Holiday in Cambodia
The "Christmas Eve" attack on Kerry is cheap and almost certainly wrong.
headed their Swift north by the Cho Chien River to its junction with the My Tho only miles from the Cambodian border. … Kerry began reading up on Cambodia's history in a book he had borrowed from the floating barracks in An Thoi. … He even read about a 1959 Pentagon study titled "Psychological Observations: Cambodia," which … state[d] that Cambodians "cannot be counted on to act in any positive way for the benefit of U.S. aims and policies." [Italics added.]
Brinkley also quotes from Kerry's diary: "It was early morning, not yet light. Ours was the only movement on the river, patrolling near the Cambodian line." [Italics added.] Brinkley continues: "At a bend just as they were approaching the Cambodian border, two [U.S. river-patrol boats] met the Swift." Then, again from Kerry's diary: "Suddenly, there is an explosion and a mortar lands on the bank near all three boats." The next few pages detail a ferocious firefight, one part of which involved (as his diary noted) "the ridiculous waste of being shot at by your own allies."
Only a few hours later, in the evening, did Kerry's boat reach the stationing area of Sa Dec. "The night for once is comforting," Kerry wrote in his diary, "and you take a Coke and some peanut butter and jelly and go up on the roof of the cabin with your tape recorder and sit for a while, quietly watching flares float silently through the sky and flashes announce disquieting intent somewhere in the distance." It is in this context that Kerry then wrote, in a letter to home, about "visions of sugarplums" and thinking of "snow and roast chestnuts."
So let's review the situation. On Christmas Eve 1968, Kerry's Swift boat and at least two river-patrol boats were doing something unusual (Kerry wrote that he'd never been so far in-country) at least in the vicinity of the border—"near the Cambodian line," as he put it in his diary. And Kerry had with him a book that described a Pentagon study on psychological operations against Cambodia.
It is certain that by this time, the United States had long been making secret incursions across the border. This is from Page 24 of William Shawcross' 1979 book, Sideshow: Kissinger, Nixon, and the Destruction of Cambodia:
Since May 1967, when the U.S. Military Command in Saigon became concerned at the way the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong were evading American "search and destroy" and air attacks in Vietnam by making more use of bases in Laos and Cambodia, the U.S. Special Forces had been running special, highly classified missions into the two countries. Their code name was Daniel Boone.
The Daniel Boone teams entered Cambodia all along its 500-mile frontier with South Vietnam from the lonely, craggy, impenetrable mountain forests in the north, down to the well-populated and thickly reeded waterways along the Mekong River. [Italics added.]
We know that Kerry's boat and two others were in those reeds on Christmas Eve '68.
The Cambodian special forces' incursions—which were conducted without the knowledge, much less approval, of Congress—were escalating around that time. Just over a month later, on Feb. 9, 1969, Gen. Creighton Abrams, commander of U.S. forces in Vietnam, requested a B-52 bombing attack on a Communist camp inside Cambodia. (Richard Nixon, the new president, approved the plan on March 17; the first strikes of Operation Breakfast—the secret bombing of Cambodia—started the next day.) Shawcross writes that special forces were always sent across the border to survey the area for targets just before an air operation.
Did Kerry cross the border or just go up to it? We may never know for sure. Not much paperwork exists for covert operations (officially, U.S. forces weren't in Cambodia). Nor is it likely that a canny Swift-boat skipper (and Kerry was nothing if not canny) would jot down thoughts about such covert operations in a diary on a boat that might be captured by the enemy.
The circumstances at least suggest that Kerry was indeed involved in a "black" mission, even if he had never explicitly made that claim. And why would he make such claims if he hadn't been? It was neither a glamorous nor a particularly admirable mission—certainly nothing to boast of.
Fred Kaplan is Slate's "War Stories" columnist and author of the book, The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter.
Photograph of John Kerry on the Slate home page by Getty Images/Agence France Presse.