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.
Here’s my latest CounterPunch article, in response to a statement in a TV interview by a Pulitzer Prize-winning Vietnamese-American author that the US won the war because Viet Nam shifted to a free market economy.
Here’s an excerpt to whet your appetite:
Last December, Viet Thanh Nguyen, a chaired professor of English and American Studies and Ethnicity at USC, and the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Sympathizer, described by Amazon as “thrilling, rhythmic, and astonishing, as is the rest of Nguyen’s enthralling portrayal of the Vietnam War,” made the stunning pronouncement in a TV interview that “the US won this conflict” (8:03) because Viet Nam adopted a capitalist system, what is officially referred to as a socialist-oriented market economy.
I could see many viewers nodding their heads in solemn agreement. “Yes”, I could hear them proudly and confidently saying to themselves, chests puffed out and hearts beating red, white, and blue, we belatedly yet ultimately triumphed because Viet Nam acquiesced and became like US. Wasn’t that our goal from the beginning?
The Big Lie
This is a line, a fairy tale, a lie that I’ve heard many times. It somehow makes US Americans feel good that the “commies” finally came around and saw the light. It’s a psychological and emotional salve that reassures the gullible, the uninformed, and the nationalists that the sacrifices on their side were not in vain. The problem is it’s dead wrong.
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
It’s a choice I made, to accept an opportunity to come here as a veteran, an American citizen, and in some small ways contribute to what I discovered in 1992 as a tourist, my first time returning to Viet Nam after the war. I witnessed people all over Viet Nam working hard to recover from the war and to rebuild not just the country’s infrastructure, damaged by so much destruction and devastation, but also to rebuild their lives and their communities after many years of war and a constant struggle to survive.
I thought perhaps I could somehow contribute something positive, something constructive, instead of being part of the destruction that was brought about by war. I felt that I had some responsibility to do my part in helping, if I could, as a war veteran and as a concerned American citizen.
I have been fortunate to have that opportunity, as a veteran, representing and working with American veterans organizations such as Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation (VVAF), Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund (VVMF), and Veterans For Peace (VFP). Our work has focused on trying to repair, reduce, or eliminate the consequences of the war related to the legacies of unexploded ordnance (UXO) and Agent Orange/dioxin (AO).
Could you tell me why did you get involved in the Vietnam War and when did you realize the truth about this war?
I enlisted in the U.S. Army because I was about to be drafted, and I thought perhaps I could get a better deal and avoid the war if I enlisted for three years, to choose my assignment, instead of two years as a draftee which would allow me no choices whatsoever. Actually it made no difference; nothing changed, I was sent to Viet Nam and assigned to a military intelligence unit in Saigon. I had no choice over anything.
When I arrived in Viet Nam I did not have a concrete idea about the war. I assumed that President Johnson and the U.S. Congress had a reason for “stopping the communists” in Viet Nam, and I was just doing my part as a loyal and patriotic American. I didn’t like the idea of the war, I didn’t want to come here as a soldier, but I did not resist.
However, in just three or four months I realized that something was terribly wrong, and what the U.S. government had been telling the American people was confusing, misguided, misleading, deceptive – it was a lie. And that was a very hard realization for me to accept, because I had always believed that the American government would never lie to the people. But I had to accept the terrible reality that the war was a huge and costly exercise in death and destruction that was making some American companies rich and which was causing untold loss, agony, and grief for so many innocent people – Americans and Vietnamese alike. In my work as an intelligence specialist, I saw many classified and unclassified documents and reports that only reinforced my belief that the war was wrong. I saw that we were providing inaccurate information to the American people about the costs and the likely outcome. It seemed certain to me and my fellow soldiers that America could never win in Viet Nam, yet no American government had the courage to tell the truth and to quit the war.
The Tet Offensive in 1968 was a huge turning point. It was very costly for the Vietnamese – thousands of soldiers killed, major sacrifices and losses – but it was a huge psychological victory that convinced the American people that the war was futile. It could never be won. Yet it still took seven more years for the war to finally come to a bitter and exhausting end.
Nowadays, there are many Vietnamese young people believe that “The Vietnam War is a civil war and the North of Vietnam invaded the South of Vietnam, and the US government was the savior of The South.” What is your opinion about this?
The “civil war” interpretation of the confrontation which has been too conveniently characterized as a “north-south” struggle is a figment of the creative minds of historians and apologists who refuse to face reality. If Vietnamese young people believe that, they have been sadly misled by myths, distortions, and rewrites of history. Yes, there have been geographic and cultural divisions within Viet Nam, language variations and ethnic distinctions. Some of these go back many centuries. They are more accurately described as three general demarcations: north, central, and south. The north-side political and military divide was a creation of outside powers, the result of negotiations in Geneva in 1954 to set the terms of the French withdrawal after their defeat at the hands of the People’s Army of Viet Nam at Dien Bien Phu. Terms of the Geneva Agreement called for a separation of the fighting forces – the Vietnamese to the north and the French to the south – to allow for a peaceful and orderly withdrawal of the French forces. In 1956 national elections were to be held, when a unified government for one Viet Nam would be chosen by vote of all Vietnamese citizens, nationwide.
However, during that period, the U.S. began to replace the French and to establish a new “government” in the south, under President Ngo Dinh Diem, which had never existed before. The 1956 elections were cancelled because, as U.S. President Eisenhower said openly, there was no doubt that Ho Chi Minh would have been elected overwhelmingly in a popular democratic vote. And the U.S. could not allow that. So the U.S. government, using the CIA and other agencies, established the southern regime of Ngo Dinh Diem, recognized it as a legitimate government, and supported Diem and his newly created army and police forces with money and weapons.
We know the rest of that tragic history.
If the U.S. had not intervened, no one can say with certainty what would have happened. However, as my best friend in Saigon – a South Vietnamese soldier – said to me in 1968, “There would be no war in Viet Nam if you Americans were not here. No one supports the southern government. As long as you Americans are here, we will have no peace. So please leave, my friend. Then we will have peace. It may take six months. It may take two years. But Vietnamese can talk to Vietnamese. If you are not here in our, we will make peace.”
In the globlisation Vietnamese people and American people can share and do business together. Is it possible for Vietnamese government and the US government be friends in the future?
The Vietnamese people have long extended the hand of friendship to Americans. Americans have responded with appreciation and respect. The U.S. and Vietnamese governments have established diplomatic relations and a good working relationship based on friendship and mutual respect. There is no reason why this should not continue long into the future. As Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap said to me the first time I met him, “Our two countries must never fight again.” I believe that as firmly as Gen. Giap stated it to me.
Yet Viet Nam must also be very cautious, very thoughtful in its relations with the U.S. and with all other foreign countries, steadfastly maintaining its independence in policy, statements, and deeds and actions, avoiding any tangling alliances that reduce Viet Nam’s flexibility and ability to protect the country’s and the people’s best interests. Viet Nam must continue to maintain a very careful balance between China and the U.S., for example, and not let one power push Viet Nam off balance vis-à-vis other nations. Viet Nam especially should be very wise in decisions regarding weapons procurement and military cooperation. Viet Nam’s greatest defense is the will of its people. Military machines and technology will never be adequate, can never substitute for the strength, unity and determination of the ordinary people of Viet Nam. Viet Nam’s leadership needs to always remember that. Other nations would be wise to recall Viet Nam’s thousand-year history which provides ample evidence of that reality.
How can Vietnamese people be friends with American people regardless the relationship between the Vietnamese government and the US government?
Nowadays it’s quite simple. With the Internet and global communications, individuals and groups of interested friends can be in easy contact, which the governments in both countries should encourage. Sharing ideas, concerns, questions, solutions is energizing, creative, the connections nurture new opportunities that can benefit both peoples and both countries. Institutions such as the Vietnam-USA Society and many other organizations under the umbrella of VUFO – the Vietnam Union of Friendship Organizations – carry on a very active “people-to-people” diplomacy program which is an important channel of communications.
Neither government, the U.S. or Viet Nam, has any reason to worry about strong and active contacts between people young and old of both countries. This is a natural bridge that links hands of friendship in support of understanding and peace. Such dynamics are a huge asset for the governments of Viet Nam and America, which make the task of governing easier, more beneficial for all concerned, and likely to create policies that more accurately reflect the unity and support of the people.
International Advisor, Project RENEW
Tư Vấn Viên Quốc tế, Dự án RENEW
Vice President, Veterans For Peace Chapter 160
Phó chủ tịch, Cựu Chiến Binh vì Hoà Bình Chương 160 (Hòa Bình)
Co-Chair, NGO Agent Orange Working Group
Đồng Chủ tịch, Nhóm làm việc Phi chính phủ về Chất độc da cam
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.
We are not worth more. They are not worth less. S. Brian Willson
What makes Paying the Price so powerful is hearing the voices of so many veterans, women and men who know what war is and have had the courage to walk away. They invite us to remember – however much the national “security” state would like us to forget — that every one of us can be brave. Courage (like cowardice) is a habit we can learn by practice. And there’s no better teacher than Brian Willson.
Rebecca Gordon, author of Mainstreaming Torture: Ethical Approaches in the Post 9/11 United States
Last month, I had the honor of meeting Brian Willson, who had returned to Vietnam for the first time since he was here during the war over 45 years ago. He was in Hanoi for the last leg of his visit, along with his partner, Becky, and two friends, Mike and Sandy, all from the US.
We were introduced at a screening of Paying the Price for Peace – the Story of S. Brian Willson, which, according to the film’s website, “exposes the truth about the United States’ addiction to war, and the lies it perpetuates in order to wage ongoing violence, through the life and times of Air Force veteran S. Brian Willson and other veterans.” Other peace activists in the film include Alice Walker, Daniel Ellsberg, Medea Benjamin, David Swanson, Ron Kovic, Bruce Gagnon, Cindy Sheehan, Martin Sheen, Blase Bonpane, Phil Donahue, David Harsough, among others.
The price Brian paid was nearly being killed by a military train that was ordered not to stop during a non-violent protest.. As the website points out, “Since then, he has not stopped calling attention to the US government’s defiance of international law through waging endless illegal wars.”
Here’s a brief description of the incident, excerpted from Brian’s Wikipedia entry:
On September 1, 1987, while engaged in a protest against the shipping of U.S. weapons to Central America in the context of the Contra wars, Willson and other members of a Veterans Peace Action Team blocked railroad tracks at the Concord, California Naval Weapons Station. An approaching train did not stop, and struck the veterans. Willson was hit, ultimately losing both legs below the knee while suffering a severe skull fracture with loss of his right frontal lobe. Subsequently, he discovered that he had been identified for more than a year as an FBI domestic “terrorist” suspect under President Reagan’s anti-terrorist task force provisions and that the train crew that day had been advised not to stop the train.
As I told Brian in a subsequent email, the film was both incredibly painful and inspirational. I don’t really have any heroes only people, dead and alive, of different nationalities, whom I admire and who inspire me. Brian is one of them.
The day after watching Paying the Price for Peace I felt a bit depressed and unsettled, even angry, at times. I think the main reason was watching the movie the night before and still processing it. It reminded me of the anger I feel towards a government that has been the cause of so much suffering and destruction around the world over the last century or so.
That Brian has put himself in harm’s way on so many occasions reminds me of the many nonviolent acts carried out by Gandhi. As Brian said, his disability connects him in a very visceral way to millions of people who have been the victims of state-sponsored violence.
While I am not a war veteran, I have a very personal connection to Viet Nam because of my decades-long experience with the country. I know more than most US Americans just how much the Vietnamese and this country suffered because of the US occupation and war. It’s probably not a coincidence that most of my US American friends here are war veterans who are here to do penance, to give back, to make amends. That will be part of their legacy not what they did or did not do here as young men in another life.
The fact that Brian and people like him embrace the truth over lies means that they are free. I wish there were more veterans like him. I wish there were more people in the US and the world like him. I’m grateful for his service and his courage – not during the American War in Vietnam – but after it for the cause of peace and justice.
We are not worth more. They are not worth less. If everyone felt this way, the world would be a much happier and safer place. Simple yet powerful, Brian’s quote is the antithesis of nationalism which, like most ideologies, divides its adherents and pits people and peoples against each other.