Naval History : Did Senator Kerry come to you, or did you go to him?
Brinkley : I wanted to do it because the Eisenhower Center is assembling Vietnam War oral histories. [Retired Marine Corps] Captain Ronald Drez recently interviewed 150 veterans of the Battle of Khe Sanh; everybody from General [William] Westmoreland to a field medic. I was starting a separate project that focused on the Vietnam War senators—John McCain, Max Cleland, Bob Kerrey, John Kerry, Chuck Hagel. I wanted to know what happened in their childhoods, how they got drafted or volunteered and went to Vietnam, served, came home, and used the war to launch their political careers.
But as I started working in earnest, I realized how much had been written on Bob Kerrey; he had written his own memoir, and a biography had come out on him. Max Cleland had written a memoir. John McCain had written a memoir, and there were two biographies out on him. But John Kerry was a blank slate. Since I am predisposed to naval history and an amateur naval historian, I started being very interested in Kerry’s story. Vietnam was not just a war in Asia. It also was fought on the home front. I thought Kerry brought drama from all sides.
Certainly, my book has become part of the campaign. But I did not write it as a book for or against Kerry. The most frustrating part for me now is hearing and reading, in our highly partisan atmosphere, all the politically charged views on John Kerry.
The truth is, my book is about how one young guy dealt with what happened when his Vietnam bell was rung. You either joined the armed services, or you left the country, or you finagled a way out. Kerry chose to volunteer and become an officer in the Navy. He didn’t like what he saw, and he wrote about it in his diaries. He then came home and became active in the antiwar movement.
Naval History : We’ve heard that Senator Kerry had been trying to avoid going to Vietnam by applying to study in France. You say in your book he joined the Navy because it had seemed the right thing to do. How do you sort out the truth?
Brinkley : Most of Kerry’s friends at Yale were Republicans and gung-ho military types. Dick Pershing was General Black Jack Pershing’s grandson. Freddie Smith went into the Marines and then went on to found Federal Express. They were his two closest friends in Skull and Bones, the secret organization at Yale. All of his buddies were going to war. What was he going to do, be the wimp who finagled a way not to join? I think peer pressure, if you want to call it that, had an impact. I also think Kerry weighed his options. He did think about going to Paris. Believe me, he could have found 100 ways to avoid Vietnam. The way you judge a man, Dwight Eisenhower once said, is you don’t judge the motive, you judge the action. In this case, the action is that John Kerry volunteered for the U.S. Navy at the height of the Vietnam War.
We can judge Kerry’s actions when he testifies in front of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and his overwrought rhetoric about what was occurring in Vietnam. I don’t mean to imply there’s anything wrong with testifying. It’s actually the way we do things in this country. But when that testimony made it seem as though an atrocity was happening every minute in Vietnam, it was exaggerated. And I think criticism of that is legitimate.
Naval History : You refer in the book to Jane Fonda’s visit to North Vietnam as unconscionable. How do you think Senator Kerry feels about it?
Brinkley : I know he thinks it was unconscionable. They were together on a speaker’s platform in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. Then they were together in Detroit at the famous Winter Soldier investigation. So they were part of the same antiwar team in 1970 and ’71. But Kerry doesn’t see her after February of ’70, and she does not become “Hanoi Jane” until August of ’72.
You have to keep in mind, Kerry quits Vietnam Veterans Against the War in November 1971 because the organization is too radical. He disagrees with the whole direction the group is going. If you’re going to stick the Jane Fonda story on Kerry, you’ve got to put it in perspective. Kerry’s opponents are saying he’s “Hanoi John” to her “Hanoi Jane.” That is historically false.
Naval History : Some veterans have said the criteria for awarding medals eroded considerably during the Vietnam War. What is your sense?
Brinkley : Whether there was an inflation of medal giving at a certain moment in history can be debated. But we have to be careful we don’t impugn the service of veterans. The slippery slope of claiming medal inflation and that people didn’t deserve what they got is very ugly. Those medals might be the things some human beings are most proud of in their lives. Why not let them have at least that? They went to Vietnam, they served, they earned medals, and they came home. Why would somebody want to try to rip at them for those medals? That becomes, I think, a sick mentality.
Read the full Brinkley interview  in June 2004 Naval History .