Roger L. Simon

Reporting for Duty... at the Sorbonne

Ron Rosenbaum has an fascinating (per usual) article on Vietnam in the current New York Observer. Ron is calling for us genuinely to explore our wounds and attitudes regarding that war, now that they have been opened up by John Kerry’s “reporting for duty” at the Democratic Convention and the on-going Swift Vet controversy. I sympathize, but I think Rosenbaum’s being a tad optimistic this exploration will get very far during a presidential campaign when the interest in revealing historical truths is not at its highest.

He does, however, put his finger on one of the more curious aspects of the Kerry Perplex:

But before getting deeper into comparisons between John Kerry and Robert McNamara, before examining John Kerry’s choices over Vietnam-please let me utter one word I have yet to see uttered in the debate over Kerry and Vietnam, heroism and betrayal.

That word is Paris, and it goes to the myth and the puzzle of John Kerry’s original decision to volunteer for Vietnam. “I volunteered for service because it was the right thing to do,” Mr. Kerry has proclaimed. Puzzling because he’d given an anti-war speech at Yale at his 1966 graduation: Was it “the right thing to do” because he believed killing people in a misguided and unjust war was the right thing to do (as opposed to those who followed the courage of their convictions-to resistance in one form or another)?

But it seems there may have been “nuances.” If you believe what Mr. Kerry was reported to have said in a 1970 interview with the Harvard Crimson, “volunteer[ing] for service wasn’t his first impulse.” Back in March 2004, the London Telegraph tracked down the issue of the Crimson with the Kerry interview and its author, one Samuel Goldhaber, identified by the Telegraph as a cardiologist currently associated with the Harvard School of Medicine.

Back then, Mr. Goldhaber reported (and stands by his account of what Mr. Kerry told him now) that “When [Kerry] approached his draft board for permission to study for a year in Paris, the draft board refused and Kerry decided to enlist in the Navy.”

According to the Telegraph, the Kerry campaign declined to return “repeated phone calls” on this question and has not since denied the story. (As of press time, Kerry spokesman Michael Meehan had not returned phone calls from The Observer.)

If there’s truth to this story, the Paris option puts a different spin on “reporting for duty” and “send John Kerry,” doesn’t it? It’s more like: “They won’t let me sit out the war in Left Bank cafes, so I’m reporting for duty because I’d rather not get drafted.” Before he volunteered for Vietnam, did he volunteer for the Sorbonne?

As I have written elsewhere, I tried to volunteer for the Sorbonne at almost the same time… Well, not the Sorbonne… IDHEC…. the French Film School. Boy, did that seem glamorous to me. I was able to overlook the first assignment (a fat text by Diderot in the original) for visions of Anna Karina on the Boule Mich’, but my draft board, like Kerry’s, said “Non!” to studying abroad. I immediately switched destinations for the domestic Yale Drama School. I was far too anti-war to consider otherwise. Kerry chose the Navy. Anti-war/pro-war… who knows? We still don’t.