1971: John Kerry in Nevada

A future presidential candidate’s visits offered hints of things to come

This illustration appeared on the cover of the Oct. 6, 1971, Yell, the UNLV student publication.

This illustration appeared on the cover of the Oct. 6, 1971, Yell, the UNLV student publication.

Illustration By Craig Grisham

Each spring in the late 1960s and early ‘70s, there were major antiwar protests in Washington, D.C. In 1971, however, they were upstaged by Operation Dewey Canyon III, held the week before the protests. April 18-23 was a week of protests and lobbying against the Vietnam War by men who had actually fought it. (The name was a parody of the operational names given to two illegal invasions of Laos.) The week culminated with veterans returning their combat medals at the Capitol.

On April 22, a young veteran named John Kerry testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on behalf of Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW), and his appearance was one of the highlights of the week. After Dewey Canyon, Kerry spoke across the nation to raise money and organize chapters of VVAW. He was in Reno and Las Vegas in September, and last week those appearances came back into the news with disclosure in the Los Angeles Times of FBI surveillance reports on him in Nevada (RN&R, News, June 2).

When Kerry, now a U.S. senator and likely Democratic presidential nominee, came to the University of Nevada, he was on friendly ground. Elizabeth Gower Woodard, then a UNR student and now a Colorado teacher, says, “I remember the vets were very, very active on campus.” The veterans were a basic component of the antiwar movement on the campus. Nancyann Leeder, who covered UNR for the Nevada State Journal, says there was an interesting campus paradox—ROTC cadets who were generally supportive of the war, and Vietnam veterans who mostly opposed it.

Kerry spoke at UNR on Sept. 29, 1971, in what is now called the old gym at the corner of North Virginia Street and College Drive. Leeder says the crowd’s response was enthusiastic. “It was packed. People were excited, standing up and shouting and applauding.”

According to Leeder’s Journal story, Kerry told the crowd that “we have to somehow find the conscience of the United States.

“It is not just that the U.S. is in Vietnam, but that there are hundreds of Vietnams in the United States. We have somehow come to believe that we can rip at the fabric of another man’s life. If we can’t move on something as morally compelling as Vietnam, how can we on other things, such as low cost housing?”

Kerry criticized the gradualism of withdrawal from Vietnam by reading a letter that one soldier, Michael Street, wrote to the New York VVAW office applauding its antiwar stand. The letter apparently was found on his body when he was killed in Vietnam and delivered to VVAW. Kerry then asked, “How can we honor him in death for something he didn’t believe in, the whole country doesn’t believe in, something obscene called ‘winding down the war'?”

Leeder says she is not surprised to hear there were FBI operatives at the event.

“You know, we all thought that you could tell when people’s names and photos were being taken down by the shininess of the shoes of the agents. It was like the MX hearings in Nevada years later when these guys were around taking down names. Everybody kind of assumed that [there were agents at antiwar events], but everybody thought it was important to be there anyway.”

During a question period, an audience member commented on poor advance notice of Kerry’s appearance in the Reno newspapers, and Kerry responded, “Were they invited? There is no liberal press in Reno, is there?” That provoked a defensive editorial response in the Reno Evening Gazette—one of two forerunners to the Reno Gazette-Journal—which was reprinted in the student newspaper Sagebrush. (The Sagebrush reported that no community reporters were present for Kerry’s speech, which was not true.)

Kerry spoke at UNLV the next day. Jeanne Hall, then a reporter for the student newspaper, the Yell, and now a state utility analyst, reported in her story that Kerry told the crowd he was prepared to bolt the Democratic Party in 1972 if it nominated a hawk on Vietnam like Hubert Humphrey or Henry Jackson. The Las Vegas Review-Journal quoted him saying that in such a case, “I will personally call for a fourth party.” The Las Vegas Sun quoted his criticism of phasing out the war instead of ending it outright. He said it endangered the soldiers who remained as withdrawal proceeded.

“How do you tell a man there was a sense of honor in dying for a mistake? It’s an obscenity to talk about winding down the war. How do you wind down a war? How do you justify the kind of bombing necessary to do this? How can you assume a smaller group of American forces can do what thousands more Americans have failed to do? There is no prestige to be won, no honor to be won.”

Kerry also talked of the pain of returning veterans.

“Veterans grew up in the ‘pablum’ of democracy. They fought for this democracy, only to come back home and find they were not wanted, that we had no place for them.”

Shelley Berkley, then student body president and now a member of Congress from Nevada, introduced Kerry at UNLV. She says she does not remember any hostility at the event, which she attributes in part to his demeanor.

“What he was saying wasn’t hostile. He was a highly decorated veteran, very young, so he could relate to the people in the audience and was expressing a point of view that was shared by most of the people in the audience and most of the country by that time … I think it’s unfortunate during that particular time that the FBI was wasting one moment surveilling a good American that was expressing a point of view, which, to the best of my knowledge, both then and now, is what good Americans are supposed to do and are protected by our Constitution to do so.”

It’s not known whether the agents monitoring Kerry’s activities were local or whether the same ones dogged him from city to city. Gerald Nicosia, who forced release of the files on Kerry under the Freedom of Information Act and reported on them in the Los Angeles newspaper, told the RN&R they were not necessarily even official agents.

“The names are blacked out [in the files]. The FBI usually recruited local ‘sources'—paid informants—and where those weren’t available, they’d send out an actual ‘special agent.’ It obviously cost them more to pay the salary of an ‘SA'—as they were called—so they preferred informants, often college students who needed to make extra money. It helped if you were from a Republican family and had good conservative credentials.”

The next issue of the Sagebrush after Kerry’s visit announced the formation of a group at UNR associated with VVAW. And the weekend after his speech, the local VVAW cosponsored the first Peace Fair in Washoe Valley, an event held for many years.

A close-to-home reminder of what was at stake came too soon after Kerry’s Nevada visit. A few days later, on Oct. 13, Michael Darrah of Reno died in Vietnam in a helicopter crash.