Of all the heat and light sparked by the campaign of the Swift Boat Veterans to discredit John Kerry, I have been struck most by two perceptive essays written one day apart by David Broder of The Washington Post and Daniel Henninger of The Wall Street Journal. Essentially, both of these pieces cut through the daily hair-splitting over the particulars of the events of Kerry’s Vietnam service to the crux of the issue—the “cauldron of memory”, as Henninger calls it, of the culture war that grew out of the 1960’s and that has divided the baby-boomer generation ever since over the war in Southeast Asia and the cultural revolution for which it became a metaphor.Broder harks back to Marilyn Quayle’s speech to the 1992 Republican Convention in Houston: “Remember, not everyone demonstrated, dropped out, took drugs, joined in the sexual revolution, or dodged the draft. Not everyone concluded that American society was so bad that it had to be radically remade by social revolution….Though we knew some changes needed to be made, we did not believe in destroying America to save it.” I was present at that speech and it resonated with me, for I was a borderline baby boomer at The University of Texas supporting Barry Goldwater in 1964 and soon afterward watching closely as the “make love, not war” groups were in formation along the West Mall and The Drag on the UT campus. I was in hot debate with the John Kerrys of my world then, and very little has changed.
Kerry’s testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1971, which has been rerun several times recently, brought back old and painful memories, and old anger. For his testimony was not just about the accusations of military atrocities committed in the field of battle that has the Swift Boat Vets so ballistic; it was about his condemnation of what he and his wing of his generation considered the atrocity of U. S. foreign policy in its entirety, not to mention the American society that had produced it, i.e., America is the problem. In many ways, this is the pedigree of Michael Moore.
A number of my friends and I have wondered, how could Kerry and the Democrats have been so misguided as to allow all these ghosts to be awakened by having his Vietnam War record become the centerpiece of this campaign without apology for his denigration of the country and its heroes who fought it? Henninger has the answer: it’s a matter of principle—opposition to the Vietnam War is the moral foundation of the modern Democratic Party, and Kerry thought he could have it both ways. Condoleezza Rice made the same point when she noted that Vietnam is the lodestar of 1960’s protest and Democratic Party principle—we were wrong and America is to blame.
Broder completes his essay by predicting that this aspect of the cultural divide will not rest until all of my generation has passed on. He may be right, but it’s about more than a war, it’s about a worldview, and until then, it’s “us versus them”, and we know who is on our side.