A Loss for Honesty on the Senate Floor

By Sydney H. Schanberg

Published in New York Newsday January 28, 1994

When rumpled Sen. Bob Smith of New Hampshire presented the Senate on Wednesday night with new evidence of American servicemen who were prisoners but never returned by Vietnam, his opponent on the MIA issue, the lean and sartorially polished Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts rose in reply, struck a Kennedyesque pose and put on display his ignoble side.

Emoting disdain, he tried to brush off Smith’s very tangible evidence, some of it based on newly exposed CIA and Pentagon intelligence reports, as “a lot of allegations” that Smith had “thrown out” to the Senate. Without refuting a single piece of Smith’s core information, Kerry dismissed it as “intelligence reports or some old reports taken out of context or something … but it is not real evidence.”

The issue on the Senate floor was whether to pass a Kerry-sponsored amendment calling on President Bill Clinton to lift the U.S. trade embargo against Vietnam “expeditiously” or instead pass a Smith amendment requiring the president, before ending the embargo, to certify that Vietnam has provided the United States “with the fullest possible unilateral resolution of all cases” of missing men.

Kerry’s resolution won, by a vote of 62 to 38, but the real issue on the Senate floor was not about an embargo. It was about being honest.

For 20 years, as all the evidence now shows, our government has known that a significant number of prisoners were held back by Hanoi at the end of the war, probably as bargaining chips for reparations. And for 20 years, no president has had the courage to say out loud — and, risk the ensuing embarrassment — that we left men behind and it was shameful. To admit such a thing, it must have seemed to the White House, could damage or even destroy the careers and reputations of all those men in high Washington places who, administration after administration, felt it necessary to try to maintain this tragic secret.

John Kerry, himself, despite the mountain of confirming intelligence data that came before him in 1992 as chairman of the Senate Select Committee on POW /MIA Affairs, somehow could not manage to say forthrightly, in the committee’s final report, the one simple truth ­ that men had been left behind in our haste to get out of Vietnam in 1973.

And now, the less polished Bob Smith, vice-chairman and dissenter on the committee whom Kerry had mocked in private and who has fought for full disclosure on the prisoners for 10 years, was standing on the Senate floor and putting evidence on the table where Kerry could only place his rhetoric.

Smith was also reminding the urbane Kerry that his main argument for passage of the embargo-lifting resolution — that it would encourage Vietnam to come forward with more information on prisoners — was hardly the argument he had given in a letter that he and seven other senators had sent to President George Bush three years ago. “We urge you promptly to lift the U.S. trade embargo on Vietnam,” said the letter.

“The time has come to stop penalizing American business interests. Trade with Vietnam would foster American interests across the board.”

Perhaps this is what turned Kerry into his mean-spirited mode. He does not like having others point out his habit of double-talk and slick shifts of position.

Instead of responding to Smith’s solid intelligence data about prisons in Vietnam and Laos “from which no American POWs ever returned” and about other prisons where witnesses reported that Americans had died long after the war and were buried in marked cemeteries alongside the buildings, Kerry launched into a diatribe about every “fake” report of prisoner sightings he could dredge from his memory. “This process,” he declaimed, “has been led by a certain number of charlatans and exploiters, and we should not allow fiction to cloud what we are trying to do here.”

Are you talking about me? Smith asked his colleague.

“No,” replied a sarcastic Kerry, “I referred to the people on the outside who have been raising money. Has the senator been raising money? ”

Sadly for Kerry, the passage of 10 thousand, or even 10 million, resolutions cannot make up for wants in a man’s character.

This is not to suggest that no men of character voted for John Kerry’s resolution. Such was not the case. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska, for example, always impresses as a person of integrity. He happens not to view the issue from the same perspective as Smith. In his speech, he said he felt it was time to move on. “The [MIA] families have suffered not only the lies of this government but of the Vietnamese government as well,” he said, expressing the opinion that the families would benefit from an opening up. But none of it would mean anything, he argued, unless we went back to Vietnam with the same message we said we were fighting for, a commitment to democratic freedoms and multi-party government. “I find this missing in our policy,” he said.

Smith can equally claim the field of honor. He believes that before we can come to terms with our loss in Vietnam and put it behind us, we need the truth about what happened to the prisoners who didn’t come home. Only then, he says, can their spirits be put to rest.

“Do you want to drill for oil,” Smith asked in the Senate debate, “before we find out what happened to those guys?”

That question still needs answering.

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