To Set the Record Straight: How Swift Boat Veterans, POWs and the New Media Defeated John Kerry offers a chilling insight into the media manipulation of the Vietnam War and the records involving U.S. Senator John Kerry’s experience with the communist-backed protest organization Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW).
The book opens detailing the media coverage of the Vietnam War and “disinformation campaign” cited as a “key aspect of Soviet Cold War strategy against America.” The authors Scott Swett and Tim Ziegler explain the stated communist strategy to fabricate war crimes and atrocities committed by the American troops in an effort to reduce American support for the war, internally weakening their enemy. Groups such as and including the VVAW, which was “formed in 1967 with financing and assistance from members of the Communist Party, USA (CPUSA), the Socialist Workers Party, and the communist front Veterans for Peace,” held anti-war rallies in America where participants “described hundreds of horrific atrocities against innocent civilians they claimed to have committed or witnessed… including rape, arson, torture, murder, and the intentional shelling or napalming of entire villages.” Accordingly, the authors note that “though rich in gruesome details,” the “accounts were vague in terms of names, dates and locations, making them extremely difficult to either confirm or disprove.”
Coupled with the communist efforts to fabricate gruesome stories of American war atrocities was the major media outlets’ blatant manipulation of facts to outright deceitful coverage of the war. The authors write that “During the Vietnam War the ‘Big Three’ television networks and the leading liberal newspapers were near the peak of their formidable persuasive powers…” They detail how the resoundingly negative coverage of the Tet Offensive led the American public to believe the military effort was unsuccessful, despite the fact that “Overall, out of a total attack force of 84,000 troops, nearly 50,000 North Vietnamese and [communist] Viet Cong were killed during the Tet;” and quote Viet Cong Minister of Justice Truong Nhu Tang as stating on the Tet that “…what we lost on the military front, we won on the diplomatic and psychological fronts. Above all [we won], on the fourth front, the mass media, the press, television, and the liberals in the United States.” Also, they note that “the Southeast Asian genocide” created by the American pullout “was ignored or dismissed by most of the American media.”
Swett and Ziegler describe the efforts of other Vietnam veterans, like Bruce Kesler, John O’Neill, and B.G. Burkett, to clear the veterans’ reputation established by the calculating communists and the angry liberal activists. Accuracy in Media makes a brief spotlight as the authors cite the two television series—“Television’s Vietnam: The Real Story” and “Television’s Vietnam: The Impact of the Media”—created to respond to PBS’s 13-hour series on the conflict. The PBS version “won TV’s top awards” and was also circulated by Vietnam’s communist leaders.
John Kerry’s role as a Vietnam veteran and a leader of the VVAW came into the national spotlight during his 2004 presidential bid. Throughout the early 1970s Kerry acted as an antiwar spokesman, appearing on news shows frequently and denouncing the alleged war crimes. His involvement with the VVAW is troubling, especially when coupled with the fact that he met with “top representatives of both enemy delegations to the Paris Peace Talks: North Vietnam and the Provisional Revolutionary Government of South Vietnam (PRG), better known as the Viet Cong,” more than once. He “recommended the eight-point plan of Viet Cong foreign minister Madame Nguyen Thi Binh” to the Democrat-controlled Senate Committee on Foreign Relations in 1971. Most controversial, however, was his attendance at a VVAW meeting where the leaders voted on a proposal to assassinate the key Republican members of Congress who kept voting to fund the Vietnam War.
Kerry’s efforts to present himself as a patriotic veteran and war hero, in light of his misguided antiwar protesting and leadership in the communist-backed VVAW, upset the Vietnam veterans he accused of committing grievous crimes. To Set the Record Straight details the story of how the Swift Boat Veterans slowly organized to clear their name and to prevent Kerry from profiting from the war record he publicly disparaged in the ‘70s. As one of the veterans remarked, “This isn’t political. It’s personal.”
The group used new media methods, building support from conservative radio talk shows and launching a website entitled WinterSoldier.com to provide a forum for their information. John O’Neill had served as the public face of Swift Boaters in isolated interviews leading up to the group’s epic press conference May 4th, 2004 at the National Press Club, where the packed room of members of the mainstream media either ignored or misreported the veterans’ statements. The veterans realized their information campaign would need to circumvent reliance on the “old media” completely, and their subsequent homegrown internet movement and ad campaign effectively knocked out Kerry’s presidential bid in the 2004 elections.
Filled with detail and steeped with history, To Set the Record Straight paints a disturbing picture of media manipulation and communist calculation in shaping the American perspective of the Vietnam War. The Swift Boat Veterans’ fight against John Kerry came to symbolize their fight against their undeserved reputation from malignant antiwar protestors and their mainstream media sympathizers.
Rachel Paulk is an intern at the American Journalism Center, a training program run jointly by Accuracy in Media and Accuracy in Academia.