With a little prodding, Sen. John Kerry once reluctantly showed me his childhood passport. It was tattooed with border crossing stamps from almost all the Western European countries. From 1951 to 1954, his father Richard Kerry, a career Foreign Service officer, worked as an attorney for what was then called the Bureau of United Nations in the State Department. But when John was 10 years old, Richard Kerry was assigned to Berlin to serve as legal advisor at the U.S. mission in the divided German city.
From that Cold War outpost base, young John was taken sailing by his father across the vast fjords of Norway. He wandered the beaches of Normandy collecting shell casings from D-Day. He studied history and learned languages in a Swiss boarding school among the sons and daughters of other American diplomats. But young John's most memorable experiences came as a Cold War kid in a Berlin divided between East and West, split between democracy and communism, watching allied American, British, and French troops guarding their own sectors of the city. On one occasion, Kerry mischievously rode his bicycle into Soviet East Berlin, where he saw starkly just how polarized daily life was on sides of the city, from the fear of those living under the yoke of communist oppression to the gratitude and goodwill toward an America that had liberated a former enemy.
Kerry recalled vividly sitting on a train watching an American officer who had the diplomatic pouch handcuffed to his wrist. Along with the crowd deboarding the military train, Kerry stood at attention as an Army band played patriotic tunes. His heroes back then were -- naturally -- the names he heard around the dinner table: President Dwight Eisenhower, and diplomats George Kennan, Dean Acheson, and George Marshall. His passport had him at 4 foot 3 inches tall.
By the time Kerry enlisted to serve in the Vietnam war in 1966, he was 6 foot four and conversant in five languages. Like his father, he was attracted to the world of diplomacy. Because he was a student at Yale University, he perhaps could have finagled out of the draft. But Kerry was raised to be a public servant. He and his closest classmates -- including future Ambassador David Thorne, the future founder of Federal Express Fred Smith, and the grandson of General "Black Jack" Pershing -- together pledged to join the military. Pershing would never return from the war.
Kerry chose the Navy because of his interest in all things nautical. From 1966 to 1970, he served on the guided-missile frigate USS Gridley, spending time in the Gulf of Tonkin in North Vietnam, at Subic Bay in the Philippines, and in Wellington, New Zealand. Later, he reported for duty to Coastal Squadron 1 of Cam Ranh Bay, South Vietnam, the strategic nerve center for the U.S. Navy's MarketTime anti-infiltration operations, which since 1965 had searched half a million vessels. He'd been attracted to the squadron's small boats because they offered a young officer the chance for a command. As a Swift boat lieutenant in South Vietnam, Kerry was wounded, awarded three Purple Hearts, while probing enemy strongholds and sanctuaries in and about the river mouths, inlets, caves and canals of coastal Asia. He was awarded both the Silver Star and Bronze Star with Combat V for valor and meritorious action in combat.
In 1969, Kerry came back to the United States, where he served as an admiral's aide in New York. But he continued to be troubled by the war and haunted by the deaths of close friends. He felt compelled to speak out as an activist -- an activist disillusioned by the widening of the war into Cambodia, questioning the strategy of American military intervention in Southeast Asia in general. For Kerry, it was an at times uneasy plunge into the anti-war movement. He was uncomfortable with the radicalism of some, or the broader agenda others crusaded for. Still shaped by his own childhood experiences, Kerry was not a pacifist or a doubter of America's ability to make a difference in the world or of the occasional necessity to use force. Diplomat Richard Holbrooke would later describe Kerry as "an eloquent but moderate member of the anti-war movement."
Kerry's best-known moments came as an eloquent spokesman for Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW), a group whose singular mission was to end U.S. military involvement in Southeast Asia. Famously, he testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on April 22, 1971 asking; "How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?" But in that very testimony, Kerry offered other powerful observations about a war he felt had gone off course, including his disenchantment over the absurdity that "American lives are lost so that we can ... Vietnamize the Vietnamese." Many others in VVAW hated the war passionately. Kerry, though, seemed to be probing deeper questions about a foreign- policy strategy he found unsustainable and a poor use of American power and influence. It was Vietnam -- both his battlefield heroism and anti-war dissent -- that brought Kerry to the nation's attention, and it was also Vietnam that doomed his first run for Congress in 1972 in Lowell, Massachusetts. His voice breaking, Kerry in his concession speech said simply, "If I had to do it all over again, I'd still stand with the veterans." But a political future appeared off the table.
Fast forward 12 years, and, after time as a prosecutor taking on organized crime and modernizing a sleepy backwater of a district attorney's office in Middlesex County, Kerry, a Democrat, won a difficult race for the open Massachusetts Senate seat, defeating Republican Raymond Shamie and bucking the tide of a reelected Ronald Reagan who for the second time would carry the Bay State. The once shaggy haired anti-war activist was now Ted Kennedy's junior Senate colleague, and he requested and was assigned a seat on the Foreign Relations Committee -- the same panel before which he'd delivered the testimony that 13 years before had earned him a place on Richard Nixon's enemies list.