Kerry Not Key Target in ‘70s FBI Inquiry
Thousands of pages of documents released by the FBI detailing its surveillance of the protest group Vietnam Veterans Against the War during the early 1970s suggest that organization spokesman John F. Kerry was only an occasional target of the spying activity.
The FBI records also hint at the passion felt by the highly decorated Navy patrol boat skipper after he returned from Vietnam to take an active role in the national effort to halt the war. In a speech before 200 students at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas in the fall of 1971, Kerry displayed a forceful candor rarely seen today as he campaigns across the nation.
“My 10 years of political consciousness in America is very wrapped up in gravestones,” he said. “These are the gravestones of John and Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Medgar Evers, the Kent State students, the men of Attica and the other 53,000 brothers in Vietnam.”
According to a newspaper account of his speech that was included in the FBI report, Kerry said: “Somewhere, somehow, we lost track of where we are as a nation,” adding that “people must realize the disparity between the America of the speeches and the America of the streets.”
Kerry spokesman Michael Meehan said Thursday that Kerry, a U.S. senator from Massachusetts and presumptive Democratic nominee for president, has since matured as a thinker and leader.
“These are the words of a twentysomething young man, versus a 60-year-old statesman who has since become a prosecutor, worked in the courts and developed an advanced style of speaking during his time in the Senate,” Meehan said.
The 21,477 pages of FBI records were released Wednesday as a result of a Freedom of Information request from The Times and other news organizations.
The files reveal that the bureau began looking at Kerry early on during his involvement with the group in late 1970 and continued for at least a year. The largely redacted documents, however, contain only cursory information about Kerry and provide only a sketchy intelligence profile of him.
Kerry became the VVAW’s most widely recognized figure after he sought to make a case against the Vietnam War in testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in April 1971. His appearance was widely reported because of his stature as a veteran who had been awarded a Silver Star, a Bronze Star and three Purple Hearts. As a lieutenant, Kerry had commanded swift boats patrolling the sniper-filled Mekong Delta.
Later, Kerry even detoured from a honeymoon in France to meet with South and North Vietnamese delegates to the Paris peace talks.
Even as Kerry stepped forward to organize the VVAW’s climactic “Dewey Canyon III” march on Washington in 1971, the bureau’s files on the group contained little in the way of hard intelligence. The files are studded mostly with newspaper accounts of Kerry’s public appearances and internal VVAW rosters and pamphlets -- but offer little perspective on Kerry’s role within the organization.
The surveillance reports refer to an “eloquent” activist leader who presented a moderate face to the American public. The FBI’s monitoring of Kerry’s speeches and activities grew most intense in the summer of 1971, as he was beginning to pull away from the group.
One government source reported a speech Kerry gave June 14 at a YMCA in Philadelphia, in which he reportedly showed at least moral support for the North Vietnamese leadership, saying “Ho Chi Minh is the George Washington of Vietnam.”
Meehan dismissed the FBI report as “secondhand accounts from paid informants.”
“John Kerry never believed Ho Chi Minh was George Washington. He said the people of Vietnam said he was,” Meehan said.
The FBI reports show that Kerry resigned from the VVAW during the group’s four-day convention in Kansas City, Mo., in November 1971. Informants described a tense series of meetings in which Kerry argued with VVAW leader Al Hubbard, questioning whether Hubbard ever served in the U.S. armed forces.
FBI informants at the Kansas City meetings also refer to “extremely significant information indicating vastly more militant posture of the VVAW.” But the reports offer no specifics.
The FBI files paint an uneven portrait of Kerry. Some show him as a moderating influence within the VVAW, according to an April 12 memo from a Baltimore FBI agent.
The memo said that “according to Kerry, a VVAW leader, the United States Congress is prepared to listen to VVAW proposals, and provided the VVAW demonstration, April 18 through 23, 1971, remains nonviolent, the Congress may be influenced.”
In an April 29 memo from the FBI after the five-day rally, a field agent who quoted a “source who attended these activities” said the VVAW’s leadership was “overshadowed” during the protest “by a more popular and eloquent figure, John Kerry.” The agent went on to report that Kerry, during his April 22 Senate speech, was “glib, cool and displayed ... what the moderate elements wanted to reflect.”
Elsewhere, though, informants criticized Kerry as an “opportunist with political aspirations” that one source said had led to discontent in the VVAW.
The Kerry campaign released a portion of the senator’s personal FBI file, including a May 1972 memorandum in which the agency concluded its monitoring of Kerry, saying that “a review of the subject’s file reveals nothing whatsoever to link subject with any violent type activity.”