Kerry finally accepted a challenge from O'Neill to appear with him on Cavett's show on ABC on June 30. From today's perspective, their debate seems gloriously old-fashioned. Instead of boiling down their points to 15-second sound bites, the network gave the two veterans 90 minutes to talk about the burning issue of the day, interrupted only by Cavett reading ads for Calgon Bath Oil Beads ("Leaves you radiant and refreshed!").
The debate ended without a decisive victory for either side. O'Neill accused Kerry of "the big lie," arguing that he had "murdered" the reputations of 2 1/2 million service members by accusing them of war crimes. Dressed in a well-cut blue suit, Kerry told the audience he had personally participated in "search-and-destroy missions in which the houses of noncombatants were burned to the ground" and asked O'Neill if he had ever "burned a village."
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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"No, I never burned a village," replied O'Neill, who was wearing his only suit, a blue-and-white seersucker, with matching white socks.
After a cameo role at the 1972 Republican National Convention, when he was one of several Democrats nominating Nixon for president, O'Neill dropped out of politics, attending law school and then clerking for then-Associate Justice William H. Rehnquist at the Supreme Court. He later became a successful lawyer in Houston. It was not until the his old adversary locked up the Democratic nomination for president that he reentered the public stage.
Within Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW), as the leading antiwar veterans organization was known, Kerry was regarded as moderate and politically ambitious. Other, less well-connected vets were uneasy about his patrician manners, "JFK"-monogrammed sweaters and Gucci shoes. The leaders of the movement appreciated his public speaking skills and appointed him their principal spokesman. Lower down, there was resentment over the amount of media attention he was getting.
According to historian Gerald Nicosia, whose "Home to War" is the authoritative account of the movement, VVAW was becoming increasingly divided by 1971. The officer class -- referred to as "top-downers" -- believed in working within the political system. The grunts, or "bottom-uppers," wanted to challenge the system, sometimes by civil disobedience or violence. Kerry was very much a "top-downer," although he worked hard to preserve the unity of the movement.
Jan Barry, the founder and former president of VVAW, has a vivid memory of Kerry's performance at the "Winter Soldier" hearings in Detroit in January 1971, when more than 100 veterans gave accounts of gruesome atrocities and war crimes they had committed. "You had a room full of veterans who had bared their souls and were angry that nobody wanted to listen to them," Barry said. "Kerry stood up in front of this angry group of people and convinced them to take their anger to Washington and to Congress."
Kerry was referring to the testimony at the Winter Soldier hearings when he told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in April 1971 that he had heard accounts of American servicemen ravaging villages and cutting off heads and ears. The current ads by Swift Boat Veterans for Truth imply that Kerry was making these accusations himself, when in fact he was relating other people's accounts.
In an interview on NBC's "Meet the Press" earlier this year, Kerry described his 1971 testimony as "honest" but "a little bit over the top." "Those were the words of an angry young man," he told moderator Tim Russert.
According to FBI records first released to Nicosia, Kerry sometimes expressed fairly radical points of view. For example, he described North Vietnamese Communist leader Ho Chi Minh as "the George Washington of Vietnam." He also noted with some bitterness that out "of 234 congressmen's sons eligible for service in Vietnam, only 24 went there, and only one of them was wounded."
The FBI kept careful tabs on the protesters through a network of informers, who tracked Kerry's movements. The FBI records help to disprove a long-standing claim by Kerry that he resigned from the VVAW leadership in the summer of 1971, before the organization began to flirt with proposals for radical civil disobedience and even violence.
The FBI records show that Kerry was present for a particularly contentious meeting in Kansas City, Mo., in November 1971, at which plans were discussed for the assassination or kidnapping of government officials or the takeover of the Statue of Liberty. The proposal was overwhelmingly voted down, and the files record that Kerry wanted VVAW "to stay strictly non-violent." According to the FBI files, he resigned from the organization in Kansas City after an angry showdown with radicals led by a firebrand named Al Hubbard.
Told about the FBI records earlier this year, Kerry said through a spokesman that he now accepted he must have been in Kansas City for the November meeting while continuing to insist that he had "no personal recollection" of the contentious debate. Many people associated with VVAW find this difficult to believe.
"There was no way he would have forgotten about being in Kansas City," said Nicosia, who is generally sympathetic to Kerry.
Former VVAW Kansas state coordinator John Musgrave, who served with the Marines in Vietnam, expressed extreme doubt about Kerry's stated recollection. "He had a tremendous confrontation with Hubbard at that meeting. How can he claim not to have any memory of it?"
"These meetings were chaotic, confused and very noisy," countered John Hurley, director of the Veterans for Kerry movement, which claims a membership of 300,000. According to Hurley, it was easy to confuse one meeting with another as Kerry was "flying all over the country from one college campus to another."
More than three decades later, the anti-Vietnam War movement remains split between "top-downers" and "bottom-uppers." Many VVAW members interpret Kerry's answers to Russert as a signal that he has moved away from his youthful ideals. But they are divided over whether this is a tactical concession or a deeper political betrayal.
"He doesn't have the same courage of his convictions he had back then," said Musgrave, referring to Kerry's appearance before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. "When he gave that speech, he spoke for all of us. He should either stand up for it, or explain why he no longer agrees with it. He is doing neither, as far as I can see."
"The John Kerry of 2004 is not the same as the John Kerry of 1971," said David Cline, a southern VVAW organizer. "I think he was more truthful in 1971. Having said that, I know who I want to be president. The sad reality of American politics is that any candidate has to go for the center."
Researcher Lucy Shackelford contributed to this report.