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Gerald Nicosia: The Presidency Wasn't on Kerry's Mind During His Anti-war Days

Gerald Nicosia, 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), in the LAT (May 25, 2004):

... The next big event by the VVAW [Vietnam Veterans Against the War] began in late January 1971, at a Howard Johnson's Motor Lodge in Detroit. [John] Kerry attended the Winter Soldier Investigation, reluctantly. Despite claims by recent Kerry-bashers, including Vietnam veteran Stephen Sherman in the Wall Street Journal (Jan. 26, 2004), that Kerry was the "emcee" of Winter Soldier, not a single FBI document concerning that event bears his name.

Winter Soldier "shattered" Kerry, he said to me in a 1988 interview. More than 100 veterans spoke. Kerry saw their discharge forms and talked with the vets enough, he said, to become satisfied that most were telling authentic stories—of torturing and murdering Viet Cong prisoners, raping village women, shooting villagers for target practice, cutting off ears and other body parts. These accounts were news to him and educated him, he said then. "It was a very, very heavy, difficult kind of thing to listen to, and it was painful."

Others wondered at the time if Kerry had made peace with his memories. Jack Smith, a veteran from Connecticut, says in a recent interview that he could see from Kerry's eyes that he was struggling as he listened to veterans telling painful war stories. Peggy Kerry says that her brother "had the anguish" shared by so many other vets just back from Vietnam; she says he suffered "indescribable pain" about the people who'd died in the war, and that he would sometimes wake up screaming from nightmares that continued even into his present marriage with Teresa Heinz Kerry. At a rally on Wall Street in April 1971, the files show, Kerry spoke of being "guilty" like everyone else in the country "for having allowed the war to go on"—a burden that, he said to me in a second interview, in 1989, could have "croaked" him if he had not been personally strong enough to deal with it.

Winter Soldier was held in Detroit because its sponsor, Jane Fonda, wanted to reach the "working class." By then, Kerry's public speaking had impressed two VVAW founders, Jan Barry and Sheldon Ramsdell. After Kerry's speech at Valley Forge, Ramsdell had told Peggy Kerry: "Whoa! He looks like Lincoln, and he sounds like a Kennedy. Get him on the road!" Kerry quickly became what the FBI calls several times "National Spokesman for VVAW."

But the Winter Soldier meeting received virtually no publicity, which bothered Kerry, and gave him an opening. He called upon VVAW leaders to demonstrate in Washington, a proposal that brought Kerry his first taste of the opposition that would drive him from the organization later in 1971. Many veterans, especially the grunts, were tired of being led by officers. Mike McCusker, a former Marine sergeant who was then VVAW Oregon coordinator, says the dispute was between the "top-downers versus the bottom-uppers." McCusker says he and the other bottom-uppers won—for the moment—but only by agreeing to go along with the demonstration in Washington, known as Operation Dewey Canyon III.

The next month, in February, McCusker recalls walking into VVAW's national office in New York and discovering to his dismay that Kerry was in charge of the meeting. Organization leaders were gathering for their first national steering committee meeting. Kerry looked "stiff and starchy," a "top-downer" if McCusker had ever seen one. But, he says, Kerry won him over in two ways. First, he saw that as the room filled with vets, Kerry loosened up, as if these truly were his brothers, people with whom he felt safe and comfortable. Second, Kerry began sounding unlike an officer, talking about his Paris trip to meet the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong delegates and about his great respect for the Vietnamese. Kerry and McCusker developed an immediate rapport.

After the New York meeting, Kerry began stumping the country to raise funds for the demonstration in Washington. FBI files show that the agency was unsure what to make of him, for despite his tailored suits, Gucci loafers and "JFK" monogrammed sweaters that other vets kidded him about, and despite the patrician manners and stock patriotic phrases, Kerry seemed to harbor, and at times openly express, some fairly radical beliefs. The files contain an array of his edgy political positions, including his statement in Philadelphia that "Ho Chi Minh is the George Washington of Vietnam." Southeastern VVAW coordinator Scott Camil says that he heard Kerry make the comment several times. Also in Philadelphia, according to the files, Kerry noted Ho Chi Minh's understanding of the United States Constitution and his efforts "to install the same provisions into the government of Vietnam."

Kerry also attacked President Richard Nixon as relentlessly as he praised Ho Chi Minh, but his criteria for both, Camil says, was honesty and sincerity. What Kerry held most against Nixon was that he had been elected in 1968 on a promise to end the war, yet by mid 1971, Nixon had extended the ground war into Laos and Cambodia and had begun plans to massively escalate the air war against North Vietnam. "Nixon ran 3 1/2 years ago saying, 'I have the secret plan for peace,' " the files say Kerry told one audience, "and now, the only promise he has kept is that the plan is still a secret."

Though Kerry at times lectured VVAW to stick to the single issue of ending the war, and to eschew attacks on racism, poverty and other broader issues, Kerry himself often condemned social injustices. He told an audience in Reno that, "The United States has become a society based on whose ox is being gored," and in Oklahoma City, he warned, according to a newspaper account, that the country must change its political power structure to avoid violent efforts to seize power.

Anyone who thinks, as some veterans do, that the young Kerry calculated his remarks with an eye toward running for president some day will have to deal with the many unequivocal charges he made against his own government and society as recorded in the FBI documents. At times, Kerry sounded more like Eugene Debs than today's typical Republicrat. One newspaper reported: "Kerry said it is wrong for some persons to make millions of dollars and pay no taxes while others barely making a living have to pay them," and that "of 234 congressmen's sons eligible for service in Vietnam, only 24 went there and only one of them was wounded."

Indeed, the files show that Kerry was far from politically correct even within his own organization. He joined in the dedication of Victor Westphall's Vietnam War memorial, an activity hardly prescribed for VVAW leaders, in Angel Fire, N.M., on May 18, 1971. Nixon sent a supportive letter about the memorial to Westphall that month. An FBI agent, apparently spotting the potential for embarrassing Kerry by putting him on the same side of an issue with Nixon, forwarded both texts to the bureau's Washington office.

The Kansas state coordinator for VVAW, John Musgrave, who spoke beside Kerry at a couple of colleges, says that Kerry impressed him by "always speaking directly from the pain and misery of a combat veteran. He adds, "I believed every word he said in those days." Musgrave, a Marine veteran who almost lost his life to three AK-47 rounds, recalls that Kerry touched hearts with his honesty and deep feeling—as though he were speaking for America's conscience. He believes that Kerry played a major role because "the nation needs to hear what combat vets have to say, and Kerry was able to tell them." Musgrave is angry at Kerry today mainly because he believes that Kerry "has stopped speaking that way, and he owes it to the American people to speak like that again—like a human being, not a politician."