Bob Kerrey's Nightmare Tells the Story of Vietnam
by Mark Weisbrot
Published on Thursday, May 3, 2001
Distributed by Knight-Ridder/Tribune Media Services
Some 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 war.
The 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.
The 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
It is 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.
This 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.
The 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."
In 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.
Fast 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.
In 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.
But 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.
But 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.
Mark Weisbrot is co-director of the Center for Economic
and Policy Research (www.cepr.net) in Washington, DC.
This archive was generated by hypermail 2b30 : Sat May 05 2001 - 17:53:49 EDT