Kerry Criticizes Cheney for Avoiding Vietnam War

Kerry Criticizes Cheney for Avoiding Vietnam War (Reuters)

Democrat John Kerry hit back at Dick Cheney (news – web sites) on Thursday by raising the Republican’s failure to serve in the Vietnam War and asking voters to weigh his two tours of duty against the vice president’s five deferments.

Kerry, a decorated Vietnam War veteran, bristled at Cheney’s attack on his patriotism during the Republican National Convention in New York and his ability to serve as U.S. commander-in-chief. [Nice objective reporting. Cheney did no such thing. -ed.] “Here’s my answer,” the Massachusetts senator said in excerpts of remarks he will make at a midnight rally in Springfield, Ohio, shortly after President Bush delivers his acceptance speech at the Republican convention. “I’m not going to have my commitment to defend this country questioned by those who refused to serve when they could have and by those who have misled the nation into Iraq,” he said.

Neither Bush, who served in the Texas Air national Guard, nor Cheney went to Vietnam. The vice president obtained five deferments and has since said he had “other priorities” at the time. Kerry volunteered for two tours of duty and won three Purple Hearts, a Bronze Star and a Silver Star while serving on a gunboat in the Mekong Delta. Kerry’s political campaign has heavily emphasized his Vietnam record, but his critics say he served only four months in the country. They say he hardly discusses his record during 20 years in the U.S. Senate.

First, the questions about Kerry’s commitment have to do with his votes in the Senate the past 20 years, not his actions as a young man in Vietnam 35 years ago. Those questions are coming from those who served and those who didn’t.

Second, Kerry came back from Vietnam and accused those who participated of war crimes and continually called it an immoral war. Why should Bush and Cheney have volunteered to fight in such an enterprise?

Third, Kerry voted to give President Bush authority to wage the Iraq War. To this day, he tries to have it both ways, not even being willing to say that he’d not have voted to go to war even knowing what we know now. His own speeches leading up to the war mirrored those of Bush and Cheney–WMDs and all the rest.

Finally, the three men are not the same age. Their birthdays:

While U.S. involvement in Vietnam lasted quite some time, the critical period was from the passage of the Gulf of Tonkin resolution on August 7, 1964 through the Tet Offensive on January 30-31, 1968. Before that period, there was no reason that anyone would have been particularly motivated to join and after that public support for the war sharply declined. Cheney is almost three years older than Kerry. He graduated college before that period and was married with a family, thus accounting for his “other priorities.” John Kerry was a single man just out of college in 1966, at a time when the Vietnam War was at the height of its popularity. George W. Bush graduated Yale two years later, months after Tet.

A recent CBS News story, “Bush v Kerry: Yale Class War,” puts some perspective on this:

President Bush and Democratic rival John Kerry graduated from Yale University in the 1960s, a time of upheaval at Yale and campuses across the country. Both shied away from the radicalism of the day but joined the same secret society and followed similar pursuits, their paths diverging after graduation.

When Kerry graduated in 1966 with a degree in political science, opposition to the Vietnam War was building. Yale still required students to wear jackets and ties at dinner, and no female undergraduates were admitted.

By the time Bush earned a degree in history in 1968, Yale was simmering with activism against the war and in favor of labor unions and other causes. Dinner jackets were gone, and female undergraduates arrived the following year.

This isn’t to say that, were they the same age, Bush and Cheney would necessarily have done what Kerry did. Cheney was (and is) a bookworm while Bush and Kerry were (and are) athletes and risk takers. Kerry was by all accounts, too, much more serious and focused in his college years than Bush. Kerry went to Vietnam for a variety of reasons, I gather, ranging from patriotism to adventure to politics. He deserves and has gotten kudos for having taken that risk. But his circumstances were clearly different from that of his opponents.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. BoDiddly says:

    I feel one little detail has been “glossed over” in all the hullabaloo over “AWOL Bush” and “VietNam Hero Kerry”. Kerry has, time and time again, cited how he volunteered for service on board a “Swift Boat”, while condemning Bush for National Guard enlistment. Fact is, both Bush and Kerry sought student deferments, and according to the enlistment papers found on Kerry’s campaign website, Kerry enlisted in the Naval Reserves. In the months that followed, Kerry saw action in VietNam, Bush did not. I think it’s a significant distortion to portray Bush as attempting to evade service, while Kerry is lauded as a hero for “volunteering”, when the two took very similar paths.

  2. Interesting that John Edwards was missing from that list. The supposed reason is that he was born later; very suspicious timing if you ask me.

  3. denise says:

    This is pretty ridiculous on Kerry’s part, but it is partly the chickens coming home to roost for the Republican party. Years of GOP bashing Clinton as a draft dodger is what has led to this.

    Neither party ever wakes up to the fact that what comes around goes around. Maybe the next generation will remember the Ratt song and do better.

  4. McGehee says:

    Bo, I’d never heard that Bush sought a deferment. Source?

  5. Dave Schuler says:

    Fact is, both Bush and Kerry sought student deferments, and according to the enlistment papers found on Kerry’s campaign website, Kerry enlisted in the Naval Reserves.

    This is not quite accurate. Bush, Cheney, and Kerry all received student deferments. Remember draft age was 18. Student deferment for undergraduate college education was the norm. Bush enlisted in the Texas Air National Guard. Kerry requested a deferment for post-grad studies and was denied then enlisted in the Naval Reserve. Cheney received a deferment as a married man with children. Every single deferment, and every single National Guard or Naval Reserve enlistment, and every deferment as a breadwinner was considered honorable at the time.

    And every time I hear Kerry trying to claim his own acts as honorable and everybody else’s as dishonorable when he took the same deferments (except for the breadwinner deferment) makes me want to punch the SOB in the nose.

  6. ray skinner says:

    It should be noted that Kerry had four student deferments, and only enlisted in the navy reserve when his fifth student deferment was denied. Was afaid he would end up in ground forces. Also when he applied for swift boats they were considered relatively safe because they patrolled the ocean area. Only after he applied did they start patroling the Delta, and then he couldn’t pull his papers. Check The Dates. Believe me I KNOW

  7. Mike Sheehan says:

    New allegations are being raised about family influence and George Bush’s billeting to the Texas Air National Guard. As a contemporary of the two candidates I recall it was just as difficult to get a slot in the Naval Reserves as it was to get in the National Guard. How did John Kerry get a slot in the Naval Reserves at the eleventh hour, after his request for deferment to go to graduate school was denied?