It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so. -Mark Twain (1835-1910)
This was the title of a 2018 article written by Mary Beth Marklein (MBM) for Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning (Volume 50, 2018 – Issue 1, pp. 63-70). The online version was published on 22 May 2018. Since I have been following the development of Fulbright University Vietnam (FUV) since it was first announced, I read Mary Beth’s piece with great interest and, ultimately, disappointment. It read like a one-sided, US-centric puff piece that could easily have been written by the FUV public relations office or that of its benefactor, the US State Department. She took the time to speak to quite a few FUV people who, of course, confirmed her rosy view of this institution and whitewashed its recent controversial history. In other words, she committed a number of sins of omission.
Here are some comments from colleagues who know Viet Nam, all of which are spot-on, in my opinion.
She has drunk the establishment Kool-Aid. She thinks no one can truly do any wrong, I guess. She certainly skated lightly past a few important issues, such as how money was extracted from the Vietnamese for Fulbright U.
Like most Americans, she conflates two quite different concepts: “unbiased” and “pro-U.S.” Ironically, at most high-quality universities in the U.S. a large number of faculty see it as their mission to make their students aware of the powerful criticisms of the “neoliberal” world order, “globalization”, and U.S. policy. Even in the U.S., serious scholars (with some exceptions) are not mindless sycophants of U.S. imperialism. But FUV is much more U.S.-nationalistic than most universities in the U.S. So it’s worse than just “meddling” and imposing a U.S.-style institution on Vietnam — it’s imposing a lousy U.S.-style institution on Vietnam.
Below are some of my comments in red after the author’s paragraphs in blue.
If U.S. readers have heard about FUV, it is probably because of the cloud that hovered over it in 2016 when FUV announced that Bob Kerrey would be chair of the FUV’s board of trustees. A decorated war hero who went on to become the Governor of Nebraska, a U.S. Senator, and a university president, Kerrey’s reputation was forever stained in 2001 by a revelation that he had led an attack in 1969 that killed 13 Vietnamese women and children civilians, and then covered it up.
Where did MBM get the “13” figure – Kerrey’s memoir or the US military? The figure I have from various reliable sources is 21. That’s number that was used in the initial New York Times report from 2001 that broke the story. In fact, his Bronze Medal citation reads as follows: “The net result of his patrol was 21 Viet Cong killed, two hooches destroyed and two enemy weapons captured.”
MBM also stated that Kerrey and his unit killed only women and children, forgetting about the 65-year-old grandfather whom Kerrey held down as one of his men, Gerhard Klann, slit the man’s throat, according to Klann.
MBM referred to Bob Kerrey as a “decorated war hero” without mentioning the fact that one of his medals, the Bronze Medal, was awarded for the Thanh Phong war crimes.
MBM neglected to mention that rather important fact that Kerrey’s mission that fateful night in February 1969 was a Phoenix Program operation.
Kerrey has acknowledged and apologized, multiple times, for his actions; still, the FUV appointment prompted both demands for Kerrey’s resignation and a spirited defense of his appointment. Today, Kerrey’s name remains on the FUV website as a member of the board of trustees. FUV Trustee Ben Wilkinson disputes a report, published in May 2017, that Kerrey had quietly resigned (Ashwill, 2017). Nevertheless, Thuy has taken over the chair’s duties (Taft, 2018).
I’m afraid MBM is missing the forest for the trees. The point is Kerrey should never have never been offered that position and, having been offered it, should have refused. Of course, Ben Wilkinson (BW) disputed what I revealed in my May 2017 article. Always the loyal soldier, I refer to BW as the “quiet American,” a textbook example of someone who is interculturally competent (IC as a skill set) yet a US nationalist (nationalism as a mindset/ideology). His blood runs red, white, and blue. He was dead wrong in this case.
The debate over Kerrey is healthy and necessary, but it also distracts from the larger story of the making of Fulbright University Vietnam, a story that includes cautious baby steps and giant leaps of faith.
Regarding the “debate over Kerrey” – whose fault is it that? Two consecutive PR disasters: 1) Bob Kerrey’s appointment; and 2) Thomas Vallely’s interview with Isabelle Taft for Politico. He said that Kerrey shouldn’t be singled out for criticism because of the sheer ubiquity of violence against civilians in the Mekong Delta. In other words, so what if Kerrey and his Raiders murdered a couple dozen people in some village. It was a common occurrence. Besides, “There’s no one in Thạnh Phong going to FUV,” as he put it in a snide and hurtful as remark. (Check out my article from August 2018 for more information, if you dare.) FUV is its own worst enemy. Ted Osius, former US ambassador to Viet Nam, joined FUV as vice president and then resigns six months into the job. A little birdie told me that Vallely is on the way out. Gee, I wonder why?
Last but not least, another sin of omission is a major source of funding for FUV, namely, the balance of the Vietnam Education Foundation (VEF), a scholarship-for-debt program. That $20 million came indirectly from the Vietnamese government, a partner in this project in more ways than one.
Finally, what about the victims, both the living and the dead, of Kerey’s war crimes in Thanh Phong? What about the cruel and insensitive comments by Vallely in that Politico interview? What about the cynical and persistent use of education not only as a tool but as a weapon of soft power in trying to shape Viet Nam in the USA’s image, which is decidedly anti-Fulbright?
I could say more but I think this will suffice for a blog post.
Note: The author is a Ph.D. candidate at George Mason University, where her focus is on US higher education as public diplomacy. My hope is that she develops a more critical perspective on the issues she writes about and doesn’t continue to uncritically toe the line of US public diplomacy.
Shalom (שלום), MAA, The Unquiet US American