By
NBC News
updated 5/7/2004 5:37:49 PM ET 2004-05-07T21:37:49

More than three decades ago, a young Vietnam veteran named John Kerry made one of his first national television appearances, and he brought along home movies he took of one of his firefights with the enemy in Vietnam.  Kerry’s television appearance has been in mothballs for decades — until now.

In tape of that appearance, obtained by NBC News, Kerry makes statements which appear to be at odds with more recent comments about why he went to Vietnam.

It was Kerry’s first national television appearance and came near the peak of the anti-war movement, days after Richard Nixon announced the invasion of Cambodia and college campuses erupted.

Kerry was asked why, if he opposed the war, he agreed to go to Vietnam and fight.  He emphasized his reluctance, saying, “I wound up going to Vietnam because in 1965, voicing an objection, as I would have liked to have at that point, would have been, I think, a very futile thing.”

But in 2001, gearing up to run for president, Kerry had a different explanation on NBC’s Meet the Press, where he said, “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.”

“I think there’s a difference between those two quotes,” said historian and Kerry biographer Douglas Brinkley, explaining, “It’s not my understanding that John Kerry ever thought Vietnam was per se a noble effort.”

Kerry, on the Cavett set, in 1970, in discussing what he was fighting for, said, “I just could never feel that I was there fighting to save that country, to make it safe for democracy. The only feeling you could have was that you were like the Germans, that you were there occupying another country.” 

But in 2001, as he was beginning his efforts to run for president, Kerry told Meet the Press, “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.”  

Asked to explain Kerry’s seemingly different statements, a campaign spokesman said, “Kerry went to Vietnam because he felt a duty to his country.  He served with honor and distinction.”

On the Cavett show, Kerry also showed films he shot in Vietnam, explaining the video, saying, saying, “You see a bunker being taken under fire. In fact, we’re under fire at this point and you can see some shots coming out, landing in the water.”  He added, “Just after this I put the camera down. I had a feeling we were gonna be ambushed… and sure enough up ahead we were.  And you’ll see it.”

Brinkley says Kerry compiled material to bolster his case against the war, telling Cavett, “I took these pictures in a moment of confusion,” explaining, “There you see the huts burning, and this, this is the enemy, so to speak, in South Vietnam.” 

Kerry told Cavett, “I was constantly struck by the juxtaposition of those of us running around with guns and the body lying there in the field. There you see the huts burning.”

Why the change in his comments?  Critics say that in 1970, sharp criticism of the war was fashionable, while decades later, a presidential candidate would need to bolster credentials to be commander in chief.

A recent NBC News poll found that even 71% of Republicans agree that Kerry served honorably.  It also found that voters say what they like least about Kerry is him “straddling both sides of issues.”

Lisa Myers is NBC News’ Senior Investigative Correspondent

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