After a coin toss to decide which decorated Vietnam War veteran would speak first, talk show host Dick Cavett invited his guests to debate the issue that had divided America. The tall, long-haired veteran with the big jaw denounced the war as immoral. His clean-cut rival spoke of patriotism and sacrifice.
More than three decades after their 1971 debate, John F. Kerry and John E. O'Neill are back at it. This time around, however, Kerry is running for president, and O'Neill has become one of his most prominent detractors.
Vietnam War critic John F. Kerry, right, appears with Dick Cavett in 1971 on the TV show on which he and Nixon supporter John E. O'Neill debated the conflict.
Charles Colson Memo to H.R. Haldeman, June 7, 1971
Colson Memo to O'Neill, June 12, 1971
Colson Memo for President's File, June 16, 1971
Colson Memo to Nixon, June 16, 1971
Colson Memo to Haldeman, June 17, 1971
Nov. 1971 Government Memo on VVAW Surveillance
Nov. 1971 Report on VVAW Activity
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For the past few weeks, long-standing presidential campaign themes such as the economy, health care and even the war in Iraq have been effectively overwhelmed by angry charges and countercharges about what Kerry did, or did not do, in a conflict that more than one eligible voter in three is too young to remember.
Now, O'Neill and his supporters from the political advocacy group Swift Boat Veterans for Truth are focusing their efforts on the Massachusetts senator's antiwar activities after he returned from Vietnam. Earlier this week, they released a new television ad accusing Kerry of "betraying" his comrades and "dishonoring" his country by making false accusations that many of them had committed war crimes.
By his own account, Kerry returned from Vietnam "an angry young man" determined to restore "morality" to U.S. foreign policy; O'Neill saw Kerry's actions as an affront to his patriotism. That these two men came to such divergent views is especially striking, given that they skippered the same U.S. Navy Swift boat on the Mekong River, albeit at different times. An examination of their postwar paths illuminates a much broader cultural divide that was born out of the Vietnam trauma -- and is haunting American politics once again.
Archival records show that O'Neill, who has been making the rounds of the TV talk shows this month to promote his best-selling anti-Kerry book, "Unfit for Command," was encouraged to go on television in 1971 by President Richard M. Nixon and his aide Charles W. Colson. Nixon regarded Kerry as the antiwar movement's most effective and articulate spokesman, and the president was desperate to undercut the activist's popular appeal.
"Let's hear it from the O'Neills now," Nixon told his 25-year-old protege, after warning him that the Cavett show's producers "inevitably . . . have it stacked against you." Colson later boasted to Nixon Chief of Staff H.R. "Bob" Haldeman that O'Neill "has agreed that he will appear anytime, anywhere that we program him," according to White House records.
Swift Boat Veterans for Truth members acknowledge that their animus toward Kerry stems in large part from the speeches and statements he made after the war, particularly his allegation that U.S. forces in Vietnam routinely engaged in activities that would be considered war crimes by the Geneva Conventions. They were particularly upset by his April 1971 appearance before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in which he recounted stories by other veterans that "they had personally raped, cut off ears, cut off heads . . . [and] razed villages in [a] fashion reminiscent of Genghis Khan."
"He slandered us, and now he expects us to support him or remain quiet," said Joe Ponder, a disabled Swift boat veteran who appears in the most recent anti-Kerry ad. "He discredited a whole generation of service people. He said these things happened on a day-to-day basis with the blessing of our commanders."
Veterans who are sympathetic to Kerry say that the Democratic presidential candidate is vulnerable to political attacks on his antiwar activities because of an extensive public record that his opponents are now combing for any inconsistency. Kerry has already backed away from some of his more inflammatory antiwar statements and an earlier claim that he was not present at a meeting that debated a proposal to assassinate government officials and take over the Statue of Liberty.
Many of Kerry's former colleagues in the antiwar movement continue to support him, arguing that President Bush has taken the United States into a war as devastating in its own way to U.S. prestige and moral authority around the world as Vietnam. Others bemoan what they see as Kerry's transformation from an impassioned, conviction-oriented leader into a more cautious politician who tailors his message to what works with focus groups and public opinion polls.
This reconstruction of the postwar careers of Kerry and the man who has led the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth assault on him is based on more than 20 interviews, research in the National Archives in College Park, and a review of dozens of books and newspaper articles. Kerry declined a request for an interview; O'Neill accepted.
The spring of 1971 marked the peak of the antiwar movement in the United States and Kerry's emergence as one of its stars. Nixon was attempting to salvage "peace with honor" in Vietnam through a policy of "Vietnamization," which involved a gradual withdrawal of U.S. troops from the country and political and military support for the anti-Communist government in Saigon. The protesters wanted Nixon to announce an immediate end to the war.
Kerry burst into the public consciousness when he was invited to address the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on April 22 by its chairman, J. William Fulbright (D-Ark.). Dressed in olive-green fatigues and combat ribbons, Kerry accused Nixon of sacrificing thousands of lives in a hopeless cause and delivered his celebrated line "How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?"