It is a twisted state of affairs that George W. Bush's most avid surrogates are trying to make this election turn on the question of whether Lt. John Kerry was or was not in Cambodia on Christmas Eve 1968.
Fred Kaplan is the author of The Insurgents and the Edward R. Murrow press fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Having pretty much failed at their efforts to disprove the official U.S. Navy account of Kerry's valor in battle as skipper of a "Swift boat" patrolling the Mekong Delta, the veterans against Kerry have moved to discredit his more obscure claim—made a few times over the years, in interviews and Senate floor speeches—that, on Dec. 24, he took CIA or special ops forces across the border into Cambodia, even while Washington claimed no American troops were there.
Kerry first told this story publicly in an article published in the Boston Herald on Oct. 14, 1979, before he was a senator:
I remember Christmas Eve of 1968, five miles across the Cambodian border being shot at by our South Vietnamese allies who were drunk and celebrating Christmas.
He elaborated the tale on March 27, 1986, during a Senate debate over whether to aid the Nicaraguan contras:
I remember Christmas of 1968, sitting on a gunboat in Cambodia. I remember what it was like to be shot at by Vietnamese and Khmer Rouge and Cambodians and have the President of the United States telling the American people that I was not there, the troops were not in Cambodia. I have that memory which is seared—seared—in me.
A more intriguing reference—now known as "the famous good-luck-hat story"—was made in a Washington Post profile, by Laura Blumenfeld, published on June 1, 2003:
There's a secret compartment in Kerry's briefcase. He carries the black attache everywhere. Asked about it on several occasions, Kerry brushed it aside. Finally, trapped in an interview, he exhaled and clicked open his case.
"Who told you?" he demanded as he reached inside. "My friends don't know about this."
The hat was a little mildewy. The green camouflage was fading, the seams fraying.
"My good luck hat," Kerry said, happy to see it. "Given to me by a CIA guy as we went in for a special mission in Cambodia."
But now some anti-Kerry veterans are saying he was never in Cambodia. John O'Neill, who has been dogging Kerry more than 30 years, told Matt Drudge that the senator's Christmas-in-Cambodia stories "are complete lies." As evidence, he cites Kerry's own wartime diary, as quoted in Douglas Brinkley's Tour of Duty: John Kerry and the Vietnam War. That book—according to Drudge's account of it—places Kerry in Sa Dec, 50 miles away from Cambodia, on Christmas Eve, and seemingly at peace. "Visions of sugarplums really do dance through your head," Kerry wrote in his diary that night, "and you think of stockings and snow and roast chestnuts and fires with birch logs and all that is good and warm and real."
That passage is on Page 219 of Brinkley's book. But O'Neill, Drudge, and the other sneerers choose to ignore the 10 preceding pages—the opening pages of a chapter called "Death in the Delta." On Christmas Eve 1968, Brinkley writes, Kerry and his crew:
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.
But one thing is for sure: Lt. Kerry did not spend that Christmas Eve just lying around, dreaming of sugarplums and roasted chestnuts. He had plenty of time to cover the 40 miles from the Cambodian border to the safety of Sa Dec (he did command a swift boat, after all). More to the point, the evidence indicates he did cover those 40 miles: He was near (or in?) Cambodia in the morning, in Sa Dec that night.