Americans from the Vietnam Era should join the many Vietnamese today in questioning the appointment of former Senator Bob Kerrey to chair the board of the Fulbright University of Vietnam, which was announced during President Obama's recent visit.
Sen. Kerrey's appointment is more a gesture of forgetting rather than of reconciliation, as some believe. Consider his record as an American Navy SEAL, based on New York Times coverage April 25, 2001, and June 2, 2016:
On the night of Feb. 25, 1969, Kerrey's Navy Seals unit killed 20 Vietnamese villagers, mainly women and children, in the village of Thanh Phong, populated by only 150 people. The weapons used included guns, knives and bare hands.
Kerrey was awarded a Bronze Star after his unit falsely reported that they killed 21 "Vietcong guerrillas."
Thousands of pages of classified SEAL reports had been boxed up in Navy archives for years until Gregory Vistica uncovered them and then, after 30 years of silence, Kerrey finally admitted the deaths under his orders, just as the New York Times and CBS News were ready to publicly expose the killings and cover-ups.
Since the story of his Fulbright University appointment was announced, Kerrey has told the New York Times that he would resign, "If he felt his role was jeopardizing the American-Vietnamese joint education venture." Specifically, he said, "If I have cause to believe that remaining chairman puts this project at risk, I will resign."
As Americans who protested the war and struggled to open diplomatic relations with Vietnam, we believe what Kerrey's appointment puts at risk is our honor and integrity as a nation.
We agree with the author Viet Thanh Nguyen, winner of this year's Pulitzer Prize, who recently wrote that Kerrey is, "The wrong man for the job and a symbol of our failure of moral imagination.” If Senator Kerrey retains his Fulbright appointment, there should be the following conditions attached: First, that the villagers of Thanh Phong and the descendants of those killed deserve dignity and compensation. Mr. Kerrey should visit the site and apologize. Appropriate memorials should be placed at the village and at the university. The Fulbright University should be a public one in the public interest. Proper salaries, benefits and scholarships should be made available generously, to its students, staff and faculty. Additionally, its gates should be fully open for Vietnam, as a site of remembrance, spirituality, and wisdom, birthing a better Vietnam and world.
We write as the organizers of the 2015 conference in Washington D.C., which brought together a thousand Americans in remembrance of the power of protest by the American peace movement during the war. We are challenging the Pentagon’s official memory of the war, and we are opposed to any diminishing or distortion of the memory of our peace movement and the atrocities that were committed in Indochina during those years. Our conference guests included representatives of the new Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos who brought a celebration of their culture, cuisine, and with messages of gratitude and solidarity.
In addition to producing truthful educational materials, the university should consider becoming a historical site remembering all the atrocities committed against innocent Indochinese throughout the war. The most notorious site of remembrance is My Lai, where 350 Vietnamese civilians were shot and stabbed to death, and the atrocity was covered up until investigative reporters and whistleblowers revealed its existence.
Our campaign of remembrance will continue. It is our duty as Americans today to guarantee that Thanh Phong is never forgotten. Representing our peace movement, we continue fight to remove land mines. We fight to mitigate Agent Orange. We fight to protect Vietnam's sacred sovereignty amidst new threats. We remember all this horror for the sake of our own honor.
Representing the organizing committee for the May 1-2, 2015 Vietnam Peace Memorial Conference, Washington DC