John Kerry’s first steps onto the national political stage took place back in 1971, when as a returning Vietnam War hero, Kerry led fellow veterans to Washington to protest against the Vietnam War and testify to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee about the horrors of the war he had seen first hand. Now an NBC News examination of White House audio tapes shows that Kerry’s leadership drew the attention and the ire of President Richard Nixon.
Kerry was a leader of Vietnam Veterans Against the War and went to Washington for a week in April, 1971 to protest, lobby Congress, even to return hundreds of medals and service decorations — thrown into a heap on Capitol Hill. Though the president was gradually withdrawing American ground troops, the veterans said that wasn’t enough. They wanted the United States to pull out immediately.
The Nixon administration went to court to block the 1,200 veterans from camping out on the Mall during their protest, but Kerry and his group stayed put. The reaction from Nixon’s inner circle was real contempt for the veterans. In private conversations inside the White House, Nixon called them “horrible” and “bastards,” H.R. "Bob" Haldeman described the veterans as “ratty-looking,” and Henry Kissinger dismissed them as “inarticulate.”
But John Kerry was just the opposite — presentable, politically astute and very articulate. He appeared before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to testify against the war, critical of the President’s Vietnam policy. “Someone has to die,” Kerry told the committee, “so that President Nixon won’t be, and these are his words, ‘the first President to lose a war.’”
Kerry also questioned the administration’s strategy of gradual “Vietnamization” of the war — pulling out U.S. ground troops, and turning the war over to the South Vietnamese military. “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die in Vietnam?” Kerry demanded. “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?”
White House attention
Kerry's testimony reached a national audience, including, we now know from once-secret White House tapes, the president himself, who brought it up with his chief of staff Bob Haldeman. Here is an excerpt from a tape recorded on April 23, 1971, the day after Kerry’s Senate testimony:
Nixon: Apparently, this fellow, uh, that they put in the front row, is that what you say, the front [unintelligible] the real stars — Kerry.
Haldeman: Kerry. He is, he did a hell of a great job on the, uh --
Nixon: He was extremely effective.
And Haldeman concluded: “I think you’ll find Kerry running for political office.”
Kerry ended his week in Washington with a speech to a huge anti-war rally at the U.S. Capitol, again pointing the finger at the Nixon administration for its conduct of the war, and its reaction to the veterans’ protests. “This is a government that cares more about the legality of where men sleep than the legality of where we drop bombs and why men die,” Kerry declared.
The Nixon White House saw Kerry as a threat, and set out to discredit him and infiltrate his organization. The week after the protest rally, Nixon is heard discussing Kerry with White House aide Charles Colson:
Colson: This fellow Kerry that they had on last week --
Colson: -- hell, he turns out to be, uh, really quite a phony.
Nixon: Well, he is sort of a phony, isn't he?
Colson: Well, he stayed, when he was here --
Nixon: Stayed out in Georgetown, yeah. 
Colson: -- was out at the best restaurants every night and, uh --
Colson: -- you know, he's just, the complete opportunist.
Nixon: A racket, sure. 
Colson: We’ll keep hitting him, Mr. President.
Colson was Nixon’s point man against Kerry, and he found a weapon in another veteran: John O’Neill. He was a spokesman for Vietnam Veterans for a Just Peace, which backed Nixon administration policy in Vietnam, and in turn was supported by the White House.
Fresh out of the Navy like Kerry, O’Neill was angry at Kerry for saying U.S. servicemen in Vietnam routinely committed war crimes. The weekend before the Washington protests, Kerry made the accusations on NBC’s Meet the Press, saying, “I committed the same kind of atrocities as thousands of other soldiers have committed, in that I took part in shootings in free fire zones.” And, Kerry claimed, “I took part in search and destroy missions, in the burning of villages. All this is contrary to the laws of warfare.”
John O’Neill hit back at Kerry with administration-orchestrated press appearances of his own, including a news conference that June. O’Neill asked rhetorically, “Shall Mr. Kerry and his little group of one thousand or twelve thousand embittered men be allowed to represent their views as that of all veterans, because they can appear on every news program? I hope not, for the country’s sake.”
After the news conference, O’Neill met with Charles Colson at the White House, where the attack on Kerry was seen as a public relations coup. In a conversation with the president, Haldeman gave the credit to Charles Colson, and raved about John O’Neill:
Haldeman: -- crew cut, real sharp looking guy who is more articulate than Kerry. He’s not as eloquent; he isn’t the ham that Kerry is. But he’s more believable. 
Haldeman: This guy now, is gonna, he’s gonna move on Kerry.
The White House encouraged O’Neill to challenge Kerry to a debate. Kerry agreed and before the event, President Nixon called O’Neill into the Oval Office for a pep talk. “It’s a great service to the country,” declared the president.
Nixon: Give it to him, give it to him. And you can do it, because you have a pleasant manner, too, because you’ve got — and I think it’s a great service to the country. 
Nixon: You fellows have been out there. You’ve got to know, seeing the barbarians that we’re up against, you’ve got to know what we’re doing in that horrible swamp that North Vietnam is. You’ve got to know from all our faults of what we have in this country that, that what we’re doing is right. You’ve got to know too, people are critics. Critics of the war, critics of [unint], run America down.  You’ve gotta know that you’re on the winning s—that, that you’re on the right side.
Two weeks later, the veterans squared off on the popular Dick Cavett show:
O’Neill: Mr. Kerry is the type of person who lives and survives only on the war weariness and fears of the American people. This is the same little man who on nationwide television in April spoke of, quote, crimes committed on a day to day basis with the full awareness of officers at all levels of command.
Kerry: We believe as veterans who took part in this war we have nothing to gain by coming back here and talking about those things that have happened except to try and point the way to America, to try and say, here is where we went wrong, and we’ve got to change.
Later that year, even as the war continued, Kerry left the increasingly radical Vietnam Veterans Against the War. But the Nixon White House kept after John Kerry. It’s said that when Kerry ran for Congress in 1972, Nixon stayed up late on election night until he knew for sure that Kerry had been defeated.