DESPITE THE continuing gripes of his critics, records released this week show that Senator John Kerry served honorably in Vietnam. The documents should put to rest claims that Kerry misrepresented his military record in the presidential race. But Kerry's failure to respond to the smear campaign launched against him last summer lent credibility to its real objective: to impugn his equally honorable opposition to the war.
John O'Neill, a Houston lawyer and Kerry's adversary on the war since 1971, acknowledged as much in a telephone interview Wednesday. ''We produced seven commercials," he said of his anti-Kerry group, now called Swift Vets and POWs for Truth. ''Only one dealt with Vietnam activities." O'Neill was incensed by Kerry's memorable testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1971, in which the young veteran, clad in a combat shirt, criticized the war.
Kerry has said that he may have used a poor choice of words when he cited other veterans' reports of atrocities as being ''in a fashion reminiscent of Genghis Khan." But his basic analysis was sound: Vietnamese and Americans were dying needlessly because the war was a mistake, and US policymakers allowed it to continue even though they were aware that their strategy for victory was failing.
The Swift Boat ads made much of the plight of US pilots captured by the North Vietnamese -- and most were horribly treated by their captors. But these men languished in prison for years in part because the US government failed to follow Kerry's advice to end an unwinnable war.
Still, the ads were successful because Kerry failed to fully rebut them. He needed to release those records during the campaign, when it counted. They would have underscored that there was no inconsistency between serving courageously in the war and drawing on that experience to argue that Americans and Vietnamese should no longer be put at risk.
Perhaps Kerry didn't adequately grasp the ambivalence many Americans still feel about the war, just as many did in the 1960s. George W. Bush, for instance, supported it at Yale, but after graduation he chose reserve duty that kept him out of combat.
O'Neill said he didn't think the election should have hinged on either candidate's war record, and he's right that Bush's choice was typical of many in his generation. It is Kerry's choice that was atypical.
The records Kerry allowed to be released this week show that his commanders in Vietnam called him ''one of the finest young officers with whom I have served," and ''the acknowledged leader of his peer group. " His stand against the war only confirmed these qualities.