One year after the story broke that a Navy SEAL team under his command was involved in an atrocity during the Vietnam War, former Nebraska Senator Bob Kerrey stood before a packed hall in lower Manhattan as the keynote speaker at a three-day conference on human rights. The conference–“International Justice, War Crimes & Terrorism: the U.S. Record”–took place at New School University, where Kerrey is president, and grew out of Kerrey’s own suggestion that his experience in Vietnam be turned into an “educational moment.” On hand were an array of prominent writers (David Rieff, Samantha Power), advocates (Aryeh Neier, president of the Open Society Institute), public officials (former UN ambassador Richard Holbrooke) and judges (Richard Goldstone, former chief prosecutor at the international criminal tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda).
But while the conference featured lively panel discussions on important subjects like prosecuting war crimes and responding to terrorism, Kerrey was noticeably cagey when it came to discussing how his own experience might shed light on America’s culpability for human rights violations in Vietnam. “When I said I hoped to turn my revelations last spring into an educational moment,” he announced, “I did not intend to meekly submit to cross-examinations or self-indulgent one-sided criticism of US foreign policy during the war in Vietnam.”
Fair enough, but that is hardly what has happened in the year since Gregory Vistica’s excellent article on the incident involving Kerrey’s Navy SEAL unit appeared in The New York Times Magazine. Vistica presented two conflicting versions of the incident in question. According to Kerrey and five other platoon members, a group of Vietnamese civilians was inadvertently killed following an exchange of fire in the village of Thanh Phong, where US commandos were searching for a representative of the National Liberation Front. According to the more damning account of former Navy Seal Gerhard Klann, however–a version corroborated by several Vietnamese survivors–roughly a dozen women and children were lined up and executed at close range that night. Five more civilians were killed at knife-point before the team had reached the village.
When the story first appeared, the charges were deemed serious enough that Human Rights Watch called on Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld for an “urgent, thorough and independent inquiry” of the case. “For the US to ignore allegations of grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions as have been made in this case would seriously undermine efforts around the world to enforce these essential standards,” the organization stated.
Twelve months later, all talk of investigating the Kerrey incident has evaporated. Kerrey, meanwhile, has continued to preside over the New School, a university with a proud progressive history that has found itself enmeshed in moral and political controversy. Dismayed that Kerrey never told school officials about the operation until the story made international headlines, the Graduate Faculty Student Union called for him to step down. But the Board of Trustees stuck by him, and the faculty wavered, issuing a statement that Kerrey’s public acknowledgment should serve as an occasion for the United States “to consider its own record in Vietnam against the standards it imposes elsewhere.”
At least some faculty members are now regretting that decision, for the controversy about Kerrey’s past has been compounded by growing rancor over his vision of the New School’s future. In March, Kenneth Prewitt, the popular dean of the school’s vaunted Graduate Faculty of Political and Social Science, resigned after concluding that “the emphasis was on revenue flows rather than building academic excellence.” At a public forum in March, Prewitt revealed that at one point a provost suggested awarding cash bonuses to deans who increased the number of tuition-paying students in their divisions, a notion Kerrey admitted was his own “bad idea.” Other faculty members believe Kerrey has not been straightforward about the future of the university’s core division, the Graduate Faculty. In March the GF was informed it would have to cut its budget by $5 million to become self-sustaining (virtually all doctoral programs rely on subsidies from other divisions to stay afloat). When Kerrey was questioned about his plans in the Times, he reversed course, indicating that the subsidy might actually increase. At a faculty dinner two nights later, an associate dean who asked whether this was true was reportedly told by Kerrey not to believe everything he read in the papers.
Such lack of forthrightness is reminiscent of Kerrey’s handling of the Vietnam story. When Klann’s account first appeared, after all, Kerrey did not flat-out deny it (“I’m not going to make this worse by questioning somebody else’s memory”), but he accused the media of “collaborating” with those who want to believe the worst about America. He expressed anguish and regret (“If I’d have lost both arms and both legs and my sight and my hearing, it wouldn’t have been as much as I lost that night”). But he hired public relations adviser John Scanlon–who orchestrated the campaign against tobacco industry whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand (and has since died)–to spin the story. In his keynote address, Kerrey did advocate more thorough training of US troops in the laws of war, but he also complained that critics who harp on Vietnam have made America excessively cautious about using force abroad.
Perhaps we should expect nothing different from a public figure whose reputation is his livelihood. But many people do expect more from the New School. “I really question the wisdom of the university leaders here,” said John Kim, an army veteran who attended the conference and heads the New York chapter of Veterans for Peace. “If he had come out openly and admitted his wrongdoing and apologized to the victims, I would support him. But I think the trustees and students and faculty should demand his resignation until there is an independent investigation or he comes forward with a full admission of his role.”