“The price of empire is America’s soul, and that price is too high.”
– J. William Fulbright
The story about Bob Kerrey, former governor, US senator, university president, war hero, and self-confessed war criminal and Fulbright University Vietnam (FUV), which I wrote about in these July 2016 and May 2017 bookend articles, is like a bad penny to the powers that be at FUV and the US State Department in Viet Nam. This is because of their obvious inability and/or unwillingness to come to terms with their country’s past in the spirit of Vergangenheitsbewältigung, a wonderful German term that refers to a “struggle to overcome the [negatives of the] past.”
A February 2018 article entitled “How a U.S.-Backed University in Vietnam Unleashed Old Demons” by Isabelle Taft unwittingly broke new ground in a story that had been told numerous times since the controversy erupted and ultimately became a contentious bilateral issue after Bob Kerrey’s appointment as chairman of the FUV board of trustees was announced in a speech by then Secretary of State, John Kerry, during President Barack Obama’s May 2016 visit to Viet Nam.
Here’s what the teaser said: Former Senator Bob Kerrey thought he could help heal the wounds of war. Instead, he reopened them. Actually, as former chairman of the FUV board, Kerrey was old news by the time the article was uploaded in spite of the fact he told Taft in a telephone interview that he thought he was still chairman of the FUV board. Obviously, Kerrey hadn’t received the memo, so to speak. So much for transparency on the part of FUV’s administration. US insiders and the Vietnamese government had been informed of his quiet removal but not the man himself.
In the spirit of better late than never, FUV appointedKerrey’s successor in early May 2018 while he remained as a board member. Kerrey subsequently vanished without a trace from the Our Teamsection of the FUV website, probably the result of being informed earlier in the year by a young journalist that he was no longer chairman.
A New FUV Bête Noire
After reading the cruel and insensitive statements made by Thomas Vallely, which I selectively inventory and analyze below, you could be forgiven for substituting Kerrey’s name with that of Vallely’s, whom the author aptly referred to as “one of the most influential figures in the US-Viet Nam relationship you’ve never heard of,” as the latest official US American to reopen the wounds of war and pour copious amounts of salt into them.
In addition to his role as one of the driving forces behind the establishment of FUV, which he flippantly called his “electric train set,” Vallely is the Senior Adviser for Mainland Southeast Asia at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation. He founded the Harvard Vietnam Program in 1989, and established the Fulbright Economics Teaching Program (FETP) in 1994 in Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC).
One of Vallely’s main qualifications for both positions appears to be his longtime friendship with John Kerry, a fellow war veteran, former US senator and secretary of state, and Bob Kerrey, among others. In other words, all roads to FUV lead to and through Thomas Vallely. His online bio also mentions his service with the US Marine Corps in Viet Nam though that’s hardly a qualification for establishing and running a university even if his military service and the location of the university are one and the same.
Is FUV a US or Vietnamese University?
Vallely referred to FUV’s “de facto autonomy” and the “two halos” over the university: “One’s called the United States government, and the other is called Harvard. Those halos are helpful.” (Angels are not what came to mind when I read about these two helpful “halos.”)
This is yet another example of arrogance on full display that was probably not well-received by the Vietnamese government, which rightfully and correctly views FUV as a binational university. Viet Nam is a sovereign nation, a status it achieved after two major wars at the cost of 3.8 million Vietnamese souls in the American War alone. It is not a country in which anything goes, especially when it concerns national pride and the blood of martyrs.
Vallely’s colleague Ted Osius, former US ambassador to Viet Nam and now FUV vice president, contradicted the former’s statement: “This is Vietnam, and it’s a Vietnamese university, and a controversial matter has been worked out in a satisfactory Vietnamese way.” One university speaking out of both sides of its mouth. One senior official playing good cop to another’s bad cop. Which is it?
Interestingly, in June 2018, FUV announced on its website that Osius “has tendered his resignation and is stepping down from his position at the end of this year to pursue other opportunities in the educational and non-profit sectors.” This article provides plenty of grist for speculation as to why he decided to resign after being on the job for fewer than six months.
And The Truth Will Set You Free
Vallely basically called Vu Thanh Tu Anh, director of research at the Fulbright Economics Teaching Program (FETP), the foundation upon which FUV is being built, a liar. “Tu Anh says that Vallely asked whether he thought appointing Kerrey chairman was a good idea. ‘I said it’s not a good idea,’ Tu Anh recalls. ‘I said that was sensitive and Vietnamese people may forgive, but they never forget.’ Vallely says he doesn’t remember that conversation and doesn’t think it happened.” You can decide who’s lying and who’s telling the truth. If you know anything about Vietnamese culture, your conclusion will be that much easier.
Thạnh Phong as an Asset?
Vallely said in an interview that he doesn’t think appointing Kerrey was a mistake, and says he was surprised by the backlash, which makes me and other thoughtful people wonder what fantasy world he’s inhabiting.
Vallely had this to say about Thạnh Phong, literally the scene of Bob Kerrey’s war crimes that fateful night in February 1969, which he didn’t see as a cause for concern: “I don’t think Thạnh Phong is a negative. I think Thạnh Phong is an asset.” Say what? Presumably, this is because of the way that Kerrey, whom Vallely views as a “hero,” dealt with the repercussions – with Vallely’s assistance – after the Thạnh Phong massacre saw the public light of day in 2001.
Speaking of war crimes and criminals, as senior adviser for the Ken Burns and Lynn Novick series, The Vietnam War: A Film, Vallely said the following in an interview in episode 8: “We had individuals who committed war crimes, of course, and, um, I wanted to kill them. I sometimes wish I did kill ‘em. But I was afraid to kill ‘em.” As one colleague quipped, “So, if Vallely wanted to kill war criminals, why didn’t he and the other honchos throw Bob Kerrey under the bus, instead of keeping him as a hood ornament?” (Not surprisingly, FUV was given a big plug in this documentary while the Kerrey debacle was conspicuously absent.)
Trivializing Cold-Blooded Murder
To Vallely, the sheer ubiquity of violence against civilians in Vietnam, but especially in the densely populated Mekong Delta, argues against singling out Kerrey for criticism.
This is no doubt a paraphrase of a perverse quote about how many Vietnamese civilians were murdered in the Mekong Delta, a lame and vain attempt to somehow minimize – by contrast – the war crimes Kerrey and his unit committed in Thạnh Phong. Ergo, the fact that the US war machine and that of its client state and “allies” slaughtered nearly 4 million Vietnamese means that people like Bob Kerrey, who confessed to his war crimes after being presented with the incriminating documents, deserve a pass?
As one colleague and Viet Nam observer put it, “I was struck by the perverse logic of Vallely and company that because millions were killed means that Thạnh Phong was no big deal and should be ignored. In fact, by the same logic, any individual massacre should be ignored (and its perpetrators should not be ‘singled out for criticism’), since the number of victims was so small compared to the total number killed. The 280 who died on Kham Thien St. in Hanoi during the (1972) Christmas bombings should be ignored. Same for the 504 killed at My Lai and My Khe. Anne Frank should be ignored, too.”
Kerrey Return Trip to Thạnh Phong?
Kerrey said in a telephone interview that he would “very much would like” to return to Thạnh Phong, though he doesn’t know when his next trip to Viet Nam will be. Vallely’s response was that Kerrey shouldn’t travel to Thạnh Phong because “FUV is ‘a bigger contribution and a more important contribution to Vietnam’ than visiting a small community that suffered like so many others during the war.” Kerrey should listen to his conscience not Tommy Vallely’s misguided advice.
Eyes on the Prize
Last but not least, there is this snide and hurtful remark by Vallely: “There’s no one in Thạnh Phong going to FUV.” In other words, why care? It’s just another backwater town of no importance where a small massacre took place, one of countless such atrocities in the charnel house that was the US war in Viet Nam. In the gospel according to Thomas Vallely, Kerrey should keep his eyes on the prize: Fulbright University Vietnam.
What Would Senator J. William Fulbright Think?
Why did Vallely make those statements, knowing that the tape was running and that he would be quoted in a top 1000 digital media outlet? Normally, if someone held those deplorable views, they would have the good sense to express them privately behind closed doors with trusted friends, perhaps over a drink or two. (A dark, wood-paneled room with banker’s lamps, cozy leather chairs, and a bottle of 18 YO Macallan single malt Scotch whiskycomes to mind.)
Was it an empire mentality along the lines of “We are an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality” (attributed to Karl Rove, President George W. Bush’s deputy chief of staff), a feeling of invincibility derived from his special status, including the “two halos” of the US government and Harvard, combined with friends in high places? Or, like Kerrey before him, who once said that would not resign from his FUV position, was it a case of “Pride goeth before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall?” (Proverbs 16:18)
The current situation is best summed up by this passage:
But the impact of the controversy lingers, for FUV and for the U.S.-Vietnam relationship at large. FUV was meant to be a living monument to a new era, free from the stain of a brutal history. Instead, Kerrey’s appointment shone a spotlight on that history. The reckoning it spurred in Vietnam—catching American supporters of FUV by surprise—illuminates how the development of a historically improbable friendship has left unsettled some of the most painful issues of the past, and warns that Americans should not forget just how much the Vietnamese have forgiven.
Except now it’s not Kerrey whose official presence is shining a spotlight on the brutal history of the war but his friend, Thomas Vallely, through his words and demeanor, creating yet another PR crisis for his higher education “electric train set” whose leaders were desperately hoping to put the first crisis issue behind them and move on.
It is painfully obvious that people like Tommy Vallely and likely most US Americans, including those in positions of political power, have yet to begin the long and arduous process of Vergangenheitsbewältigung. Sadly, it is they whose statements and actions have contributed to the continued erosion of America’s soul that Senator Fulbright warned about. One belief they probably share is that the United States of America is the sun around which all of the other nation-state planets revolve.
Once again, shame on them and the Vietnamese who follow their contemptible lead because they are either errand boys (and girls), in the words of national heroine, Võ Thị Sáu, or simply craven opportunists.
As I mentioned to an FUV official who was involved in Kerrey’s appointment in a previous incarnation, what I’ve discovered in all of this is how invisible the victims of that massacre at the hands of Bob Kerrey and his unit are, both the dead and the living, not to mention the millions of whom Thomas Vallely spoke in a couple of throwaway sentences.
That is my main motivation in writing and speaking out about this, not “sticking it” to any individual or institution. The tendency of most people involved with this issue to completely ignore the victims is both heartless and morally reprehensible.
The last of the Buddha’s Five Remembrances about impermanence is relevant here (translation by Thích Nhất Hạnh): “My actions are my only true belongings. I cannot escape the consequences of my actions. My actions are the ground on which I stand.” The ground upon which Thomas Vallely once stood dissolved into quicksand the moment those chilling words about civilian deaths in the Mekong Delta and Thạnh Phong spilled out of his mouth.
The End Game
It is not only Bob Kerrey and everyone who supported his appointment who unleashed new demons, all of which are now so much water under the bilateral bridge at this point, but also Thomas Vallely, whose latest statements keep the fires of controversy smoldering.
Vallely chose to hang himself with his own words and should pay a professional price for what he said, which has caused additional pain and stirred up more anger. The damage to his reputation and legacy, which are increasingly important to those in their twilight years, or so I’m told, is irreparable.
A Fulbright University Vietnam sans Thomas Vallely will be able to push ahead without this burdensome and bloodstained historical baggage, and perhaps with greater official Vietnamese oversight than originally envisaged.