2004–Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, “Sellout”

  • Ad Title: “Sellout”
  • Ad Sponsor: Swift Boat Veterans for Truth
  • Issue of Focus: John Kerry’s 1971 Anti-Vietnam War Speech
  • Type of Advertisement: Negative Advertisement
  • Release Date: August 20, 2004
  • Length: 60 seconds

“Sellout” Script

John Kerry: “They had personally raped, cut off ears, cut off heads. . .”

Joe Ponder: “The accusations that John Kerry made against the veterans who served in Vietnam was just devastating.”

John Kerry: “. . . randomly shot at civilians. . .”

Joe Ponder: “It hurt me more than any physical wounds I had.”

John Kerry: “. . . cut off limbs, blown up bodies. . .”

Ken Cordier: “That was part of the torture, was, uh, to sign a statement that you had committed war crimes.”

John Kerry: “. . . razed villages in a fashion reminiscent of Ghengis Khan. . .”

Paul Gallanti: “John Kerry gave the enemy for free what I, and many of my, uh, comrades in North Vietnam, in the prison camps, uh, took torture to avoid saying. It demoralized us.”

John Kerry: “. . . crimes committed on a day to day basis. . . ”

Ken Cordier: “He betrayed us in the past, how could we be loyal to him now?”

John Kerry: “. . . ravaged the countryside of South Vietnam.”

Paul Gallanti: “He dishonored his country, and, uh, more, more importantly the people he served with. He just sold them out.”

Announcer : “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth is responsible for the content of this advertisement.”

Analysis of “Sellout”–Shawn J. Parry-Giles, University of Maryland

Ad Context

The Swift Boat Veterans for Truth represents a 527 public advocacy group that “consists of and is limited to former military officers and enlisted men who served in Vietnam on U.S. Navy ‘Swift Boats’ or in affiliated commands.” The group formed on May 4, 2004 , to oppose Senator John Kerry’s bid for the Presidency.


The “Sellout” ad, which is one of four advertisements by the Swift Boat Veterans, specifically centers on John Kerry’s April 22, 1971 , testimony before the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. Kerry testified as a leader of the anti-war group, Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW). The VVAW, which formed in 1967, became one of the largest veteran’s anti-war groups, consisting of some 30,000 veterans at the height of its anti-war activities. For more on the organization that still exists today: http://www.vvaw.org/.

For a transcript of Kerry’s 1971 congressional speech, see: http://www.cspan.org/2004vote/jkerrytestimony.asp

Ad Assumptions

The primary premise of the advertisement is that opposition to war demonstrates a lack of patriotism, especially for a presidential candidate, because Kerry’s arguments allegedly re-enforced the charges that the North Vietnamese were making about U.S. atrocities against the people of Vietnam .

Vietnam veteran Paul Gallanti, a POW, argues in the ad that “John Kerry gave the enemy for free what I, and many of my, uh, comrades in North Vietnam, in the prison camps, uh, took torture to avoid saying. It demoralized us . . . He dishonored his country, and, uh, more, more importantly the people he served with. He just sold them out.”

Also in the ad, Ken Cordier concludes: “He betrayed us in the past, how could we be loyal to him now?” (Cordier resigned from the Bush campaign after it became public that he was associated with both the Bush campaign and the 527 group—a clear violation of the existing campaign finance laws. See Reuters, August 23, 2004.) See: http://www.reuters.com/newsArticle.jhtml?type=politicsNews&storyID=6048916&src=rss/ElectionCoverage&section=news

A long-held assumption in U.S. foreign policy is that in times of war, the United States is to remain unified; internal strife, the logic suggests, can undermine U.S. war efforts by emboldening the enemy. Some of the earliest utterances of such U.S. commonplaces can be traced to George Washington’s “Farewell Address.” Although Washington’s concerns were based in internal geographical divisions, his words still cautioned against such domestic divisiveness that could insight external intervention. Washington argued in 1796:

“While, then, every part of our country thus feels an immediate and particular interest in union, all the parts combined cannot fail to find in the united mass of means and efforts greater strength, greater resource, proportionably greater security from external danger, a less frequent interruption of their peace by foreign nations; and, what is of inestimable value, they must derive from union an exemption from those broils and wars between themselves, which so frequently afflict neighboring countries not tied together by the same governments, which their own rival ships alone would be sufficient to produce, but which opposite foreign alliances, attachments, and intrigues would stimulate and embitter.”


The advertisement also suggests that John Kerry contended in 1971 that all Vietnam veterans committed the atrocities that he detailed in his speech.

Joe Ponder argued in the “Sellout” ad: “The accusations that John Kerry made against the veterans who served in Vietnam was just devastating.”

The advertisement is organized around John Kerry’s words before the Committee on Foreign Relations, which frame the responses of the Swift Boat veterans. John Kerry states:

“They had personally raped, cut off ears, cut off heads . . . randomly shot at civilians . . . cut off limbs, blown up bodies . . . razed villages in a fashion reminiscent of Ghengis Khan . . . crimes committed on a day to day basis . . . ravaged the countryside of South Vietnam.”

Not included in the advertisement was the source of Kerry’s testimony on U.S. atrocities in Vietnam. Kerry explains in the early portion of his 1971 speech that such allegations were made during the Winter Soldier Investigations, which were held in Detroit , Michigan during January and February in 1971 in response to the indictment of Lt. William Calley for the My Lai incident. The latter represented a much publicized incident where Calley and his squad were accused of murdering innocent Vietnamese women, men, and children. To show solidarity for Calley, to suggest that the responsibility for such atrocities rested as much with the military leadership as with the soldiers, and to suggest that such atrocities were widespread in Vietnam, over one hundred Vietnam veterans testified to such war crimes. When Kerry spoke in April of 1971, he summarized the testimonies that took place during the Winter Soldier Investigations. For a transcript of the Winter Soldier Investigations, see:


John Kerry – Voice and Face of Dishonor; 

Swift Boat Veterans—Voices and Faces of Honor

Kerry gives voice to U.S. atrocities that are beyond the imagination of most U.S. citizens’ understanding of war. Although we only hear his voice, we are able to look back in time through the use of a black and white photograph of Kerry offering his congressional testimony; the black and white imagery connotes a sense of history and realism, which furthers the truthfulness of the ad’s content.

The more recent memory of the U.S. atrocities committed against the prisoners in the Iraq War may work to influence the reading of this ad. Many soldiers today note how the excessive coverage of the acts of a few errant veterans dishonors their own service to the country. From a different perspective, the recent memory of such photographs of atrocities made the U.S. public face the unpleasant possibility that such times, such acts that are almost unimaginable become the realities of war.

Kerry’s credibility is potentially challenged in the ad as he appears with longer hair, dressed in military fatigues; a younger male with scuffy hair and a beard cheers him on in the background, furthering Kerry’s image as a protester instead of the war veteran image that was emphasized by his campaign.

The Swift Boat veterans’ credibility is furthered as they appear in suits and ties, sporting more traditional military hair cuts. Their appearances alone suggest that they are the veterans of truth in the battle over Vietnam and its memory. Their moving and colorized images convey a sense of real time—evidencing the living legacies of Kerry’s words of betrayal. The soft, low, and emotive music furthers feelings of sorrow that signposts Kerry’s dishonorable deeds.

In the end, the Swift Boat veterans do not address the truthfulness of Kerry’s testimony; instead, they focus on their own feelings about his accusations, placing the focus on questions of emotion surrounding the accusations rather than on the details of atrocities. We see and hear these veterans speak of the “wounds” that Kerry’s words inflicted on the Vietnam veterans in 1971—wounds that clearly have not healed with time because of the depths of Kerry’s dishonor.

Who is Talking About the Ad and the Issue

Kerry/Edwards Presidential Campaign Press Release About “Sellout”— August 20, 2004 :

“This is another ad from a front group funded by Bush allies that is trying to smear John Kerry. The newest ad takes Kerry’s testimony out of context, editing what he said to distort the facts. He testified as a 27 year-old Vietnam veteran. He opposed a war that, at that point, cost over 44,000 lives of the 58,245 names that are on the Vietnam Memorial wall. It says a lot that the President refuses to condemn this smear. The American people want to hear how we’re going to cut health care costs and strengthen the economy, not smears.”


Kerry’s response to the controversy surrounding his 1971 speech as reported from Meet the Press, NBC News, April 18, 2004 :

MR. RUSSERT: Before we take a break, I want to talk about Vietnam. You are a decorated war hero of Vietnam, prominently used in your advertising. You first appeared on MEET THE PRESS back in 1971, your first appearance. I want to roll what you told the country then and come back and talk about it:

(Videotape, MEET THE PRESS, April 18, 1971):

MR. KERRY (Vietnam Veterans Against the War): There are all kinds of atrocities and I would have to say that, yes, yes, I committed the same kind of atrocities as thousands of other soldiers have committed in that I took part in shootings in free-fire zones. I conducted harassment and interdiction fire. I used 50-caliber machine guns which we were granted and ordered to use, which were our only weapon against people. I took part in search-and-destroy missions, in the burning of villages. All of this is contrary to the laws of warfare. All of this is contrary to the Geneva Conventions and all of this ordered as a matter of written established policy by the government of the United States from the top down. And I believe that the men who designed these, the men who designed the free-fire zone, the men who ordered us, the men who signed off the air raid strike areas, I think these men, by the letter of the law, the same letter of the law that tried Lieutenant Calley, are war criminals.

(End videotape)

MR. RUSSERT: You committed atrocities.

SEN. KERRY: Where did all that dark hair go, Tim? That’s a big question for me. You know, I thought a lot, for a long time, about that period of time, the things we said, and I think the word is a bad word. I think it’s an inappropriate word. I mean, if you wanted to ask me have you ever made mistakes in your life, sure. I think some of the language that I used was a language that reflected an anger. It was honest, but it was in anger, it was a little bit excessive.

MR. RUSSERT: You used the word “war criminals.”

SEN. KERRY: Well, let me just finish. Let me must finish. It was, I think, a reflection of the kind of times we found ourselves in and I don’t like it when I hear it today. I don’t like it, but I want you to notice that at the end, I wasn’t talking about the soldiers and the soldiers’ blame, and my great regret is, I hope no soldier–I mean, I think some soldiers were angry at me for that, and I understand that and I regret that, because I love them. But the words were honest but on the other hand, they were a little bit over the top. And I think that there were breaches of the Geneva Conventions. There were policies in place that were not acceptable according to the laws of warfare, and everybody knows that. I mean, books have chronicled that, so I’m not going to walk away from that. But I wish I had found a way to say it in a less abrasive way.

MR. RUSSERT: But, Senator, when you testified before the Senate, you talked about some of the hearings you had observed at the winter soldiers meeting and you said that people had personally raped, cut off ears, cut off heads, taped wires from portable telephones to human genitals and on and on. A lot of those stories have been discredited, and in hindsight was your testimony…

SEN. KERRY: Actually, a lot of them have been documented.

MR. RUSSERT: So you stand by that?

SEN. KERRY: A lot of those stories have been documented. Have some been discredited? Sure, they have, Tim. The problem is that’s not where the focus should have been. And, you know, when you’re angry about something and you’re young, you know, you’re perfectly capable of not–I mean, if I had the kind of experience and time behind me that I have today, I’d have framed some of that differently. Needless to say, I’m proud that I stood up. I don’t want anybody to think twice about it. I’m proud that I took the position that I took to oppose it. I think we saved lives, and I’m proud that I stood up at a time when it was important to stand up, but I’m not going to quibble, you know, 35 years later that I might not have phrased things more artfully at times.

“Kerry said last April on NBC’s Meet the Press that atrocities was an “inappropriate” word for him to have used in 1971 and that “I wasn’t talking about the soldiers and the soldiers’ blame.” He also said he remains “proud that I stood up. I don’t want anybody to think twice about it. I’m proud that I took the position that I took to oppose” the Vietnam War after his service in the Navy.”

Bush Campaign’s Response to the Swift Boat Ads, Reuters, August 23, 2004:

“President Bush called on Monday for ads attacking John Kerry’s record in Vietnam to be stopped along with others run by independent groups, and said Kerry should be proud of his war service . . . .

But in calling for a halt to all attack ads by groups funded by unregulated soft money, Bush said for the first time: ‘That means that (Swift Boat) ad and every other ad.'”