Expanding the Fulbright Legacy in Vietnam (?)

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)

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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

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The Metamorphosis of International Students Into Honorary US Nationalists: a View from Viet Nam

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Follow this link to read my latest article, which is about a phenomenon I’ve observed over the years, namely, how some young Vietnamese who study in the USA become what I refer to as honorary US nationalists.  (If you’re not sure what nationalism means, have a look at this 2016 essayHint:  It’s quite different from patriotism.)  

Here’s an excerpt:  

Overseas study is a unique opportunity to learn about the good, the bad, and the ugly of the host country, all the colors of its social, political, and economic rainbow, as it were, a sentiment echoed by Senator J. William Fulbright, whose name is synonymous with international educational exchange in the country of his birth:  There is nothing obscure about the objectives of educational exchange. Its purpose is to acquaint Americans with the world as it is and to acquaint students and scholars from many lands with America as it is–not as we wish it were or as we might wish foreigners to see it, but exactly as it is… [From the Forward of The Fulbright Program: A History]

My advice to these three young Vietnamese, whose stories I have shared, and others like them, regardless of nationality, is as follows: Learn more about your country’s history, the sacrifices made by previous generations, and the role of foreign powers in domestic affairs. Learn about other countries as they are, not as some people wish you to see them. Preserve your intellectual and spiritual independence and, by doing so, retain your integrity. Finally, never allow yourselves to be used by people whose primary concern is their own country, especially when those interests run contrary to those of your country, and other nations and peoples. Be true to yourselves and to historical truth.

Shalom (שלום), MAA

US nationalism – The elephant in the room

Nationalism stands in the way of creating global citizens, but it is the subject few involved in international education in the United States want to speak about.

Follow this link to read my latest article published by University World News, entitled US nationalism – The elephant in the room.  In a nutshell, it’s about nationalism, patriotism and the former as a barrier to the development of global citizens.  My perspective is probably one you’ve rarely, if ever, heard.

The responses to this article will likely fall into one of three categories:  1)  silence; 2) nationalists of various levels of commitment who go on the offensive; and 3) people who want to engage in a meaningful dialogue about this important issue.  It is the latter that I value and most look forward to.

MAA

UWN US Nationalism