John Forbes Kerry, who has voiced his presidential aspirations since high school, criticized America’s “intervention” in Vietnam before going to the war, confirmed his beliefs during five months of duty there and returned to build a career in politics based on his opposition to it.
“The United States must, I think, bring itself to understand that the policy of intervention that was right for Western Europe does not and cannot find the same application to the rest of the world,” Mr. Kerry told his Yale University classmates in a 1966 graduation address.
Within the next five years, at the height of the antiwar movement, Mr. Kerry was referring to America’s leadership as “deserters” and “war criminals,” portraying U.S. soldiers in Vietnam as inhumane killers and inflaming protesters by tearfully tossing away war medals — medals he would admit 13 years later weren’t his.
“These are the commanders who have deserted their troops,” Mr. Kerry in 1971 told Congress after listing the top commanders of U.S. forces in Vietnam. “And there is no more serious crime in the laws of war.”
The eventual senator from Massachusetts had found his political footing among war protesters and in front of the cameras, a place he would come to know and cherish, according to his state’s political insiders, who have told the Boston Globe they refer to him as “Live Shot,” for his penchant for attracting coverage.
Mr. Kerry has used his impressive war record — he won a Silver Star, Bronze Star and three Purple Hearts — as the foundation of his political career, and since beginning his bid for the Democratic presidential nomination this year, has invoked his military credentials whenever possible.
“As I look around at my crewmates and the veterans here today, I am reminded that the best lessons I learned about being an American came in a place far away from America — on a gunboat in the Mekong Delta with a small crew of volunteers,” Mr. Kerry told supporters when he formally began his campaign at Patriots Point, S.C., with the USS Yorktown as a backdrop.
“I saw courage both in the Vietnam War and in the struggle to stop it. I learned that patriotism includes protest, not just military service.”
On the campaign trail, Mr. Kerry routinely draws distinctions between his service and that of President Bush, such as when he lampoons Mr. Bush for landing in a jet on an aircraft carrier to announce the end to major operations in Iraq.
“I know something about aircraft carriers for real,” Mr. Kerry often says.
The same record Mr. Kerry wields as evidence of his leadership abilities is also used by his harshest critics, who question the severity of the injuries he used to get sent home early and the five medals he garnered in five months.
“If I got three Purple Hearts for three scratches, I’d be embarrassed,” said Ted Sampley, who fought in Vietnam and publishes U.S. Veteran Dispatch. He remembers soldiers turning away awards for minor injuries.
Mr. Kerry has said none of his Purple Heart injuries, only one of which removed him from the field for two days, was critical.
After his third Purple Heart, Mr. Kerry requested and was granted permission to return to the United States to work behind a desk in New York. Even while still a Navy man, he began traveling to antiwar rallies with leading war protesters such as Adam Walinsky, a former speechwriter for Robert F. Kennedy.