MSNBC has posted the transcript of Kerry’s appearance on Meet the Press today. The highlight of Kerry’s appearance today was Kerry’s confrontation with his appearance on Meet the Press in 1971:
MR. RUSSERT: Before we take a break, I want to talk about Vietnam. You are a decorated war hero of Vietnam, prominently used in your advertising. You first appeared on MEET THE PRESS back in 1971, your first appearance. I want to roll what you told the country then and come back and talk about it:
(Videotape, MEET THE PRESS, April 18, 1971):
MR. KERRY (Vietnam Veterans Against the War): 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. I conducted harassment and interdiction fire. I used 50-caliber machine guns which we were granted and ordered to use, which were our only weapon against people. 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 Lieutenant Calley, are war criminals.
MR. RUSSERT: You committed atrocities.
SEN. KERRY: Where did all that dark hair go, Tim? That’s a big question for me. You know, I thought a lot, for a long time, about that period of time, the things we said, and I think the word is a bad word. I think it’s an inappropriate word. I mean, if you wanted to ask me have you ever made mistakes in your life, sure. I think some of the language that I used was a language that reflected an anger. It was honest, but it was in anger, it was a little bit excessive.
MR. RUSSERT: You used the word “war criminals.”
SEN. KERRY: Well, let me just finish. Let me must finish. It was, I think, a reflection of the kind of times we found ourselves in and I don’t like it when I hear it today. I don’t like it, but I want you to notice that at the end, I wasn’t talking about the soldiers and the soldiers’ blame, and my great regret is, I hope no soldier–I mean, I think some soldiers were angry at me for that, and I understand that and I regret that, because I love them. But the words were honest but on the other hand, they were a little bit over the top. And I think that there were breaches of the Geneva Conventions. There were policies in place that were not acceptable according to the laws of warfare, and everybody knows that. I mean, books have chronicled that, so I’m not going to walk away from that. But I wish I had found a way to say it in a less abrasive way.
MR. RUSSERT: But, Senator, when you testified before the Senate, you talked about some of the hearings you had observed at the winter soldiers meeting and you said that people had personally raped, cut off ears, cut off heads, taped wires from portable telephones to human genitals and on and on. A lot of those stories have been discredited, and in hindsight was your testimony…
SEN. KERRY: Actually, a lot of them have been documented.
MR. RUSSERT: So you stand by that?
SEN. KERRY: A lot of those stories have been documented. Have some been discredited? Sure, they have, Tim. The problem is that’s not where the focus should have been. And, you know, when you’re angry about something and you’re young, you know, you’re perfectly capable of not–I mean, if I had the kind of experience and time behind me that I have today, I’d have framed some of that differently. Needless to say, I’m proud that I stood up. I don’t want anybody to think twice about it. I’m proud that I took the position that I took to oppose it. I think we saved lives, and I’m proud that I stood up at a time when it was important to stand up, but I’m not going to quibble, you know, 35 years later that I might not have phrased things more artfully at times.
This is Kerry’s second time around with Russert on the 1971 Meet the Press appearance. On May 6, 2001 Russert interviewed Kerry on the show and in the course of the interview asked Kerry about his views on Vietnam.
(Audiotape, April 18, 1971):
MR. CROSBY NOYES (Washington Evening Star): Mr. Kerry, you said at one time or another that you think our policies in Vietnam are tantamount to genocide and that the responsibility lies at all chains of command over there. Do you consider that you personally as a Naval officer committed atrocities in Vietnam or crimes punishable by law in this country?
SEN. KERRY: 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. I conducted harassment and interdiction fire. I used 50 calibre machine guns, which we were granted and ordered to use, which were our only weapon against people. 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 is 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 Lieutenant Calley, are war criminals.
MR. RUSSERT: Thirty years later, you stand by that?
SEN. KERRY: I don’t stand by the genocide. I think those were the words of an angry young man. We did not try to do that. But I do stand by the description–I don’t even believe there is a purpose served in the word “war criminal.” I really don’t. But I stand by the rest of what happened over there, Tim.
I mean, you know, we–it was–I mean, we’ve got to put this war in its right perspective and time helps us do that. I believe very deeply that it was a noble effort to begin with. I signed up. I volunteered. I wanted to go over there and I wanted to win. It was a noble effort to try to make a country democratic; to try to carry our principles and values to another part of the world. But we misjudged history. We misjudged our own country. We misjudged our strategy. And we fell into a dark place. All of us. And I think we learned that over time. And I hope the contribution that some of us made as veterans was to come back and help people understand that.
I think our soldiers served as nobly, on the whole, as in any war, and people need to understand that. There were great sacrifices, great contributions. And they came back to a country that didn’t thank the veteran, that didn’t–I mean, everything that the veteran gained in the ensuing years, Agent Orange recognition, post-Vietnam stress syndrome recognition, the extension of the G.I. Bill, you know, improvement of the V.A. hospitals, all came from Vietnam veterans themselves fighting for it. Indeed, even the memorial in Washington came from that.
MR. RUSSERT: By your own comments, Bob Kerrey was not alone in doing the things that he did.
SEN. KERRY: Oh, of course, not. And not only that, we, the government of our country, ran an assassination program. I mean, Bill Colby has acknowledged it. We had the Phoenix Program, where they actually went into villages to eliminate the civilian infrastructure of the Vietcong. Now, you couldn’t tell the difference in many cases who they were. And countless veterans testified 30 years ago to that reality. And I think–look, there’s no excusing shooting children in cold blood, or women, and killing them in cold blood. There isn’t, under any circumstances. But we’re not asking, you know, nor is Bob Kerrey saying, “Excuse us for what we did.” We’re asking people to try to understand the context and forgiveness. And I think the nation needs to understand what the nation put its young in a position to do, and move on and take those lessons and apply them to the future.
MR. RUSSERT: The folks who oversaw the war, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Henry Kissinger, you do not now 30 years later consider them war criminals?
SEN. KERRY: No, I think we did things that were tantamount that certainly violated the laws of war, but I think it was the natural consequence of the Cold War itself. People made decisions based on their perceptions of the world at that time. They were in error. They were judgments of error. But I think no purpose is served now by going down that road. I think, you know, the rhetoric of youth and of anger can be redeemed by the acts that we put in place after time to try to move us beyond that. And I think there are great lessons to learn from it. But we would serve no purpose with that now. But we have to be honest about the mistakes we made. We don’t have legitimacy in the world, Tim, if we go to other countries, in Bosnia or China or anywhere else, and not say, “You know, we made some terrible mistakes.”
And that honesty, that lack of a sense of honesty is part of what is driving people’s anger toward the United States today. That’s why we have the vote in the U.N. That’s why people–our allies, too–are disturbed by this defense posture. You can’t abrogate the ABM treaty and move forward on your own to build this defense in a way that threatens the perceptions of security people have. And if you build a defense system, Tim, that can do what they say at the outside, which is change mutual assured destruction, you have invited a potential adversary to build, build, build, to find a way around it. The lesson of the Cold War is, you do not make this planet safer by moving unilaterally into a place of new weapons. Every single advance in weaponry through the Cold War was matched by one side or the other, and that’s why we put the ABM treaty in place, and that’s why we need to proceed very cautiously and very thoughtfully.
In both appearances Kerry characterizes his 1971 comments — the comments he made in sworn testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, comments that constituted the core of his standard Vietnam Veterans Against the War stump speech, comments that turned him into a national celebrity — as the words of an angry young man. The truth, however, is that the words appear to have been deliberately chosen and carefully calibrated to produce exactly the effect that they did. Thirty years later they are an inconvenience.
The pre-9/11 2001 comments compound Kerry’s falsehoods with his misreading of security issues including the history of the Cold War and the wisdom of missile defense. There is something remarkable about Kerry’s unerring orientation to error on every serious question of policy concerning the defense of the United States.