Below is the English translation of a statement by Mdm. Tôn Nữ Thị Ninh, whom I like, respect, and admire, about the appointment of Bob Kerrey, former Nebraska governor, US senator, New School president, and self-confessed war criminal, as chairman of the Fulbright University Vietnam (FUV) board of trustees. Mdm. Ninh, Vietnam’s former ambassador to the European Union and Vice Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee for the National Assembly, focusing on North America and Western Europe, was quoted in this 2 June 2016 New York Times article.
While attending a conference last week, I was asked by a Vietnamese media outlet to share my reaction to Kerrey’s appointment. The quote below is what I had time for.
As a student in Paris, I actively participated in demonstrations against the Vietnam War in the nineteen sixties and seventies. My Master’s thesis was about the American writer William Faulkner. For almost 30 years in the foreign service, I built relationships of mutual understanding and sincere friendship with a large number of Americans from all walks of life, for example, diplomats like Ambassador Pete Peterson; leaders of humanitarian groups that made direct contributions to the antiwar movement such as John McAuliff and Sally Benson; business leaders like Ernie Bower; veterans like Bobby Muller and Tom Vallely (who was first to bring the Fulbright program to Viet Nam); journalists like Murray Hiebert; and academics and researchers such as Walter Isaacson, to name a few. I am not haunted by or living in the past. I am neither an America “hater” nor do I feel an innate hostility to Americans. Like most people in Viet Nam, I am more than willing to put the past behind and look to the future together with the American people for our mutual benefit. Education is among Viet Nam’s top strategic interests. I fully support the foundation of Fulbright University (FUV) in Viet Nam, and I was happy to attend its license granting ceremony on May 25 in Ho Chi Minh City. Like everyone else, I sincerely hope FUV will be a significant actor in the building of a healthy, high quality institution of higher education in Viet Nam, a center for genuine learning in pursuit of excellence, contributing to the country’s global integration.
That’s why I was stunned to learn that former Senator Bob Kerrey was appointed Chair of the FUV Board of Trustees. That decision makes no sense to me. Why Bob Kerrey?
- Mr. Kerrey directly participated in the massacre of innocent civilians, women, children and the elderly in the village of Thanh Phong on May 2, 1969. This is indisputable and has been acknowledged by Mr. Kerrey. We cannot obliterate such facts by invoking the need to look to the future.
- On each side the issue may trigger different reactions. Though it might be seen differently depending on where one stands, one thing is certain: Bob Kerrey is not an appropriate choice, to put it mildly, to be Chair of the Board of Trustees of Fulbright University.
- Mr. Kerrey said he expressed remorse over his role in the Thanh Phong massacre. This may be so. What I know, however, is that a leadership position at a university with the status and ambitions of FUV cannot be viewed as giving him an “opportunity” to atone for past wrongdoings. That opportunity can take many other forms rather than such a high profile position already inviting controversies. I know of many US veterans not directly involved in wartime atrocities who are living in Viet Nam and working alongside the Vietnamese to confront war legacies, like Chuck Searcy with the unexploded ordnance removal project in Quang Tri; or Billy Kelly, the former Infantry Captain who comes back to My Lai every March 16th to seek forgiveness of the victims, though he himself had nothing to do with the tragedy.
- Mr. Kerrey believes that holding a leadership position at FUV will contribute to promoting cooperation between the two sides. However, in his recent response to
the Financial Times (UK), Mr. Kerrey said he was ready to step down if his participation in FUV is detrimental to the project. I think that Mr. Kerrey should demonstrate his readiness and act as he proposed without further ado. Such a timely gesture would show self-respect and grace and would be duly appreciated by the Vietnamese. I am convinced that many of Mr. Kerrey’s fellow Americans would agree.
- I am well aware that a number of people directly related to the project have publicly affirmed that Bob Kerrey is the “perfect fit” for this leadership position. Really? Is there indeed no one else in the United States but Bob Kerrey who is capable to raise funds for FUV? If the project team had carried out an open selection of the chair position, with more than one candidate, I have no doubt that somebody with the appropriate expertise and experience but no similar baggage would have been identified. There will be an indelible mark on the foundation of a prestigious institution such as Fulbright University if Mr. Kerrey is the founding board chair of the University. American friends with whom I have discussed the matter fully concur with this opinion.
- If the US side insists on holding to its decision, then, in my view, FUV can no longer be considered a joint education project as averred by the founding team. A happy marriage is one where both parties listen to each other, have consideration for one another’s opinions and respect each other’s emotions. Otherwise, Fulbright University will be an American university project in Viet Nam conceived and decided upon by Americans, in which the opinions and contributions of the Vietnamese are secondary.
In other words, the decision to appoint Bob Kerrey as FUV Chair of the Board of Trustees shows insensitivity to the feelings of the Vietnamese and, may I say, disregard for our opinions, our sense of self-respect and our dignity.
It is my firm belief that a reversal of that decision in no way affects the ongoing positive bilateral relations between our two countries. On the contrary, it will allow for an equitable, healthy and sustainable Viet Nam-US cooperation in this meaningful university project.
Tôn Nữ Thị Ninh
Ho Chi Minh City, June 1, 2016