Below is an excerpt from my latest CounterPunch article about Bob Kerrey and Fulbright University Vietnam. Think of it as the 2017 bookend to my 2016 CP article, Bob Kerrey and Fulbright University – What were they thinking?, published a month after the controversy erupted. Follow this link to read it in its entirety.
“One simply cannot engage in barbarous action without becoming a barbarian… one cannot defend human values by calculated and unprovoked violence without doing mortal damage to the values one is trying to defend.”
– J William Fulbright, The Arrogance of Power
More than 48 years after mortal damage was inflicted with a vengeance on both human beings and human values in a quiet village in Bến Tre province in the Mekong Delta, justice, fairness, and common decency won a minor victory when Bob Kerrey, former Nebraska governor, U.S. senator, New School president, decorated veteran, and self-confessed war criminal, quietly resigned from his high-profile position as chairman of the Fulbright University Vietnam (FUV) board of trustees, according to reliable sources.
Kerrey, whose appointment was announced one year ago at the iconic Rex Hotel in Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) by then Secretary of State, John Kerry during President Barack Obama’s visit to Viet Nam, has stepped down behind closed doors. He was reportedly replaced by Đàm Bích Thủy, a prominent Vietnamese businesswoman who is the current FUV president.
It was Bob Kerrey himself who said in an interview last June, as all rhetorical hell was breaking loose, that he would not step down. This about-face came after first saying, in response to questions emailed to him by a New York Times reporter, that he would resign if he felt his role was jeopardizing the U.S.-Vietnamese joint education venture. I’m not a diplomat and therefore have no need to play the quiet game. Bob Kerrey was appointed with much fanfare and some fanfare should accompany his surrender.
Never Say Never
Never say never and never forget this timeless wisdom from Proverbs 16:18: “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.” It was Kerrey’s arrogance that made him dig in his heels and delay the inevitable. It was a firestorm of controversy and, most importantly, steely and steadfast official Vietnamese opposition, that forced him to do the right thing. It wasn’t only about Bob Kerrey. Jeopardize FUV he did, at the end of the day, as some predicted.
Kerrey’s long overdue resignation is a cause for celebration and a sense of vindication for many. It is, however, a bitter disappointment for his supporters, both Vietnamese and U.S., who probably still cluelessly wonder why a man who led a U.S. Navy SEALS unit that murdered 21 men, women, and children in the village of Thạnh Phong in February 1969 would not be considered morally fit to assume such a leadership position.
Keep in mind that this is a man who has the dishonor and disgrace of having his very own war crimes exhibit in the War Remnants Museum in HCMC, one of many such incidents in the bloodbath and industrial-scale slaughter that was the American War in Viet Nam.
Below is a letter that was sent to Bob Kerrey about his controversial appointment as chairman of the Fulbright University Viet Nam board of trustees, announced by John Kerry during President Obama’s May 2016 visit to Viet Nam. In case you’re interested and are not up-to-date on this situation, here are some articles that have appeared since:
I will continue adding names and sending updated versions to Bob Kerrey. The names in red are the original signatories.
7 September 2016
Dear Mr. Kerrey,
We are writing with the heartfelt and urgent request that you resign from your position as chairman of the Fulbright University Viet Nam (FUV) board of trustees.
It is our firm belief that you should never have been offered this appointment and, having been offered it, should have declined the offer. We strongly believe that there are other more appropriate roles for you to play in support of FUV, and that there are better qualified people without your historical baggage.
Mark Bowyer, an expat in Viet Nam, expressed doubt in an early June 2016 blog post that “reminding the world of previously unpunished US atrocities in Viet Nam is a judicious use of the political capital accumulated during Barack Obama’s recent successful visit.”
Shawn McHale, a George Washington University colleague, wrote the following comment in response to your interview with WBUR’s “Here & Now” program:
Bob Kerrey is letting his ego get in the way of US-Vietnamese rapprochement. The man has done a lot of good — but killing civilians, a war crime, makes him unfit to be head of the Fulbright University Vietnam Board of Trustees. For the good of the university, he should recognize that he is not the person for the job.
Finally, Linh Dinh, a Vietnamese-American writer, poet, and a signatory to this letter, wrote that “This sick and vain spectacle is hurting not just him but the university. By hanging on, he’s focusing the spotlight on his war crime.”
We agree with these assessments. Your appointment is a politically- and emotionally-charged issue that is not going to go away, least of all in Viet Nam. In early June, you told the New York Times via email that you would resign, if you felt your role were jeopardizing FUV. That time is now.
There are many US veterans who have returned to Viet Nam to do penance, so to speak, some on short trips and others for the long haul. They are each making a modest contribution, trying to find a way to give back, to make amends, to make whole that which they and their government tried to destroy. On a personal level, as you can imagine, they also find this experience to be therapeutic and even cathartic.
We’d like to take the liberty of offering you some advice. Travel to Thanh Phong. Arrange to meet with the victims’ family members and the survivors. Ask for their forgiveness. Burn incense and pray at the graves of the people you and your unit killed. And do all of this with the greatest sincerity, contrition, and humility.
Offer to meet a local need, to build something of lasting value that will benefit the community. We believe that these acts will be greatly appreciated and may help you find a measure of peace. You could even invite the other members of your unit to join you.
Thank you for taking the time to read our note. We look forward to hearing from you.
Patrick Barrett, Ph.D.
Havens Center for Social Justice
University of Wisconsin-Madison
Dennis Berg, Ph.D.
Professor Emeritus, CSU, Fullerton
Vietnam (S.E. Asia) Workshop Facilitator (1991-2016)
Fulbright, VEF, SSRC, USSH-VNU Faculty Scholar in Vietnam
Awarded Vietnam’s National Medal for Higher Education
Long Beach, California
UH-1 Helicopter Crew Chief 1967-68
POW from February 1968 to March 1973
Dr. Stephen Cottrell
S/Sgt,Vietnam 66′ 67′
0311 grunt, I Corps,Zulu Company
Fulbright Ambassador Emeritus
Professor and Director of Graduate Studies, Anthropology
University of Colorado Boulder
Fulbright Scholar with the Department of Geology and Minerals of Vietnam 2001-02
Fulbright Scholar with the Institute of Tropical Biology of Vietnam 2008-09
Political essayist, fiction writer, poet and translator. Author of Postcards from the End of America
John V H Dippel
Teachers for Vietnam
Former Foreign Service Office (Reserve) in Saigon, 1965-67
Author of Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers
W. D. Ehrhart
formerly Sergeant, USMC
Author of Vietnam-Perkasie: A Combat Marine Memoir
Editor of Carrying the Darkness: Poetry of the Vietnam War
Fort Collins, CO
Army Medic Vietnam
San Diego, CA
C. J. Hopkins
Playwright, author of Horse Country, The Extremists, and screwmachine/eyecandy, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Big Bob
Conneaut Lake, PA
Lawyer, Labor Arbitrator, Educator – Lessons of the Vietnam War
American Global Management Association
Ann Hibner Koblitz
Professor of Women and Gender Studies, Arizona State University
and Director of the Kovalevskaia Fund
Professor of Mathematics, University of Washington
Dr. Deepa Kumar
New Brunswick, NJ
Professor of Media Studies, Rutgers University
Activist, Unionist, Author
Professor Emeritus, State University of New York
Author, American War in Vietnam: Crime or Commemoration?
Associate Professor of History and International Affairs
Elliott School of International Affairs
George Washington University
President, Green Cities Fund
Co-founder, Center for Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery established in Saigon in 1966 to treat war-injured children
Co-founder Vietnam Green Building Council
Greg Nagle, Ph.D.
Hanoi, Viet Nam
Scientific Researcher/Faculty Member
ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, Singapore
Dzung Kieu Nguyen
Ph.D., Economics, SUNY Albany
Le Minh Nguyen
Hanoi, Viet Nam
London School of Economics
Viet Thanh Nguyen
Los Angeles, CA
Aerol Arnold Chair of English and Associate Professor of American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California
Author of The Sympathizer, Awards: Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, Edgar Award for Best First Novel by an American Author
Author of Bob Kerrey and the ‘American Tragedy’ of Vietnam (6-20-16)
Kittery Point, ME
TV news and documentaries
Albuquerque, New Mexico
Producer/Director: Same Same But Different
Artillery Crew Chief, Central Highlands, 1967-68
State College, PA
Korean War veteran, co-founder of the State College Peace Center and creator of its documentary film series, lifetime member of Veterans for Peace
Marine Corps Combat Viet Nam 1968 Veteran, Agent Orange Survivor, co-founder of Education Without Borders and Board Member of Veterans for Peace
Founder, Center for Media and Democracy
Author of books, including Weapons of Mass Deception
Jeffrey St. Clair
Editor of CounterPunch; Author of Born Under a Bad Sky
Director, World Beyond War
Author of books, including War Is A Lie
Iowa City, IA
Journalist and author of Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics
Fred Tomasello, Jr.
Former platoon commander, forward air controller and casualty assistance officer during the Vietnam War
US Postal Service (Retired)
Michael Uhl, Ph.D.
Author Vietnam Awakening: My Journey from Combat to the Citizens Commission of Inquiry on US War Crimes and The War I Survived Was Vietnam: Collected Writings of a Veteran and Antiwar Activist (Oct. 2016)
Author of The Phoenix Program
Peter Van Buren
New York City, NY
Former US Diplomat
Brad Van Den Elzen, Ph.D.
Stevens Point, WI
Hanoi, Viet Nam
Editor, TRỒNG NGƯỜI
A Clearinghouse on Education in Viet Nam
San Francisco, CA
Author of Blood on the Tracks: The Life and Times of S. Brian Willson
Subject of documentary, Paying the Price For Peace: The Story of S. Brian Willson http://www.Brianwillson.com
Viet Nam veteran, peace activist, and trained attorney
Bob Kerrey’s appointment as chair of the board of trustees of Fulbright University Vietnam has raised questions due to Kerrey’s past war record, and risks tainting the whole project.
“One simply cannot engage in barbarous action without becoming a barbarian… one cannot defend human values by calculated and unprovoked violence without doing mortal damage to the values one is trying to defend.” – J William Fulbright, The Arrogance of Power.
Imagine, for a moment, what would happen if a foreign university in the United States appointed an individual who had killed US civilians – or anyone, for that matter – to serve as chair of its board of trustees?
Or this post-World War II European example from David Marr, a US American historian of modern Viet Nam and Australian National University professor emeritus: “If the post-war West German government had selected a former German army officer who had killed (or ordered the killing of) unarmed French civilians to head the Goethe Institute in Paris, do you think the French government would have accepted this? Going back one step, would Bonn ever have selected such a person in the first place?”
Would the reaction be ‘forgive and forget’, or outrage that the university or government and its supporters could be so blind, so insensitive, so short-sighted as to select someone with such a dark past to assume such a key position?
What about a former Navy SEAL who admitted to being involved in the cold-blooded murder of a score of Vietnamese civilians in early 1969 in the Mekong Delta?
Below is the English translation of an open letter written by Tôn Nữ Thị Ninh about Bob Kerrey’s appointment as chairman of Fulbright University Vietnam’s Board of Trustees. Follow this link to read the original Vietnamese version: Thư ngỏ của bà Tôn Nữ Thị Ninh gửi người Việt Nam và các bạn Mỹ Mdm. Ninh’s statement is compelling and spot-on.
To say that the reaction to Kerrey’s appointment has been mixed is an understatement with people often falling into various predictable categories and camps, most without a full picture of his background and the status of the Fulbright University Viet Nam as a joint initiative. I even received a Facebook message from a young Vietnamese, a mid-career professional, essentially lobbying me to support Bob after reading some of my anti-Bob comments in the media. He later posted this simple yet sincere statement on my Facebook page: I am with Bob. I countered with this heartfelt reply: I’m with the victims of Bob’s CIA-sponsored (Phoenix Program) slaughter and for someone who will not taint the reputation of this fledgling university.
Ho Chi Minh City, June 6, 2016
On June 1st I expressed an initial opinion on the appointment of Mr. Bob Kerrey (BK) as chairman of Fulbright University Vietnam (FUV)’s Board of Trustees. Today, I am sending this open letter to Vietnamese and Americans interested in the matter with a view to clarify and elaborate on prominent points:
First, I would like to bring to light some facts about the role of the Board of Trustees (BOT) of an American-style university like FUV and the latter’s funding:
2.1. For an American-style university like FUV, the role of the Board of Trustees and its chair is not confined to fundraising but includes deciding on strategic directions for the School and formulating policies on complex issues affecting very diverse stakeholders. It is the BOT which selects and appoints the President. It would be erroneous to consider this position as inconsequential, or with little power, not worth the public’s attention or debate.
2.2. After the Vietnamese version of this letter was published, the leadership of FUV clarified the source of the initial funding for the school, to the effect that the first 20 million FUV received did not come from cutting the same amount from the VEF (Vietnamese Education Foundation), as had been mentioned in the news but from the Vietnamese Debt Repayment Fund (VDRF). While acknowledging FUV’s clarification, I would like to further clarify that the bill about the creation of VEF/VDRF was introduced to Congress by Representative George Miller and co-sponsored by a number of other Representatives and Senators.
I do not agree with the drive to suppress the opposition to BK’s appointment by linking the issue to President Obama’s visit to Viet Nam. I do not believe that President Obama would have agreed to the association had he known the appointment would lead to controversy and reopen old wounds, contravening the visit’s primary goal of consensus building and looking together to the future.
I also do not agree with the labelling of people opposing the appointment as conservative, not forward-looking and “not in favor of reconciliation”. I oppose the appointment but none of the Americans that I know have come to the conclusion that I am not forward-looking or “not in favor of reconciliation”. Promoting reconciliation and looking towards the future is neither the exclusive right nor the sole prerogative of those supporting BK’s appointment. Had BK not been
involved in that dark chapter against Vietnamese people, no one would have had any comment. If the appointment had been that of a Vietnam veteran like former Congressman and first United States Ambassador to Vietnam Pete Peterson, or Mr. Thomas Vallely himself, also a veteran, someone who has been instrumental in the establishment of FUV, no one would have opposed it.
I do not see the imperative to put BK in such an important position during FUV’s initial phase, one fraught with symbolism. The Americans (including veterans) who have spoken out on the issue directly to me or publicly through the media and social networks have expressed disapproval if not outright criticism. For instance, the BBC on June 2nd quoted Assoc. Prof. Jonathan London: “… [that is] an irresponsible decision. To establish a new university in Viet Nam, the least you could do is to be sensitive to the history of the two countries. I think this is a very sad mistake”. Dr. Mark Ashwill, an education expert who has been living and working in Viet Nam for many years, told Soha News on June 3rd that the appointment is “… disgraceful”. BK should “resign immediately”. Why is it that we, Vietnamese, remain unperturbed compared to Americans over searing pain inflicted on Vietnamese civilians?
To the number of netizens and others asking people to be “generous, forgiving, forward-looking for the future of Vietnam…”, I want to reiterate that:
6.1. To forgive or not to forgive BK for his role in the Thanh Phong massacre is an individual right and choice. That said, it is entirely conceivable for one to forgive AND to disapprove of BK holding a leadership position in a university in Viet Nam (his leading an American university in the US is a different issue).
6.2. My opposition is not based on raw emotions nor is it the result of a “lack of a conscious and lucid mind”. On the contrary, I am raising my voice in full consciousness and lucidity about the matter with the desire that Fulbright University have a smooth start on a healthy, consensual basis for a sustainable development. The people involved in BK’s appointment should have been “moving on in Vietnam but remembering its lessons”, the third lesson being “to exercise humility in assuming knowledge about foreign cultures” (The New York Times Op-Ed, May 23rd, 2016).
We are witnessing a kind of exhortation to the masses to express across the board “generosity of mind and nobility of heart”. I believe the Vietnamese do not have to prove time and again their sense of humanity in their relations with former enemies, a fact which has been widely recognized, especially among American veterans themselves. I was surprised at the profound sympathy expressed for BK’s “agony” and the praising of his “courageous decision to take the position”. Meanwhile, echoing in my mind are the words of a former staff of the War Remnants Museum where evidence of the Thanh Phong massacre is in display, crying for the victims who have yet to see the culprit return and light them a candle. That person could not fathom how hundreds and thousands of Vietnamese students at Fulbright University would eventually refer to BK as “Thầy”, a respectful form for addressing teachers in Asia, particularly in Viet Nam. And I could see BK’s portrait hanging in the prominent space reserved to the School’s founders!
I think that at this stage we can say that the appointment of BK as Chairman of the Board of Trustees of Fulbright University Vietnam has become a public controversy rather than contributed to the consensus needed for this ambitious project to take off smoothly.
The ball is now in FUV founders’ court. Since this is an educational project of great significance and far-reaching implications, I hope FUV founders will reconsider their decision and together with BK offer a reasonable solution: to appoint another person to lead FUV’s Board of Trustees.
If the occasion arises, I have no problem meeting again Bob Kerrey, the Vietnam veteran, and discuss matters benefitting US – Vietnam relations and peoples of the two countries.
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 Timesarticle.
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.
The appointment of Bob Kerrey as chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Fulbright University Vietnam is, in a word, disgraceful. The fact that he accepted the appointment is equally disgraceful. Sen. J. William Fulbright must be turning in his grave. 15 years ago, Kerrey admitted that he and his commando unit massacred civilians in February 1969. He should do the honorable thing on behalf of the Fulbright University Vietnam by resigning immediately. Surely, the University can do better than the likes of Bob Kerrey, a self-confessed war criminal and relic from a dark past.
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.