Then and Now: Evolution of John Kerry

Revolutionary Worker #1232, March 14, 2004, posted at

Let us start with the brief period of John Kerry's political life that can actually be respected by progressive people.

In January 1970, John Kerry was discharged from the Navy after serving a voluntary tour of duty in the heaviest days of the Vietnam War. He was let out of the Navy six months early so he could start his political career by running for Congress in Newton, Massachusetts.

But in this brutal and unpopular war, unlike previous ones, Kerry's Silver Star and Purple Hearts were not an easy ticket to public office. Kerry quickly lost the Democratic nomination to Father Robert Drinan--an activist-priest with established antiwar credentials.

And after that career setback, John Kerry entered the liberal democratic wing of the antiwar movement There, whatever his unspoken motives and ambitions, he briefly played a role in the great struggles of those times.

John Kerry joined Vietnam Veterans Against the War, a powerful and unprecedented mass movement of former soldiers. In January 1971, he attended the Winter Soldier Investigations where veterans described the brutal acts they had performed in Vietnam. Kerry himself did not testify, but he became involved in the veterans' march planned for that coming spring. According to the Boston Globe , using contacts within the Democratic party, he raised $50,000 from antiwar businessmen, including Seagram chief executive Edgar M. Bronfman Sr.

On April 22, 1971, Kerry, then 27 years old, spoke before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on behalf of those Winter Soldier Investigations:

"I would like to talk on behalf of all those veterans and say that several months ago in Detroit we had an investigation at which over 150 honorably discharged, and many very highly decorated, veterans testified to war crimes committed in Southeast Asia. These were not isolated incidents but crimes committed on a day-to-day basis with the full awareness of officers at all levels of command.... They told stories that at times they had personally raped, cut off ears, cut off heads, taped wires from portable telephones to human genitals and turned up the power, cut off limbs, blown up bodies, randomly shot at civilians, razed villages in a fashion reminiscent of Genghis Khan, shot cattle and dogs for fun, poisoned food stocks and generally ravaged the countryside of South Vietnam in addition to the normal ravage of war and the normal and very particular ravaging which is done by the applied bombing power of this country."

His vivid description of the U.S. war crimes in Vietnam was both true and extremely shocking.

The next day, as a quarter million people gathered on the Washington Mall, Kerry joined other veterans in the famous Dewey Canyon III action and threw their ribbons and medals at the Capitol steps-- rejecting honors and hero-status in protest against the genocidal war. A few days later a Nixon aide wrote in a memo: "Destroy the young demagogue.."

Meanwhile, in a 60 Minutes interview, Morley Safer asked Kerry if he wanted to be president, and Kerry (if not too convincingly) denied such ambitions.

How far Kerry has moved in the 30 years since!

Within a few months of his Senate testimony, John Kerry distanced himself from Vietnam Veterans Against the War and the antiwar movement generally. He later told the Boston Phoenix , "I resigned and left because the agenda of some of the folks within the veterans' movement ultimately became confused and went way beyond just trying to end the war. There was a lot of rhetoric about every social ill and evil there was."

Much of the antiwar movement and VVAW was becoming radicalized--and many people started to see that Vietnam was more than just "a mistake" but flowed from the imperialist nature of the system itself. Kerry understood, then and now, what kind of politics made someone "electable" and which would make him "unelectable."

Now, of course, his medals hang in a prominent place in his Senate office. John Kerry wraps himself in that "war hero" status he once rejected. And we are told that being a "war hero" now qualifies him for our support and the presidency.

In "A Call to Service," Kerry's campaign biography, this is what he now says about Vietnam:

"I could never agree with those in the antiwar movement who dismissed our troops as war criminals or our country as the villain in the drama. As a veteran of both the Vietnam war and the Vietnam protest movement, I say to both conservative and liberal misinterpretations of that war it's time to get over it and recognize it as an exception, not as a ruling example, of the U.S. military engagements of the twentieth century."

This is a very "electable" position--and an openly pro-imperialist one. It is the stand of a man who hopes to be picked for "war president"--to command the current U.S. drive for world domination.


This needs to be said about what is honorable and what isn't:

John Kerry volunteered for an unjust war in Vietnam--to help conquer a people who were fighting a just struggle for their liberation. As an officer commanding a gunboat in the Mekong Delta, he led armed attacks on those people and their resistance forces. He helped create "free-fire zones" where civilians were treated as targets. He received his Silver Star for personally killing a Vietnamese liberation fighter and his gunboat crew killed at least one Vietnamese child.

These actions in Vietnam were wrong, shameful, and dishonorable. He was right to repudiate such crimes in 1971, and it is perverse to praise him for these crimes now.

Fine-tuning His Electability

The long political history of John Kerry is full of "then and now" moments-- where he has reinvented himself to be ever more "electable"--and ever more attuned to new emerging consensus within the ruling class.

THEN: When he first arrived in the Senate in 1984, Kerry backed canceling weapons systems, such as the B-1 bomber, B-2 stealth bomber, the Apache helicopter and the Patriot missile.

NOW: Kerry now calls those positions "ill-advised, and I think some of them are stupid in the context of the world we find ourselves in right now, and the things that I've learned since then." He now calls for expanding the U.S. military and criticizes George Bush for not providing the military with enough "resources."

In a debate on January 29, he bragged, "I have voted for the largest defense budgets in the history of our country."

THEN: In 1996, Kerry was one of only 14 Senators who voted against the "Defense of Marriage Act"--the law saying it would be legal for states to refuse to recognize gay marriages.

NOW: Kerry now says he opposes gay marriages and adds "Vice President Cheney has the same position I do." When the Massachusetts Supreme Court legalized gay marriage last November, Kerry said, "I personally believe the court is not right." He has even said he might support an amendment to the Massachusetts Constitution banning gay marriage saying, "It depends entirely on what the language is." And he adds he now opposes the proposed federal constitutional ban on gay marriage.

THEN: In 1988 Kerry voted against a "workfare" proposal forcing people on welfare to work for their checks (often replacing people in city jobs making higher wages.)

NOW: By the 1990s, he was a front rank support of Clinton's campaign to "abolish welfare as we know it." In 1992, he was openly speaking the language of modern conservatism, and warning in a Yale speech about a "culture of dependency." We must ask whether [social disintegration] is the result of a massive shift in the psychology of our nation that some argue grew out of the excesses of the 1960s, a shift from self-reliance to indulgence and dependence, from caring to self-indulgence, from public accountability to public abdication and chaos."

He added: "The truth is that affirmative action has kept America thinking in racial terms." (Think about this outrageous claim: that racist thinking is supposedly "kept" alive by the few and very partial efforts to limit racial inequality!)

During this same period, Kerry supported Clinton's 1994 Crime Bill and 1996 Counter-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (both significant precursors to today's Patriot Act).

THEN: When Kerry first arrived in the Senate in 1985 he held hearings that exposed many details of how CIA agents organized cocaine traffic into the U.S. to fund Reagan's covert contra war against Nicaragua. Under pressure, he allowed the whole issue to drop, and never again stood out in the Senate.

NOW: Kerry promotes a whole different connection between counter-insurgency and the "war on drugs." His top campaign national security advisor is now Rand Beers, who served under Clinton and Bush Sr. as an architect of "Plan Colombia" and the mass aerial defoliation campaign there--targeting and poisoning villages that live outside central government control (often in the territories of the FARC rebel group), while also developing U.S.-trained counter-insurgency battalions.

When asked about the suffering of Colombian peasants on ABC's20-20, Beers sneered: "An illegal activity is an illegal activity. And one doesn't get a special pass for being poor."

Beers justified all this during testimony in federal court by saying: "It is believed that FARC terrorists have received training in al-Qaida terrorist camps in Afghanistan"--an absurd claim worthy of a Colin Powell UN speech (Counterpunch, January 24).

If Beers becomes Kerry's replacement for Condoleezza Rice, how much of a "lesser evil" is that?