On May 16, 2016, former Nebraska Senator Bob Kerrey was named chairman of Fulbright University, a US-backed college with ties to the State Department in Ho Chi Minh City. During his recent visit to Vietnam, President Barack Obama heaped praise on Kerrey, a former Navy SEAL who served in Vietnam from 1967 to 1969. What Obama failed to mention is that Kerrey also supervised one of the most atrocious war crimes of that ghastly war. The unit he lead killed women and children during an assassination mission in 1969. Some of the victims had their throats slit. Instead of being charged with war crimes, Kerrey was awarded a Medal of Honor for his role in another operation of that year in Nha Trong Bay. Today we reprint a piece that Alexander Cockburn and I wrote for the May 2001 issue of CounterPunch magazine on Kerrey, Operation Phoenix and his protectors in Congress and the press. –Jeffrey St. Clair
Here’s one of the many unsettling things about Bob Kerrey, and it doesn’t even address the issue of what exactly he did in the Vietnamese village of Thanh Phong. Supposedly riddled with indecision whether to accept the Medal of Honor for a military action subsequent to the one now under dispute, he finally did so on May 14, 1970, just 10 days after after the Ohio National Guard killed four anti-war student protesters at Kent State.
In other words, at a moment of maximal national revulsion against the Vietnam War, former Sen. Kerrey went along with the Pentagon’s urgent desire for heroes and presented his chest to President Richard M. Nixon, who pinned the medal to it. So much for “ambiguity,” one of the words used now to salvage his reputation. And now, and only now, is he considering whether to give back the Bronze Star awarded him for the 1969 mission in which (if you believe, as we do, his fellow SEAL Gerhard Klann) he assisted in the throat-slitting of an elderly Vietnamese peasant and ordered the killing of 13 women and babies, or (if you believe him) less wittingly supervised the slaughter of an old man and 13 or more women and children.
It’s pretty clear that Kerrey’s raid was part of the CIA’s Phoenix program (as was My Lai, where “Task Force Barker” killed 504 men, women and children the preceding year). The intent of Phoenix was terror, precisely the killing of not only suspected Viet Cong, but also their families. The late William Colby, the CIA man who ran the program, told Congress that between 1967-1971, 20,587 Vietnamese “activists” were killed under the Phoenix program. The South Vietnamese declared that 41,000 had been killed. Other estimates go as high as 70,000.
Barton Osborn, an intelligence officer in the Phoenix program, spelled out in a congressional hearing the prevailing bureaucratic attitude of the agents toward their campaign of terror: “Quite often it was a matter of expediency just to eliminate a person in the field rather than deal with the paperwork.”
And who was classified as a “VC sympathizer” and, therefore, fair game to be slaughtered by units like Kerrey’s? The CIA’s Robert Ramsdell, one of the two men who developed the My Lai operation, said, “Anyone in that area was considered a VC sympathizer because they couldn’t survive in that area unless they were sympathizers.” Thanh Phong was in “that area,” which lends credence to Klann’s account of what Kerrey’s raiders did.
The death squads run by the CIA men supervising Phoenix were a particular favorite of the man who pinned the medal on Kerrey: Nixon. After My Lai there was a move to reduce funding for these killing programs. According to journalist Seymour Hersh, Nixon passionately objected: “No. We’ve got to have more of this. Assassinations. Killings.” The funding was swiftly restored.
When he was at Newsweek in 1998, reporter Gregory Vistica had Kerrey cold, but the newsmagazine’s editors decided that since Kerrey was no longer a presidential candidate it wasn’t worth exposing him. It was apparently OK for a U.S. senator to be an alleged war criminal. Then the New York Times finally decided to run Vistica’s story because Kerrey had left the Senate. Given the lack of disquiet among faculty and students, it’s also apparently OK for an alleged war criminal like Kerrey to be head of the New School University in New York, which in earlier days hosted refugees from Nazi Germany.
So will the Kerrey brouhaha nudge the nation or Congress into confronting the past and what the Vietnam War really involved? Of course not. Right before the 2000 election, CounterPunch ran a story by Doug Valentine, who wrote “The Phoenix Program,” one of the best histories of what really happened in Vietnam. Valentine’s CounterPunch story concerned Robert Simmons, in the midst of an ultimately successful campaign to represent Connecticut in Congress. The specific charge against Simmons, originally leveled in the Connecticut paper New London Day in 1994 was that he routinely violated the Geneva Convention while interrogating civilian prisoners during his 20 months of service with the CIA in Vietnam. Simmons claimed he’d always steered clear of the dirty stuff. Same way Kerrey claims that when his unit cut the throats of the old folk in a Thanh Phong peasant hut, he was outside.
When Simmons was battling to become a congressman (after a long career in state government in Connecticut), no national paper cared a whit about the fact that a possible torturer and war criminal was on the hustings. Small wonder Congress is being protective of Kerrey, admonishing the Pentagon not to probe what happened at Thanh Phong. How many executive agents of the Phoenix program are strolling up and down the aisles of government?