TRUTH AND RECONCILIATION BEGIN AT HOME
By JOANNE MARINER
Friday, May. 04, 2001
What is the responsibility of the United States for war crimes and other
atrocities in other countries in Guatemala, Nicaragua, and El Salvador? In
Chile? In Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam? And how do we document the facts
necessary to ascertain the U.S. role?
The issue of American involvement in human rights abuses abroad has
recently arisen in the context of
examining former Senator Bob Kerrey's actions in Vietnam. But the U.S. role
in Cold War abuses, a
topic raised by the public discussion of Kerrey's conduct, demands a
broader and more systematic examination.
Bob Kerrey's Memories of Vietnam
Last Sunday, the New York Times Magazine published an account of the
killing of at least thirteen unarmed Vietnamese civilians women and
children by a Navy commando team led by then-Lieutenant Bob Kerrey.
Kerrey, who later came to national prominence as a senator, says that his
memory of the incident is faulty. While acknowledging that he cannot
remember every detail of what occurred, he claims that the killings were
carried out in self-defense.
But a Vietnamese woman who says she witnessed the killings remembers a very
different set of events. In her account, which was supported by a member of
Kerrey's commando team, the team rounded up the civilians and purposefully
The killings occurred in Thanh Phong, an isolated Vietnamese hamlet, on
February 25, 1969. For more than thirty years, Kerrey never mentioned them
publicly. Only after having been confronted with pages of incriminating
documents, the fruits of a reporter's three-month review of classified and
unclassified records from the Navy's archives, was he spurred to set forth
his version of events.
Kerrey is not the only former political figure whose wartime conduct has
recently come under critical scrutiny. Henry Kissinger, one of the
architects of U.S. policy in Vietnam, was just the subject of a two-part
series in Harper's that sets out, in some detail, the case for prosecuting
him as a war criminal. The article describes, among Kissinger's many
misdeeds, cases "in which the civilian population [in Vietnam] was
deliberately exposed to indiscriminate lethal force, in which the customary
laws of war and neutrality were violated, and in which conscious lies had
to be told in order to conceal these facts and others."
These crimes differ markedly from the atrocities that Kerrey is alleged to
have committed, both in their vast scale and in their coldly calculated
nature. While deliberately killing civilians in a single incident is a war
crime, the systematic killing of many thousands over a period of years is a
crime against humanity. Whatever logistical difficulties may hinder the
task of investigating the allegations against Kerrey, the larger question
of establishing the record about U.S. involvement in Vietnam demands more
The Role of Truth Commissions
In the aftermath of periods of violence and repression, countries have
frequently established official truth commissions to investigate the facts
about the human rights abuses that were committed. Indeed, it has become
an almost reflexive step for transitional governments to set up truth
commissions as part of the process of reestablishing democracy and the rule
of law. When they are made up of respected, independent commissioners,
equipped with a full panoply of legal powers, such commissions can make an
The immediate goal of such commissions is to recover the truth about past
injustices to create a firm historical record of what happened, and to
whom. But they can serve other purposes as well, including laying the
groundwork for the criminal prosecution of the perpetrators of abuses and
the monetary compensation of the victims. Theoretically (if
unrealistically), they also offer some hope of reconciling victims and
perpetrators, or at least of helping to mend sharply polarized societies.
The underlying idea is that clarifying the truth about past abuses, and
acknowledging the wrongs that occurred, is a necessary prerequisite to
To date, truth commissions have focused on atrocities occurring within a
given country, and have largely been limited to documenting the role of
that country's nationals in committing them. Yet, as the Vietnam example
suggests, outside countries have played a critical role in the majority of
armed conflicts over the past few decades, including those characterized by
the most serious rights violations. Accordingly, and for many of the same
reasons that justify truth commissions in the national context, the role of
outside governments also demands examination.
Examining Outside Governments
A strong case can be made for reviewing the Cold War maneuvering of the
then-Soviet Union, France, Cuba, and South Africa, among others, but surely
the United States must be included on any short list of countries meriting
scrutiny. Whether as military partner, financial backer, or
behind-the-scenes manipulator, the United States has had some degree of
involvement with many of the most abusive governments of the post-W.W. II
era. In some cases, like Vietnam, the U.S. is directly implicated in
atrocities. In many more, including Chile, Guatemala, and El Salvador, it
is U.S. support for abusive forces that should be examined.
The clandestine nature of the U.S. role in many such settings is another
factor that militates in favor of some sort of truth-telling exercise.
Since the American public would not have countenanced open and notorious
U.S. involvement in human rights crimes, the U.S. frequently engaged in
covert operations, providing material and logistical support for abusive
With the Cold War having ended, and the need for secrecy having dissipated
along with it (putting aside the question of whether such secrecy was ever
justified), it is high time that the United States engage in some official
truth-telling. Critical to such an effort would be a close review of
classified military and intelligence records, and the taking of testimony,
under oath, of political and military leaders responsible for formulating
and implementing U.S. foreign policy.
The Need for Truth Commissions
To some extent, the U.S. has already embarked on this effort by
declassifying thousands of pages of official documents. In recent years,
declassified records have, for example, revealed important information
about the U.S. role in undermining Chile's democracy and in supporting
dictator Augusto Pinochet. But much remains to be done before the full
historical record of U.S. activities in Latin America and elsewhere is known.
Truth and reconciliation are not only of value within a society, they are
also worth seeking in international relations. As the Vietnam example
highlights, the past is often unclear, shrouded in secrecy and layers of
denial, and, in many instances, still hotly disputed. But even if the full
truth about past abuses is impossible to ascertain, the effort to do so is
a necessary one.
A serious and exhaustive review of the U.S. role in Cold War abuses around
the world would go far toward fostering reconciliation with the victims,
and might even spark efforts to achieve justice. Henry Kissinger, go find
yourself a lawyer.
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