John Kerry Was Against the Establishment Before He Was Its Spokesman

Forty-two years ago, Secretary Kerry's wide-ranging testimony was an excoriation of the media, politics, and a government that made the flawed decision to go to war in Vietnam. His most recent appearance was the opposite.

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Secretary of State Kerry's appearance before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday was not his first. His first appearance before that body, a body that he would chair before running for president and before assuming his current position, was in April 1971. Forty-two years ago, Kerry's wide-ranging testimony — focused on the war in Vietnam — was an excoriation of the media, politics, and a government that made the flawed decision to go to war. His most recent appearance — covered by the media, and the culmination of his political career — was to ask that America once again begin a military conflict.

Kerry, a 27 year-old Army veteran with three Purple Hearts and a Silver Star, appeared before the Committee in 1971 as a representative of Vietnam Veterans Against the War. The current Secretary of State recalled that appearance on Tuesday, after being interrupted by a protestor from Code Pink, acknowledged the changing nature of his appearance. The Blaze transcribed his reponse:

The first time I testified before this committee when I was 27 years old, I had feelings very similar to that protester. I would just say that is exactly why it is so important that we are all here having this debate, talking about these things before the country and that the Congress itself will act representing the American people. And I think we can all respect those who have a different point of view. And we do.
That testimony and the exchanges with senators that followed are transcribed at, a site that shares its name with one of the first explanations Kerry offered in 1971. He and his peers in the organization were "winter soldiers" — a reference to Thomas Paine's description of less-committed "summer soldiers" — who said they needed to speak the truth about Vietnam despite the response they expected from the government. Kerry was not shy in doing so.
In our opinion, and from our experience, there is nothing in South Vietnam, nothing which could happen that realistically threatens the United States of America. And to attempt to justify the loss of one American life in Vietnam, Cambodia, or Laos by linking such loss to the preservation of freedom, which those misfits supposedly abuse is to us the height of criminal hypocrisy, and it is that kind of hypocrisy which we feel has torn this country apart.

It's very easy to read an enormous amount into the situation Kerry addressed then — a civil war (in his words) within Vietnam — and the one he now proposes the United States address. But Kerry didn't only express frustration about the war. His full appearance broadly criticized the failures of the government and the failing efforts of institutions central to American power — institutions that he clearly felt were enabling the Vietnam War.

Among other aspects of the establishment and the war, Kerry spoke out on:

The compelling need to raise money to run for office. At the time of his appearance, Kerry had briefly flirted with a run for office — a flirtation that lasted "three-and-a-half weeks." But he found it off-putting that running for election was so expensive. "[T]o run for representative in any populated area costs about $50,000. Many people simply don't have that available," he said, "and in order to get it inevitably wind up with their hands tied."

In 2013, that's about $289,000. In his 2008 Senate reelection bid, Kerry spent $17 million. Senator Robert Menendez, now chair of the committee, spent $16 million in his reelection last year.

The failure of elected officials to represent their constituents. Kerry refused to accept that the members of Congress who voted to prolong the war fully represented their constituents. He criticized the way members voted for legislation in committee, then opposing it in final votes. "[Members of Congress] gave a speech for the Polish and they gave a speech for the Irish and they gave a speech for this," Kerry said, "and actually handed the paper in to the clerk and the clerk submits it for the record and a copy of the record goes home and people say, 'Hey, he really is doing something for me.' But he isn't."

A poll released by ABC News on Tuesday suggests that voters don't support action in Syria either — 59 percent oppose the sort of strikes Kerry was before the committee to champion.

The media's failure to cover veterans' issues. Kerry heavily criticized the role of the media in preferring sensational visuals over reporting.

I held a press conference here in Washington, D.C., some weeks ago with General Shoup, with General Hester, with the mother of a prisoner of war, the wife of a man who was killed, the mother of a soldier who was killed, and with a bilateral amputee, all representing the so-called silent majority, the silent so-called majority which the President used to perpetuate the war, and because it was a press conference and an antiwar conference and people simply exposing ideas we had no electronic media there.

I called the media afterward and asked them why and the answer was, from one of the networks, it doesn't have to be identified, "because, sir, news business is really partly entertainment business visually, you see, and a press conference like that is not visual."

As Secretary of State, sent to advocate for the government's position, Kerry has had better luck. On Sunday, he made appearances on all five political talk shows.

Veteran suicide. "I understand 57 percent of all those entering the VA hospitals talk about suicide," Kerry told the committee in 1971. "Some 27 percent have tried," he continued, blaming indifference from the American public. Today, the VA estimates that 18 percent of suicides are committed by veterans.

Veteran unemployment. "It varies depending on who you get it from," Kerry said, but unemployment was endemic. That unemployment was, according to "the VA Administration 15 percent, various other sources 22 percent. But the largest corps of unemployed in this country are veteran of this war, and of those veterans 33 percent of the unemployed are black. That means 1 out of every 10 of the Nation's unemployed is a veteran of Vietnam."

The situation following the most recent conflict in the Gulf is better, but not much. Male veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan have consistently seen more unemployment than those in the civilian population.

The fact that there was no declaration of war. Senator Stuart Symington of Missouri asked Kerry if "the fact Congress has never passed a declaration of war undermined the morale of U.S. servicemen in Vietnam?" To which Kerry responded: "Yes; it has clearly and to a great, great extent."

During his Tuesday appearance, Kerry explained to the committee that President Obama had no interest in a declaration of war.

Let me be clear: President Obama is not asking America to go to war. I say that sitting next to two men who know what war is. … They know the difference between going to war, and what President Obama is requesting now. We all agree there will be no American boots on the ground. The president has made crystal clear we have no intention of assuming responsibility for serious civil war.

In May 1961, President Kennedy's Secretary of State Dean Rusk might have made a similar statement.

Photo: Kerry testifying in 1971 (top) and 2013. (AP)

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.