrase, “For years I have worked to prepare myself for a political life” might apply equally as well to Kerry, who after he left the Navy, quickly launched a career as anti-war advocate and aspiring politician, appearing on national television programs such as the "Dick Cavett Show" and "Meet the Press."

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It was on NBC's "Meet the Press" on April 18, 1971, that Kerry, then 27 years old, said, “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 took part in search-and-destroy missions, in the burning of villages. All of this is contrary to the laws of warfare.”

He added that, “All of this (was) ordered as a matter of written established policy by the government of the United States from the top down,” an indictment of Presidents Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon and even perhaps of John F. Kennedy, who ordered U.S. military advisers to Vietnam.

Until he appeared on "Meet the Press" on April 18 of this year, Kerry had successfully combined the roles of war hero and anti-war leader.

Emphasis on heroism
The emphasis of his campaign during the primary season was almost entirely on his war service in Vietnam, not on his leadership of Vietnam Veterans Against the War.

As he told a Vietnam veterans caucus in California in March 2003, "I am the only the person running for president of the United States on either side who has actually fought in a war and served four years of active duty."

In Iowa, the first contest back in January, Kerry’s Iowa supporters said in one interview after another with MSNBC.com that his Vietnam combat experience convinced them of his decency and courage.

“I have two nephews who served in the Army in the Vietnam War,” Lois Dencklau, a Kerry supporter in Fort Dodge, Iowa, said in January. “I felt exactly the way Kerry did: It was a terrible war. But that didn’t stop him from being there and serving his country.”

And when Sen. Ted Kennedy introduced Kerry at a tumultuous rally in Waterloo, Iowa, on the Saturday before the caucuses, the lines that got the loudest applause were Kennedy’s recital of Kerry’s heroism under fire.

If there was one thing and only one thing that voters knew, it was that Kerry was a Vietnam War hero.

Three months later, with the Democratic presidential nomination in the bag for Kerry, some Americans may not yet know that he opposed the Vietnam war after he returned from fighting in it.

What the Bush team and anti-Kerry activists outside the campaign are now doing is creating enough electronic media noise to make it difficult for Kerry to get out his fundamental message: “I am a war hero.”

By pointing to Kerry’s admission, or allegation, of atrocities in 1971, conservative pundits are trying to strip the allure off his war record.

So far this week, the Republican rhetoric, combined with questioning from reporters such as ABC’s Charles Gibson, have forced Kerry to do what no campaign manager wants to see his candidate doing: spend time on laborious explanations of things which happened decades ago, such as whether Kerry threw ribbons or medals over a fence at a rally.

Bush should know the feeling well: It was just a few days before the 2000 election that Bush spokeswoman Karen Hughes was forced to explain the details of his 1976 arrest for driving while intoxicated.

Republicans know when they talk about Kerry and Vietnam they give the Democrats the opening to say "Bush was AWOL from the National Guard."

“If George Bush wants to ask me questions about that through his surrogates, he owes America an explanation about whether or not he showed up for duty in the National Guard. Prove it,” Kerry said Monday.

An e-mail to reporters from the Kerry campaign Monday fired a grape-shot volley of indignant questions: “How Does He Explain The Fact That He Jumped Ahead Of 150 Applicants Despite Low Pilot Aptitude Scores? Why Did Bush Miss His Medical Exam In 1972?  Why Did Bush Specifically Request NOT To Be Sent Overseas For Duty?”

Lynn Cheney's pregnancy
And former Kerry campaign manager Jim Jordan added his voice to the ruckus with a release from his Thunder Road Group, “Who is Dick Cheney to question John Kerry’s fitness to serve as Commander in Chief?”

Noting Cheney’s draft deferments in the 1960s, Jordan’s memo said, “Cheney gets a fifth deferment — when wife becomes pregnant” in 1966.

So why are the Republicans willing to take the risk of bringing up Vietnam?

They must figure on balance they peel away more voters from Kerry than get peeled away from Bush.

After all, Bush and Cheney, with all their liabilities, are more of a known quantity to most Americans than Kerry is. Bush's DUI arrest, his inarticulate quality at press conferences, his privileged status as the son of former president, Cheney's Halliburton connection, his draft deferments — all these are already factored in for voters.

And all of them were known four years ago when Bush defeated Al Gore (another Vietnam veteran, like Kerry).

But John Kerry for many people is still not fully formed persona. The Bush team wants his anti-war side to be just as visible as his war hero side.

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