Bob Kerrey’s War Record Fuels Debate in Vietnam on His Role at New University
By RICHARD C. PADDOCKJUNE 2, 2016
BANGKOK — The appointment of former Senator Bob Kerrey to lead a new American-backed university in Vietnam has set off a sharp debate among Vietnamese over whether he should be disqualified because of his part in killing women and children as a Navy SEAL during the Vietnam War.
“While the Vietnamese are willing to let bygones be bygones,” Ton Nu Thi Ninh, Vietnam’s former ambassador to the European Union, said by email, “the decision to appoint Bob Kerrey to be chairman of the board of the first American-style university in Vietnam strikes me as insensitive to the Vietnamese at best, and taking us for granted at worst.”
The university, Fulbright University Vietnam, the first independent, private university in Vietnam, made news after President Obama announced its opening during a visit to Vietnam last week.
Mr. Kerrey admitted 15 years ago that he and the team of commandos he led in the Mekong Delta in 1969 killed innocent women and children during a midnight raid in the village of Thanh Phong. Survivors of the attack said 20 civilians were killed, including 13 children and a pregnant woman. Mr. Kerrey was awarded a Bronze Star after his squad falsely reported that it had killed 21 Viet Cong guerrillas.
Mr. Kerrey was silent about the slaughter for more than three decades until The New York Times and CBS News were on the verge of publishing a joint investigation in 2001.
“It was not a military victory,” Mr. Kerrey acknowledged in speech then. “It was a tragedy, and I had ordered it.”
“I have been haunted by it for 32 years,” he said.
The discussion of Mr. Kerrey’s war history — which has bubbled up in posts on Facebook and in articles at online news portals — threatens to reopen old wounds from what is known in Vietnam as the American War. About three million people died in the war, including more than 58,000 Americans.
“I cannot look at his face,” Pham Thuy Huong, 40, of Hanoi, wrote on Facebook. “All the gruesome details of that genocide are still there.”
But since the war ended in 1975, the Vietnamese government and many Vietnamese have adopted an attitude of forgiveness, and that view was also widely represented.
“It is easy to hate Bob Kerrey and ask him to resign as the head of the board of Fulbright University Vietnam,” Luong Hoai Nam, an aviation businessman, wrote in a column in the online newspaper VnExpress. “I can do that. But after a half-day of thinking, I decided on the harder choice. That is to forgive. I forgive Bob Kerrey, and I want many Vietnamese also to forgive him.”
Responding to questions by email, Mr. Kerrey said that he would resign if he felt his role was jeopardizing the American-Vietnamese joint education venture.
“If I have cause to believe that remaining chairman puts this project at risk, I will step down,” he said. “I have come to admire the Vietnamese people greatly and intend to continue doing all I can to help them.”
“After killing and
lying, he should not
and contributing the
values of America in Vietnam!”
Nguyen Duc Hien, journalist in Ho Chi Minh City
He said he had been involved since 1991 in establishing the university, including helping win congressional financing while in the Senate. He said his primary role as board chairman would be helping the university raise money.
The university aims to accept its first students in the fall of 2017.
At an establishment ceremony for the university in Ho Chi Minh City last week, Mr. Kerrey was joined by another Vietnam veteran, Secretary of State John Kerry. Mr. Kerry noted that for both of them, their relationship with Vietnam “has always been personal.”
Mr. Kerrey was a gung-ho Navy SEAL lieutenant when he led his squad, known as Kerrey’s Raiders, into Thanh Phong on Feb. 25, 1969. Their mission was to hunt down a Viet Cong leader believed to be operating in the village.
The squad members first encountered a hut they had not expected. To avoid giving away their position, they used knives to kill five people, witnesses said, slitting the throats of an elderly couple and stabbing their three grandchildren.
Although Mr. Kerrey has taken responsibility for ordering the killings as squad leader, he has said he did not participate in them. However two other members of his unit say Mr. Kerrey helped kill the grandfather, later identified as Bui Van Vat, 65.
When they reached the main part of the village, they encountered women and children. According to Mr. Kerrey’s account, someone fired on the squad and the commandos returned fire, killing the civilians in the darkness and confusion.
“Give him a chance
to correct his mistake
by doing something
useful for the Vietnamese
people with his new job.”
Thao Dan, literature teacher in Haiphong
A member of his squad, Gerhard Klann, gave The Times a different account. He said that the SEALs rounded up the women and children, then debated what to do. They were not in a position to take prisoners, and if they let them go the villagers might alert the enemy. So Lieutenant Kerrey gave the order, Mr. Klann said, and they opened fire.
“The baby was the last one alive,” he said. “There were blood and guts splattering everywhere.”
A survivor, Bui Thi Luom, gave an account that matched Mr. Klann’s when I interviewed her at Thanh Phong in 2001.
Mr. Kerrey was later wounded on another mission and lost part of a leg. He and his raiders were never held to account for the killings.
Mr. Kerrey served as Nebraska’s governor and senator, ran for president in 1992, and retired from elective office in 2000. He served as president of the New School, a university in New York City, from 2001 to 2010.
Bao Anh Thai, a lawyer in Ho Chi Minh City, said that leading a university was not the proper place for a man with Mr. Kerrey’s war record.
“Please tell me the name of any prestigious university in this world, where a killer in cold blood of women and children — he admitted it and he is not charged for it — could be the president,” he wrote on Facebook.
“It is not about the Vietnam War, it is not about reconciliation between the two countries, it is a common sense of education. Would you send your children to a university like that?”
Nguyen Duc Hien, a journalist at a legal newspaper in Ho Chi Minh City, noted that Mr. Kerrey kept quiet about the atrocities for more than 30 years and only spoke publicly about them when journalists forced his hand.
“After killing and lying, he should not represent knowledge and contributing the values of America in Vietnam!” Mr. Hien wrote on Facebook.
“I welcome Fulbright, but America has no shortage of people to choose as a representative for America.”
Others were more willing to let Mr. Kerrey atone for his actions by helping the country.
“Give him a chance to correct his mistake by doing something useful for the Vietnamese people with his new job,” said Thao Dan, a literature teacher in Haiphong.
But Nguyen Van Tho, a writer and a veteran of the war, said there was a difference between forgiving and forgetting.
“If I had a chance to meet Bob Kerrey, I would still welcome him,” he said on Facebook. “I want to forgive and forget all the pain of war. People can forgive soldier Bob Kerrey but people are not allowed to forget all the killing of innocent civilians. That is a crime the world should condemn forever.”