Not long after he’d received the Silver Star, a Bronze Star, and three Purple Hearts and was back stateside, John Kerry got a twelve-page letter from a friend, telling him that a mutual friend of theirs had been killed in Vietnam. Already uneasy with what he had seen during his four months heading a patrol boat in South Vietnam, he made a decision.
“I just couldn’t stay sit in New York as an aide to an admiral and be comfortable any longer,” Kerry told a packed Cohen Auditorium during his Tisch College Distinguished Speakers Series lecture on November 28.
In a story also recounted in Kerry’s new memoir, Every Day Is Extra, he described leaving the Navy, joining Vietnam Veterans Against the War, and leading 5,000 veterans on a march on Washington, culminating in five days camping out on the National Mall. This drew ire and threats from President Richard Nixon, but sympathy from others, such as Senator Ted Kennedy.
“It had an impact on the nation, and I’m convinced it helped ultimately end the war—by making it a voting issue,” said Kerry, who went on to become lieutenant governor of Massachusetts, a U.S. senator, the Democratic nominee for president in 2004, and U.S. secretary of state.
That kind of activism is exactly what’s needed in today’s social and political turmoil, said Kerry, now a Distinguished Fellow for Global Affairs at Yale University and Visiting Distinguished Statesman at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
“I see racism encouraged, discrimination against immigrants, people with disabilities mocked, and porn stars paid off. I don’t think people are happy with what they’re seeing, and they shouldn’t be,” he said. “Look at where we are today. Our country is in trouble.” But he added, “That’s not to say we can’t get out of it—I believe we can. My book is a roadmap to the kinds of choices we have to make in order to get out.”
He gave an example of that while answering a question about President Donald Trump’s choice to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris Agreement on climate change. “What I’m so angry about is the president’s decision is going to kill Americans and cost lives,” he said. “We are currently living with a mutually assured suicide pact, which Trump’s own government scientists have now ratified with the report they put out a few days ago, which doesn’t tell the whole story.”
But all is not lost, Kerry said, pointing to the thirty-eight states that have passed renewable energy portfolio laws and the thousand-plus mayors and governors who have committed to meeting the power standards of the Paris Agreement. “We can sit here with confidence and say, ‘Hey, Donald Trump may have pulled out of Paris, but the American people have not,’” Kerry said. “We have the power in our hands right now to make the decisions that can save us from the worst consequences of social change.”
Kerry also criticized Trump for failing to publicly raise the issue of Russian hacking influencing the 2016 presidential election, and for applauding dictators committing atrocities against their own people.
But he stressed there are steps the U.S. can take to rebuild trust with the global community, particularly with China, which was the subject of a question from a student.
“We have to sit down with a mutual respect for the difference between our systems. We have to begin to build some element of trust,” Kerry said, remembering President Barack Obama working toward that goal in a private dinner with Chinese President Xi Jinping. “If we don’t work multilaterally, we can’t work out the problems of our planet,” he said.
However, before that work can begin, one thing needs to happen, Kerry suggested. “We deserve a president and administration that wants to work with the world, not rip it apart,” he said. “We have an election in two years now. Every day, we’re counting down. I think we can very quickly restore America’s place.”
Kerry declined to say whether he would run for president in 2020, saying only that he has “eliminated nothing” in terms of future possibilities. Asked for advice for Democratic presidential candidates, his answer was short, and followed by a loud round of applause: “We need someone who can win.”
Instead, Kerry focused on what can be done now to create positive change. “We have to fix our democracy and get big money out of American politics,” he said, to applause. “We have to stop gerrymandering people out of having legitimate democratic elections. We have to stop being the only democracy in the world that makes it as hard as we do for people to be able to vote.”
Compared to the upheaval of the late 1960s and early 1970s, what’s happening today seems tame, Kerry said. But unfortunately, so is the response of many people to it, he said, pointing to the 49 percent voter turnout in the recent midterm elections, which he called “disgusting.” “People seem to be accepting this polarization and demagoguery,” he said. “What I want to see is a new era of activism, a new era of willingness to engage.”
During the Vietnam War, Kerry found in himself what he called the “heart of an activist,” which has driven his life and his work to this day, he said. He urged students to find theirs. “Democracy is hard work, and you all have a title, which you may not have embraced sufficiently, but which I think is the most important title in any democracy. It’s called ‘citizen,’” Kerry said. “I ask all of you to remember that in every great movement that made a difference, it was young people driving it.”
In the end, America is an experiment, Kerry said—and therein lies its power. “Nothing is certain. We write the future,” he said. “The greatest thing about being American is our uncanny ability to redefine ourselves as we grow and move forward in our evolution as a democracy.”
Monica Jimenez can be reached at [email protected].