Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in the May 17, 2004, issue of National Review.
Here’s what you’re not supposed to say about John Kerry: that he is a man of the Left; that he is a “Massachusetts liberal”; that he is the anti-Reagan (well, you can say that in some circles). No, now that he’s the Democratic nominee, he is a man of the sensible center, in contrast to those Texas-fried radicals in the White House. Kerry the Nominee even enjoys getting to President Bush’s right. Why, just the other day — appealing to Cuban-American voters in Florida — Kerry chided Bush for being a little soft on Hugo Chávez, the (democratically elected) strongman of Venezuela and one of Fidel Castro’s best friends. The Bush people sputtered with indignation: The gall! But Kerry is acting cannily.
Canny or not, Kerry has a record on Latin America — a substantial one. You will recall the 1980s, and that decade’s fierce debates over Central America policy. At the heart of these debates was Nicaragua: the Sandinistas, Castro, and the Soviet Union versus the Contras and the United States (or rather, not all of the United States: the Reagan administration, in particular). Kerry was an important player in all this. He was part of a group derided by Republicans as “‘Dear Comandante’ Democrats,” for they would address letters to Daniel Ortega, the Sandinista No. 1, “Dear Comandante.” (“But that’s his title,” they would plead, not unreasonably.) This group included such House members as Mike Barnes and Pete Kostmayer, and such senators as Chris Dodd and Tom Harkin — and John Kerry.
Only months after he was sworn in, Kerry joined Harkin on an infamous trip to Managua, to meet with Comandante Ortega. This was April 1985. The trip, according to an article in Policy Review magazine, was arranged by the Institute for Policy Studies, a hard-Left group. IPS was one of several such groups around Kerry back then. The trip, moreover, occurred a few days before a key vote in Congress on Contra aid — the bill proposed to send $14 million in humanitarian assistance to those anti-Communist rebels.
Said Kerry, “Senator Harkin and I are going to Nicaragua as Vietnam-era veterans who are alarmed that the Reagan administration is repeating the mistakes we made in Vietnam. Our foreign policy should represent the democratic values that have made our country great, not subvert those values by funding terrorism to overthrow governments of other countries.” Note that, certainly by implication, the senator characterized the Contra resistance as “terrorism.” In addition, “President Reagan has probably come closer to trying to interpret Vietnam in a positive way than either Presidents Ford or Carter. But this also lends itself to a revisionism about Vietnam that makes it easier for us to repeat our mistakes unwittingly.”
As his plane touched down in Nicaragua, Kerry said, “Look at it. It reminds me so much of Vietnam. The same lushness, the tree lines.” (This reporting comes from the Washington Post.) Vietnam was uppermost in his mind: “If you look back at the Gulf of Tonkin resolution, if you look back at the troops that were in Cambodia, the history of the body count and the misinterpretation of Vietnam itself, and look at how we are interpreting the struggle in Central America and examine the CIA involvement, the mining of the harbors, the effort to fund the Contras, there is a direct and unavoidable parallel between these two periods of our history.” Said Kerry, “I see an enormous haughtiness in the United States trying to tell them [the Nicaraguans] what to do.”