U.S. Secretary of State and Vietnam War veteran John F. Kerry says he lives by the mantra “every day is extra.” On the second day of UT’s Vietnam War Summit, Kerry spent one of his extra days with 1,000-plus veterans and guests at the Lyndon B. Johnson Library.
On the eve of the 41st anniversary of the Battle of Saigon and a month before he is set to accompany President Obama on his first trip to Vietnam, Kerry gave the three-day summit’s keynote speech. The highly decorated Vietnam veteran was joined onstage by documentary filmmaker Ken Burns to discuss the contentious war in which he once served and his plans for the future.
“I know that this conference calls for a serious analysis of what happened,” Kerry said. “It’s also about us and our heart and soul and our gut.”
In 1968, Kerry enlisted in the U.S. Navy and served two tours of duty, receiving a Silver Star, a Bronze Star, and three Purple Hearts. But upon his return, he became outspoken against the Vietnam War, testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?” From there, he went on to co-found the Vietnam Veterans of America and worked to secure veterans’ benefits, extend the G.I. Bill for Higher Education, and improve treatments for post-traumatic stress disorder.
Recounting his testimony before the Senate in ’71, Kerry said he spoke about the determination of veterans to undertake one last mission. “So that in 30 years, when our brother went down the street without a leg or arm, we’d be able to say ‘Vietnam’ and not mean a bitter memory,” he said, choking up. “But mean instead, the place where America turned and we helped it in the turning.”
Kerry said the process of reconciliation and restoring diplomatic ties has not been about forgetting what happened. “But neither should we become prisoners of history,” he said. He praised how far the nation’s relations with Vietnam have come since the war, noting an increase in bilateral trade, an increase in the number of Vietnamese students studying in the U.S., and the establishment of Fulbright University Vietnam in Ho Chi Minh City. “It’s clear today that the Vietnam we’re engaged with, no one could have imagined,” he said. “Vietnam, a former adversary, is now a partner with whom we have developed increasingly warm, personal, and national ties.”
On lessons learned, Kerry said what people take from the war depends on their perspective. Though there is a litany of lessons that could be named, Kerry said the most important is not to “confuse the war with the warriors”—a common theme of the summit.
He stressed the importance of ensuring that the flow of information is open and free so that leaders can make informed decisions. “Thirdly, as we define our exceptionalism, which I believe in very deeply, I believe we need to manage more how we talk about it,” he said. “Because other people think they’re exceptional too.”
Despite his protests of the Vietnam War, Kerry made it clear that he is by no means a pacifist. He believes in the military and knows in some cases, putting boots to ground is the only way. But, he said, “the principal obligation of anyone in power is if you are going to ask men and women to put their lives on the line, you better make damn sure you’ve tried everything else possible.”
Though he was reluctant to touch too much on the subject, Kerry said he finds a dangerous separation in having an all-volunteer based army. “I think there should be shared responsibility among all Americans,” he said. “Every American ought to find a way to serve somehow. It doesn’t have to be in the military.”
An emotional Kerry said the Vietnam War had one more lesson to offer.
“We cannot look at other countries and see them only through an American lens,” he said. “We have to try and put ourselves wherever we are into the other person’s shoes and see their country as they see their country.”
Filmmaker Ken Burns, left, and Secretary of State John Kerry speak at the LBJ Library on April 27 (State Department photo).
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