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by William H. Benson

February 26, 2004

     Scandals, accusations, finger-pointing, denials, justifications, and dirt-digging—all seem to overshadow the run up to elections wherever and whenever across America, and the 2004 Presidential campaign is no different.  But this year, the Democratic Senator from Massachusetts, John F. Kerry, who deeply desires the Oval Office, has brought up for discussion two things from a time almost forty years ago: John F. Kennedy and the Vietnam War.

     After all, Kerry has modeled his life after Jack Kennedy—the World War II hero, the former Senator from Massachusetts, and the President elected in 1960.  It is coincidental but they even have the same initials, JFK, and both were Eastern bluebloods, Ivy league-educated, war-heroes, and liberal-minded.

     Because Kennedy commanded a PT boat in the Pacific during World War II, Kerry requested duty aboard a Swiftboat, patrolling up the river in the Mekong Delta in Vietnam in a free fire zone, where his men shot at anything that moved, and he ended up receiving three purple hearts.

     George W. Bush also served in the military during the Vietnam War, as did 8,762,000 other Americans, but instead of going to Vietnam, he enlisted in the Texas Air National Guard where he learned to fly, transferring in 1972 to the Guard in Alabama where he could practice his “weekend warrior” duties, allow his flight physical to lapse, and not bother to show up very often.  Only the dental records prove he was there.

     Of course, Kerry wants to parade his war medals and drape himself in the memory of JFK because it embarrasses Bush.

     Pushing aside all of this to look at the facts that lie below the legend, the historian Paul Johnson wrote, “In November 1961 Kennedy did send in the first 7,000 US troops to Vietnam, the critical step down the slippery incline into the swamp.  That was the first really big US error.

     And Kennedy had been warned.  On May 31, 1961 Charles de Gaulle urged him to cut his losses in Southeast Asia.  “I predict you will sink step by step into a bottomless military and political quagmire.”  He knew, for that is what had happened to the French in Indochina.

     And Kennedy knew the dangers and said so.  “The troops will march in; the bands will play; the crowds will cheer; and in four days everyone will have forgotten.  Then we will be told to send in more troops.  It’s like taking a drink.  The effect wears off, and you have to take another.”

     He made a second mistake in the autumn of 1963 when he authorized American support for a coup that toppled and then murdered Ngo Dien Diem, the US’s main ally in South Vietnam.  The CIA then paid $42,000 in bribes to those officers who once in power set up a military junta.  “The worst mistake we ever made,” was Lyndon Johnson’s comment.

     Three weeks later Kennedy was himself murdered, and LBJ made a third crucial mistake when he ordered the bombing of North Vietnam rather than a forceful and aggressive ground attack.

     All these mistakes rested upon the “domino theory”, the idea that should South Vietnam fall to communism so would the rest of Southeast Asia to which Paul Johnson warned, “Beware public men when they use metaphors, especially mixed ones!”

     Even though Kerry has referred to it as “Nixon’s war,” ever since his return from Vietnam, it actually was Kennedy’s.

     And furthermore, the Time journalist Charles Krauthammer argued that polishing war medals will not guarantee Americans will get a great President.  FDR, an excellent war-time President, had no military experience.  Lincoln had only six months during Black Hawk’s Rebellion, and Grant, a brilliant soldier, was one of the worst Presidents ever. “Heroic military service doesn’t always translate into wise leadership at the top.”

     We as Americans in this election year of 2004 should insist upon more from a Presidential candidate than parading his war medals and then pointing out the conspicuous absence from the other.  Instead, we should expect an honest discussion on what is happening in Iraq and Afghanistan and what he will do to halt what could prove to be a slippery slope into a quagmire.