The Dark Past of Fulbright University Việt Nam’s New Chairman

Published July 11, 2016 in Episode 52

President Barack Obama announced a new venture in the education partnership between the U.S. and Việt Nam during his recent visit to the country–a seemingly exciting new frontier. What he didn’t mention at the time was the appointment of the former U.S. Senator Robert “Bob" Kerrey as the chairman of the Fulbright University Việt Nam (FUV)’s board of trustees. This fact has been the source of much controversial debate in Việt Nam, particularly on social media:

While some question whether he is the best person for the job given his past, others see his appointment to FUV as act of reconciliation between the two countries.

Bob Kerrey served as a U.S. senator and governor of the state of Nebraska, but it is his leadership as a young lieutenant with the Navy SEALs that is being re-examined. 

As a 25-year-old in February of 1969, he commanded a raid on Thạnh Phong village during which 21 unarmed civilians, including women and children, were shot and killed. Kerrey acknowledged his role in what he described not as a “military victory..but a tragedy” in his 2002 memoir When I Was a Young Man.

Kerrey was awarded the Bronze Star for the raid based on an earlier account that said 21 Việt cộng were killed.

Kerrey has told many versions of the raid, each with differing and disputed details. In a 1998 interview with a reporter who had dug into the Navy’s “after action” reports and was about to publish his investigation, Kerrey reportedly said:

The thing that I will remember until the day I die is walking in and finding, I don’t know, 14 or so, I don’t even know what the number was, women and children who were dead. I was expecting to find Việt cộng soldiers with weapons, dead….instead I found women and children.”
— Bob Kerrey

In an interview in June 2016 with WBUR, a public radio station in Boston, Kerrey recalls the raid once more, this time in a defensive tone.

“It was a night operation, there were armed men in that village. We went in there with the purpose of intercepting some Viet Congs who were operating in that area and I think it is accurate to say that we use excessive force but it’s not like we walked in there all on Mỹ Lai and ordered a massacre.”

FUV’s opening this September at the Sài Gòn High Tech Park in District 9 again brings Kerrey’s past to the forefront.

Among the strongest critics of his appointment is Madame Tôn Nữ Thị Ninh. The former Vietnamese ambassador to the European Union has called for Kerrey to step down as a “gesture of self-respect and grace.“ In a letter to the New York Times she writes, “The university must be an institution that is sensitive to the feelings of all Vietnamese, not an institution in Việt Nam conceived and decided upon by Americans disregarding our self-respect and dignity.”

But Lê Thái Dương, a first-year college student from Sài Gòn who hopes to study in the U.S. one day, questions why there is even an issue.

“If the American people believe in Bob then why should we not believe in Bob? I understand the things he did in the past were very brutal, but it’s clear that was in a time of war.”

FUV’s mission is to “serve Vietnamese society through the creation of human and knowledge capital.” Obama alluded to Việt Nam’s brain drain during his May visit. Last year, nearly 29,000 Vietnamese students enrolled in America.

Fulbright University Việt Nam is built upon an existing partnership between the Harvard Kennedy School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and the University of Economics Hồ Chí Minh City, with programs focusing on Việt Nam’s economic development.

The school will operate as a private institution. Việt Nam News reports that it has received more than $20 million US dollars commitment from the U.S. government and $60 million US dollars from fundraising efforts.  

FUV has a funding target of $100 million US dollars for the first five years, and many Vietnamese look favorably at Kerrey’s past experience as a fundraiser and university president.

Nguyễn Lai, a 34 year-old Vietnamese teacher from Huế, says many of her family members and colleagues share her view on his war record.

I don’t think it is a problem, because if he’s enthusiastic and has the experience or talent, his management will be an investment in the new generation and that’s still good. I don’t think about the past but rather the present. My concern is for the present and if the present will result in something for the future.”
— Nguyễn Lai

On public forums and discussion boards, it seems many of those most critical of FUV’s new chairman are Americans, Vietnamese Americans and Vietnamese elites.

Richard Shoup, a 65-year-old Việt Nam veteran from Massachusetts visiting Sài Gòn as a tourist at the moment, strongly disapproves of the appointment.

“I don’t think of anyone who has done anything that would involve a war crime or killings of innocent civilians is worthy of an appointment, especially to a country and associated with a university where he would be considered the figurehead. I think there is too much baggage there and I don’t think he deserves to be in that position.”

In his New York Times opinion piece, Pulitzer Prize-winning Vietnamese American author Việt Thanh Nguyễn refers to Kerrey as “a symbol of Western influence” and says he is “the wrong man for the job.“ Furthermore, Nguyễn questions whether FUV will follow some American universities’ example of promoting economic inequality that supports the super wealthy, instead of cultivating humane thinking.  

Alvin Johnson, a 30-year-old anthropologist from Mississippi and occasional resident of Việt Nam, echoes Nguyễn’s sentiment that Americans see the Việt Nam war as “an American tragedy,” that completely ignores the suffering of the Vietnamese.  

Johnson says he can’t see how Kerrey’s prominent position would help Việt Nam and the Vietnamese people.

“It seems to me appointing Bob Kerrey to this position really continues that narrative. It makes this story about his redemption and atonement and kind of further trivializes the values of the victims’ lives and by implications, the Vietnamese experience of the war.”

Việt Nam’s state media has not covered the controversy around Kerrey’s appointment much but instead has focused on the plans for the school’s opening. Kerrey has apologized for his actions during the war, and he in fact echoed many Vietnamese when he also stated that, “An apology changes nothing about what I did. We cannot change the past. We can only change the future and I hope my efforts to make FUV a success will change the future of Việt Nam for the good.”

Lai, the teacher from Huế, agrees.

If it requires him to apologize then he should apologize, but it won’t do anything, what’s more important is how he can contribute.”
— Nguyễn Lai

Kerrey says he is “neither surprised nor offended by the backlash” and has said he has no intention to withdraw from his post.  

While many Americans continue to revisit the Việt Nam war narrative, perhaps out of guilt, most Vietnamese instead want to focus on their country’s future.

Vô Ngọc Bích, a high school senior from Đà Nẵng who hopes to attend a prestigious university such as FUV, says that’s in part because students here aren’t taught about what really happened in the past.

“There is a saying: ‘let the wounds heal’ which means the enemy is in the past and only in the future can we transform this enemy into a friend.”

The ability of the Vietnamese people to forgive is marked by survival instincts where unstable societal structures haven’t allowed people to dwell on the past, and material need necessitate moving forward.  

Kerrey’s controversial appointment reflects not only unresolved emotions across continents over reconciliation, but it also captures the conflict and need in the Vietnamese desire to heal. Efforts of rapprochement with former enemies in the West have come easier to the government than with its own people, including those in the diaspora.

Việt Nam’s leaders have favored prestige and validation from high-profile collaborations, such as with the Americans, over true and sustainable reforms from within. The current education system is in dire need of a complete transformation that won’t be fixed by the Fulbright University, and Việt Nam’s attempts at reconciliation lack sincerity without a deep introspection.