In Debate over Bob Kerrey’s Wartime Role, Vietnam Confronts its Past Demons

By Chau Hoang —

Former senator Bob Kerrey (second to the left) and Secretary of State John Kerry meet with Vietnamese secretary of the Ho Chi Minh City Party Committee, Dinh La Thang, before a celebration marking the licensing of the Fulbright University Vietnam. Source: U.S. Department of State's flickr photostream, U.S. Government Work.

Former senator Bob Kerrey (second to the left) and Secretary of State John Kerry meet with Vietnamese secretary of the Ho Chi Minh City Party Committee, Dinh La Thang, before a celebration marking the licensing of the Fulbright University Vietnam. Source: U.S. Department of State’s flickr photostream, U.S. Government Work.

The recent controversy over former senator Bob Kerrey’s chairmanship of the U.S.-sponsored Fulbright University Vietnam (FUV) deserves the attention of those interested in the progress of U.S.-Vietnam relations. The debate transcends the ethical merits of having a soldier who ordered the killing of civilians during the Vietnam War to reveal two crucial developments in Vietnam.

First, it reaffirms Vietnam’s aspiration to become a U.S. strategic partner. Second, by prompting individuals to voice their candid opinions about the Vietnam War, the debate shows an increasingly serious attempt by the Vietnamese public to openly question a narrative imposed by the ruling Communist Party.

The FUV is a collaborative effort by the United States and Vietnamese governments to build an American-style private university in Ho Chi Minh City. With an ambitious curriculum that emulates those of top U.S. liberal arts institutions, FUV will be the first non-profit research university in Vietnam, currently in the midst of a crisis in higher education.

More than many military and economic initiatives, FUV stands in the eyes of Vietnamese people as a powerful metaphor for U.S.-Vietnam reconciliation, and Kerrey is one of its chief American architects. Throughout the years leading up to President Barack Obama’s recent visit to Vietnam, the repentant Vietnam War veteran contributed significantly to the two countries’ education exchange and cooperation. Kerrey used his ties with the Democratic party leadership in the Senate to mobilize $20 million for FUV, making him one of the project’s leading figures.

Given the expectations Vietnamese have for FUV, the intensity with which they reacted to Kerrey’s leadership came as little surprise. The furor was sparked by Ton Nu Thi Ninh, the former head of the Vietnamese delegation to the European Commission, who criticized FUV’s selection in a June 1 op-ed on the Vietnamese online news outlet Zing. Despite Kerrey’s penitence, she wrote, his conduct in the Vietnam War might tarnish FUV’s reputation. In a subsequent letter to the New York Times on June 7, she added that a leadership position at a top university “should not be viewed as an opportunity to atone for past doings” and urged Kerrey to step down.

Ambassador Ninh’s critique triggered a social media debate that evolved into a deeper national dialogue, in which Vietnam’s former soldiers, public intellectuals, government officials, and students engaged in an open exchange about the nation’s past.

Opponents of Kerrey’s appointment said it would “open up old wounds,” and labeled Kerrey’s chairmanship a unilateral imposition of a U.S.-centric redemption narrative on the Vietnamese people, whose wartime suffering FUV has overlooked.

Kerrey’s supporters disagreed, however, arguing that the nation’s perceptions of the war and its former enemy must evolve. Dinh La Thang, the progressive, outspoken secretary of the Ho Chi Minh City party committee and member of the powerful Politburo, urged Vietnamese to recognize Kerrey’s moral courage and forgive his crime, honoring the national tradition of “faith in the future.” For unknown reasons, the Vietnamese language original of Thang’s article was soon removed from the site, spawning speculation that the controversy has become a battleground for pro-U.S. and pro-China factions within the Vietnamese government.

To dwell on this speculation is to miss the heart of the matter. First, the Kerrey debate is one over symbols, not goals. The debate is not over the establishment of the FUV, only its leadership. Opposition to Kerrey’s chairmanship, whether or not it is ultimately successful, will not hinder the U.S.-Vietnam rapprochement. The arguments made by critics and supporters reflect that the majority on both sides share the same desire: to see Vietnam emerge as a strategic partner of the United States. The difference rests in their proposed means – critics want to close off the past; supporters want to confront it.

The second and more important takeaway is harder to see: ultimately, the Kerrey dilemma is not one about Vietnam’s future. Rather, it shows Vietnam’s complicated relationship with the past and, more strikingly, the nation’s first open attempt to critically examine it. In the outpouring of national angst that the debate triggered, Vietnamese ex-soldiers publicly reflected on the Vietnam War, challenging the official narrative advanced by the ruling party of Vietnam.

The most prominent voice was that of Nguyen Ngoc, a retired colonel of the People’s Army of Vietnam and arguably the most influential Vietnamese veteran since the death of General Vo Nguyen Giap in 2013. Rather than denouncing Kerrey, Ngoc condemned the moral failure of both sides in the war and criticized the communist leadership’s resistance strategy, which “used innocent civilians as human shields, so that they could die alongside us.”

With his comment, Ngoc opened a Pandora’s box, prompting bloggers and journalists to bring up other violent episodes of the war as an indictment of the North Vietnamese regime. Given the party’s longstanding repression of its critics, these reflections are, to say the least, out of character. They signal a step forward in Vietnamese civil discourse. Whether they will push the communist regime to relax its grip on press freedom in the short run, however, remains a matter of speculation. What is more certain is that these voices of diversity will inspire young Vietnamese to think critically about Vietnam’s political reality. As a purveyor of intellectual freedom, FUV will be expected to play an important role in driving this effort.

Ms. Chau Hoang is a researcher with the Southeast Asia Program at CSIS.