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Antiwar Vet John Kerry Has Second Thoughts About Amnesty

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President Ford’s new policy—”no amnesty, no revenge”—backed up by Defense and Justice Department recommendations indicates that the country has decided to do something about the estimated 50,000 young Americans who fled the United States to avoid the draft or deserted from the armed services because of their opposition to the Vietnam war. But how exactly amnesty should be treated is still a sensitive, emotional question. No one knows that better than John Kerry, 30, a decorated navy officer who was wounded three times in Vietnam. His experiences in the war led him to become one of its most vociferous opponents as a member of the executive committee of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War. A Yale University graduate and son of a former foreign service officer and lawyer, Kerry was a leading organizer of the antiwar vets’ march on Washington in 1971 and attracted wide attention with his articulate, moving testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He is now a Boston College law student as well as executive director of Mass. Action, a statewide citizens’ watchdog group. While on vacation in Woods Hole, Cape Cod, Kerry discussed his anguished second thoughts on amnesty with Ralph Novak of PEOPLE, himself a Vietnam veteran.

What form of amnesty do you favor?

I’m very torn. Two years ago I would have said it’s got to be a full amnesty. And I’m still, in the very purest, intellectual sense, very pro-amnesty. Period. But in its practical implementation I’m not sure that’s possible.

Why is complete amnesty not possible?

The question is whether people in their stomachs can overcome reservations about a segment of America that saw fit to leave the country during a war, and now allow them to come back without demanding a pound of flesh.

Why is a “pound of flesh” required?

Those who want a conditional amnesty or no amnesty at all—and I share this hang-up a little too—feel that anyone who has left the country has reneged, has deserted the system. They’ve committed an act of cowardice or thoughtlessness or outright denigration toward the country, and they have given up their right to participate in the system.

Why would a conditional amnesty requiring public service but no jail terms—such as that suggested by Attorney General Saxbe—require a compromise by draft evaders and deserters?

By going into exile, they were saying, “This war is wrong, the blood being spilled is being spilled for immoral, politically wrong and perhaps unconstitutional reasons; I will not be part of that.” The choice for those who believed this was true was very limited: either go to jail or leave the country. And it was a Hobson’s choice because going to jail meant they had to accept punishment for something they didn’t think they should be punished for. Coming back under terms you describe would be an admission that they were somehow wrong. How do you now tell them that the system that gave them Hobson’s choice demands that they pay some extra price to return to this country?

What would happen if the government did tell them that?

I used to feel that even with full amnesty all those guys in Canada should come back and say, “I care about this country. You’re darned right I’ll come back and do a year of service in order to show I’m a good citizen.” Now I’m not sure they will do it. Most people in this country were able to avoid going to war without having to go to Canada, because of the accident of their position in life. They were able to go to school or they were able to get special deferments. I know an awful lot of people who were, in that way, draft dodgers. They’re right back here now, earning $35,000 a year.

What were your own motives when you entered the service?

I enlisted in the navy because I was going to be drafted. I didn’t want to go to law school then, because it wouldn’t have been right, and I believed in the traditional idea of service. So I didn’t try to avoid the draft. My own consciousness was not touched until I was actually in Vietnam.

Did you have any moral reservations about going to Vietnam?

None whatsoever, other than the chance that I might be killed. When I was at Yale I had had occasion to talk with William Bundy, who was Undersecretary of State at that time. He gave me the Administration line on the war and, while I was uncertain about what might be at stake, I doubted my ability to outguess the Undersecretary of State. So I went into the navy and volunteered for Vietnam, where I could get the facts first hand. There I saw a lot of Vietnam and talked to a lot of people. Each day made my feelings about the war progressively negative.

How do you feel about the people who went to Canada?

I think they made the wrong choice. The tradition of Thoreau and Martin Luther King and David Harris is the kind of thing I believe in. So much more could be accomplished by staying here, even in jail, although I recognize it didn’t seem that way to them. Resisting by going to jail itself is important. You remain within the system, capable of working in it after you leave prison.

Then how do you feel about amnesty for those who did not do so?

Confused. I believe the war was wrong, and it’s wrong to punish people for opposing it. But I’m also sensitive to the feelings of Americans who only have a Silver Star to remember their kid by. How do you pour salt on their wounds? Those parents think their sons died for the most worthy cause; you just don’t despise them. They still view things in terms of World War II when everybody served, in terms of an America that just wasn’t the same America that took part in Vietnam. That’s the kind of thinking that makes people insist on a quid pro quo if those who left are to return from Canada, Sweden and elsewhere.

What can you say to those parents of sons who died in Vietnam?

It hurts me when they can’t see that my interest is to try to do what is right for the living without desecrating the dead. I don’t see amnesty as degrading those who died in Vietnam. They still died in service to their country, which is extremely honorable. They believed, they served and they deserve the love and devotion of this country.

How do parents of men killed in Vietnam react to this?

For the most part there is bitter hatred. I gave one speech supporting amnesty in Nevada and a man came up to me afterward, all red in the face, obviously angry. He lectured me, pointing his finger at me, saying, “You’re turning against every principle of this country. I fought in World War II. I was at Guadalcanal.” He was getting redder and redder, and then he laid the heavy one on me: “My kid went to Vietnam and he didn’t come back. I’m more proud of him than anything in this world. You tell me that those kids are coming back from Canada; I tell you they’re coming back over my dead body.”

What reasons are there to support amnesty?

If this country could find it in its heart to give amnesty to those within the nation who fought against it—as happened after the Civil War—how can we now not give some kind of amnesty to kids who refused to fight in the most confusing war in our history, in Southeast Asia, which most Americans can’t even find on a map? It doesn’t make sense.

Should a distinction be drawn between men who left the country to avoid the draft and deserters?

You should draw such a distinction, but you can’t. The moment you try to, you create more problems than you could conceivably deal with by trying to handle each case individually. There’s no way to prove that so-and-so left for this reason, and that’s okay, while the other guy left for another reason, which we won’t accept.

How do you think, realistically, the amnesty question will be resolved?

I think we’ll end up with a halfway measure—some kind of conditional amnesty, with not everybody taking advantage of it. That may be the best thing for this time in the country, even if it isn’t right in terms of history. Fortunately I’m not in a position to make a decision as to what is the best thing. I can have the luxury of trying to decide what is the right thing.