Among the thousands of contributions to his country that Edward Kennedy made throughout the course of his 46-year career in the United States Senate, one episode that stands out to me is his role in exposing the human costs of the American war in Vietnam. In early January 1968, just prior to the Tet Offensive, Kennedy traveled to South Vietnam as the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee's Subcommittee on Refugees and Escapees.
In Vietnam, Kennedy identified a problem that was central to the conflict that could not be ignored. The Lyndon Johnson Administration hailed the U.S. air war in that country as a great success. The bombing, President Johnson insisted, saved the lives of American and allied soldiers and showed the Communists in Hanoi the depth of the U.S. commitment to Vietnam. But Edward Kennedy countered this assertion by shining a spotlight on the other side of LBJ's "successful" bombing campaign. Kennedy saw firsthand the civilian victims of the U.S. aerial assault that had gone on largely unabated since the launching of "Rolling Thunder" in February 1965. Kennedy found that thoroughly corrupt Saigon government officials and members of the Army of the Republican of Vietnam (ARVN) were pilfering virtually all of the U.S. and United Nations programs aimed at helping Vietnamese refugees. Kennedy estimated that three-quarters of this civilian assistance found its way into the pockets of corrupt officials. So bad was the publicity that South Vietnamese President, General Nguyen Van Thieu, found it necessary to line up five or six of his political rivals and have them publicly executed for "corruption" to show the Americans he was "cracking down." LBJ praised Thieu's anti-corruption efforts.
The significance of Edward Kennedy's trip to Vietnam was threefold: first, it marked a turning point in both his and Robert Kennedy's relations with the Johnson Administration and the pro-war Democratic leadership; second, it widened the debate over the efficacy of the existing United States military strategy in Vietnam, with its high toll in civilian destruction which the peace movement had been publicizing for years; and third, it produced a portrayal of the plight of ordinary Vietnamese people that strengthened the position of those who opposed the war on moral grounds.
Edward Kennedy found that the American bombing and "search and destroy" missions had driven the vast majority of the refugees inside South Vietnam out of their homes and into the camps. He also saw for himself the wretched conditions in which the refugees lived due in large part to the official looting of their international aid and other resources. Robert Kennedy alluded to his younger brother's report on refugees in Vietnam in many of his speeches on the war during his presidential campaign.
Following President John F. Kennedy's assassination, Edward Kennedy came to play a supporting role in furthering Robert Kennedy's political career similar to the one Robert had played in furthering Jack's career. To take just one example, in March 1968, it was Edward who Robert sent to Wisconsin to notify Senator Eugene McCarthy prior to announcing his candidacy that Robert was entering the remaining presidential primaries. It was a decent thing to do and it was the kind of mission perfectly suited for Edward Kennedy.
Edward Kennedy's role both as chair of his subcommittee on refugees and his subsequent efforts in the Senate to end the Vietnam War should be honored and remembered as yet another example of the unique contribution he made to serving his country in a very difficult and polarized time.