Bob Kerrey, Fulbright University and the Neoliberal Erasure of History
Truth is stranger than dystopian fiction. Last May, for example, United States President Barack Obama announced the opening of the U.S.-sponsored Fulbright University of Vietnam (FUV), the first private university in a small nation the U.S. tried to “bomb back to the Stone Age” half a century ago. Intended to be “a U.S.-style university not under control of the Communist Party of Vietnam,” FUV hopes to begin teaching students about how to be good global-era capitalists and world capitalist citizens in the fall of 2017. It’s a collaboration between the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and the U.S. State Department. The U.S. government has so far invested roughly $20 million in the project.
Bronze Star Butcher
The chair of FUV’s board of trustees is Bob Kerrey, a man with an interesting resume. It’s a curiously Orwellian choice. He is a former governor of Nebraska (1983-1987), a former U.S. Senator from the same state (1988-2000), and the former president of the New School University (a curious position for a man whose “higher” educational credentials stopped with a 1966 bachelors’ degree in Pharmacy at the University of Nebraska) in New York City (2001-2010). He is also a highly decorated war criminal in the “crucifixion of Southeast Asia” (as Noam Chomsky once aptly described the U.S. War on Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia) that was planned by the “best and the brightest” from Harvard and other Ivy League institutions.
From 1966 through early 1969, Kerrey was a gung-ho Navy SEALs officer. In February of his final year, Kerrey’s unit slaughtered 21 innocent women and children in the Vietnamese village of Thanh Phong. This horrific incident is commemorated in a display at the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City. The display includes several photos, a drain pipe, and a placard that includes the following historical crime-scene background: “From 8PM to 9PM February 25th, 1969, a group of Seal Rangers [sic] (one of the most selective rangers of U.S. Army): led by Lieutenant Bob Kerry [sic] reached for Hamlet 5, Thanh Phong Village, Thanh Phu District, Ben Tre Province. They cut 66 year-old Bui Van Vat and 62 year-old Luu Thi Canh’s necks and pulled their three grandchildren out from their hiding place in a drain and killed two, disembowelled one. Then, these rangers moved to dug-outs of other families, shot dead 15 civilians (including three pregnant women), disembowelled a girl…It was not until April 2001 that U.S. Senator Bob Kerrey confessed his crime to the international public.”
It was a CIA operation, part of the Agency’s notorious Phoenix Program. Kerrey, historian John Mariciano notes, hardly just fell into a chaotic situation that led inadvertently to unpredictable civilian deaths. As Marciano explains: “he was on a CIA mission and participated in an ‘illegal, premeditated mass murder.’ According to an investigative report in The New York Times, one thing is certain: Around midnight on February 25, 1969, Kerrey’s unit killed at least 13 innocent civilians….no guerrillas were killed in action and the official report was a lie…Attacks such as these…were part of the Phoenix Program and run by the CIA. Kerrey and his team were part of a larger campaign to murder and terrorize Vietnamese civilians. The object of this program was to target not only individual members of the [revolutionary Vietnamese] National Liberation Front’s political infrastructure, but also their families, friends and neighbors. These war crimes were a central part of the CIA’s actions during the war.”
According to witnesses from his unit and the village, Kerrey helped kill the elderly Bui Van Vat and gave the order to shoot women and children. A “baby was the last one alive,” unit member Gerhard Klann recalled. “There were blood and guts splattered everywhere.” Kerrey was awarded the Bronze Star for commanding this “heroic” action, falsely reported by Kerrey and the U.S. military as having “killed 21 Viet Cong guerillas.” “Imagine,” Vietnam-based educational consultant Mark Ashwill wrote last July, “what would happen if a foreign university in the United States appointed an individual who had killed US civilians…to serve as chair of its board of trustees? Or…‘If the post-war West German government had selected a former German army officer who had killed (or ordered the killing of) unarmed French civilians to head the Goethe Institute in Paris [historian David Marr]…’”
“The Destruction Was Mutual”
Kerrey admitted that he’d killed noncombatant Vietnamese women and children after 16 years in higher political office, after one initially promising but failed presidential bid (1991-92), and just two months after he was installed atop the New School. The compelling force behind his long-overdue confession was not a sudden surge of moral guilt and courage on his part but rather his knowledge that the New York Times and “CBS News” were about to expose his war crime. The confession came with the nauseating excuse that “both sides did a lot of damage in the Vietnam War”—a preposterous suggestion of moral equivalence for the colossal calamities resulting from a prolonged assault on a poor peasant nation by the most potent military killing machine in history.
During a book tour after the facts surrounding his war crime came out, Marciano notes, Kerrey said angrily that “Both sides did a lot of damage in the Vietnam War.” It’s a standard U.S. claim, one that deletes the incomparable devastation the world’s most powerful military empire and industrial state inflicted on Vietnam and neighboring states. The United States lost 58,000 soldiers in an imperial invasion that killed as many as 5 million Southeast Asians between 1962 and 1975. The massive U.S. imperial assault laid waste to vast stretches of Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. It spread disease and birth defects across the region. The Vietnamese did not kill a single American solider—much less a U.S. civilian—on U.S. soil. Their American “victims” were invading gendarmes sent by Washington to keep Vietnam savagely unequal and under the thumb of the world’s rich nations.
But, as Jimmy Carter claimed in 1977, explaining why the U.S. owed no special reparations or apologies to Vietnam, “the destruction was mutual.” Indeed. What good American Baby Boomer can ever forget the fearsome fleets of Vietnamese bombers that wreaked havoc on major U.S. cities and pulverized and poisoned our fields and farms during the 1960s and 1970s, the legions of Vietnamese killers who descended from attack helicopters to murder U.S. citizens in their homes…the Vietnamese gunships that strafed our schools and hospitals…the Vietnamese bombing and mining of U.S. harbors…the naked American children running down streets in flight from Vietnamese napalm attacks. Yes, the Vietnamese occupation of the U.S. was hell.
Really Existing Crimes That Never Happened
What led Obama, the U.S. State Department, and Harvard to tactlessly place a man whose cold-blooded massacre of Vietnamese innocents is captured in a Vietnamese war museum atop a new U.S.-sponsored university set up just miles away from that museum in Ho Chi Minh City? What were they thinking? Ashwill surmises that Kerrey’s appointment reflects a morally blind combination of Ivy League insider-politics, intra-elite friendship, and American supremacism. The vanguard role goes to Tommy Vallely, a Kennedy School graduate who is pals with both Kerrey and Kerrey’s close buddy, the current U.S. Secretary of State and Vietnam veteran John F. Kerry: “Why was he selected? In a phrase, ‘the Harvard connection.’….one of the driving forces behind the establishment of the Fulbright University Vietnam is Harvard’s Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation and, in particular, Tommy Vallely, its senior advisor for Mainland Southeast Asia. Vallely founded the Harvard Vietnam Program in 1989, which led to the establishment of the Fulbright Economics Teaching Program in 1994 in Ho Chi Minh City—a partnership between the University of Economics, HCMC, and the Harvard Kennedy School. Himself a veteran of the American War in Viet Nam, Vallely also happens to be a close friend and confidant of John Kerry, who in turn is a friend of his long-time US Senate colleague, Bob Kerrey.”
“Perhaps Kerrey’s appointment was in part the result of this perfect storm of friendship and loyalty, in addition to his desire to give back…What parallel universe do his supporters inhabit? They either do not comprehend the implications of selecting such a polarizing figure for such an important position, or do not care. Could it be that sense of superiority and exceptionalism that distinguishes nationalists from patriots, what [onetime U.S. Senator William] Fulbright wrote about so eloquently and passionately in [the Senator’s famous book] The Arrogance of Power?”
Yes to all that but let us not forget also the likely calculation of Kerrey’s appointees that nobody who really matters all that much would really care about ancient imperial butchery in the glorious new all-capitalist neoliberal age. Kerrey’s position atop FUM is (like so much else) sadly consistent with the terrible official amnesia that holds official and doctrinal sway across “elite” Western culture and mass media when it comes to American imperial arrogance and criminality. In the U.S. and indeed across much of the West, the record of past and ongoing U.S. imperialism and international law-breaking has long been airbrushed out from permissible collective memory even as it unfolds. As the great British playwright Harold Pinter noted in his acceptance speech (recounted by John Pilger) for the 2005 Nobel Prize in Literature, dominant Western cultural authorities behave as if U.S. imperial violence does not exist and never has. Washington has committed mass murder and suffering on a monumental scale over the last six decades and more. “But you wouldn’t know it,” Pinter observed. “It never happened. Even while it was happening,” Pinter added, “it never happened. It didn’t matter. It was of no interest”—this thanks to a corporate mass media and an “elite” intellectual culture that cleanse history for reasons of capital, race, empire, and state.
And besides, the conventional imperial American exceptionalist wisdom holds, mistakes happen. It’s true, dominant media and reputable intellectuals acknowledge, Uncle Sam and his innately gallant gendarmes occasionally make “mistakes” in their inherently noble (because American) zeal to improve an often nasty and unruly world. It’s a messy, imperfect planet on which the intrinsically benevolent, peace- and freedom-loving United States struggles selflessly to make its righteous mark. Slip-ups and oversteps occur. “Mistakes,” you know, like the so-called Vietnam War and its many My Lais and Thanh Phongs. “Mistakes” like the U.S. invasion of Mesopotamia, which led to the premature death of more than a millions Iraqis. Still, the reigning American thought-habit holds, U.S. intentions are always virtuous. The “blunders” take place in the context of an ugly and dangerous world where evil is rife—a world where the United States always strives mightily to stay morally upright while dealing with “bad guys” like “the Viet Cong” (the American military and media’s racist label for Vietnamese revolutionaries who fought for national independence and social justice). As Bill Clinton’s second Secretary of State Madeline Albright (the one who said that the death of more than half a million Iraqi children through U.S-led economic sanctions was “a price worth paying” for the advance of U.S. foreign policy goals) once explained, “The United States is good…We try to do our best everywhere.”
We must never forget how splendid we are, something that makes it essential for us to toss vast volumes of U.S. “foreign relations” (imperial) history down Orwell’s “memory hole.”
Beyond Disgrace: “Not a Memory at All”
And furthermore, conventional U.S.-led Western mass media and elite cultural wisdom runs, it’s time to move past old grievances. We need to transcend all that unpleasant old history in the glorious neoliberal world order. We need to let go of all that antiquated stuff in the munificent age of hyper-globalization—this brave new “free market” (state and corporate-/finance-capitalist) world. We’ve got to stop being stuck in the past. Listen to Bob Kerrey’s good friend John F. Kerry, the Vietnam veteran who once testified about U.S. war crimes in Vietnam at Winter Soldier hearings during the early 1970s. Here is Secretary Kerry reflecting on the Vietnam conflict’s distant over-ness during his comments at the event in Ho Chi Minh City announcing Fulbright University’s formation last May 25”: “As I’m sure everybody here knows, the relationship between Vietnam and the United States, the relationship for Tommy [Villely], for Bob Kerrey, for myself, has always been personal. And I think it is personal for many people on both sides of the ocean, the Pacific.
I first came here in 1968 and I can still remember securing a short pass to come up from the Mekong Delta to then Saigon, and sitting on the deck of this hotel in a momentary pause from all the craziness. And from that vantage point I could look out at the city in the evening, and I did, and I could see flares popping around the city, lighting up the night and the perimeter. And in the distance, you could even hear the bursts of gunfire or occasionally a C-130 with something called Puff the Magic Dragon shooting in the distance. It was literally surreal—an oasis of sorts, but still a war zone. Standing here today, same hotel, same rooftop up there; a very different view, a very different country, a very different time. The traffic outside, the remarkable amount of energy, is just bursting. You feel it and you see it pulsating. And the sounds you hear are of people today energetically joining together peacefully going about the business of their lives.
“So the war is an indelible but an increasingly distant memory. And for most, it’s not a memory at all. Certainly, the students who are going to enroll at this university are far more interested in plugging into the world economy than in being stuck in the past or re-living memories of events that took place long before they were born.”
It was all pretty personal for the villages of Thanh Phong. Nearly four million Vietnamese killed in their own homeland by the criminal U.S. Empire? The country carpet-bombed and poisoned on a monumental scale by cynical and vicious Washington planners? Untold masses of Vietnamese children born with hideous birth defects thanks to U.S. chemical defoliation? Forty-thousand Vietnamese (including Kerrey’s victims in Thanh Phong)-—more than two-thirds of the total U.S. “Vietnam War” body count—killed in Operation Phoenix alone? Oh well. The elite-born boarding school- and Yale-minted Winter Soldier who came in from the New Left cold to rise to the top of the Council on Foreign Relations ruling class, now says, in essence: “Get over it, people. It’s distant history now. Let’s get on with business, with global capitalism—with this great new post-Cold War all-capitalist world where happy and energetic people get to use the Internet and go to universities to learn about ‘economics,’ ‘accounting’, and ‘business management’. ”
“Not a memory all—and let’s keep it that way,” Kerry might have said if he’d been completely honest about his mission. Remember John “Reporting to Duty” Kerry’s failed presidential bid in 2004? Democratic delegates opposed to George W. Bush’s arch-criminal invasion of Iraq were instructed by John “I am Not a Redistribution Democrat” Kerry’s campaign staff and the Democratic National Committee to keep their mouths shut about the war. For Kerry and indeed for the not-so-“antiwar” Obama, whose stardom was launched with his stealthily imperial Keynote Address to the Democratic National Convention that year, the issue was no longer the invasion and occupation itself but rather who was in charge of it.
I sent John Kerry’s May 25 Fulbright University speech to Marciano a few days ago. He wrote back: “As my father used to say, ‘Another great American.’ He [Kerry] is beyond disgrace.”
In Kerrey’s account, reported by University World News reporter Mary Beth Marklein, “there was never a grand plan to create [Fulbright University]. It came about ‘just as a result of a number of us saying, ‘We’ve got to put this war behind us’.”
“We’ve Got to Put This War Behind Us”
Marklein finds that Kerrey and Kerry’s desire to bury the memory of the criminal and imperialist “Vietnam War” is “shared by key leaders” atop the authoritarian state-capitalist Vietnamese regime: “In an opinion column published in the state-run Tuoi Tre newspaper, Dinh La Thang, the secretary of the Communist Party in Ho Chi Minh City, called FUV ‘a concrete symbol of the shared determination of Vietnam and the US to set the past aside, overcome differences, pursue shared interests, and look to the future in a practical and effective manner.’ The criticism of Kerrey’s appointment ‘is understandable,’ he wrote, but only ‘if we … look at its emotional side. … When we reflect on a historical event, we must see it in relationship to the present. Therefore, emotional responses alone are inadequate’.”
How nice to see such warm consensus between bloodless, state-capitalist elites across the Pacific Ocean and two very different sides (imperial and neo-colonial) of the Cold War decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Vietnamese “Communist” Party leaders and imperialist American war criminals agree: “emotion” and history must not get in the dysfunctional way of rational economic growth and corporate globalization. Surprised by Dinh La Thang’s determination to “set the past aside”? You shouldn’t be. Contrary to the conventional wisdom, Noam Chomsky has tried to tell us for many years, the United States actually won “the Vietnam War.” It pulverized Vietnam with such awesome imperial force as to prevent it from ever becoming a model of successful model of independent and popular, bottom-up revolutionary development outside and against the world capitalist system that now poses the ultimate threat to a decent and viable future for humanity.
“Contrary to what virtually everyone left or right says,” Chomsky noted 13 years ago “the United States achieved its major objectives in Indochina. Vietnam was demolished. There’s no danger that successful development there will provide a model for other nations in the region. Of course, it wasn’t a total victory for the US. Our larger goal was to reincorporate Indochina into the U.S.-dominated global system, and that has not yet been achieved.”
Which reminds me, the “pathological liar” (historian Doug Valentine’s characterization) Bob Kerrey is, well, lying when he claims that FUV emerged only from some sudden and shared desire to overcome the memory of the Vietnam War. That claim is transparent historical nonsense. Who is he trying to kid? As Marklein reports: “The university grows out of years of planning and negotiation. The U.S. government to date has invested about US$20 million in it, primarily in the form of federal grants to the Trust for University Innovation in Vietnam, a U..S. non-profit that was created in 2012 in support of the establishment of Fulbright University Vietnam…Education has been a central platform for the United States’ soft power strategy in Vietnam in the 20-plus years since the two countries resumed diplomatic relations. Two members of the Vietnamese Politburo received funding from the U.S. State Department’s Fulbright academic exchange program to earn graduate degrees at U.S. universities.”
“Since 2000, more than 600 Vietnamese have studied at U.S. universities through a separate fellowship programme, this one championed by Kerrey while in the [US] Senate. He was one of several prominent Vietnam war veterans to push for US legislation for the fellowship, with a goal of ensuring that repayment for wartime debts owed by South Vietnam to the United States would go toward educating Vietnamese students.”
“As that exchange program draws to a close, excess funds are shifting toward the development of Fulbright University Vietnam, itself an offshoot of the Fulbright Economics Teaching Program, a Harvard-led project that opened its doors in 1994 in Ho Chi Minh City.”
As is reflected in its distinctly “free market” and globalization-friendly curriculum and staff, with a heavy emphasis on capitalist economics, FUV is part of the Western, U.S.-led neoliberal ideological offensive—a two-decades’ long “soft power strategy”—in East Asia. It is also part of the Obama and coming Clinton administrations’ Council on Foreign Relations (CFR)-approved “tilt to Asia” and Western transnational capital’s Obama-led drive to put the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) in place.
As two top members of the bipartisan corporate-imperial ruling class, Obama and Kerry went to Vietnam last May not just to sell Fulbright University, but more importantly, above all, to sell the arch-authoritarian and global-corporatist TPP. The TPP is a giant scheme both to insulate the eco-cidal multinational investor class from governmental regulation and popular resistance and to enhance the power of U.S. and allied Western capital relative to that of the competing state-capitalist super-state China. The full and ugly history of what Washington did to Southeast Asia in the 1960s and 1970s is not a particularly good fit for that neoliberal and imperial agenda and so down the memory hole it goes. In short, Kerrey, Vallely and other U.S. operatives (including Kerry and now Obama) have been trying to achieve what Chomsky called “the larger [U.S.] goal…to reincorporate Indochina into the US-dominated global system.” The mission they “served” back in the “surreal” 1960s lives on. They’re trying to finish the imperial job, in softer ways. Good imperial soldiers to the end.
Who Controls the Past
Orwell would be impressed. In his famous dystopian novel 1984, history is deleted and otherwise altered in accord with the shifting accumulation and propaganda needs of the totalitarian state-capitalist state of Oceana, whose reigning party proclaims that “Who controls the past, controls the future; who controls the present controls the past.”
Sadly enough, it’s all about selling a false and lethal promise. There is no glorious future of mutually beneficial peace and commerce to be enjoyed over a horizon enabled by forgiving and forgetting past imperial crimes. The global capitalist system the U.S. was defending and advancing against Vietnamese national independence and socialist revolution in the deceptive name of the Cold War struggle against “international communism” has brought humanity to the brink of catastrophic ecosystem collapse. It has also concentrated wealth and power into ever fewer hands on a scale that would make plutocrats of past eras blush. According to Oxfam earlier this year, just 62 super-opulent billionaires own as much wealth between them as half the planet’s population.
The crimes of the American Empire continue to be committed beneath the airbrushing cover of the reigning Western media and intellectual culture, including that of the United States’ supposedly “leftist” system of “higher education,” which is shockingly rife in elite posts with U.S. war criminals, few as directly blood-soaked as the longtime New School president and current FU chair Bob Kerrey but no less real nonetheless—a topic to which I shall turn in a coming special “Back to School” report.
Paul Street is an author and activist in Iowa City. This essay originally appeared on Counterpunch.