Vietnam’s Kerrey dilemma: Fulbright U appointment is lightning rod for US ties

The “put the past behind and look to the future” spirit has brought many remarkable successes to the relationship between the United States and Vietnam.

But, it is now being tested following an outcry over the decision to hand the chairmanship of Fulbright University Vietnam, a US-backed university, to Bob Kerrey, a war veteran and former US senator, involved in a massacre during the Vietnam War.

War offender or conciliation promoter?

Bob Kerrey

Bob Kerrey

Since the normalization of their diplomatic ties in 1995, the US and Vietnam have taken giant steps forward to reconcile and advance their cooperation.

From former battleground enemies, they are now indispensable partners that closely cooperate with each other in almost all aspects, ranging from political and economic areas, through strategic and military considerations, to cultural and educational collaboration.

One such a giant step was the establishment of Fulbright University Vietnam (FUV) in Ho Chi Minh City. This first-ever non-profit, independent university in Vietnam was launched during President Barack Obama’s landmark trip to Vietnam last month.

On the American side, the force behind its development and advancement of relations with its one-time foe is the veterans of the Vietnam War. One of these was Joseph Robert (Bob) Kerrey, who served as an officer in the US Navy’s SEAL (Sea, Air and Land) teams, in Vietnam in 1969.

Along with other prominent Vietnam War veterans, including John McCain, a long-serving senator and current chairman of the US Senate Armed Services Committee and John Kerry, US secretary of state, the former governor (1983-1987) and senator (1989-2001) of Nebraska and the 1992 presidential candidate fervently advocated for the US rapprochement with Vietnam.

In his announcement of normalization of diplomatic relations with Vietnam on July 11, 1995, Bill Clinton, then US President, praised senators McCain, Kerry, Kerrey and other veterans for their support of the normalization, their “passionate interest in Vietnam” and their ability “to move beyond the haunting and painful past toward finding common ground for the future.”

A particular area of the US-Vietnam relations Kerrey tremendously contributed to both as senator and later as president of the New School in New York is academic exchange and cooperation.

In 1991, he helped to re-establish the Fulbright Exchange Program with Vietnam and three years later, to create the Fulbright Economics Teaching Program, a partnership of the University of Economics, Ho Chi Minh City and the Harvard Kennedy School.

In 2000, together with five other senators, who are Vietnam veterans, namely John Kerry, John McCain, Chuck Hagel, Chuck Robb and Max Cleland, he sponsored legislation that resulted in creating the Vietnam Education Foundation, another initiative aimed at enhancing Vietnam’s education. He played a leading role in FUV’s conception and creation.

Speaking at a gathering of young people in Ho Chi Minh City on May 25, the last day of his three-day trip to the one-party country, where he was rapturously received by the Vietnamese people, President Obama explicitly thanked Kerrey, who he described as “one of the key people to help lead” the FUV project.

Given his long-standing commitment and huge contribution to the Vietnam-US relationship and to academic exchange between the two countries, it was unsurprising that Kerrey, who is also regarded as “an experienced higher education leader” and “a very successful fundraiser for higher education,” was appointed to head the newly-created university.

When asked by VietNamNet, one of Vietnam’s most read online news outlets, about why he was chosen to serve as chairman of FUV’s Board of Trustees, Thomas J. Valelly, chairman of the Trust for University Innovation in Vietnam, the US non-profit corporation behind the FUV project, said the former senator of Nebraska “is the ideal candidate for the job.”

Spectre of massacre

Kerrey as a Navy SEAL

Kerrey as a Navy SEAL

However, his appointment to the role, which was reportedly made on May 16, has angered some people in Vietnam.

The outcry over his nomination has been mainly fueled after Zing, another popular online news outlet in the highly-censored country, published a story looking into his involvement in a massacre in the heat of the Vietnam War.

On Feb. 25, 1969, as a 25-year-old lieutenant in the Navy SEALs, Kerrey led a commando team into Thanh Phong, an isolated and small village in the Mekong Delta. The night-time raid, which presumably targeted Viet Cong (communist) officials thought to be there that night, ended in killing about 20 unarmed civilians. Most of them were women and children.

Kerrey’s involvement in that tragic event was not a secret for years. In 2001, when The New York Times and CBS News were about to publish a joint investigation into the massacre, he openly confessed that the military operation he led killed innocent people. Ever since, on several occasions, he has expressed profound remorse over it.

In Vietnam, though it was one of the worst episodes that the country had to endure during what is also known as the “American War,” which cost the life of some 3 million Vietnamese, the 1969 massacre is history.

Until May 30, when Zing’s publication of its story on Kerrey’s role in the massacre neither Kerrey’s war record nor his nomination was publicly examined.

Zing’s article, which was soon replaced by a revised one that was mainly about his apologies for his war-time actions, has also sparked a robust and widespread debate among the Vietnamese people.

The debate is not only about whether the former senator of Nebraska is fit to lead FUV. It is also about whether the country should truly rise above past conflict and animosity to forge stronger partnership with the US.

Their opinions are sharply divided. While some strongly oppose Kerrey’s appointment, many others staunchly support it. The former focus on his war-time offense whereas the latter stress what he did over the last more than two decades – and what he can and will do – to boost US-Vietnam relations.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Vietnam's Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh pose for a photo before a signing ceremony at the Government Guesthouse as part of the visit by U.S. President Barack Obama in Hanoi, Vietnam May 24, 2016. REUTERS/Kham

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Vietnam’s Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh pose for a photo before a signing ceremony at the Government Guesthouse as part of the visit by U.S. President Barack Obama in Hanoi, Vietnam May 24, 2016. REUTERS/Kham

Be stuck in the past or look to the future?

Among those who object to his appointment is Ton Nu Thi Ninh.

In a piece published by Zing on June 1, Vietnam’s former ambassador to the European Union and Belgium wrote she was “extremely stunned” by the decision to name Kerrey as FUV’s chairman, which “makes no sense” to her as “Kerrey directly participated in the massacre of innocent civilians” in Thanh Phong.

In this opinion piece and her letter to the New York Times on June 7, she argued the Thanh Phong massacre “is indisputable, and Mr. Kerrey has acknowledged it. We cannot obliterate such facts by invoking the need to look to the future.”

Though acknowledging that Kerrey “has expressed remorse over his role” in the atrocity, she contended that “a leadership position at a university with the status and ambitions of FUV should not be viewed as an opportunity to atone for past wrongdoings.”

To elaborate why Kerrey was not fit for the role, she even wrote an “open letter to the Vietnamese people and American friends” published on VietNamNet on June 7. In this, she hoped “FUV founders will reconsider their decision and […] appoint another person to lead FUV’s Board of Trustees.”

Besides Ton Nu Thi Ninh, who has also attempted – but apparently failed – to establish a private, non-profit university, a number of other people, including Nguyen Thi Binh, Vietnam’s former Vice President, also oppose Kerrey’s appointment.

However, the views of Ton Nu Thi Ninh and the likes are not shared by many other people. Dinh La Thang, who was elected to the Communist Party of Vietnam’s Politburo, the most powerful body in Vietnam’s politics, at the CPV’s 12th national congress in January, is one of these.

In a piece published by Tuoi Tre, one of Vietnam’s most popular newspapers, on June 4, the newly-appointed party secretary of Ho Chi Minh City, expressed strong support for FUV’s establishment and Kerrey’s leadership role in it.

Mr. Thang endorsed Kerrey’s appointment firstly because he acknowledged that the latter already profoundly apologized to the Vietnamese people for his actions during the war and “sought out every opportunity” to atone for them and such “efforts are sincere and worthy of recognition.”

More significantly, “in Bob Kerrey’s case,” the newly-appointed leader of Vietnam’s largest city and economic hub believed that country should “move beyond hatred” and follow its “ancestors’ traditions of self-respect, compassion, forgiveness, and faith in the future” because such an attitude would make it stronger and more respected.

Thang, who is seen as an open, charismatic and pragmatic leader, also described President Obama’s visit to Vietnam and the launch of FUV as “a historic opportunity for reconciliation and an occasion for the two countries to close a chapter on the past and work together for a better future, for the sake of generations to come and for the long-term national interest.”

Though it was well received and supported by the Vietnamese people, the Vietnamese version of Dinh La Thang’s piece was later removed from Tuoi Tre’s website. This, coupled with the opposition to Kerrey’s appointment by the likes of Ton Nu Thi Ninh, shows some of the CPV’s former and present officials and leaders are not yet willing “to close a chapter on the past.”

‘Here and now,’ not ‘there and then’?

girlNevertheless, judging by their opinions and reactions expressed in both Vietnam’s state-controlled press and on social media during the past three weeks, most of the Vietnamese already – or are willing to – put the war behind them.

For instance, the majority of the comments posted below Ton Nu Thi Ninh’s piece on Zing and her open letter on VietNamNet on June 1 and 7 respectively, support Kerrey’s appointment and oppose Mrs Ninh’s views.

Besides the points made by Dinh La Thang, those who are strongly receptive to FUV’s establishment and Kerrey’s appointment give other reasons why their country should look to the future, rather than be stuck in the past, in its relations with the US.

Chief among these is the view that it is the “here and now” and a better future they hope for, not the “there and then,” which is unalterable, that most matters to their country and their life.

Such a conviction is understandable given the fact that most of the country’s 93 million population was born and grew up after the war. This fact is also well captured by US officials.

In his remarks at FUV’s establishment ceremony on May 25, US Secretary of State John Kerry noted that “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 reliving memories of events that took place long before they were born,” he furthered.

The argument that most of the Vietnamese people are no longer held hostage to the past and very receptive to the US and to Vietnam’s relations with the latter is evidenced by the rapturous reception they accorded to President Obama during his visit.

US-VietflagsIn a piece on the New York Times on June 7, Roger Cohen talked about the dilemma Bob Kerrey was faced with following the storm his appointment had ignited and suggested that he “should resist calls to quit.”

By naming him chairman of FUV, the US has also created a dilemma for Vietnam. Will it oppose or approve this nomination? The opposition means the country is still reluctant to rise above the past and this will significantly hinder the progress of Vietnam-US relations and the development of FUV in particular. In contrast, the approval shows it is ultimately ready to put the war behind it and seek stronger ties with the US. This will certainly signal a better and brighter future for the Vietnam-US relationship.

As shown over the last few weeks, while some of the country’s officials and leaders may not be wholeheartedly willing to set the past aside, the Vietnamese people mostly want their country to move on and work closely with the US to advance its prosperity and security. The desire for a closer and deeper partnership with the US is also influenced by a concern about China’s increasing aggressiveness in the South China Sea.

Xuan Loc Doan is a research fellow at the Global Policy Institute. He completed a PhD in International Relations at Aston University, UK in 2013. His areas of interest and research include Vietnam’s domestic and foreign policy, ASEAN’s relations with major powers, and international politics in the Asia-Pacific region.

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