Robert Kerrey defends Vietnam War in meeting with New School students
By Jerry White
17 May 2001
At a meeting this past Monday, some 200 graduate students confronted New
School University President and former US Senator Robert Kerrey concerning
his role in the massacre of Vietnamese civilians in 1969. The meeting
followed a May 10 vote by the student union at the university's Graduate
Faculty of Political and Social Science demanding Kerrey's resignation as
president of the New York City institution and calling for a congressional
investigation into the atrocity in the village of Thanh Phong, where 21
women, children and elderly men were murdered.
At the meeting Kerrey maintained the stance he has taken publicly since his
role as commander of a Navy Seal unit that carried out a massacre of
Vietnamese civilians was revealed by the New York Times and CBS television
nearly three weeks ago. He combined expressions of contrition with
statements defending the US war in Vietnam.
Kerrey's avowed regret for his role in the slaughter of civilians did not
prevent him from opposing the student union's call for a congressional
investigation into the massacre. The former Democratic senator and
presidential aspirant lamely told the students that such inquiries "never
He dismissed as "unreliable" the account given by fellow Navy Seal Gerhard
Klann and Vietnamese eyewitnesses, who assert that Kerrey's squadron
rounded up and massacred the civilians. Without offering any facts to
disprove this account, Kerrey restated his position that the civilians were
caught in a crossfire between his troops and "Viet Cong" soldiers.
According to students in attendance, reporters were barred, the meeting was
tightly controlled by Kerrey and the New School administration, whose Board
of Trustees has publicly declared its "unqualified support" for its
presidential appointee. The meeting was limited to one hour and the
majority of the students' questions were left unanswered.
After the meeting one graduate student, Richard Gilman Opalsky, told the
World Socialist Web Site, "Kerrey characterized the Vietnam War as a
freedom fight and a just war and said he was proud to serve his
country. He talks about Nixon and makes some criticisms of the war, but he
says that American military force has been successful in keeping the peace.
He quickly changed the subject when a student talked about ^A'US
imperialism' in Vietnam.
"Kerrey says you can never settle doubts about what happened. But in this
instance, to whom should we give the benefit of the doubt: the Vietnamese
victims, whose bodies were piled up, or the perpetrators, Navy Seal
commandos operating in, of all wars, the Vietnam War?"
Alluding to the 1999 murder of African immigrant Amadou Diallo by New York
City police, Opalsky asked, "Should we have given the benefit of the doubt
to the victim who was shot with 41 bullets, or to the police department's
Street Crimes Unit?"
Kerrey's continued presence as the university, Opalsky said, "undermines
the intellectual and political commitment" of the New School. "We shouldn't
be asking him any more questions, we should be focusing all our efforts
among the students and faculty to get him out."
The resolutions of the Graduate Faculty Student Union were passed in the
face of opposition from the school administration, the news media, which
has all but dropped the story, and most of New York's liberal
establishment. The faculty at the New School, which was founded by
professors who opposed militarism in World War I and was long associated
with left-wing and progressive ideas, has maintained a deafening silence.
The World Socialist Web Site spoke with a number of New School students
involved in the campaign to force Kerrey's resignation. Martin Plot is a
member of the student union who voted for Kerrey's removal. He said, "The
president of a university represents you. How can we have someone who is so
contrary to our values? Throughout history you could not have had war
crimes without thousands who gave and followed immoral orders. Now, 30
years afterwards, Kerrey and the Board of Trustees justify his actions by
saying ^A'war is hell' and he was just following orders.
"During the military dictatorships in Argentina, Chile and other Latin
American countries military officers and soldiers were involved in
kidnapping and killing civilians. In Argentina there is now a sense of
'never again' in relationship to these crimes. In America, however, there
is no sense of 'never again' towards Vietnam, no coming to terms with your
own murderers. But that is the foundation for any democratic regime."
Charles, another student union member who voted for Kerrey's removal, said,
"I came to this school because of its humanitarian history. On the one hand
we espouse human principles, like those advanced by faculty members who
escaped Nazism, and on the other we have a president who has admitted
killing innocent people. He cannot run away by saying he was following
orders. What were the Nuremburg trials all about?"
Daniel Schneider, a graduate student from Germany, added, "Over the last
three weeks Kerrey has repeatedly shown that he still supports the Vietnam
War. But how can the carpet bombing of a people be justified? His speeches
sound like he is still in the Cold War. His anticommunism is a strange
thing at the New School.
"Most members of the faculty opposed the war. Kerrey has no idea how deep
the feelings are about this. The Board of Trustees thinks it's entitled to
speak for the whole community when it defends him. It doesn't."
Priscilla, a graduate student, said, "If you read Kerrey's speeches on the
New School University web site he talks about the fight for democracy in
Vietnam. I'm 45 and part of that era. The war was fought for economic and
political reasons. By 1969 American society was going through a break and
people began opposing the system and the immoral war.
"As for the Board of Trustees, all they are concerned with is whether they
can make the school more
salable with Kerrey. The education system has moved to a market economy and
the board is trying to compete in a city that has New York University and
Columbia. The former president left and after a long search they finally
got Kerrey, whose name is good for fundraising. That's why they rallied
Jamie Wilson, a fine arts student, said, "It would be intolerable for any
university to have a war criminal as its president, but it is an absolute
disgrace for it to happen at the New School, which has long been a bastion
of progressive thought. It is part of totalitarianism, which this school
has fought, to eradicate history.
"Kerrey and the school administration have tried to combat his opponents by
staging forums, I call them
love-ins, where he doesn't answer any hard intellectual questions. Instead
he says, 'We were all part of this great tragedy. It was hell out there.'
He tries to put a human face on his actions in Vietnam and say he had no
personal responsibility and was just following orders. And this is at a
school where Hanna Arendt taught, who denounced as the 'banality of evil'
the attempt of Nazi killers to use this excuse to cover up their crimes.
"The US uses war crimes charges for its own purposes. It is total hypocrisy
to call Saddam Hussein, Noriega and Milosevic, all former puppets of the
US, war criminals, when Kerrey and others are not held accountable for
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