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  • The Role of Vietnam in the 2004 Presidential Election
  • Moya Ann Ball (bio)

In Glendale, Arizona, signs in two office windows encapsulated what I think was at the rhetorical center of the 2004 presidential campaign. In one office, a large sign proclaimed, "Kerry, Edwards: A Stronger America." In the office next door, an equally large sign protested, "Not Fond'a Kerry!" The Kerry/Edwards sign implied that the United States was a vulnerable and weakened country. The sign next door connoted a vulnerable, weakened, and feminized person, a Jane Fonda–like candidate who, despite having served his country in Vietnam, betrayed it upon returning home.

The allusion to Jane Fonda was one of a myriad of messages concerning the Vietnam War in campaign 2004. Once Senator John Kerry emerged, first as a contender in the primaries and then as the Democratic Party's choice for president, the specter of the Vietnam War surfaced repeatedly in the rhetorical messages of both political parties, their surrogates, the media, and the population at large, leading a cartoonist to depict two captions: one declared "1974—Vietnamese attempt to escape Vietnam," and the other, "2004—American Voters try to escape Vietnam."1

Certainly, there were many reasons for Senator Kerry's failed campaign; however, I think a mosaic of messages concerning his Vietnam War activities triggered the collective memories of a large community of voters. Barbie Zelizer writes that "collective memory reflects a group's codified knowledge over time about what is important, preferred, and appropriate," and that groups engage in a "contest with others for the authority to tell the story."2 To that end, collective memory can become a contest among opposing groups. In this forum piece, I wish to argue that, in the controversies of the 2004 election, memories of the Vietnam War, as framed and told by opposing groups, were effectively used in two major ways: (1) They diverted attention away from President Bush's record in foreign and domestic policy and were used to reinforce the notion that John Kerry, in contrast to President Bush, was irresolute, was without any firm philosophical or guiding principle and, therefore, was unfit to lead; and (2) They served to bolster a cultural divide in which, for one conservative segment of the population, memories of social movements, such as the antiwar and women's movements, were associated with liberal causes. These collective memories became yet more strikes against the candidacy of John Kerry. [End Page 689]

In many respects, Senator Kerry invited the scrutiny of his leadership potential when, repeatedly, he talked about his Vietnam service. In particular, the Democratic Convention organizers went to great lengths to prove their candidate was strong enough to be commander in chief and to deal effectively with the threat of terrorism. Nine retired generals were introduced as supporters of Kerry, and a biographical film depicted his boat patrol and his Vietnam heroism. Following the film, the men who served with Kerry in Vietnam were introduced as a "band of brothers." Then, Senator Kerry began his acceptance speech with a salute and the words, "I'm John Kerry, and I'm reporting for duty,"3 a not-so-subtle reference to his opponent, who, it was rumored, had not reported for National Guard duty in Alabama.

Kerry, presumably, wanted to use his Vietnam experience to access problems in Iraq and to contrast his military background with the questionable background of the president's. The messages of military machismo, however, seemed to make it more difficult to switch the focus of public discourse and media scrutiny back to a more serious examination of either Kerry's or Bush's policies.

Kerry, also, was the victim of a brilliantly executed Republican campaign. This campaign machine kicked into high gear during and after the Democratic Convention with an assortment of messages that belittled Kerry's service in Vietnamand that portrayed him as a "Benedict Arnold" character, betraying his country and fellow veterans. John E. O'Neill coauthored the bestseller Unfit for Command,4 the cover of which showed a snarly-faced Kerry pointing his finger and a caption that read, "Swift Boat Veterans Speak Out Against John Kerry." This group of so...


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