Our radio hero Hugh Hewitt has asked us to turn our attention to a specified part of John Kerry’s 1971 testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. (The link is to the complete transcript of the testimony that Human Events has dug up and posted.)
Hugh asks us to consider Kerry’s response to the question posed by Senator George Aiken of Vermont — he who proposed that we should simpy declare victory in South Vietnam and withdraw — asking whether the United States could simply withdraw on a date certain. Kerry responded:
…I think, having done what we have done to that country, we have an obligation to offer sanctuary to the perhaps 2,000, 3,000 people who might face, and obviously they would, we understand that, that might face political assasination or something else.
Hugh recalls that, contrary to Kerry’s estimate, more than 750,000 South Vietnamese were forced into re-education camps and that more than 130,000 fled as part of the boat people exodus. More than a million citizens of South Vietnam fled the country after Kerry’s opinion triumphed. Hugh asks whether Kerry’s misjudgment on this score is a legitimate campaign issue. We join Hugh in thinking that it is.
Hugh consciously omits discussion of the consequences of the American withdrawal from Southeast Asia beyond Vietnam, but they are rightfully a part of the calculus. Among the sorry consequences of America’s withdrawal, of course, was the Cambodian holocaust.
For a long while, responsibilty for this holocaust was attributed by those of Kerry’s ilk to the United States. They have been silent about it lately, but now that Kerry himself has reopened the subject of Vietnam, it would be most illuminating to elicit Kerry’s present thoughts on the subject in the light of his Senate testimony.
We have previously recalled the riveting tale told by Henry Kissinger of how, as the Khmer Rouge closed in on the capital city of Phnom Penh in early April 1975, the United States offered a number of Cambodian officials a chance to escape. The reply addressed to the U.S. ambassador by Sirik Matak, a former Cambodian prime minister, is, as Gabriel Schoenfeld has written, one of the more important documents of the entire Vietnam-war era:
Dear Excellency and Friend: I thank you very sincerely for your letter and for your offer to transport me towards freedom. I cannot, alas, leave in such a cowardly fashion. As for you, and in particular for your great country, I never believed for a moment that you would have this sentiment of abandoning a people which has chosen liberty. You have refused us your protection, and we can do nothing about it.
You leave, and my wish is that you and your country will find happiness under this sky. But, mark it well, that if I shall die here on the spot and in my country that I love, it is no matter, because we are all born and must die. I have only committed this mistake of believing in you [the Americans].
Please accept, Excellency and dear friend, my faithful and friendly sentiments.
Immediately after the Khmer Rouge took Phnom Penh, Kissinger recounts, Sirik Matak was shot in the stomach and left to die over the course of three days from his untreated wounds — only one among the two million that followed.
Kerry’s 1971 misjudgments are of of a piece with the many that have followed on every major foreign policy issue of the past 20 years; they are of a piece with a tradition, dating to Vietnam-era misjudgments, that Deacon previously summarized here as follows.
It didn’t matter whether we were to abandon Southeast Asia. The old regimes were corrupt and would not be missed. No bloodbath or repression would ensue.
It didn’t matter whether we abandoned the Shah of Iran. The Shah was a repressive U.S. puppet. Those religious fellas couldn’t be any worse.
It didn’t matter whether Communists were in control of Nicaragua. The contras were nasty right-wingers. The Sandanistas were dashing reformers.
It didn’t matter that there was nothing to prevent North Korea from developing nuclear weapons other than its promise not to do so. The cost of confronting North Korea was high. Madeleine Albright had established a good relationship with its leader.
It didn’t much matter that we captured Saddam Hussein or that we toppled his murderous and despotic regime.
Notice how, in each instance, Kerry and his band of leftist brothers started with a valid premise, but ended up embracing an absurdity. In this process they were driven by a deadly combination of the desire to take the path of least resistance and the desire to strike a moral pose (to stand against that which is corrupt, repressive, or nasty), without engaging in the unpleasant task of weighing alternatives and consequences.
Kerry’s misjudgments on Vietnam fall easily within this tradition of hugely consequential error. It is a tradition that, if elected president, he promises to continue and institutionalize. That’s why he should be called to account for them.