New School students demand ouster of Kerrey over Vietnam War atrocity
By Patrick Martin
14 May 2001
Students at the New School University in New York City are demanding the
resignation of the newly installed president of the college, former US
Senator Robert Kerrey, over his role in a wartime atrocity in Vietnam.
A meeting of the Graduate Faculty Student Union May 10 voted by a nearly
2-1 margin to call for Kerrey's resignation. A second resolution urging a
congressional investigation into the massacre of 21 women, children and old
men in 1969 passed overwhelmingly. This action came in defiance of the
defense of Kerrey offered by the university's board of directors, most of
the media, and an array of senators and other political figures, especially
in the Democratic Party.
The issue is a defining moment in American politics, and the silence or
indifference that characterizes the response from the New York liberal
milieu bespeaks the putrefaction of American liberalism. Those who are
prepared to accept the presence of a war criminal in the top position at
one of the most prestigious American universities are prepared to accept
virtually any atrocity.
The Socialist Equality Party and its organ, the World Socialist Web Site,
strongly support the action of the Graduate Faculty Student Union and urge
all students, faculty and campus workers at the New School University to
join forces in demanding the removal of Kerrey as president. This action is
a necessary step in a campaign to expose and oppose the forces of
militarism and reaction that have rallied to his defense.
It has been two weeks since the New York Times and the CBS program Sixty
Minutes II made public the events of February 25, 1969 in Thanh Phong, a
village in the Mekong Delta in territory known to be controlled by the
National Liberation Front ("Viet Cong"), the guerrilla forces who were
fighting the American military and the Saigon-based puppet government of
After the initial exposure of the Thanh Phong massacre, the media has
largely dropped the issue. There has been little exploration of the
contradictions in Kerrey's statements about the incident, and the growing
evidence that supports the account by Gerhard Klann, a member of the Navy
SEALS unit that Kerrey commanded. Klann has declared that more than a dozen
Vietnamese women, children and elderly men were rounded up and mowed down
with machine-gun fire at Kerry's orders, a war crime even by the standards
adopted by the Pentagon in Vietnam.
Three significant issues of fact bolster Klann's account and discredit
Kerrey's as self-serving and false:
* All accounts agree that the bodies of 13 victims
were found at a central location in the village. If the killings were, as
Kerrey claims, the result of a nighttime firefight, why were the bodies
clustered together and in the open? Moreover, as the Times article by
Gregory Vistica points out, it is difficult to see how gunfire from 100
yards away, no matter how intense, could kill every single person caught in
the crossfire. The uniformity of the result suggests an attack at
point-blank range. Asked about this contradiction in his story, Kerrey
said, "I can't explain. I do not have an explanation for that."
* Klann and several Vietnamese witnesses describe Navy
SEALS slitting the throats of a grandfather, a grandmother and three
children in the first hut they encountered in the village. The statement
issued by Kerrey and the other squad members in response to Klann
essentially concedes this act of murder, admitting that they resorted to
"lethal methods to keep our presence from being detected."
* In an interview with the Times, Kerrey said he and
his squad entered the center of the village and found the bodies of the
victims. But the statement issued by Kerrey and five other SEALS a few days
after the Times article was published provides a diametrically opposite
account, saying that they "withdrew" from the village "while continuing to
Additional testimony has emerged from Vietnam to support Klann's eyewitness
account. While the official comments from Hanoi have been noncommittal,
avoiding the words "war crime" and noting that Kerrey has supported
restoration of diplomatic and economic ties between the US and Vietnam, a
local official in Ben Tre province called the Thanh Phong massacre a major
atrocity. Pham Di Cu told Reuters news agency, "I think in terms of
brutality, this was the worst incident in this province during the war.
Personally, I think it was inhuman. In terms of the way it was done, it was
a war crime."
A former NLF guerrilla in the province, Tran Van Rung, gave an interview
confirming that a meeting of five local NLF officials, the target of the
SEALS raid, had taken place in an underground bunker outside Thanh Phong.
The group, including the mayor of the village, who Kerrey's unit was
assigned to assassinate, were sleeping in the bunker when the gunfire erupted.
Rung said he and ten other soldiers stayed inside the bunker and did not
attempt to fire on the American attackers because they were armed only with
old bolt-action rifles and a few hand grenades. "We didn't leave the
bunker," he said. "We didn't provoke the Americans." His testimony confirms
the account given by Klann, who said there was no firefight and the SEALS
entered and left the village unopposed. There were no casualties among the
NLF fighters that night, further confirmation that the raid took them by
surprise and they put up no resistance.
Reviving old myths and slanders
Unable to explain away the facts of an incident which even Kerrey, the
chief perpetrator, describes as an "atrocity," Kerrey's defenders have
begun to revive the same myths and slanders that were employed by the US
government for a decade to justify its murderous enterprise in Vietnam.
Some commentaries blamed the Vietnamese themselves for the massacre. Thus
former Secretary of the Navy, and Vietnam veteran, James Webb, writing in
the Wall Street Journal, declared, "North Vietnamese troops were
responsible for such massacres because they concealed themselves in the
villages and used them as military bases."
This reproduces the old canard that the Vietnam War was the product of an
invasion of South Vietnam by North Vietnam, as though the two had been
separate and independent countries existing from time immemorial. Actually
the division of the country into two halves was the product of US
intervention to block implementation of the 1954 Geneva Accord, which
called for nationwide elections within two years. All sides concede that
the Viet Minh led by Ho Chi Minh would have won a free vote. Many of the
"North Vietnamese troops" were native to the villages in the South, just as
many of the NLF cadres were born in the northern half of the country. None
of them had traveled from the other side of the world to invade and lay
waste a small country, like the American forces.
A Washington Post reporter who visited Thanh Phong echoed this slander in
an even more inane form, writing, "The Viet Cong were an elusive enemy.
They wore the same black pajama-like garments as farmers. Their ranks
included women and children. During the day, they would join other peasants
toiling in rice paddies."
The Viet Cong were only pretending to be farmers, dressing like them and
working among them, but only as a disguise, according to this absurd
account. The truth, which the American ruling class still cannot concede
three decades later, is that on the Vietnamese side the war was a genuine
people's war. Tens of thousands of ordinary peasants and workers took up
arms against the imperialist forces, first the French colonial troops, then
Another Vietnam-era tactic is to attack any journalist who dares to report
the truth. Here again the Wall Street Journal took the lead, republishing,
for lack of anything more effective, a 1996 commentary denouncing a book by
Vistica critical of the US military.
Vistica has earned the opprobrium of the Pentagon, breaking the story of
the Tailhook sexual harassment scandal while working as a reporter for the
San Diego Union-Tribune, then going to work for Newsweek, looking into the
falsification of decorations by the Navy brass.
Kerrey himself resorted to the tactic of smearing his critics as disloyal.
He accused the Times and CBS of "collaborating" in a propaganda campaign to
discredit America's role in the war. "It's disgraceful," he told the
Associated Press. "The Vietnamese government likes to routinely say how
terrible Americans were. The Times and CBS are now collaborating in that
A barbaric war
The exposure of Kerrey's role in Vietnam has already had the salutary
effect of focusing public attention, to at least a limited extent, on the
barbaric character of the US intervention in Vietnam. This has been largely
concealed from the generation of Americans who have grown up since the war
ended in the overthrow of the South Vietnamese regime in 1975 and the
flight of US and puppet government officials from the rooftop of the US
Embassy in Saigon.
The war methods employed by successive governments, from Kennedy to Johnson
to Nixon, combined large-scale destruction, using bombs, napalm, chemical
defoliants and high-tech weaponry of all sorts, and individual
assassination, torture and murder. The Allied powers dropped two million
tons of bombs in the entire course of World War II. The United States
dropped eight million tons of bombs on Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia alone.
Much of the Vietnamese countryside was defoliated using poisons like Agent
Orange, so toxic that even the soldiers who did the spraying suffered
long-term damage to their health. Napalm, the jellied gasoline that burns
its way into the human body, was dumped in huge quantities on Vietnamese
villages and suspected NLF strongholds.
Until the 1969 exposure of My Lai, the massacre of more than 500 villagers
by a US unit commanded by Capt. Ernest Medina and Lt. William Calley Jr.,
there was little or no reporting in the major American media about
atrocities committed by US forces. But American reporters in Vietnam had
witnessed Vietnamese prisoners being pushed from airplanes by American
troops, shot while in captivity, or set upon by Dobermans unleashed by
Journalist Neil Sheehan recently recalled that in 1966, three years prior
to the events in Thanh Phong and My Lai, he personally witnessed an
American operation in which US troops wiped out five fishing villages,
killing as many as 600 Vietnamese civilians. The raids "seemed
unnecessarily brutal," but "it did not occur to me that I had discovered a
possible war crime... I had never read the laws governing the conduct of
war, though I had watched the war for three years in Vietnam and written
about it for five ... The Army field manual says it is illegal to attack
hospitals. We routinely bombed and shelled them ... looking back, one
realizes the war crimes issue was always present."
The statements of Kerrey's own defenders have served to confirm the
brutality of the American war. Writing in the Los Angeles Times, Jack
Valenti, the longtime chief lobbyist for the movie industry who was an aide
to John F. Kennedy during the initial intervention in Vietnam, claimed that
in wartime, "all the normalities of a social compact are abandoned." In
other words, anything goes once the fighting starts. Yet only two years ago
the US government charged the Yugoslav government with war crimes for
allegedly pursuing such a policy in Kosovo.
Three US senators who are Vietnam veterans, Max Cleland (D-Ga.), Chuck
Hagel (R-Neb.) and John Kerry (D-Mass.), issued a statement defending
Kerrey that inadvertently makes the same point. The three opposed an
investigation into the Thanh Phong incident because it would be part of a
pattern of blaming "the warrior rather than the war," in effect conceding
that the war as a whole was criminal in character.
John Kerry elaborated, in one television appearance, on the thesis that
soldiers should not be held responsible for actions that were in accordance
with the policies of the US government. The raid on Thanh Phong was part of
Operation Phoenix, he said, and "the Phoenix program was an assassination
program run by the United States of America."
It is worth recalling what the same John Kerry said in 1971 when he first
came to prominence as a Navy lieutenant and leader of Vietnam Veterans
Against the War, in testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
"I would like to say that several months ago in Detroit we had an
investigation at which over 150 honorably discharged veterans testified to
war crimes committed in Southeast Asia," Kerry said. "They told stories
that at times they had personally raped, cut off ears, cut off heads, taped
wires from portable telephones to human genitals and turned up the power,
cut off limbs, blown up bodies, randomly shot at civilians, razed villages
in a fashion reminiscent of Genghis Khan, shot cattle and dogs for fun,
poisoned food stocks and generally ravaged the countryside of South
Vietnam, in addition to the normal ravage of war and the normal and very
particular ravaging which is done by the applied bombing power of this
Vietnam in US politics30 years on
At a packed meeting on the New School campus the week after the Times
report, attended by over 500 faculty and students, Robert Kerrey sought to
defend his conduct, giving an account of the raid by the squad of Navy
SEALS he commanded, and taking some questions from the floor. He called
upon former Times reporter and author David Halberstam, who described the
Mekong Delta region around Thanh Phong as "the purest bandit country."
Halberstam went on to say that "by 1969 everyone who lived there would have
been third-generation Vietcong."
Aside from the absurdity of the claim of "third-generation Vietcong", since
the NLF was founded in 1960, Halberstam's comments amount to a
justification of mass murder. If "everyone who lived there" were Vietcong,
then killing "everyone"men, women and children, was part and parcel of the
Halberstam's defense of Kerrey is symbolic, since he is well known as the
author of The Best and the Brightest, a scathing account of the
decision-making process inside the Kennedy and Johnson administrations that
led to the Vietnam debacle. A liberal who became a successful author and
historian thanks to his critical attitude to the Vietnam War, Halberstam
has evolved into an apologist for the atrocities he once condemned.
The Kerrey case demonstrates that the fissures within American society over
the Vietnam War have never been healed, only papered over. Although the
vast majority of the American people came to oppose the war as immoral and
unjust, the two big business political parties and the official
opinion-makers, as part of their general drift to the right, defend the US
intervention in Vietnam.
The Republican Party and the far right have long maintained that the
Vietnam War was fully justified, only complaining that the methods employed
by Johnson and Nixon were too limited to obtain a victory.
The Democratic Party has steadily moved away from the adaptation to antiwar
opinion which it carried out in the late 1960s and early 1970s, in order to
co-opt popular opposition to the war. A significant section of the
Democratic Party supported US intervention in a covert war in Central
America in the 1980s and voted in 1990 to authorize the Persian Gulf War.
A Democratic president who participated in antiwar protests in the 1960s,
Bill Clinton, deployed US troops overseas during the 1990s in more
interventions than any previous president, Somalia, Bosnia, Haiti, Kosovo,
Iraq, Taiwan, to name only the best known. Democrat Al Gore ran in 2000
boasting of his support for the Gulf War and calling for a bigger increase
in military spending than George Bush.
The defense of Kerrey is essential for both parties in order to
rehabilitate the Vietnam War in public opinion. It is inevitably associated
with a right-wing political agenda and the legitimization of war as an
instrument of US policy.
Kerrey is not just any former politician turned university president. He
was a key figure in the Democratic Leadership Council, the grouping headed
by Clinton and Gore that orchestrated the rightward turn of the Democratic
Party and its embrace of law-and-order demagogy, attacks on welfare
recipients, and increased military spending.
The exposure of Kerrey and the demand for his ouster as president of New
School University are important steps in opposing American militarism, and
especially its liberal apologists.
It is particularly outrageous that such an individual should be placed at
the head of an institution previously identified with socially conscious
thought. Among the founders of the New School were several professors
expelled by Columbia University in 1917 for their opposition to US
participation in World War I. For decades it remained a center of
progressive ideas and opposition to fascism and militarism.
For those who came of age during the 1960s and early 1970s, events like My
Lai, the incursion into Cambodia, Kent State and the Christmas bombing of
Hanoi are seared into memory. For the new generations that have grown up
since then, it is necessary to relearn these lessons of history. The demand
for Kerrey's removal at New School must become part of a campaign to expose
the reactionary, bloody character of the Vietnam War and prepare the
American people to oppose the new plans for worldwide military action being
developed by the Pentagon and the Bush administration.
The role of the liberals and the Democrats in defending Kerrey demonstrates
that such a struggle against American imperialism and militarism can only
be conducted on the basis of the independent mobilization of the broad mass
of working people. The working class must build a political party of its
own, independent of the big business parties and the liberal establishment,
and based on a socialist and internationalist program.
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