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McCain, Kerry Lauded for Vietnam Service

By Imtiyaz H. Delawala and Imtiyaz H. Delawala, Special to The Crimsons

BOSTON—U.S. Senators John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) and John S. McCain (R-Ariz.) reflected on their service in Vietnam during an awards ceremony last night, calling for further reconciliation between the U.S. and its former wartime enemy.

Kerry and McCain received the Christian A. Herter Memorial Award last night in the Grand Ballroom of the Fairmont Copley Plaza Hotel, recognizing their efforts to normalize relations betweeen the U.S. and Vietnam over the last decade. The award is presented each year by the World Affairs Council of Boston to “distinguished leaders who have contributed significantly to international understanding.”

“While some losses can never be reconciled, enmity need not be our permanent condition,” McCain said of American attitudes towards Vietnam. “Our nation’s best interests are poorly served by holding onto that dark chapter of our history.”

“For too many [people], for too long, Vietnam was a war that wouldn’t end,” McCain added. “That is over now...We’ve looked back in anger at Vietnam long enough.”

Both McCain and Kerry served in Vietnam, but took different paths during and after the war. McCain enlisted to go to Vietnam, and spent five years in a prisoner of war (POW) camp after his plane was shot down over North Vietnam. Kerry served two tours in Vietnam for the U.S. Navy, receiving a Silver Star, Bronze Star and three Purple Hearts for his service. But after the war, he spoke out actively against the direction of U.S. policy in the war, testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1971.

“I proudly wanted to go to Vietnam, because of the nobility in the notion that we could help a country to be free, to be democratic,” Kerry said of his decision to go to Vietnam.

After returning from Vietnam, both men entered public office in the 1980s, now serving as senior senators for their respective states. They have worked together since 1991 to improve relations with Vietnam by demonstrating that the Vietnamese were indeed cooperating to help find the remains of missing American POWs.

President Clinton normalized relations with Vietnam in 1995, with Kerry and McCain continuing to work to create better economic opportunities for a recovering Vietnam. Last Thursday, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a trade agreement wih Vietnam, and the Senate is expected to follow suit.

“Through the administrations of four presidents I have seen how these collegues of mine...have guided this reconciliation process,” said Douglas “Pete” Peterson, former Ambassador to Vietnam, who spoke at last night’s event. “With the aid of John Kerry and John McCain, the people of Vietnam now have a chance for a better life.”

“This is a country where the goals [the U.S.] sought may ultimately be achieved,” Kerry added.

While remembrance and bettering relations with Vietnam were the focus of last night’s event, presidential politics also took center stage several times. McCain ran a failed bid for the presidency in 2000, and Kerry is considered a top Democratic candidate in 2004.

“People keep coming up to me and saying, ‘I voted for you, I voted for you,’” McCain said. “I’m going to demand my own recount.”

Jeffrey Robbins, who introduced Kerry, joked that while the Mass. senator had been working to normalize relations with Vietnam, he had also recently been “forging strong relations with the states of Iowa and New Hampshire,” the traditional first states in presidential primaries.

Kerry joked back by saying, “I’ve been asked whether I’m interested in the most powerful office in the land. I want to clarify that I have no interest in being the Secretary of State of Florida.”

But despite the joking comments, the pair’s service was the focal point of the night, with both men honored to receive the Herter Memorial Award.

“It was an honor to serve in war, and a blessing to serve in peace,” McCain said to the gathering. “I thank you for adding to that blessing.”

—Staff writer Imtiyaz H. Delawala can be reached at delawala@fas.harvard.edu.

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