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Veteran in Conflict

Sen. John Kerry's Struggle for Leadership of a Vietnam Veterans Antiwar Group in 1971 Ended With His Resignation at a Stormy Meeting in Kansas City, Where Militants Advocated Violence Against the U.S. Government

May 23, 2004|Gerald Nicosia

Gerald Nicosia is the author of "Home to War: A History of the Vietnam Veterans' Movement" (Crown Publishers, 2001, forthcoming in a new edition from Carroll & Graf this August). His research for the book included a Freedom of Information Act request to the FBI in 1988 for records of the agency's surveillance of an antiwar group, Vietnam Veterans Against the War. On June 21, 1989, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts wrote a letter urging the Justice Department to open the files to Nicosia because they would "contribute significantly to the public's understanding of the government's role in Vietnam. . . ." The FBI began releasing the documents nearly 11 years after Nicosia's request, and, eventually, 14 boxes containing 20,000 pages were delivered to his home. By then, however, his manuscript was finished.

The documents sat unread until this year, after Kerry became the expected Democratic Party candidate for president. In preparing this article, Nicosia reviewed the documents, interviewed more than two dozen people and drew upon the original reporting for his book. On March 25, after CNN broadcast a report about the files in his possession, three of the boxes were stolen from Nicosia's home in Marin County. The Twin Cities Police Department continues to investigate the theft.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday May 23, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 43 words Type of Material: Correction
Photo caption -- A photo caption with an article about Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kerry in today's Los Angeles Times Magazine says Sen. Ted Kennedy and Kerry are shown in New York in a 1971 photograph. The photo was taken in Washington, D.C.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday May 25, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 35 words Type of Material: Correction
Republican -- An article in Sunday's Los Angeles Times Magazine about John F. Kerry's involvement in the Vietnam antiwar movement incorrectly described former Sen. Mark Hatfield of Oregon as a Democrat. He is a Republican.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday June 13, 2004 Home Edition Los Angeles Times Magazine Part I Page 6 Lat Magazine Desk 1 inches; 31 words Type of Material: Correction
The article "Veteran in Conflict" (May 23) about John Kerry's involvement in the Vietnam antiwar movement incorrectly described former Sen. Mark Hatfield of Oregon as a Democrat. He is a Republican.

In this article, direct quotations from the files are from a variety of documents, including reports by FBI agents and news clippings the agency saved. The accuracy of those reports could not always be verified.


Arguably the most telling piece of information in the FBI files on Sen. John F. Kerry is his speech at the University of Nevada Las Vegas on Sept. 30, 1971. He was at the height of his success as a spokesman for Vietnam Veterans Against the War, a motley, grass-roots group of about 20,000 war veterans trying to bring an immediate end to the Vietnam War.

Although the peace movement comprised hundreds of groups, this veterans organization caught the nation's attention that year with a series of actions in Washington, D.C. Millions watched televised images of long-haired, angry veterans in fatigues, many bearing scars or missing limbs, throwing their medals over a wire-mesh fence at the Capitol. Another image that stood out was of a ruggedly handsome young Navy veteran with a Silver Star, Bronze Star and three Purple Hearts telling the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the Vietnam War was an abomination, continued for the vanity of politicians while taking American and Southeast Asian lives for no good reason. That speech made Kerry a national figure, and he began speaking around the country. The FBI documents reveal that he earned as much as $1,200 plus expenses for a single appearance--a substantial amount in 1971.

Long before the era of PCs, the Internet and digital text, Kerry's comments would have been lost to posterity had not the FBI been recording them--sometimes with a tape recorder, sometimes in notes and sometimes by pulling newspaper clippings. The Kerry who emerges from those files is a man far less guarded than the candidate we know today--a man experiencing a visible conflict between head and heart. "My 10 years of political consciousness in America is very wrapped up in gravestones," he told the 200 students at the Las Vegas campus. "These are the gravestones of John and Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Medgar Evers, the Kent State students, the men of Attica and the other 53,000 brothers in Vietnam."

Here he was, a New England Brahmin educated at Yale and St. Paul's School, coaxed by class, culture and schooling to avoid emotional expression, telling students he couldn't get dead people out of his head--and not just the Kennedys and the civil rights leaders, but also American students killed by a government suppressing dissent; prisoners and guards shot in a massive fusillade to quell a rebellion at New York's Attica prison; and every American soldier who had lost his life in the Vietnam War.

Kerry's anger and pain were close to the surface. In Las Vegas, the files show, he said his life would be dedicated to awakening Americans. "Somewhere, somehow, we lost track of where we are as a nation," Kerry lamented. He called for a "resensitization and revolution of America." "People must realize the disparity between the America of the speeches and the America of the streets. The thought 'power to the people' is not revolutionary. Our country was founded on this concept."

For those remarks and others, the FBI regarded Kerry as potentially subversive and dangerous to the "national defense interest." But that was no surprise. It regarded the organization he led, Vietnam Veterans Against the War, as a security threat, and conducted a 20,000-documents-deep surveillance that gave thousands of special agents, informants, infiltrators and bureaucrats work for 10 years: 1967 to 1977.

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