'Every Day Is Extra': John Kerry Reflects On Time In Vietnam, Career In Politics And More
With David Folkenflik
From Vietnam warrior to peace advocate, from defeated presidential candidate to the nation’s top diplomat, John Kerry tells his story in a new memoir.
From The Reading List
Excerpt from “Every Day is Extra” by John Kerry.
July 4, 2018. As I wrote this book, I tried hard to fight the numbing power of nostalgia. A memoir is a tempting venue to look back and see the good outcomes in life as preordained. It’s always easy to believe things were better “back when.” My parents instilled in me great respect for history. I was encouraged to live it—and perhaps even to help make some of it. But history—real history, not the phony demagoguery about the mythical past calculated and propagated to mobilize unthinking retro movements—inspires because it reminds us that times weren’t always easy. The winter soldiers of Valley Forge inspire not because they knew they’d win; their determination is more awesome because they had every reason to believe they might end up at the end of a British rope, and yet they persevered.
It’s easy to put on rose-tinted glasses, look back at earlier days and say “those were better times” or easier times, when the truth is, they weren’t. I tried to avoid those traps in writing my story.
I share this because I was tempted to write that I was born into a gentler or simpler era at home and abroad. But, on reflection, I wasn’t. The Leave It to Beaver America of the 1950s had much to admire. For most, jobs came with pensions and economic security. We were an optimistic country. But we were also a country where Jim Crow was still the law and “Whites Only” signs dotted the landscape in half our country, and were unspoken but just as real in the other half. Women were devalued and LGBT Americans had to be invisible to avoid persecution.
It took years, until I was in college, for Congress to pass bedrock civil rights legislation.
Joe McCarthy trampled on civil liberties and invoked a fact-free Red Scare at home, which divided and distracted us in dangerous ways. Overseas, we were basking in the afterglow of victory in World War II and through the Marshall Plan we were rebuilding the economies of our former enemies. But World War II had been succeeded by a perilous Cold War. We soon awakened from the euphoria of 1945 to find America’s sons dying in Korea in a proxy conflict with the Soviet Union. A decade later, I watched on a grainy black-and-white television set as President Kennedy led us through the Cuban Missile Crisis and the very real danger of nuclear holocaust. Our tragic misinterpretation of Cold War reality led us into a quagmire in Southeast Asia for which nearly sixty thousand Americans paid the ultimate price. And Richard Nixon brought us domestic spying on dissenters, abuse of the Department of Justice for political purposes, attacks on the free press, a presidential “enemies list” and the mire of what President Gerald Ford called “our national nightmare.” I learned the hard way at twenty-seven what it was like to be a target of a rogue White House. Pipe bombs were exploding in public places; riots saw blocks of cities set on fire; irreplaceable leaders were assassinated. The list goes on.
I’ve told much of this story in these pages for a reason: not to relive a difficult past, but to remember how we changed the course of our country. Good people believed the world—at home and abroad—could be different and better. Citizens organized. People fought for something. We marched. We voted. We got knocked down and we got back up.
No, “the good old days weren’t always good.” That’s not an insult to America, that’s an affirmation of America: an America that makes itself stronger when, despite long odds and searing setbacks, everyday citizens stand up and decide that the way things are isn’t the way things have to be.
My life has been a story of faith in America tested and redeemed not by being passive, but by being passionate about our country and its promise. It is the story of a journey begun in the latter half of the twentieth century and lived now in the morning of the twenty-first: two different eras of staggering transformation in how we live, learn, work and relate to each other, two different eras where old assumptions were constantly challenged and confounded and when faith in institutions came under intense scrutiny. This is also a story about how we listen and how we learn, how we face problems, how we try to embrace a vision of the future that meets our best hopes and aspirations.
In the end, I believe it is a story of optimism, but clearly a story that doesn’t unfold on autopilot. It’s not an automatic. It’s optimism earned the hard way.
In my life, I’ve seen things that were hard to imagine—if not regarded as impossible—happen again and again—and I learned from people who bent history. I wanted to share their stories as well as mine.
All of this recounting and retelling also reminded me that the world has always been complicated. Truly complicated. Leaders have always been imperfect, some even downright malevolent, others too small for the moment. The fight at home has always been a struggle.
That is what makes me all the more optimistic about today: because I’ve seen with my own eyes that the institutions the Founders created to hold America together have worked best when America needed them the most. I have the scars to prove it, and I know that while we’ve often faced daunting challenges, in the end, we have met them.
I’m an optimist because America has a pretty good, 242-year record of turning difficult passages into landmark progress. I’m an optimist because of the people I’ve met and what life has taught me.
How could I not be? I began my service to country in a war, a bitter war that frayed and nearly shredded the fabric of America. I finished my last tour of service to country in a mission of peace. In the final month of my service as secretary of state, I was back in Vietnam one more time, on the Mekong Delta where the rivers I’d patrolled in combat had become rivers the United States was now protecting from environmental degradation.
Back on the Bay Hap River, where almost forty-eight years before I’d come face-to-face with my own mortality, staring down the business end of a Viet Cong B-40 rocket launcher, I met a man whose mission that day in 1969 was to kill me and my crew. We were the same age. He was short and sinewy, not an ounce of fat, his face lined with the years and the hardship, but with a smile of welcome, devoid of hatred or malice. I looked at him and thought, How crazy is this? Years ago, when we were young, we were both heeding the call of our leaders, trying to kill each other. But now we stood there in peace, a peace I had been privileged in some small way to help make real by first making peace at home. If that doesn’t make you an optimist, nothing will.
That’s why I wrote this book: to share with you that the abiding truth I’ve learned in my journey is you can change your country and you can change the world. You may fail at first, but you can’t give in. You have to get up and fight the fight again, but you can get there. The big steps and the small steps all add up. History is cumulative. We all can contribute to change if we’re willing to enter the contest for the future, often against the odds.
Why this book and why now? Not just because I have finished my time as secretary of state and in the Senate, but because the causes that have defined my life until now have never been more at risk. Our democracy is challenged. But I remain confident in our ability to reclaim it because our democracy is as alive as any person who lives in it. It is constantly changing, growing and reinventing itself. But its well-being always—always—depends on citizens to keep it alive. The strength of the United States is derived not from a party, not from a leader, but from a natural resource that is truly renewable: the resolve of our citizens and their commitment to make the American ideal a reality.
Even after an amazing journey, I’m still learning, and still fighting. If you take nothing else away from the American journey I describe in these pages, I hope it’s this: there’s nothing wrong with America and the world today that can’t be fixed by what’s right with our citizens and with people around the globe. As John Kennedy said when he sought and won the first breakthrough in nuclear arms control, “Our problems are man-made—therefore they can be solved by man.”
My hope is that as you finish reading these pages, you will believe more in the possibilities and less in the hurdles, and that more of you will dare to try more. I will keep using my extra days to do my part—and I see so many others now fighting on the front lines of our history. Extra days aren’t just a gift for those who served in war; they are a gift for all of us fortunate to be blessed with the freedom to stand up and seek the best America and a better world.
Excerpted from EVERY DAY IS EXTRA by John Kerry. Copyright © 2018 by John Kerry. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
For John Kerry, as for so many combat veterans who returned from Vietnam, “Every Day is Extra.” That’s the name of his new memoir, sketching out a life, and a career in full, covering decades of public service. From Swift Boat veteran to peace activist, to presidential nominee to U.S. secretary of state, Kerry joins me to talk about what he’s done, what he’s learned and what he thinks of our current political moment.
This hour, On Point: my interview with John Kerry.
— David Folkenflik
Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.