people are wondering why the New York Times and CBS’ 60 minutes II would spend
two and a half years investigating war crimes allegedly committed by former
Senator Bob Kerrey 32 years ago in Vietnam. But this is journalism at its best:
it is forcing people to rethink some important history, not just what happened
on a moonless night in the village of Thanh Phong, but throughout that horrible
American people need to know the truth about the Vietnam War — it was not, as
former President Ronald Reagan described it, "a noble cause." In truth it was a
vile cause, a dirty, rotten war waged by the most powerful nation and military
on earth against a poor country struggling for its independence. In such a war,
where the foreign invaders are hated by the vast majority of the population, we
would expect these invaders to commit certain kinds of atrocities.
Kerrey story illustrates this very clearly, regardless of whose account one
chooses to believe. Among the undisputed facts: Kerrey’s squad was on a mission
to assassinate a man he describes as a "pro- Communist political leader." Along
the way they encountered five unarmed people who offered no resistance. They
killed all of them.
also acknowledged that Thanh Phong was within a "free fire zone," which meant
that anyone living there — including the children slaughtered by Kerrey’s squad
— were "the enemy" and could be killed.
was truly a war against the people of Vietnam, as its history indicates. Vietnam
was a French colony until World War II, when the French Vichy (pro- Nazi)
government shared power with the invading Japanese. After the war the Vietnamese
declared independence, but the French wanted to keep their empire and Washington
backed them with billions of dollars and weapons.
French could not win, but managed to get control of Vietnam south of the 17th
parallel, in a negotiated agreement at the 1954 Geneva Conference. This was
supposed to be a temporary arrangement until elections could be held (in 1956)
to unify the country. But the elections never happened because, as Eisenhower
would write in his memoirs, Washington knew that "possibly 80 percent of the
people would have voted for the Communist Ho Chi Minh."
order to keep the Vietnamese people from freely electing their own government,
Washington backed a series of dictatorships, and created an army for a "country"
— South Vietnam — that was itself a creation of the United States. But that
army didn’t do much better than the French, so we had to invade with our own
troops to do the job. That’s how Kerry and his Navy Seals ended up on that
mission in 1969.
forward to 2001. There are two main points of dispute in the story of Thanh
Phong. Kerry claims that their first five victims were men, although he does not
seem very certain in the TV interview. Squad member Gerhard Klann recalls that
they killed an old man (whom he says he killed by slitting his throat while
Kerry held him down), a woman and three young children. Klann’s story is backed
by a Vietnamese eyewitness, as well as the five graves (two grandparents with
three little ones) shown on TV.
the most chilling part of the story, Klann (and the Vietnamese witness) say the
squad rounded up about 14 women and children and shot them all to death. Kerry
claims they fired into the darkness from a distance of about 100 yards after
thinking they had been fired upon (he’s not sure). Here, too, Kerry’s story is
weak: one would not expect to find most of the village dead in a cluster, from a
volley of shots into fired into the dark of night. Kerry’s account also suffers
from other inconsistencies and changes in his story, as documented in the New
York Times’ Magazine article.
the more important story is that the whole war was a crime. And our political
leaders are the ones who should bear the blame — not the soldiers whom they
lied to, telling them they were defending democracy and freedom and their own
country when they sent them to war halfway across the world.
even today, our leaders have yet to face up to the facts: their only lesson has
been that they shouldn’t send ground troops. Hence Washington’s current support
for the military and death squads of Colombia, as well as the slaughter of
hundreds of thousands of civilians in Central America in the 1970s and 80s.
These are the real costs of not facing up to the truth about the Vietnam War.
Weisbrot is co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research (www.cepr.net)
in Washington, DC.