With antiwar role, high visibility
By Michael Kranish, Globe Staff, 6/17/2003
"This fellow Kerry that they had on last week," Colson tells the president, referring to a television appearance by John F. Kerry, a leader of Vietnam Veterans Against the War.
"Yeah," Nixon responds.
"He turns out to be really quite a phony," Colson says.
"Well, he is sort of a phony, isn't he?" Nixon says.
Yes, Colson says in a gossiping vein, telling the president that Kerry stayed at the home of a Georgetown socialite while other protesters slept on the mall.
"He was in Vietnam a total of four months," Colson scoffs, without mentioning that Kerry earned three Purple Hearts, a Silver Star, and a Bronze Star, and had also been on an earlier tour. "He's politically ambitious and just looking for an issue."
"He came back a hawk and became a dove when he saw the political opportunities," Colson says.
"Sure," Nixon responds. "Well, anyway, keep the faith."
The tone was sneering. But the secretly recorded dialogue illustrates just how seriously Kerry was viewed by the Nixon White House. Some of these conversations have not been previously publicized, and Kerry said he had never heard them until they were provided by a reporter.
Day after day, according to the tapes and memos, Nixon aides worried that Kerry was a unique, charismatic leader who could undermine support for the war. Other veteran protesters were easier targets, with their long hair, their use of a Viet Cong flag, and in some cases, their calls for overthrowing the US government. Kerry, by contrast, was a neat, well-spoken, highly decorated veteran who seemed to be a clone of former President John F. Kennedy, right down to the military service on a patrol boat.
The White House feared him like no other protester.
Colson, in a secret memo, revealed he had a mission to target Kerry: "Destroy the young demagogue before he becomes another Ralph Nader."
The effort by Nixon and his aides to undermine Kerry went much deeper than even Kerry realized. Yet it is this chapter in his life, as much as any other, that helped turn Kerry into a national political figure. By targeting Kerry, the Nixon White House boosted his stature in ways that still are having an impact.
But at the same time, many of the issues that Nixon and his aides raised more than 30 years ago about Kerry still remain. Echoes of Colson's words can still be heard in Washington: "He's politically ambitious and just looking for an issue, a phony."
Yet even Nixon described Kerry as an articulate and impressive spokesman. The Nixon White House began an investigation of Kerry. Who was he, the Nixonites wanted to know. What was his real motivation? And how could they stop him?Connecting with a cause
As an antiwar leader, John Kerry was arrested with hundreds of others after protesting on the green in Lexington, Mass., on May 31, 1971. The Nixon White House identified Kerry as the movement's most effective spokesman. (AP File Photo)
John Kerry returned from Vietnam in April 1969, having won early transfer out of the conflict because of his three Purple Hearts. He asked for a cushy assignment - service as an admiral's aide - and was given precisely that job in Brooklyn. Kerry had thought about running for public office long before he had gone to Vietnam. But when he returned from the war, he wasn't greeted as a hero, like the soldiers of his father's generation. Kerry found that being a veteran could be a drawback, especially in Eastern Massachusetts, where he hoped to run for the US House.
"I just came back really concerned about it and upset about it and angry about it," Kerry said. "It took me a little while to decompress. I saw someone who said, `What happened to you? Your eyes are sunk way back in your head.' The tension and the trauma in your life took its toll."
When Kerry returned to the United States, the country's troop strength in Vietnam was at its height - 543,000. To that date, 33,400 Americans had been killed, and the number of protests was surging. But during this time, Kerry was still a naval officer and not publicly protesting the war.
It was his sister, Peggy, who was involved in the antiwar movement. One day in October 1969, Peggy Kerry was working in the New York office of a Vietnam War protest group that was planning a "moratorium" peace rally in Washington, which would draw 250,000 protesters one month later. A leader in the New York protest, Adam Walinsky, a former speechwriter for Robert F. Kennedy, said he needed a pilot and plane to take him around the state on Oct. 15. Did anyone know a pilot?
Peggy Kerry said she would provide such a volunteer: her brother.
John Kerry flew Walinsky around New York to deliver speeches against the war. Kerry did not wear his uniform and did not speak at the events, but the experience helped convince him that he wanted to become a public leader of the antiwar movement. On Jan. 3, 1970, Kerry requested that his superior, Rear Admiral Walter F. Schlech, Jr., grant him an early discharge so that he could run for Congress on an antiwar platform.
"I just said to the admiral: `I've got to get out. I've got to go do what I came back here to do, which is, end this thing,'" Kerry recalled, referring to the war. The request was approved, and Kerry was honorably discharged, which he said shaved six months from his commitment.
But for all his Vietnam heroics and patrician background, Kerry was, politically speaking, a nobody. He gave up on a three-month 1970 bid for Congress in Massachusetts' Third District, which at the time stretched from Newton to Fitchburg, when it became clear the Rev. Robert F. Drinan would instead get the Democratic Party nomination.
Some of Kerry's positions at the time sound naive in retrospect. He was quoted in The Harvard Crimson as saying he would like to "almost eliminate CIA activity" and wanted US troops "dispersed through the world only at the directive of the United Nations."
Out of the Navy and with a political failure behind him, Kerry refocused on his personal life. In May 1970, he married the woman he had been dating for more than six years, Julia Thorne, the sister of his best friend, David Thorne. Kerry, whose upper-class image was already well established due to his Forbes and Winthrop roots, had a glittering wedding.
The New York Times described it this way: "Miss Julia Stimson Thorne, whose ancestors helped to shape the American republic in its early days, and John Forbes Kerry, who wants to help steer it back from what he considers a wayward course, were married this afternoon at the 200-acre Thorne family estate" on Long Island.
The article noted that Miss Thorne's cream-colored dress had been worn by her ancestor, Catherine Peartree-Smith, who married Elias Boudinot IV, who served as president of the Continental Congress under the Articles of Confederation. "Alexander Hamilton was best man at that wedding and among those present was George Washington," the story noted.
"Whether today's wedding becomes a similar footnote to history may depend on the bridegroom, a graduate of Yale and a veteran of the Vietnam war, who is considering running for Congress from his native Massachusetts." (The article left unsaid that Kerry had just failed in that bid.)
For his honeymoon, Kerry chose a telling location: the Pershing family's Jamaica home. Richard Pershing, a close friend of Kerry's and a fellow member of Yale's Skull and Bones society, had been killed in Vietnam. Pershing's grandfather, General John Joseph "Black Jack" Pershing, had commanded US forces in Europe during World War I.
With Julia by his side, Kerry became more active in the antiwar movement. After working behind the scenes and making a few little-noticed appearances at rallies, Kerry joined a group called Vietnam Veterans Against the War. Some thought the group was marginal; others mocked its connection to Jane Fonda, who had earned enmity by visiting North Vietnam. In January 1971, the organization held a series of hearings in Detroit called the "Winter Soldier Investigation," but Kerry did not speak at the event, which received only modest press coverage. Kerry wanted a bigger stage, and he wanted the top role.
During private conversations with other group leaders, Kerry suggested that a veterans rally be held on the Mall in Washington, an effort Kerry hoped would refute Nixon's charge that the protesters were mostly college "bums."
"It was my sense that it wasn't going to be heard unless we went to a place where the issue was joined," Kerry said. "It was my idea to come to Washington. It was my idea to do the march. I floated that idea at the Detroit meeting. We all decided to make it happen. I became the unofficial coordinator-organizer."
Some members of the antiwar group viewed Kerry as an opportunist. He hadn't testified during the Winter Soldier hearings, hadn't organized the group, yet now he was seeking to become the coordinator and spokesman. But plenty of veterans also realized Kerry - erudite and clean-cut - was the ideal foil for those who viewed the group as hippie traitors or even communists.
So Kerry became the face of the organization, and a media sensation.
The protests were set for the week of April 20. Kerry spent some of his time at the Georgetown townhouse of his longtime friend George Butler, working the phones, trying to round up veterans. But the real problem was money. Kerry, who was not financially independent despite rumors to the contrary, was supposed to raise money to pay for buses that would transport the veterans.
He called his friend Walinsky, who had run unsuccessfully for New York attorney general and had excellent financial connections. Walinsky arranged a meeting of potential donors at the Seagram Building in New York City. Among those present were Seagram chief executive Edgar M. Bronfman Sr. and about 20 other New York businessmen who opposed the war. Kerry delivered a low-key speech about the importance of having veterans attend the protest. Then the businessmen were each asked to stand and declare how much they would contribute.
"We raised probably $50,000," Walinsky recalled. "It took an hour."
Face of the antiwar movement
In Lowell, Mass., the veteran and onetime antiwar activist, watches as President Nixon announces a Vietnam cease-fire in January 1973.
April 23, 1971
Nixon, Haldeman, Kissinger
Hear the clip | Read transcript
April 23, 1971
Nixon, Rose Mary Woods
Hear the clip | Read transcript
April 26, 1971
Nixon, Haldeman, Ziegler
Hear the clip | Read transcript
April 27, 1971
Nixon, Rose Mary Woods
Hear the clip | Read transcript
Just before the event, on April 19, 1971, Colson fired off a memo expressing exasperation that more wasn't being done to undermine the organizers. He ordered administration officials to show that Vietnam Veterans Against the War was "a fringe group, that it is financed from questionable sources, that it doesn't represent a veterans movement, and that the guys involved are a pretty shoddy bunch. . . . There just must be more that we can be doing."
At a jammed Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on April 22, 1971, Kerry took his case to Congress. Television cameras lined the walls, and veterans packed the seats. Kerry was dressed in his green fatigues and wore his Silver Star and Purple Heart ribbons, although he said he left the medals at home. With his thatch of dark hair swept across his brow, Kerry sat at a witness table and delivered the most famous speech of his life, the speech that defined him and made possible his political career.
"How do you ask a man to be the last man to die in Vietnam?" Kerry asked. "How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?" Attacking the Nixon White House, he said, "This administration has done us the ultimate dishonor. They have attempted to disown us and the sacrifices we made for this country."
Almost forgotten in that famous speech were Kerry's controversial assertions that Vietnam veterans had "personally raped, cut off ears, cut off heads, taped wires from portable telephone to human genitals and turned up the power, cut off limbs, blown up bodies, randomly shot at civilians, razed villages in fashion reminiscent of Genghis Khan, shot cattle and dogs for fun, poisoned food stocks, and generally ravaged the countryside of South Vietnam in addition to the normal ravage of war, and the normal and very particular ravaging which is done by the applied bombing power of this country."
To some veterans, including some of those who served alongside Kerry, this was too much. They thought they had served honorably, and they had seen Kerry as a gung-ho skipper who led the charge and didn't voice such opposition on the battlefield.
"I would go up a river with that man anytime. He was a great American fighting man," said Michael Bernique, a highly decorated veteran who served as a swift boat skipper alongside Kerry. But Bernique remains upset with Kerry's assertion that atrocities were committed, an assertion that Kerry has not backed away from. "I think there was a point in time when John was making it up fast and quick. I think he was saying whatever he needed to say."
In the Oval Office, President Nixon delivered a backhanded compliment to Kerry, whom he distinguished from the other "bearded weirdos."
The "real star" of the hearing was Kerry, Nixon told chief of staff H. R. "Bob" Haldeman and national security adviser Henry Kissinger the day after Kerry testified, according to the secretly taped White House recordings.
"He did a hell of a great job," Haldeman said.
"He was extremely effective," Nixon agreed.
"He did a superb job on it at Foreign Relations Committee yesterday," Haldeman said. "A Kennedy-type guy, he looks like a Kennedy, and he, he talks exactly like a Kennedy."
"Where did he serve?" Nixon asked.
"He was a Navy lieutenant, j.g., on a gunboat, and he used to run his gunboat up and shoot at, shoot babies out of women's arms," Haldeman said. (A member of Kerry's crew had shot and killed a Vietnamese child in an episode that occurred in a "free-fire zone," according to Kerry, but it is not clear whether Haldeman knew about the matter or was being jocular.)
"Oh, stop that," Nixon said. "People in the Navy don't do things [like that.]" With apparent sarcasm, Nixon turned to Kissinger, who assured him a naval officer would not shoot babies out of women's arms. But there was a seriousness to the statement as well; just three weeks earlier, a jury had convicted Lieutenant William Calley of killing 22 civilians in what became known as the My Lai massacre. Just days earlier, Nixon had ordered Calley released pending his appeal. The case had been more fuel for the antiwar movement.
Nixon seemed particularly incredulous that Kerry had won so many medals. "Bob, the Navy didn't have any casualties in Vietnam except in the air," Nixon told Haldeman, showing either a disregard for the high casualty rate of swift boat sailors or an extraordinary lack of knowledge about what had really happened during the war he oversaw as commander in chief.
The White House staff decided it needed to dig up dirt on Kerry, or at least undermine his effort. Three days later, Haldeman arrived in the Oval Office and announced to the president: "We've got some interesting dope on Kerry."
Nixon was interested.
"Kerry, it turns out, some time ago decided he wanted to get into politics," Haldeman said. "Well, he ran for, took a stab at the congressional thing. And he consulted with some of the folks in the Georgetown set here. So what, what the issue, what, he'd like to get an issue. He wanted a horse to ride."
The tape recording inexplicably ends at this point.
Kerry, meanwhile, was becoming a celebrity. Overnight, he had emerged as one of the most recognized veterans in America.
Kerry, who understood well the importance that the media placed on imagery, put an exclamation mark on events by lining up with veterans to return their medals to the military on April 23. Kerry said he suggested that veterans place their medals and ribbons on a table and return them. But he said other members of the antiwar veterans group wanted to throw the medals and ribbons over a fence in front of the Capitol, and Kerry went along with the idea.
Video footage of the scene shows hundreds of veterans angrily gathering in front of the Capitol, near a fenced-in bin with the large sign saying "Trash."
One by one, the veterans, most of whom had long hair and wore combat jackets, threw their medals into the makeshift trash bin.
Some press reports say that Kerry "threw his medals." But Kerry has long maintained he threw his own ribbons but someone else's medals.
In an interview, he said that he had previously met two veterans, one from the Vietnam War and another from World War II, who had asked Kerry to return their medals to the military. Kerry said he stuffed them into his jacket.
He said that when he prepared to throw his ribbons over the fence, he reached into his jacket and pulled out the medals from those two veterans. He said his own medals remained in safekeeping.
The week's events had unquestionable impact. At the beginning of the week, a band of 800 or so Vietnam veterans gathered to protest the war, followed by Kerry's April 22 testimony, then the medal-tossing ceremony on April 23. By the following day, the publicity helped draw at least 250,000 people to the Mall in a massive protest.
Kerry, wearing a blue button-down shirt under his combat jacket, addressed the rally from the Capitol steps. "We came here to undertake one last mission, to search out and destroy the last vestige of this barbaric war," Kerry told the cheering throng.
In one week, Kerry had gone from little-known former swift boat skipper to the face of the protest movement.
"The transformation was instant," said Kerry's friend George Butler. "Eight hundred people had turned into 250,000," said Kerry's then-brother-in-law, David Thorne, who stood beside Kerry during the rally. "That is what made it so spectacular."
A national figure
A few weeks later, Kerry was featured in a lengthy segment on the CBS television program "60 Minutes." Correspondent Morley Safer, in a segment titled "First Hurrah," portrayed Kerry as an eloquent man of turmoil who had a Kennedyesque future.
"Do you want to be president of the United States?" Safer asked Kerry.
"No," Kerry replied. "That's such a crazy question when there are so many things to be done and I don't know whether I could do them."
But Kerry's image as a self-promoter soon became the subject of parody, none more on-target than a Doonesbury comic strip penned by fellow Yale alumnus Garry Trudeau. A character in the strip is heard urging that they all attend John Kerry's speech. "He speaks with a rare eloquence and astonishing conviction. If you see no one else this year, you must see John Kerry!"
"Who was that?" another character asks.
"John Kerry," comes the response.
Another strip shows Kerry soaking up the adulation after a speech, smiling and thinking, "You're really clicking tonight, you gorgeous preppie."
At the White House, the plotting against Kerry continued.
"The concern about Kerry was that he had great credibility as a decorated Vietnam veteran," Colson recalled in a recent interview. So Colson and his staff tried repeatedly to dig up dirt on Kerry. The effort failed.
"I don't ever remember finding anything negative about Kerry or hearing anything negative about him," Colson said. "If we had found anything, I'm sure we would have used it to discredit him."
Colson's memos, in storage at the National Archives, show that he tried mightily to discredit Kerry. On April 16, Colson noted that, "A number of tough questions have also been planted with the Vietnam Veterans Against the War questioners for `Meet the Press."'
Vice President Spiro T. Agnew briefly led the White House charge against Kerry. Appearing in the Bahamas, Agnew said that Kerry, "who drew rave notices in the media for his eloquent testimony before Congress, was later revealed to have been using material ghosted for him by a former Kennedy speechwriter, and to have spent most of his nights in posh surroundings in Georgetown rather than on the Mall with his buddies."
Both of Agnew's charges were false, according to Kerry and Walinsky, the former Kennedy aide to whom Agnew referred.
Kerry began traveling around the country to carry the antiwar flag. During Memorial Day weekend, he joined a throng of antiwar protesters on the green in Lexington, Mass., where he and hundreds of others were arrested. Kerry said the arrest, for which he paid a $5 fine and spent the night at the Lexington Public Works Garage, is the only arrest of his life. At the time, Kerry's wife, Julia, kept $100 under her pillow just in case she needed to bail out her husband on short notice.
In another iconic moment, Kerry appeared with former Beatle John Lennon at a protest in New York City.
The White House found a better way to go after Kerry. Colson had seen a press conference featuring a young Navy veteran named John O'Neill, who served in the same swift boat division as Kerry shortly after Kerry left Vietnam. O'Neill, like many swift boat veterans, was outraged at Kerry's claim of US atrocities.
In short order, O'Neill became the centerpiece of the Nixon White House strategy to undermine Kerry. O'Neill, now a Texas lawyer, stresses that he did not receive any payment from the White House and was acting on his own because he thought Kerry's statements were unconscionable lies.
For weeks, Colson had been accusing Kerry of ducking a debate with O'Neill. On June 15, Colson wrote to another White House aide: "I think we have Kerry on the run, he is beginning to take a tremendous beating in the press, but let's not let him up, let's destroy this young demagogue before he becomes another Ralph Nader. Let's try to move through as many sources as we can the fact that he has refused to meet in debate, even though he agreed to do so and announced to the press he would."
The next day, O'Neill arrived at the White House to meet with Nixon. The two men bonded; a brief "grip and grin" session turned into an hourlong meeting, with Nixon bucking up O'Neill for the fight against Kerry.
'We've got to change'
Kerry's 1971 book later became the focus of controversy because of the cover photo which showed of veterans hoisting an upside-down US flag.
Two weeks later, on June 30, the much anticipated debate took place. Kerry, who had been studying debate since he was about 14 years old, appeared with O'Neill on "The Dick Cavett Show." At 6 feet 4 inches, Kerry towered over Cavett and O'Neill. With his thick dark hair, dark blue suit, and lean features, he cut a striking figure.
O'Neill came out swinging. Visibly angry from the start, wearing a light suit, short hair, and white socks, O'Neill used words seemingly intended to taunt his opponent.
"Mr. Kerry is the type of person who lives and survives only on war-weariness and fears of the American people," O'Neill said. "This is the same little man who on nationwide television in April spoke of, quote, `crimes committed on a day-to-day basis, with the full awareness of officers at all levels of command.' Who was quoted in a prominent news magazine in May as saying, `War crimes in Vietnam are the rule, not the exception."'
Where O'Neill was red-hot, Kerry sought to look calm and intellectual, toting a hefty briefing book. He said the veterans weren't trying to tear down the country, but instead say to the country: "Here is where we went wrong, and we've got to change. What we say is, the killing can stop tomorrow."
"On the question of war crimes, it is really only with the utmost consideration that we pose this question," Kerry said. "I don't think that any man comes back to say that he raped, or to say that he burned a village, or to say that he wantonly destroyed crops or something for pleasure. I think he does it at the risk of certain kinds of punishment, at the risks of injuring his own character, which he has to live with, at the risk of the loss of family and friends as a result of it. But he does it because he believes intensely that people have got to be educated about the devastation of this war. We thought we were a moral country, yes, but we are now engaged in the most rampant bombing in the history of mankind."
Again and again, the question was asked: Did Kerry commit atrocities or see them committed by others? Kerry stuck to his script.
"I personally didn't see personal atrocities in the sense I saw somebody cut a head off or something like that," Kerry said. "However, I did take part in free-fire zones, I did take part in harassment and interdiction fire, I did take part in search-and-destroy missions in which the houses of noncombatants were burned to the ground. And all of these acts, I find out later on, are contrary to the Hague and Geneva conventions and to the laws of warfare. So in that sense, anybody who took part in those, if you carry out the application of the Nuremberg Principles, is in fact guilty. But we are not trying to find war criminals. That is not our purpose. It never has been."
O'Neill for years has declined to talk about the experience, partly because he says he became disillusioned with politics and government after the fall of Saigon in 1975.
But in a telephone interview from Texas, where he is a trial attorney, O'Neill made it clear he still harbors resentment at the way Kerry accused veterans of atrocities.
"The primary reason I got involved was I thought the charges of war crimes were irresponsible and wrong," O'Neill said. "I thought they did a real disservice to all the people that were there. I thought they were immoral."
The bitterness remains. Asked whether he agrees with the view of some observers that Kerry was forever altered by the war, O'Neill responded: "The war didn't change [Kerry]. I think he was a guy driven tremendously by ambition. I think he was that way before he went and is that way today."
Some Vietnam Veterans Against the War leaders also viewed Kerry as a power-grabbing elitist, a source of internal friction within the antiwar movement. "There was no question but that the rift existed," said Butler, who was with Kerry at the time and remains a close friend. "A wing of the VVAW were pushing so hard to the left that they were almost Maoist. Every time John did something useful like raise money or speak in front of the Foreign Relations Committee or give an interview, he was criticized for being a media whiz."
Scott Camil, a former group leader, said Kerry "was not as radical as some of the rest of us. He was a pretty straight shooter, and he came under criticism for things that weren't fair."
Still, Camil recalled that Kerry's patrician image was derided by others in the group, which was mostly composed of working-class veterans. Camil said Kerry showed up in ironed clothes, while most of the others were rumpled. Camil said a member had tried to reach Kerry by telephone and was told by someone, presumably a maid, that "Master Kerry is not at home." At the next meeting, someone hung a sign on Kerry's chair that said: "Free the Kerry Maid."
Kerry left the organization after about a year of participation and about five months after assuming a leadership role. Kerry says he quit partly to focus on a new organization that emphasized veterans' benefits; others say Kerry was forced out.
In fact, Kerry once again was thinking of running for the US House from Massachusetts. But unlike in 1970, when Kerry was barely known, the antiwar movement had turned him into a national figure and taught him how to campaign, how to organize, how to raise money, how to use the media, even how to debate on national television.
Kerry had battled the Viet Cong, the Nixon White House, and the extremes of the antiwar movement. Now all he had to do was persuade mostly working-class voters north of Boston to vote for him.
Michael Kranish can be reached by email at email@example.com
This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 6/17/2003.
© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.