EDITOR’S NOTE: This article appears in the May 3, 2004, issue of National Review.
More than 30 years after he returned to voluntary, and happy, obscurity as a Houston lawyer, 58-year-old John O’Neill is making a prime-time comeback. Who’s John O’Neill? He was the Vietnam veteran–a former commander of a Patrol Craft Fast, better known as the Swift boat–who famously debated one John Kerry, a fellow Swift skipper, for 90 minutes on The Dick Cavett Show back in 1971. C-SPAN excavated this particular television gem a couple of weeks ago and re-broadcast it.
In 1971, Kerry was leveraging his military experience for political gain (old habits die hard, eh?) and had recently testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee about the American soldiers who, he believed, habitually committed war crimes. A few months earlier, Kerry had been involved in the “Winter Soldier Investigation,” which proved to be less a serious inquiry into American actions than a rigged indictment of AmeriKKKa. It was later shown that many of the “eyewitness” participants, as well as many of Kerry’s colleagues in Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW), were frauds who had never been near a battlefield, let alone seen these crimes happen. Undaunted, Kerry claimed in his Senate testimony that these were “not isolated incidents but crimes committed on a day-to-day basis with the full awareness of officers at all levels of command.” In other words, these alleged horrors were endemic to, and an officially sanctioned corollary of, the U.S. war effort in Vietnam.
Kerry, as we know, went on to great things, and perhaps may ascend to still greater ones, but what ever happened to John O’Neill? His biography, perhaps owing to its very ordinariness, is far more interesting than Kerry’s flashier story of riches-to-riches. It is O’Neill, not Kerry, who embodies how countless regular Americans experienced, survived, and remembered Vietnam. His is a world away from the cynicism and the insanity, the cruelty and the self-hatred represented by the Winter Soldier Investigation and transmitted into the popular consciousness by such movies as Apocalypse Now and Platoon.
The first thing you need to know about John O’Neill is that the O’Neills were sea dogs through and through. Even today, there are some 90 first cousins living in and around Annapolis–home of the Naval Academy–many of them serving in America’s fleets. O’Neill’s grandfather taught at the Naval Academy; his father graduated in the early ’30s, flew fighters, fought at Iwo Jima, and retired an admiral; O’Neill himself, who grew up in landlocked San Antonio, Texas, was in the Naval Academy Class of 1967 (two brothers also graduated, ‘57 and ‘59). An uncle, a fighter pilot, was killed at Pearl Harbor; another, also a naval pilot, in Korea. Several of O’Neill’s nephews fought in the first Gulf War in the Marine Corps, and his brother-in-law commanded the Coast Guard, Atlantic Area. Nelson and Nimitz would have been proud of the O’Neills.
Young Ensign O’Neill chose to serve aboard a minesweeper, the Woodpecker. His fellow classmates had a good laugh. A minesweeper? Not exactly the most glamorous gig in the Navy, and an especially odd choice for a man whose class standing was so high he could have breezed into pretty much any posting he desired. But O’Neill’s motive was nothing to laugh about: Mindful of the “family tradition of service,” he says it was “important to me not to sit out the war”–and he supposed that he had a better chance of seeing action on one of the smaller boats than he would have cooling his heels aboard an aircraft carrier.
After a year on the Woodpecker, O’Neill transferred to the Swift boats in the spring of 1969, serving on them until the summer of 1970. His boat was fired on many times as it patrolled the Cambodian border, as well as the Uminh and Namcan forests in southern Vietnam. In the Swifts, says O’Neill, the average length of service was twelve months; John Kerry was in for four.
After a little over two years’ duty, O’Neill himself departed Vietnam with two Bronze Stars (with “V”s for valor in combat) pinned to his chest. There were apparently several more decorations, but when I asked about them, his modesty triumphed over my curiosity. He also came home with a badly damaged knee and leg, which earned him some time in a military hospital. And it was there that John O’Neill started learning about the Senate testimony of someone named John Kerry. Distressed and angered by the future senator’s allegations, none of which squared with his own experiences, O’Neill vainly wrote to the Foreign Relations Committee asking for a chance to testify himself.
Then he read an op-ed in the New York Times by Bruce Kessler, a former Marine and a leader of the new group, Vietnam Veterans for a Just Peace, which disparaged the Kerry allegations. O’Neill wrote to Kessler, who got him involved in a Washington press conference. “We were convinced,” says O’Neill, that “Kerry’s charges were false.” 60 Minutes and NBC both offered time for a debate–Kerry vs. O’Neill–but the former repeatedly balked. And then, miraculously, Kerry accepted an invitation from Dick Cavett to go head-to-head with O’Neill.
By this time, O’Neill had been star-spotted by President Nixon, and he met the president at the White House. (The sunny atmosphere turned a little frostier when O’Neill confided that he’d voted for Hubert Humphrey in ‘68: “The people all around me were shocked” when he told Nixon he was a Democrat.) He was also introduced to several Democratic congressmen and senators who didn’t like Kerry’s slanderous grandstanding.
As for the Cavett Show appearance, that was an invitation arranged by the television host himself, and had nothing to do with the White House; O’Neill even had to pay his own travel and hotel expenses. He wore “the only suit I had”–a not overly fashionable blue serge number unfortunately teamed with white socks. It mattered not. What mattered, says O’Neill, was that “I felt very passionate about the issue of war crimes. I had served in Vietnam with all those kids . . . and they reflected the people in the country as a whole. And the way [Kerry and his friends] falsely used war-crime charges involved a degree of political cynicism beyond my comprehension. I was outraged. I thought honestly about my friends who had died out there. And the unit we were in–Kerry and I–had suffered substantial casualties because of the restraints we placed on ourselves.” O’Neill says that “Kerry, of course, knows this.”
The debate was a success. “I always thought Kerry wouldn’t be able to document evidence of war crimes,” and so it was. His claim that these crimes were not isolated incidents but ordered by officers was nothing but a “barefaced lie.” “Of course,” O’Neill, with good humor, adds, “he was there for such a short time, he might not have known what was happening.”
Well, the offers to do more TV appearances came rolling in, but O’Neill decided to pack his blue serge suit and go home. He went to the University of Texas Law School, and graduated first in a class of 554 with the third highest score in its history. In 1974, he clerked for U.S. Supreme Court justice William Rehnquist before returning to Texas to practice law. Specializing in large-scale commercial litigation–though he has often represented poor clients for free–he’s been there ever since, founding along the way his own 35-lawyer firm (Clements O’Neill, for those of you with large-scale commercial-litigation needs).
He hasn’t been politically involved since those heady days of the ’70s. From 1972 onward, whenever people ran against Kerry, they asked O’Neill to spill some more beans, but he always declined–”because I believed in forgetting the thing.” But I myself wondered, what suddenly prompted O’Neill to break his silence after all these years and talk to National Review? As he recuperated in an intensive-care unit after donating a kidney to his wife, Anne (now well on her way to recovery), a television story about Kerry leading the pack galvanized O’Neill. “It was déjà vu all over again; there was a Lord of the Rings quality to it, because here was the guy I had debated on the Cavett Show reappearing as the presidential candidate.”
What O’Neill found particularly unsettling was that here was “a guy who believed everything we did in Vietnam was a crime” but who was now “campaigning on his record and claiming to be a war hero.” In short, “the only reason I’m getting involved now is because he’s running for commander-in-chief of the United States.”
So there it is: a regular American–O’Neill, father of two, likes hiking, playing golf, and taking an active part in his church–not content anymore to allow Kerry and his kind to keep hijacking the Vietnam War.