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Issue Date:  September 17, 2004

Why Richard Nixon wanted to destroy John Kerry


Attacks on John Kerry’s patriotism are not new. Thanks to President Nixon’s Oval Office tapes, we know that Charles Colson was secretly ordered in 1971 to “destroy” Kerry. The young Vietnam veteran’s testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, where the senators kept him for two hours, had recently electrified the country. It was Nixon’s worst nightmare: a decorated, articulate veteran turned antiwar activist.

“We found most [Vietnamese] didn’t know the difference between communism and democracy,” Kerry told the senators. “They only wanted to work in the rice paddies without helicopters strafing them and bombs with napalm burning their villages and tearing their country apart. ... They practiced the art of survival by siding with whichever military force was present ... be it Vietcong, North Vietnamese or American.”

Then Kerry asked the question that continues to reverberate: “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?”

Today, the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth and their Republican backers focus much of their fire on Kerry’s statement about atrocities, which was based on a report by 150 veterans several months before his Senate testimony. But in April 1971, President Nixon was focusing on the far wider impact of Kerry’s searing indictment of U.S. policy in Vietnam. Colson’s assignment: “Destroy the young demagogue before he becomes another Ralph Nader.”

Whatever Nader represented in the Nixon White House, why did a president supported by his “silent majority” feel so threatened? Nixon could read the polls. As of 1968, they showed a majority against the war -- and a bigger majority against the war protesters. The more radical forms of protest, carried into living rooms via TV, had politically neutered millions of Americans. They couldn’t bring themselves to express their anguish over the costs of Vietnam; to do so would be to get in bed with the flag burners.

The majority was silent but it wasn’t necessarily pro-war, so Nixon’s fear that support for his war policy could erode wasn’t unreasonable. Just as he later directed his underlings to raid the office of Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist -- an action that led to Watergate -- the president had Kerry placed under FBI surveillance. In both cases, the aim was to find ammunition to smear antiwar leaders.

Surveillance yielded nothing. Instead, the protest by Kerry and the Vietnam Veterans Against the War led to an unanticipated breakthrough. The “band of brothers” helped part of the silent majority find its voice. These were the troops Middle America had supported, expressing a sense of betrayal by their government. These were veterans and active-duty servicemen alike, including 80 members of the 101st Airborne, calling on Congress to end the war. Here were entirely new antiwar protesters.

Within weeks of the arrival in Washington of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War, many citizens in the majority, freed from their silence by the veterans’ example, began to act. They urged Congress to bring the troops home. Despite widespread protest, previous bills setting deadlines for withdrawal had languished in both houses. Now legislators moved. Senate support of a withdrawal deadline grew from 39 to 49. The more quiescent House saw a sharp increase from 99 to 158, still short of a majority.

Sen. Mike Mansfield then sponsored a nonbinding resolution for withdrawal within nine months. It passed, 61-38, but the House fell 43 votes short. In the end, although Nixon lost some support, he prolonged the U.S. presence in Vietnam.

Although they failed to generate majorities in Congress, Kerry and the veterans against the war resurrected the American concept of patriotism: They showed that citizens could love their country and still question their government. That made it much easier to challenge future policies in matters of war and peace.

It is ironic that a man who volunteered to fight in Vietnam, learned bitter truths there about the war and as an antiwar veteran empowered many of his fellow citizens, now faces orchestrated attacks on his motivation and courage.

Sanford Gottlieb worked in the peace movement from 1960-93. Now retired, he was executive director of SANE, the National Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy.

National Catholic Reporter, September 17, 2004

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