Kerry's Cambodia Stories: A Question of Character

On March 27, 1986, John Kerry rose in the Senate to address the theme that launched his career: how U.S. leaders had lied about Vietnam while young warriors like John Kerry paid the price. His textbook case was how Nixon had lied about U.S. forces not being in Cambodia:

“I remember Christmas of 1968, sitting on a gunboat in Cambodia. I remember what it was like to be shot at by the Vietnamese and the Khmer Rouge and Cambodians, and the president of the United States telling the American people I was not there; the troops were not in Cambodia. I have that memory which is seared — seared — in me.” Kerry had told this dramatic story before, in the Boston Herald, Oct. 14, 1979, with a different twist as to who had fired on the young Navy lieutenant on that unforgettable Christmas Eve.

“On more than one occasion, I, like Martin Sheen in Apocalypse Now, took my patrol boat into Cambodia. In fact, 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.”

Just how “very real,” how “seared” in Kerry’s memory that raid into Cambodia was — with Nixon lying about our not being there as Lt. John Kerry took fire — is now open to question.

First, because Richard Nixon was not president on Christmas Eve, 1968. Lyndon Johnson was. More critically, because Kerry’s fellow Swift Boat commanders are openly accusing him of lying.

John Kerry “was never ordered into Cambodia by anyone and would have been court-martialed had he gone there,” writes former swift boat captain John O’Neill in the explosive new best-seller Unfit for Command. On that Christmas Eve, writes O’Neill, Kerry was “more than 50 miles away from Cambodia.”

“During Christmas 1968,” writes O’Neill, “Kerry was stationed at Coastal Division 13 in Cat Lo. Coastal Division 13’s patrol area extended to Sa Dec, about 55 miles from the Cambodian border. Areas closer than 55 miles to the Cambodian border in the area of the Mekong River were patrolled by PBRs, a small river patrol craft, and not by swift boats.”

“Preventing border crossings,” writes O’Neill, “was considered so important at that time that an LCU (a large, mechanized landing craft) and several PBRs were stationed to ensure that no one could cross the border. A large sign at the border prohibited entry.”

According to O’Neill, all of Kerry’s commanders who are still alive deny he was ever ordered into Cambodia and insist Kerry would have been court-martialed had he ever taken his boat into Cambodia.

If what John O’Neill writes is true — and he has invited Kerry to sue him for libel — Kerry has falsified a central event of his life. For Kerry has used this story repeatedly, and it has been used by admirers to explain how the idealistic young warrior lost his faith in the U.S. government.

Nor is this an unserious matter. For the charges against Kerry in “Unfit for Command” go to an issue the media failed to address in 1992, to the detriment of this country: the issue of character and credibility.

Is John Kerry a brave warrior being viciously maligned by swift boat veterans who hate him for having turned against the war and telling the truth about U.S. war crimes? Or has John Kerry been lying about his service in Vietnam and slandering the honorable service of the swift boat veterans to advance his own career — in which case, he should be read out of the company of decent men, not elevated to the presidency?

While the full truth about how Kerry won his medals may never be known, we do know this: Kerry has backed away from the more lurid charges of genocide against U.S. forces he made when he came home. He misled his biographer Douglas Brinkley when he denied being at the Kansas City meeting of Vietnam Veterans Against the War, where the assassination of Senators Tower, Stennis and Thurmond was discussed. His campaign staff tried to get former VVAW men to disremember that Kerry was there.

Now we have the issue of whether Kerry has told the truth about a critical moment in his life, that Christmas Eve of 1968, inside Cambodia, where young John Kerry was taking fire as U.S. leaders were lying to the nation by denying we were in Cambodia.

There is a simple way to discover who is telling the truth. That is for a journalist to ask Kerry to elaborate a bit on that Christmas Eve in Cambodia that is so “seared” in his memory and so affected his life.