Appearing on the April 18, 1971, edition of NBC’s “Meet the Press,” John Kerry accused himself of committing what he described as “atrocities,” including the burning of Vietnamese villages. Host Tim Russert replayed the excerpt last Sunday on “Meet the Press” while interviewing Kerry, who is now the Democratic presidential candidate.
“There are all kinds of atrocities and I would have to say that, yes, yes, 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,” Kerry said on the 1971 program. “. . . I took part in search-and-destroy missions, in the burning of villages. All of this is contrary to the laws of warfare. All of this is contrary to the Geneva Conventions and all of this ordered as a matter of written established policy by the government of the United States from the top down. And I believe that the men who designed these, the men who designed the free-fire zone, the men who ordered us, the men who signed off the air raid strike areas, I think these men, by the letter of the law, the same letter of the law that tried Lt. Calley, are war criminals.”
After playing this clip, Russert said to Kerry: “You committed atrocities.”
The Young Politician
At first, Kerry responded flippantly: “Where did all that dark hair go, Tim?”
Then he contended he made the accusation that Americans had committed atrocities in Vietnam in “anger.” “I think it’s an inappropriate word,” he said. “I mean, if you wanted to ask me have you ever made mistakes in our life, sure. I think some of the language that I used was a language that reflected an anger. It was honest, it was in anger, but it was a little bit excessive.”
But in June 1971, a year after his first abortive run for Congress, Kerry appeared on “The Dick Cavett Show” and said exactly the opposite.
Debating John O’Neill — who served in Vietnam in the same unit as Kerry did (in the months immediately following Kerry’s tour) and who said Kerry’s war-crimes charges were lies — Kerry insisted to Cavett that he had made the charges after careful deliberation.
C-SPAN recently rebroadcast this Cavett program. It shows a preternaturally calm, calculating, even snooty, Kerry stating in a low, modulated voice that sounds almost British: “Now, on the question of war crimes. It’s really only with the utmost consideration that we pose this question. I don’t think that any man comes back to this country to say that he raped, or to say that he burnt a village, or to say that he wantonly destroyed crops or something for pleasure. I think he does it at the risk of certain kinds of punishment, at the risks of injuring his own character, which he has to live with, at the risks of the loss of his family and friends as a result of it, and he does it because he believes intensely that people have got to be educated about the devastation of this war.”
Whether or not Kerry ever did burn villages — or engage in any other act of war that was neither necessary nor morally justified — the explanation he gave last week on “Meet the Press” contradicts his statements and the extremely cool, reserved demeanor he displayed on “The Dick Cavett Show.” This raises a new question about Kerry’s credibility.
Which is it? Did he accuse his country of war crimes in anger — as he told Tim Russert last week — or “only with the utmost consideration” — as the young politician calmly told Dick Cavett two full years after returning from Vietnam?