Monday, August 9, 2004

On the floor of the Senate on March 27, 1986, Sen. John Kerry issued this statement: “I remember Christmas of 1968 sitting on a gunboat in Cambodia. I remember what it was like to be shot at by Vietnamese and Khmer Rouge and Cambodians, and have the President of the United States telling the American people that I was not there; the troops were not in Cambodia. I have that memory which is seared — seared — in me.”

Mr. Kerry’s statement at the time was similar to other statements he had made after returning from duty in Vietnam, and throughout much of the 1970s. Writing for the Boston Herald in October 1979, Mr. Kerry said this: “I remember spending Christmas Eve of 1968 five miles across the Cambodian border being shot at by our South Vietnamese allies who were drunk and celebrating Christmas. The absurdity of almost being killed by our own allies in a country in which President Nixon claimed there were no American troops was very real.”

First, the obvious: Richard Nixon was not president in December 1968, and no history of the Vietnam era suggests that Lyndon Johnson ever ordered troops into Cambodia; but those are minor points. A new book, “Unfit for Command: Swift Boat Veterans Speak Out Against John Kerry,” by John O’Neill and Jerome R. Corsi, argues that Mr. Kerry was never in Cambodia, during Christmas 1968 or otherwise. To support their allegation, Messrs. O’Neill and Corsi highlight the denials of all living commanders in Mr. Kerry’s chain of command that Mr. Kerry was in Cambodia, or was ever ordered into Cambodia (Joe Streuhli, commander of Coastal Division 13; George Elliott, commander of Coastal Division 11; Adrian Lonsdale, captain, Coast Guard, commander, Coastal Surveillance Center at An Thoi; Rear Adm. Ray Hoffman, commander Coastal Surveillance Force Vietnam; and Rear Adm. Art Price, commander of River Patrol Force). Also, the authors report that three out of Mr. Kerry’s five-man Swift boat crew deny that they or their boat was in Cambodia during Christmas 1968 — the other two refused to comment.

According to the book, Mr. Kerry and his Swift boat crew were stationed at Coastal Division 13 in Cat Lo, with a patrol area extending to Sa Dec, which was a little more than 50 miles from the Cambodian border. Tom Anderson, the commander of River Division 531, who was in charge of the patrol boats canvassing the waterways from Sa Dec to the Cambodian border, confirmed to the authors that no Swift boats were anywhere in the area, and that any would have been stopped, or their captains court-martialed for breaching the border.

In 1992, The Associated Press interviewed Mr. Kerry about his Vietnam experience. Again, the Cambodian story resurfaced: “By Christmas 1968, part of Kerry’s patrol extended across the border of South Vietnam into Cambodia. ‘We were told, “Just go up there and do your patrol.” Everybody was over there (in Cambodia). Nobody thought twice about it,’ Kerry said.” Then, in a Boston Globe report from last summer, Mr. Kerry slightly changed his Cambodia story: “To top it off, Kerry said, he had gone several miles inside Cambodia, which theoretically was off limits.” If it was “theoretically off limits,” who gave Mr. Kerry the order to enter Cambodia, as he asserted numerous times before? Yet in “Tour of Duty: John Kerry and the Vietnam War,” author Douglas Brinkley provides a thoroughly different version of what happened in Christmas 1968. According to Mr. Brinkley, who received his information from Mr. Kerry directly, Mr. Kerry was on patrol in Sa Dec (50 miles from the Cambodian border) on Christmas Eve and spent Christmas day writing journal entries back at his base.

Over at, you can read “After-action” reports — first-hand accounts written immediately following combat — from Mr. Kerry’s Vietnam tour. Strangely, the reports extend only as far back as February 1969. In the absence of these reports, the public can only pit one version of events with another.

Why is any of this important? Mr. Kerry has made his Vietnam experiences the focal point in his campaign. Indeed, the candidate wants voters to judge his Vietnam service as reflecting the qualities needed in a commander in chief. It is not Mr. Kerry’s detractors who have placed Vietnam at the forefront of the campaign, it is Mr. Kerry himself. As such, his testimonials both during and after his tour should be subject to verification and debate.

Moreover, it is not beyond the realm of the media to discover whether or not Mr. Kerry was truthful on the floor of the Senate, nor should it be beyond Mr. Kerry to answer such a charge. The inconsistencies in Mr. Kerry’s Cambodia story should be explained, either by an inquisitive press corps or by the Kerry campaign itself.

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