The New School’s Kerrey Crisis


Last week, in front of the New School auditorium, they gathered a thousand strong, a serpentine parade of the angry, the skeptical, the supportive, the curious. They came to hear from a man who had recently admitted to killing Vietnamese women and children 32 years earlier, a man who was now their leader. The school’s trustees had issued a statement of support for New School president and Congressional Medal of Honor winner Bob Kerrey, yet this meeting was crucial: Kerrey had to win over the school’s students and faculty if he was to head off a small but potentially threatening movement to remove him.

There were many viewpoints in the crowd: Sven Travis, the school’s digital design chairperson, came “because it’s important that I show my sympathy for Bob Kerrey. He has dynamic ideas about what the university should be doing. He is very much the kind of individual the New School needs.”

Not 50 feet away, Bridget Francis, an education major, disagreed. “He should be tried for what he did,” she said. “It’s disgusting that our government gave him an award for massacring large amounts of people. He shouldn’t remain as president.”

And then there were those who hadn’t bothered to attend, like the New School music students lounging around the corner on Fifth Avenue. “Bob Kerrey? I’ve never heard of him,” said Joyce Kwong. “We don’t really talk about social issues at all.”

Before Kerrey’s arrival in February, the New School had undertaken two fruitless searches for a president and remained leaderless for 24 months. The hiring of Kerrey—a former governor, senator, and presidential candidate—was widely regarded as a coup for the quirky, progressive institution that traces its roots to World War I antiwar activists.

One faculty member described the mood as “ecstatic” when news of Kerrey’s appointment was announced. The April 26 accusation of atrocities threw the campus into turmoil and left students and faculty arguing bitterly over events that took place in a Vietnamese hamlet, 32 years ago and thousands of miles away. It also provoked an unusually bitter reexamination of the school’s mission and identity, and led to questions about Kerrey’s effectiveness as both moral leader and fundraiser for the university.

“He’s damaged goods,” said Michael Hirsch, a Ph.D. candidate in sociology. “Do you want the leader of a hit squad with blood on his hands raising money for you?”

One high-level source says that the board of trustees is incensed that Kerrey did not inform them of the coming controversy, though he knew two years ago that it was brewing. “But what can they do?” the source said. “They have to close ranks behind him.”

Discussions about their president’s involvement in wartime killings are particularly poignant for members of an institution born of antiwar sentiment. In 1917, two Columbia University professors came out against American involvement in World War I and were promptly fired. The academics formed alliances with other intellectuals—notably John Dewey and Thorstein Veblen—and in 1919, the New School for Social Research was born. From the start, the college was radical and anti-establishment; the founders stated that there was to be no administration and no endowment. Later, in the 1930s, the legendary “University in Exile” was created, the faculty made up of 167 scholars rescued from Hitler’s Europe.

By the winter of 1969, about the time 25-year-old Lieutenant Bob Kerrey was shipping out for Vietnam, the school had firmly established a reputation as a hotbed of antiwar sentiment and radical politics. “I doubt there was a single member on the entire faculty who was in favor of the war in Vietnam,” said a former student and antiwar activist.

Kerrey’s time in Vietnam was brief. The squad leader, who has stated many times that he intended “to take Hanoi with a knife in my teeth,” led his first real mission in February of 1969. His team of commmandos raided the hamlet of Thanh Phong in an attempted “takeout” of a Vietcong leader. The Navy credited his squad with killing 21 enemy soldiers that night and awarded Kerrey the Bronze Star. On his second big mission, in March, Kerrey was seriously wounded in Cam Ranh Bay. Just three months after his arrival in Vietnam, Kerrey was back in the States, hailed as a war hero, haunted by nightmares, and missing his right leg below the knee.

In his home state of Nebraska, Kerrey quickly established himself as a successful businessman. In short order, there was a chain of health clubs, the governorship of Nebraska, the famous relationship with Debra Winger, the move to the Senate, outspoken support for gay rights and the right to burn the flag. And, in 1992, a disastrous run for the presidency.

The New School for Social Research was undergoing a similar metamorphosis, though in the opposite direction—from radical to mainstream. The school is no longer new, and to a large degree, it is no longer for social research, having gobbled up six other schools, including the Actors Studio and the Guitar Study Center, and changed its name to the New School University. (Some refer to it as “the little NYU.”)

Today there is a 32,000-member student body, an endowment, and need for a president with star power—in other words, fundraising ability—to feed the coffers. Kerrey has been notably circumspect about his reasons for taking the New School presidency. There is widespread speculation that the former politician was looking for a place to lay up for a year or two—as Dwight Eisenhower did at Columbia—before running again for the presidency. Whatever the case may be, as Kerrey moved away from Middle America and the New School moved toward it, they seemed an inspired choice for each other.

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.”

Many students, particularly the older, politically active students at the graduate school, agree. Paul Simpson, who said he had earlier been feeling supportive of Kerrey, dismissed the meeting as a “lovefest” and denounced the “pap and insincerity spewing out of [Kerrey’s] mouth.” Others were angry that Kerrey had brought “lackeys” to bolster his position. (“Three times Halberstam explained to us that the killings happened on a dark night,” fumed one well-known professor who insisted on anonymity.) At a raucous meeting of the graduate school student union, held just hours after Kerrey’s presentation, speakers—some on the verge of tears—took turns denouncing Kerrey’s performance, the board of trustees, and one another; about 40 percent of those in attendance voted in favor of a resolution calling for Kerrey’s resignation. A second resolution was passed asking Kerrey to meet with the student union and provide detailed responses to what many said would be much tougher questions. Barring satisfactory answers, the student union pledged to call for Kerrey’s resignation.

Twenty-four-year-old Adele Ray is a graduate student in the New School’s communications department. Adele’s mother is Vietnamese, her father a Vietnam veteran, and so she has closely followed the controversy on campus. She is troubled by the whole debate, she says, because “it’s still all about us, everyone is talking about me, me, me—America, America. What about everyone else affected by this, what about the Vietnamese?”

Adele has been back to Vietnam with her family, seen the poverty and the damage, the people with missing limbs. She’s listened to her brother and her mother talk about planes roaring over during Tet, the bombs falling, and the screams. She is fascinated and repelled and saddened by a war she says is responsible for her existence: “If it wasn’t for Vietnam, I would never have been born,” she reasons. She respects her father and those who went to Vietnam, and she respects those that resisted the war.

Of Kerrey, she says, “It’s hard to know what happened. I’m 24, I wasn’t even born then.” Yet she wrote Kerrey a letter and is awaiting a reply. “I have no right to judge him. It’s easy to say he’s got blood on his hands. It’s way more complex—there’s God, there’s the villagers, there’s Kerrey, there’s Klann. This whole thing is hard. It’s like reopening a wound.”