Douglas Brinkley: Proud of His Book

Historians in the News

James Varney, in the New Orleans Times Picayune (Aug. 27, 2004):

In recent weeks, the University of New Orleans scholar has emerged as a central figure in the highly partisan debate about Democratic candidate John Kerry's actions in combat during the Vietnam War. Brinkley's writings about Kerry -- in particular his biography "Tour of Duty," which was made with Kerry's cooperation -- have been cited by both the senator's opponents and supporters.

In a wide-ranging interview in the soaring lobby of his Uptown home, Brinkley said the dual use of his successful book is proof of his objectivity. Everything he has written and said to date, he insisted, has been based on the historical record.

"I'm not worried about it being seen as a campaign vehicle for Kerry," Brinkley said of the book. "I'm sympathetic to Kerry in his 20's, and it's no secret I think he would make a first-rate president. But my book has caused Kerry pain, too. The fact it's out may not have helped him. I mean, 'Unfit for Command' might not exist without it."

Brinkley's reference was to the nation's current No. 1 best seller, a book put out by an anti-Kerry group called Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. The Veterans group essentially has declared war on Kerry in television advertisements and interviews, as well as in the book. In interviews, some of the group's leaders have said the publication of Brinkley's "Tour of Duty" was a galvanizing force in their campaign.

The Swift Boat veterans' charges are unfair, Brinkley said. He said he finds them no more credible than those leveled by Democrats that President Bush skirted his National Guard duties during the Vietnam War.

He has taken a more public stance in the current controversy because he is familiar with the historical record, Brinkley said. He is proud of "Tour of Duty," the first of his many books to become a national best seller. He said some of his public defense of the work has been launched to protect his own scholarship, not to defend a candidate he supports or who, Brinkley said, brought attention on himself by making his Vietnam experience a centerpiece of his campaign.

"It's true Kerry has brought on this fight," Brinkley said. "But I was looking for a story about Vietnam, and I think I struck the right story. What's made me angry is false accusations made against Kerry's military record, which, because I know the record, I feel I must respond to even if I risk appearing like Kerry's surrogate in the process."

But Brinkley's open admiration and support for Kerry have raised questions about his objectivity as an academic historian. The American Historical Association warns its members to be wary when venturing into politics, saying those who do so "may face a choice of priorities between professionalism and partisanship."

Professors at UNO are not permitted to take blatantly partisan positions while wearing their school robes, said Rick Barton, the university's vice chancellor of academic affairs. Asked if he thought Brinkley had crossed that line, Barton said, "I can't say if he has or not, but I trust him not to. There are two roles he's playing here, and he needs to be careful with that."

He has been careful, Brinkley said. While he did not dispute being one of several hosts for a Kerry fund-raiser in February 2003, he said his speech at a Kerry rally in New Orleans in March has been misinterpreted. In fact, Brinkley was pushed onstage because Kerry was late, and he wound up talking about how the swift boats used in Vietnam were comparable to the Higgins landing craft that were manufactured in New Orleans during World War II and used to tremendous effect during the D-Day invasion at Normandy.

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Daniel Horodysky - 3/17/2005

John Kerry <>
Mr. Kerry,

Shame on you, Douglas Brinkley, and editors of William Morrow. You owe us Vietnam War mariners a HUGE public apology.

I was an unrecognized Slow Boat Vietnam War Veteran.

"But once the war [World War II] was won, what the bureaucrats in Washington did to the merchant mariners was reprehensible. They treated them like second-class citizens, and worse." American History Nov./Dec. 1993.

Irresponsible persons such as Walter Winchell spread the false lie and rumor about the merchant mariners high pay. This rumor persists until the present day. Rumors take on a life of their own.

Politicians, bureaucrats, and others are still at it today!

It has emerged again in Tour of duty: John Kerry and the Vietnam War, Douglas Brinkley, New York: William Morrow, 2004, based on Kerry’s diary – p. 191 – for Vietnam era mariners.

Kerry noted in his journal that we "had quite a good thing going." We earned extra pay "just for staying down below in the safety of a huge steel hull."

In WWII, we were not allowed to keep diaries, journals, etc. What if Kery were captured by the Viet Cong with his journal?

Kerry, “acclaimed historian” Brinkley, and William Morrow editors, obviously never did - - or they would have discovered - - where at least 55 merchant mariners were killed during Vietnam War and carried all supplies including Kerry’s Swift Boats. Their names are not on the Vietnam Wall.

I served on an old WWII rust bucket whose sister ship rust bucket was sunk at a Saigon dock a month before. Served as a "civilian" mariner with the US Military Sea Transportation Service, US Navy. We survived frequent concussion grenades in the river day and night, I did not feel safe “in the safety of [my] huge steel hull" while on engine room duty. We never received vet status, VA, or GI Bill benefits.

Mr. Kerry, how do you think helicopters, swift boats, troops, all war supplies, etc., etc., got to Vietnam?

We World War II mariners are now fighting for compensation for promised benefits never received -

Shame on irresponsible lie and rumor mongers.

Daniel Horodysky
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March 17, 2005