The following is based on my own personal recollections. I grew up during Viet Nam and was registered for the draft when the war ended.
In the early days of the war it was just that - a war. People were drafted or enlisted. Some of them went to Viet Nam. It was dangerous. If they came back safely then they were veterans - someone who gained a little respect for having served his country and survived.
This didn't really change until reports of wartime atrocities started getting out. At first these seemed like isolated incidents but more kept coming out. Added to this was the testimony of people like John Kerry saying that atrocities comparable with Gengus Khan were being committed daily. The impression was that everyone who fought in the war was dirty. Added to this was reports of delayed stress and flashbacks.
The surest way to discredit a war is to discredit the people fighting it. Why continue the war if we were sending a generation over to either be killed or to be corrupted?
I don't know how many vets were actually called baby-killers but that was the impression we had of them. This continued until the late 1970s through the mid-1980s.
Eventually things changed. The anti-war activists had been telling us that North Viet Nam was better than South Viet Nam and that things would be fine if we just got out of the war. After the fall of Saigon they couldn't keep saying that. North Viet Nam turned out to be more ruthless than anyone dreamed. Most of the activists admitted that they had been wrong. A few even admitted that war against North Viet Nam had been a good thing, after all.
Jane Fonda never apologized, though. John Kerry never apologized, either.
Then came Rambo. It was the 1980s, Reagan was president and we had a movie hero running through the swamps of Viet Nam killing Viet Cong and Russians (who sounded German). By then we knew that the North Vietnamese had not beaten us. We had beaten ourselves. The Vietnamese knew what was happening in America. They knew that they would win if they just kept fighting long enough.
The national mood changed. A record called "19" became a hit. The title came from the average age of American combat troops in Viet Nam. It pointed out that the veterans had never gotten a parade.
The new feeling about Viet Nam was that we would have won it if our troops had been allowed to "finish the job".
That is where the truce on Viet Nam came from:
(1) Those who participated in the war, with the exception of anyone at or
above the rank of general officer, are entitled to public honor for their
(2) Those who actively opposed the war, with the exception of the most
extreme Jane Fonda-types, are not to be branded as cowards or traitors to their
There were a few minor violations of the truce. Dan Quayle had joined the National Guard and Bill Clinton had joined the ROTC then dropped out as soon as he knew he was unlikely to be drafted.
In 2000, Al Gore tried to make an issue of his service vs. Bush's. Gore probably hurt himself with this since he portrayed himself as having been in combat. In actuality, he was a Army reporter covering a construction crew that was never on the front lines. He also had a short tour of service and it was obvious that his father had pulled strings.
Bush, of course, took the Guard route. The fact that he was a pilot while Gore was a reporter might have helped Bush a bit. Stories about Bush being AWOL came and went without being a major factor.
Then came Kerry.
The second part of the truce applies here - Kerry is in the Jane Fonda class of war protesters. He hung out with her, he organized major protests, he testified before Congress, he even made Nixon's enemies list.
You would think that he would be running on this. Here was his chance. He was a warrior-turned-protester-turned politician. You would think that he could use this unique synthesis to find an anti-war platform that would have captured the nomination.
It didn't happen. Instead he ignored his protester days and ran as a decorated veteran. He was too busy trying to run against Bush's strength as a war president that he erased half of his own war-time history.
That's what got the SwiftVets upset. In 1971 he said terrible things about them. Without retracting his statements before Congress he is running as one of them.
Kerry's defenders point out that atrocities (are we still using that word?) like the ones listed by Kerry actually happened.
Yes, but were they the rule or the exception? Kerry said that they happened daily and implied that everyone did them.
Kerry often tries to be on all sides of an issue. He was a veteran but he threw his medals away except he still has them and is proud of them. He was in Viet Nam and served heroically except he played the system to end his tour of duty eight months early and to get medals for exaggerated events.