The New School’s Kerrey Crisis

An Antiwar Institution Agonizes Over a President Who Killed Unarmed Vietnamese Civilians

Or so it seemed until the April 29 New York Times Magazine article by Gregory Vistica. Through extensive research and interviews, Vistica established that the 21 Vietcong soldiers reported killed on Kerrey's first mission were in fact approximately 18 women and children and one old man, all unarmed. Gerhard Klann, one of Kerrey's squad members, says about a dozen of these women and children were rounded up and executed. At least one Vietnamese woman has supported Klann's version of events. Kerrey says the civilians were killed at a distance, in the dark of night, as his squad was returning enemy fire. The other members of Kerrey's squad are backing his story.

The unconcerned aside ("Dude, it was a war, they were supposed to kill people," explained acting student Elizabeth Page), there is fierce debate on campus over which version of events is truthful. "Kerrey's account is dubious at best," says the historian Adolph Reed, professor of political science at the New School. "It strains credibility to believe they fired wildly into the black night and killed everybody. Look at how the bodies were huddled together. I've supported efforts in the Midwest to track down Nazi war criminals. There is really no difference between what they did and what Kerrey did. The difference is the scale."


‘Kerrey’s account is dubious at best,’ says the historian Adolph Reed, professor of political science.


Several participants in a New School genocide studies class said the controversy had shifted the curriculum to a discussion of Vietnam. "This brought home what we've been studying. It's right in our midst—it's up for debate if the president of our university is a war criminal," said Safiya Martinez, a cultural studies major. "If he was a Libyan government agent who killed Americans, we'd be dying to put him on trial."

"The school is losing its radical stance," added classmate Aura Morse.

Yet for many others, the events of that night are unknowable. Political science department chair David Plotke, an S.D.S. antiwar organizer at Harvard and Berkeley in the late 1960s, thinks that Kerrey should be given the benefit of the doubt. "I do not think he did it," says Plotke. "He denies it, and better corroboration is needed to prove him guilty." Plotke also believes weight should be given to Kerrey's record since his return from Vietnam. "When he surfaced, he was a critic of the use of military power. If this never came to light—if you looked at Bob Kerrey since 1980—you would see that he fits in [at the New School] very well."

Kerrey stood on the floor of the auditorium in shirtsleeves, town-hall-style, leaving the stage empty behind him. Eye-to-eye with 500 faculty and students (300 more watched on closed-circuit TV; 200 were turned away), the former politician was somber as he briefly recounted the events of that night. To many in the audience, Kerrey seemed genuinely aggrieved, saying, "I want this public memory to be used for something good. It has allowed me to talk about what can happen when we train and send young people to war."

Next up was William Hirst, a New School psychology professor. In a phone interview from France the next day, Hirst said he explained that "research has shown that one can have concrete memories and they can be completely wrong. Others can have vague, hazy memories of an event that are absolutely correct." Many presumed that these comments were meant to call into question the account of Gerhard Klann, the squad member who remembers the execution of women and children.

Kerrey then fielded questions from the floor. The audience—breathing in the chilled air and reclining in upholstered seats—seemed in no mood to harp on the harsh, bloody details. Several began their queries by thanking Kerrey for his courage and candor and made it clear that they viewed the controversy as an opportunity—a welcome chance to deal with the Vietnam legacy in a positive manner. Kerrey steered the conversation to spreading the economic wealth of the U.S., poverty in Africa, and the salvation of the New York City public schools. He also expressed a desire to be reincarnated as a Vietnamese and said, "The reconciliation of our peoples is the most important reconciliation of my life. Reconciliation is a difficult moral choice . . . it cannot be done without debate."

The New School president next presented David Halberstam, the noted historian, who explained that Kerrey had been operating in "the purest bandit country. By 1969 everyone who lived there would have been third-generation Vietcong."

Reed, like several other faculty members interviewed, was incensed by the tone of the forum and its "let the healing begin talk." He sees the warm response as avoiding responsibility and cheapening Vietnamese lives. "What if the situation was reversed—if 30 years ago foreign combatants were creeping around the American countryside, slitting people's throats, do you think we'd be saying, 'Let bygones be bygones'?" asked Reed.

"The danger is people will think they had a conversation about Vietnam," said another professor, "when what they really had was a fake conversation about Vietnam. Now they can sweep it under the rug again."

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