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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

The vets discussed national antiwar actions that VVAW would stage over Christmas in five parts of the country. Many coordinators pushed for civil disobedience. Scott Camil recalls becoming incensed by "really stupid ideas," such as burning Christmas trees in front of public buildings--an action that was approved after the rejection of Hubbard's suggestion that VVAW napalm the national Christmas tree just after Nixon lighted it. Camil "was thinking like a Marine," he says, explaining that Marines were taught to "attack the head of the snake, not the tail." At the time of the Washington march, Camil proposed "taking out" the prominent senators and congressmen who consistently voted in favor of the war. His assassination plan had little support, and he had put it aside as impractical. But now in Kansas City, in an effort to "push people's buttons" and "get them to forget about the crap" of burning Christmas trees, Camil says he again brought up his assassination plan, dubbed a "domestic Phoenix program," a name derived from an actual assassination program sponsored by the U.S. government, which chiefly targeted Communist civil leaders in South Vietnam.

The meeting descended into chaos, according to several people who were there. VVAW's Kansas City coordinator Randy Barnes describes "people standing up on the tables yelling and screaming at each other." Someone found bugs planted by the FBI. The group decided to move to a more secure location, but before the meeting reconvened, Camil met with supporters, including many members of the "sergeants rebellion," at a small house. Most were Southerners, ex-Marines and enlisted men (Camil himself had been a Marine sergeant). Also part of this "rump group" were Lemmer and another undercover FBI informant, Karl Becker, who would also play an important role in the government's indictment of Camil and seven other VVAW members the following year, for supposedly planning a violent assault on the Republican National Convention in Miami--indictments that led to the notorious Gainesville conspiracy trial in the summer of 1973.

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.

No one in VVAW knew yet that Lemmer and Becker were working for the FBI, but Camil recalls that their encouragement of his Phoenix proposal helped push him from using it for shock value to believing it could be achieved. Lemmer, who represented himself to Camil as having been a "CIA assassin type" in the military, was especially effective in rousing Camil's excitement about the plan. Camil went to the second session prepared to demand a vote on it.

The meeting reconvened at St. Augustine's Catholic Church, 7801 Paseo Blvd., in Kansas City, and it was again closed--meaning only national officers and regional and state coordinators. Several things about it are still unclear, especially the chronology, but there is no doubt that it was the most intensely angry leadership meeting that had yet taken place. And there is also no doubt, if the files and witnesses are to believed, that Kerry was present for all of it.

Because wives and girlfriends, like ordinary delegates, were locked out, Julia Thorne Kerry, John's wife, sat outside on the grass--it was a warm, sunny November day--with a bunch of other women that included filmmaker Nancy Miller Saunders, the girlfriend of Arkansas-Louisiana coordinator Don Donner. Saunders says she remembers a lengthy conversation with Julia Thorne Kerry there, as do two other people interviewed: Rusty Lindley and Wayne Beverly, one of the Texas Marines sympathetic to Camil, who was barred from the meeting because he was not a coordinator.

Multiple FBI reports--most of them partly blacked out--show that the session began with Hubbard describing his negotiations in Paris. He said that North Vietnamese negotiator Xuan Tui had advised him that if a VVAW delegation came to Hanoi just before Christmas, the Vietnamese might allow them to take home several POWs. Then another vet named Joe Urgo joined forces with Hubbard. Urgo had been to Hanoi the previous August and claimed to have met with many officials, including leaders of the North Vietnamese Army, with whom he spoke of making tapes for broadcast over Radio Hanoi to get American troops to stop fighting. He also claimed to have made progress in arranging for a VVAW delegation to negotiate the release of several American prisoners. Hubbard and Urgo talked of working together on the latter project and began signing up vets to go to Hanoi. Somewhere during the discussion, Hubbard mentioned that his trip had been paid for by the Communist Party U.S.A.

The FBI files say that during the meeting, Kerry "again tried to have Al Hubbard voted off the executive committee," and failed. Also at some point, the files show, Kerry exploded in a tirade against Hubbard, claiming he had failed to find any military records to confirm Hubbard's service in either the Air Force or Vietnam.

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