Douglas Brinkley's Luck

Historians in the News

Liz Halloran, in the Hartford Courant (Feb. 15, 2004):

Historian Douglas Brinkley set out several years ago to write a book about U.S. senators who had served in the Vietnam War. It turned out he was a little late. Most of the senators, including John McCain of Arizona and Bob Kerrey of Nebraska, had published their own memoirs. Brinkley and his publisher had to settle for a project profiling just one of the few Vietnam War senators who had yet to share his full story.

What luck that the senator he ended up with was John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, a decorated veteran who commanded a Navy Swift boat during the war and became a leading anti-war activist when he returned home. Not only did Kerry have a closetful of unpublished Vietnam-era journals, letters and film, but by the time Brinkley's book was on shelves Jan. 6, the senator was poised to emerge as the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination.

The serendipity is not lost on Brinkley, who recently stood amid the noisy chaos of Kerry's New Hampshire primary victory party signing copies of the definitive-to-date Kerry book,"Tour of Duty: John Kerry and the Vietnam War."

"My deal with my publisher was just to do a book on the Vietnam War using Kerry as my symbol," said Brinkley, 42."It's a book about a young man's odyssey in the '60s and the '70s.

"If he had lost Iowa and had to concede like (U.S. Rep. Richard) Gephardt, I would still be behind my book as a piece of Vietnam War history," he said.

Kerry, however, was a surprise winner of the Iowa caucuses last month, cruised to easy victory in New Hampshire on Jan. 27 and has since emerged as the front-runner. Now Brinkley, a prolific author finds himself unexpectedly in demand as an expert on a man who would be president.

Brinkley had never met Kerry before the two sat down for their first interview. He had been warned that the senator was unlikely to hand over his Vietnam diaries, which he had kept in his closet for 35 years. But Brinkley's efforts collecting the oral histories of World War II and Vietnam veterans, his position at the Eisenhower Center and his promise of a serious book persuaded Kerry to share his trove.

"He asked just that I don't try to embarrass him just to sell books," Brinkley said. Brinkley began poring over diaries Kerry had begun writing in 1965 before the war while a student at Yale and continued through 1968 and 1969, his years in Vietnam. He looked at letters Kerry wrote and viewed about five hours of movie footage Kerry shot during the war.

Kerry's diary excerpts are gripping, the writing descriptive, often elegant, frequently shocking in its detail. In a letter to his parents, he mourns the loss in Vietnam of Yale classmate Dick Pershing, writing,"with the loss of Persh something has gone out of me. Persh was an unbelievable spark in all of us and we took it for granted that we would always be together - go crashing through life in our unconquerable fashion as one entity."

He describes becoming ill at seeing a Vietnamese man die alone in an enemy hospital.

"How cheap life became," he explained how military brass would praise boat gunners for killing Viet Cong with the exhortation,"Good hunting!"

Brinkley said that when Kerry was commanding his Swift boat, he carried out orders without complaint, but his journals reflected his growing feeling that the war he went to fight out of a sense of public service was becoming a political and human disaster.

The book traces Kerry's return home, his activism in organizing veterans against the war, and the Nixon administration's disinformation campaign intended to discredit him. Brinkley contacted nearly every man still living who served under Kerry in the war and spoke with numerous friends and family members.

"The Nixon White House started a 'get Kerry' campaign," said Brinkley, who documents the effort in detail, including information about wiretaps and surveillance."The exact words from the White House were 'destroy the young demagogue.'"

"They wanted to destroy Kerry to the point where, in 1972, a brick came through his window and almost killed his baby next to her crib," he said, according to an account provided by Kerry's first wife, Julia Thorne. The book ends with the normalization of relations with Vietnam in 1995, something Kerry and McCain as senators had long worked for.

When asked what he learned about Kerry that struck him most, Brinkley said it was the sense of duty to country shared by the diplomat's son and his friends, and the lasting effect that President Kennedy had on all of them.

"I never realized before this book how much John F. Kennedy had influenced the whole mind-set of young people then," Brinkley said."For somebody like John Kerry, the notion of paying any price, bearing any burden, join the Peace Corps, join the Green Berets - all that sloganeering really influenced him a great deal.

"And he's not alone."

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