Kerry’s Lionizing Shift From Officer to Activist

Times Staff Writer

The week he became an American household name, John F. Kerry carried his credentials pinned to his shirt pocket.

For five days in late April 1971, Kerry wore his battle ribbons on old combat fatigues as he led 1,000 disillusioned Vietnam veterans massed in Washington for a protest against the war they fought.

“Mr. Kerry, please move your microphone,” Sen. Stuart Symington (D-Mo.) prodded the 27-year-old former Navy lieutenant during a climactic appearance before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “You have a Silver Star, have you not?”


Solemn, gangling, hunched over a witness table, Kerry obliged, showing the cloth bars that stood for his Silver Star, Bronze Star and three Purple Hearts. Kerry’s pained plea -- “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?” -- stiffened congressional opposition to the war and made him a peace movement icon for giving voice to veterans weary of death without victory.

The embittered grunts called themselves “Winter Soldiers,” conjuring up Thomas Paine’s vision of a Colonial army of patriots. They dubbed their protest “Dewey Canyon III,” a play on the Nixon administration’s code for secret incursions into Laos. They flashed their decorations everywhere they went that week. Then, in a bitter farewell that still shadows Kerry’s career, he and his peace platoons tossed away honors.

Antiwar Turning Point

A signal moment in the slow fade of American support for the war, the 1971 protest by the Vietnam Veterans Against the War was Kerry’s entry point into public life. No other presidential aspirant of his generation won such early prominence or endured such microscopic scrutiny.

“I did what I thought was the right thing to save the lives of American soldiers,” Kerry said in a recent interview. “It wasn’t easy. I mean, I knew people would be critical, that there would be people who wouldn’t like it.”

Kerry’s two-year transformation -- from disaffected patrol boat skipper home from Vietnam to an antiwar leader coming into his own at the Washington protest -- sheds insight into the nuances of his character. His determined entry into the upper echelon of the peace movement was a daring high-wire act for a Yale graduate with no constituency beyond his own conscience and ambition.

Poised beyond his years, Kerry spoke out with wounded eloquence as the nation roiled over widening war and mounting American deaths. He faced risks in coming forward, singled out as a threat by no less than President Nixon and targeted by government and military spies in a covert surveillance campaign still coming to light today.

“The powers that be wanted to know what these guys were up to,” recalled John J. O’Connor, a D.C. policeman assigned to infiltrate the VVAW leadership. “They had their hotheads. Not Kerry. He was cool as 12-year-old Scotch.”

Kerry pressed his antiwar troops to work within the system, a moderate course he says is a lifelong inclination. But critics and admirers say his centrism reflected a striver’s calculation. Fellow protesters mocked his prudence and pressed khakis. Even then, they say, Kerry kept one eye cocked on his future, hedging his bets in careful maneuvering that became the hallmark of his political rise.

On the campaign trail, Kerry plays up his exploits as a patrol boat skipper to show his resolve. Yet he revisits his antiwar days warily, aware his old words and actions remain poisoned symbols. Vietnam veterans still rage over Kerry’s Senate speech, reviling him for his incendiary antiwar criticism and for citing unproven atrocities allegedly committed by U.S. troops.

“Going up to testify without confirmation was a slander on the Vietnam veteran,” said W. Hays Parks, a former Marine colonel who served as an infantry officer and military prosecutor in Vietnam.

Even as Dewey Canyon III ended with an admiring burst of media coverage, Kerry’s success was fissured with doubts. Fearing public recriminations, he urged the antiwar veterans to return their decorations in a muted ceremony. But they ignored him, instead flinging their honors away in an angry symbolic rejection of the war.

Massing in parade formation, 700 veterans wept, cheered and swore as they lobbed their decorations like grenades. When Kerry’s turn came, he muttered sorrowfully into a brace of microphones, then lofted his own ribbons.

“I knew I was going to throw them back, but I didn’t know how,” Kerry recalls. After the crowd dispersed, Kerry says, he discreetly tossed away two medals given to him by veterans who could not attend the event. The flinched denouement fed suspicions that Kerry had pretended the medals were his own -- even as the renounced honors lay unclaimed for years, hidden away in a police storeroom.

Dewey Canyon III ended for Kerry as catharsis, “like throwing the war over the fence.” But his path to antiwar activism remains an exposed fault line for his generation, a progression Kerry has always insisted was seamless and unavoidable.

“I had to speak out,” he says. “I was compelled.”

Kerry had it relatively easy when he came home from the war in April 1969. He was an admiral’s aide in Brooklyn and had an apartment with his fiancee on Manhattan’s elegant upper East Side.

But Vietnam still gouged his world, erasing old friends. Two weeks after his return, Kerry learned of the ambush death of Don Droz, a fellow patrol boat commander who shared his doubts about the war. Droz’s death left him numb.

“That’s when I decided I really needed to kick into gear,” Kerry recalls.

He vented on paper, intent on composing “a letter to America.” At a Greenwich Village pub, Kerry raised the idea with columnist Pete Hamill, a friend of his sister’s. The letter sat unsent. “He felt he had something to give. It’s the sort of noblesse oblige that doesn’t resonate too much these days,” said close friend George Butler.

Kerry found an outlet piloting Adam Walinsky, a former speechwriter for Robert F. Kennedy, to upstate New York colleges for a lecture series against the war. Aloft in a bucking prop plane, the two men talked about Vietnam, politics and the Kennedys. For Kerry, the talk “crystallized in me that this was something we all needed to do.”

By January 1970, Kerry had left the Navy to run as an antiwar congressional candidate in Boston. Outflanked by the sudden entry of peace activist the Rev. Robert Drinan, Kerry pulled out, canny enough to know his aspirations for office needed a base.

The war kept drawing him back. Newly married and on honeymoon in France, Kerry detoured from his vacation to meet with South and North Vietnamese delegates to the Paris peace talks. How a 26-year-old private citizen without a political track record connected with the negotiators is unclear.

Through an aide, Kerry said he does not recall the details of the session -- though he told the Senate in 1971 that negotiators for the communist North assured him that if the U.S. “set a date for withdrawal” from Vietnam, its “prisoners of war would be returned.”

A Veteran Voice

Speaking out against the war at college campuses and fundraisers, Kerry found his voice as an activist. His reputation reached leaders of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War, a group of dissident ex-GIs in New York. “He was just what we needed, the kind of guy who could stand in a room of angry vets and convince them to do something,” said Jan Barry, who founded the group in 1967.

Kerry found his chance in late January 1971. As VVAW members massed in a Detroit motel, Kerry asked to organize a march on Washington. By lobbying Congress and marching in front of cameras, Kerry felt, veterans might turn the tide against the war.

His reception was stormy. Many VVAW leaders, working-class grunts from the heartland, teed off on Kerry, suspicious of his officer’s rank and patrician aloofness. Radicals resented his blunt push for leadership. They finally gave their assent, but added a symbolic tweak of guerrilla theater -- a mass return of their combat honors.

“We used each other,” explains Jack Mallory, a former Army captain from Virginia. “He was our front man. We were his stepping-stone to publicity.”

The veterans also were there to amass proof of U.S. war crimes in Vietnam. The “Winter Soldier” hearings were sparked by the 1968 My Lai massacre of 347 Vietnamese civilians.

Prodded by Kerry and other moderators, more than 150 vets filed into the dimly lighted motel hall, spilling horror tales. Bill Crandell, an Ohio infantry officer who led the hearings, described civilians gunned down in “free fire zones” -- combat areas where soldiers killed at will. Former Marine Scott Camil detailed a torrent of murders and disembowelings -- a grisly account he later gave under oath to the Navy.

Government’s Scrutiny

Media interest was fitful. But hidden among observers were undercover military agents. In 1973, Army investigators detailed the clandestine intelligence operation to Hays Parks, who taught war crimes law at the Army’s Judge Advocate General’s School.

The Army’s Criminal Investigation Division agents told Parks they confirmed some atrocity allegations, but also found that several VVAW members were impostors. The Army never released its findings, Parks said, but “there were enough questions to put the hearings in doubt.”

Unaware of the discrepancies, Kerry cited the “Winter Soldier” findings as fact to the Senate in 1971, comparing the alleged U.S. atrocities with the “ravage” of Mongol conqueror Genghis Khan.

Kerry’s testimony infuriated military lawyers, chief among them William Eckhardt, an Army colonel coordinating the My Lai prosecutions. Eckhardt, now a University of Missouri law professor, says Kerry’s reliance on unproven “show trial” allegations “besmirched those of us who did it right.”

Kerry concedes he “wouldn’t be surprised” if some “Winter Soldier” accounts were phony. But he stands by the bulk of the claims. “Free-fire zones, women getting blown away, children getting blown away, ears being cut off, rapes -- people know this,” Kerry said. “These are a matter of record in our history.”

After Detroit, Kerry plunged into protest logistics. He hit the antiwar fundraising circuit, toting chocolate milk and entertaining VVAW members with broken-French imitations of Inspector Clouseau from “Pink Panther” films. In Washington, he laid plans with dissident congressmen and negotiated with federal officials for rally permits.

At battle stations after two years of war protests, Nixon and his aides were uncertain how to respond to angry soldiers. “Kerry was considered a threat,” said John Dean, White House counsel until he turned against Nixon during Watergate.

Nixon wanted the protest scuttled until Dean and speechwriter Patrick Buchanan warned that police violence against the veterans could backfire. Nixon relented, but pressed Charles Colson, his acerbic Special Counselor, for dirt on Kerry and other VVAW leaders. In an undated memo, “Plan to Counteract Vietnam Veterans,” Colson demanded their records scoured.

The FBI was already compiling dossiers. An FBI memo dated Feb. 22, 1971, later obtained by Camil, cited intelligence gathering on “Winter Soldier” participants from New York to Florida. And an FBI memo dated Jan. 25, 1971, found by Gerald Nicosia, a historian of the VVAW movement, reveals the bureau was sharing copies of surveillance reports with Army, Navy and Air Force intelligence before the Detroit meeting.

Kerry was under scrutiny even earlier. His name was forwarded to FBI headquarters in September 1970, Nicosia said. The FBI kept watch until August 1972, when the bureau concluded Kerry had no ties to “any violent-prone group” and closed his file.

Complaining recently that FBI spying was “an offense to the Constitution,” Kerry grimaced when he learned he was also monitored by Washington, D.C. police. O’Connor, the undercover agent who fit in so well with VVAW members that he rose to office manager, told his superiors that Kerry “was one of the top guys, a little elitist, but knows what he’s doing.”

Chartered buses filled with VVAW protesters rumbled toward Washington on Sunday, April 18, 1971. Massing in ragged ranks, more than 1,000 Vietnam veterans filed out the next morning to march across the Lincoln Memorial Bridge toward Arlington National Cemetery.

Fresh from an appearance on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Kerry stood out among the rumpled, bearded veterans, marked by his shaggy hair and neatly pressed fatigues. At the cemetery, officials barred the gate. As the troops turned back, sullenly waving toy guns, someone raised a U.S. flag inverted in the “distress” position.

They pitched camp on the National Mall near the Capitol. Grimy from the bus trip, veterans grabbed showers at the YMCA and slept in bedrolls. Some grumbled that Kerry was not around at night. Settled in at the Georgetown townhouse of Butler’s mother-in-law, he told doubters he needed a place to field phone calls from congressmen and lawyers.

It was there that Kerry heard from an aide to Arkansas Sen. J. William Fulbright. Impressed by a talk he heard Kerry give at a cocktail party, Fulbright wanted him to appear before the Foreign Relations Committee.

‘Letter to America’

After a long day butting heads with VVAW radicals, Kerry bent over his old “letter to America.” Refined over months of fundraisers, it needed final touches. He phoned Walinsky for Kennedyesque pointers, then “sat up all night in the most uncomfortable chair in the house,” recalled Butler. When dawn broke, Kerry was still scribbling away in longhand.

Hurrying to the hearing room on the morning of April 22, Kerry passed scores of veterans pressing from the back of the hall and peeping from doorways. He launched into a grim catalog of the “winter soldier” atrocities, describing a deathscape of decapitations, torture and razed villages.

The U.S. had “created a monster,” Kerry warned -- soldiers “given the chance to die for the biggest nothing in history.” He told of their anger, sense of betrayal and their hope that the nation might look back on Vietnam as a turning point “where soldiers like us helped it in the turning.”

“He had the guts to say wrong is wrong,” said Chris Gregory, a former Army medic who watched, mesmerized, wedged against a far wall. “It was brave. There was a price to be paid for talking like that.”

Kerry is still paying. For three decades, Vietnam veterans who supported the war have recoiled at his words. Robert Turner, an Army officer interrogating Vietcong defectors at the time in the war zone, recalls pulsing with rage as he read accounts of the speech. “He made us all look like monsters,” Turner says.

Kerry admits he “can wince sometimes” at “the language of an angry young man.” But he stands by his indictment of the war policy and its architects: “It was honest at the time and it’s honest today.” Conceding he is “sensitive” to the fury his old words evoke, Kerry says he tried even then to “distinguish the war from the warrior.”

But that day, Kerry left the Senate chamber an instant celebrity. Film clips played on the nightly news. They were impressed, too, at the White House. An Oval Office tape machine caught Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman admitting that Kerry “did a hell of a great job.” Nixon seconded: “He was extremely effective.”

But Kerry still faced trouble over how to handle the protest’s parting gesture. Nervous about how the nation might perceive a mass turn-in of decorations, he urged VVAW leaders to lay their honors down with dignity on a table shrouded in white cloth. He was outvoted. The vets chose to heave their medals in protest, then turning them over to the sergeant-at-arms at the Capitol.

Kerry’s objections left VVAW officers convinced “he was out,” said Jack Smith, a former Marine who ran the event. At the White House, Colson dashed off a memo to Haldeman: “John Kerry is not participating -- would be a total loss of all he has accomplished this week.”

He was swaying “between patriotism and protest,” recalls Kerry’s brother-in-law, David Thorne. But when protesters mustered for their last day of protest on the morning of April 23 -- 33 years ago today -- Kerry was still with them.

Overnight, police had erected a high wire fence around the Capitol, preventing the veterans from turning in their combat honors. Enraged, they decided to leave them behind.

For nearly two hours, the antiwar troops heaved medals, ribbons, berets, dog tags, and snapshots of dead comrades at a sign marked, “Trash.” Maimed vets threw their canes. One discarded an artificial leg. Some let loose with the medals of veterans who could not attend. And several now admit tossing medals offered by strangers.

As former Marine aviator Rusty Sachs prepared to throw his own decorations, someone handed him a Silver Star and a Distinguished Flying Cross. “What do I do with these things?” he recalls wondering. He thought of dead comrades, then pitched the medals away after a tear-strewn speech that many VVAW members describe as the event’s emotional highlight.

At the end of the long line, Kerry unfastened the ribbons he wore for a week. Nearing “dozens of cameras, countless people watching,” Kerry “took out the ribbon plate, pulled them off, said something -- I do this sadly, or I do this with regret -- and threw them over the fence.”

He waited until “after everybody and all the cameras dispersed.” Then, he took out two medals from his fatigue pocket and “threw the other things away.” Emotionally spent, weeping, he embraced his wife.

“He looked fractured,” recalls Chris Gregory.

The medals Kerry threw were not his own. One, he says, was offered from a patient in a Brooklyn VA hospital. The other was a Bronze Star handed over by a World War II veteran at a Massachusetts fundraiser -- an incident also recalled by Gregory. Kerry never asked their names.

Myths of the Medals

Kerry says he never claimed to have thrown the medals as his own. But as his reputation grew as a shrewd political operator after his 1984 senate election, Kerry was dogged by a troubling political myth.

He was accused of discarding his ribbons and the medals of others in 1971 to appear as an antiwar hero, while keeping his own medals for use as political props years later -- a charge echoing this election year.

“It’s so damn hypocritical to get these awards, throw them in the dirt and then suddenly value them again,” said B.G. Burkett, a Vietnam veteran and author who critiques Kerry’s antiwar stance.

“I never ever implied that I did it,” Kerry says wearily, adding: “You know what? Medals and ribbons, there’s almost no difference in distinction, fundamentally. They’re symbols of the same thing. They are what they are.”

The war honors abandoned by the “Winter Soldiers” sat for years in boxes shelved in the Capitol Police Department’s property room. The honors lay ignored for two decades, long after Kerry’s exit from the VVAW in late 1971 and his immersion into politics.

They remained hidden as the years passed, unclaimed by the protesters who bitterly flung them away, forgotten, too, by the war supporters who cherish them as symbols of valor.

Finally, police ran out of space. “Last thing I wanted to do was throw them away again,” said former Deputy Chief James Trollinger. But when aides approached him “sometime in the early 1990s,” asking for permission to remove the decorations, Trollinger reluctantly agreed.

Three boxes bulging with medals and ribbons were hauled away to a local forge, destined to be melted down as scrap.

Times Researcher John Beckham contributed to this report.



From military officer to antiwar activist

1966-1969: John F. Kerry enlists in the Navy in 1966, undergoes officer training and volunteers for duty in Vietnam. He serves there from November 1968 to April 1969, including 4 1/2 months as a swift-boat commander in the rivers of the Mekong Delta. After being wounded for third time, he is sent stateside.

April 11, 1969: Returning from the Vietnam War, Lt. j.g. Kerry is assigned as an admiral’s aide in Brooklyn.

Jan. 3, 1970: Kerry takes an honorable discharge from the Navy to run as a Democrat for a Massachusetts congressional seat, then withdraws from the race in February after the entry of the eventual winner, the Rev. Robert Drinan.

May 1970: On his honeymoon in France after marriage to Julia Thorne, Kerry meets as a private citizen with South and North Vietnamese delegates to the Paris Peace Talks.

September 1970: Kerry’s name is forwarded to FBI headquarters after speaking to Vietnam Veterans Against the War rally near Philadelphia. Agents covertly monitor Kerry’s activities until August 1972.

Jan. 31, 1971: Kerry attends VVAW’s “Winter Solider” meeting in Detroit, winning approval to organize an antiwar rally in Washington and participating as a moderator in hearings that raise claims of widespread American war crimes in Vietnam.

April 18, 1971: Kerry arrives in Washington to lead VVAW members in the “Dewey Canyon III” antiwar demonstration.

April 22, 1971: Kerry testifies before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, criticizing the Nixon administration’s war policy and citing “Winter Soldier” war crimes claims.

April 23, 1971: As 700 VVAW protesters angrily throw away their war honors to condemn the war, Kerry joins in by discarding his combat ribbons and the medals given to him by others, but retains his Silver Star, Bronze Star and other medals awarded for Vietnam service.

Source: Times research

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