PW: What inspired you to write Tour of Duty?
Douglas Brinkley: I was planning a group portrait of the Vietnam senators: Max Cleland, Bob Kerrey, John Kerry, John McCain and Chuck Hagel. But John McCain has published two books; Bob Kerrey had written a bestselling memoir; Max Cleland had just published his memoir.... When I met with John Kerry's Senate chief of staff and told him about this group portrait idea, he said, "You know, Senator Kerry has diaries and journals and letters from Vietnam he never lets anyone see." As any historian would, I said I'd love to see that.... Eventually he gave me all his archives to pick through, and I was stunned by what a historical treasure trove it was, not just about one man's journey through Vietnam, but also about the operations of the U.S. Navy in the Mekong Delta.
PW: So the book ended up being about more than Kerry's experience?
DB: My main objective was to show the forgotten war the U.S. Navy fought on the rivers and coast of Vietnam. The death toll among the Swift boat crews was extraordinary, because they were constantly on high-risk missions deep into Vietcong territory. Kerry drives my narrative, obviously, but I'm trying to tell the story of men like Don Droz, who was killed there, or Wade Sanders, who went on to become an assistant secretary of state.
PW: Was Kerry a presidential candidate when you approached him?
DB: He hadn't formally announced yet, but there was an assumption he would probably enter the race, and he had given every indication of it. I think that explains his timing [in cooperating with the book]. He could have written something himself, but I believe he deemed that too self-serving. Or he could have kept it in the closet. He'd run several Senate campaigns without bringing this material out. But I think I approached him in the right way, and he not only turned everything over with no strings attached, he answered all my questions. He was very decent to work with.
PW: Without denying the atrocities that did take place, you point out the battlefield heroism of many Vietnam combatants.
DB: My fear is that people will just see this as a book about John Kerry timed to his presidential campaign. From a sales point of view, of course, it's great to have your subject in the news, but I saw my job as telling the story of the heroism and valor of the Vietnam veterans. They've been terribly maligned. The men and women who served in Vietnam are the greatest generation in their own right. I've interviewed tons of them, and most are extraordinarily patriotic Americans who have lingering discomfort with the fact that they've been stereotyped as losers and degenerates. But battle for battle, they were as good as the forces in WWII.
PW: What will you be writing about next?
DB: At the Eisenhower Center [for American Studies at the University of New Orleans], we have traditionally been doing WWII oral histories, but we made a decision about 18 months ago to start focusing on the Vietnam War. Ron Drez, a U.S. Marine captain who served in Vietnam, has done more than 150 interviews for the center with men who fought at the battle of Khe Sanh during the Tet offensive.
PW: You've always written about a wide range of subjects. Do you have anything else in the works?
DB: I'm currently editing Jack Kerouac's On the Road journals from 1947 to 1954, and they'll come out next September from Viking as Windblown World.
PW: And we hear there's a new member of the Brinkley family.
DB: My daughter, Benton Grace, was born November 2. She's named after my childhood hero, the painter Thomas Hart Benton. I was mesmerized growing up by his huge canvases depicting American history. I've remembered them all my life. If all my books together could equal one Benton mural, I'd feel like I was a success.