Bob Kerrey speaks out after Vietnamese anger at his role in Fulbright University

By Manh Tung   June 3, 2016 | 02:44 am PT
Bob Kerrey speaks out after Vietnamese anger at his role in Fulbright University
Former U.S. Senator Bob Kerrey. Photo by AP.
The appointment of former U.S. Senator Bob Kerrey as chairman of Fulbright University Vietnam (FUV) has angered many Vietnamese who are aware of his involvement in a massacre during the American-Vietnam War. Bob Kerrey in an exclusive interview with VnExpress.

How did you get involved in the establishment of FUV?

I was sworn in as a United States Senator from Nebraska, January 1989. In the Fall that year the Berlin Wall – which had symbolized the ideological conflict known as the Cold War – came down. Two years later the Soviet Union ceased to exist and the Cold War was over. Many observers of the Cold War will declare with pride that the Cold War – and the mutually assured destruction assumptions of nuclear strategists – saved the world from a nuclear annihilation. Perhaps they are right. But what I knew from personal experience was that across the globe there were many proxy wars in which the Soviet Union and the West provided weapons and personnel to support one side or the other in mortal conflict. Vietnam was one such proxy war in which the United States became deeply and tragically involved.

In 1989 I began to ask the question: What does this mean for Vietnam? I had no clear answer at the time but did get indirectly involved with the effort to negotiate a peace agreement to end the killing in Cambodia and was directly involved with the POW/MIA Commission that concluded there were no live Americans remaining as prisoners in Vietnam. Both of these were essential for the writing of the road map to normalization which was accomplished by President George H.W. Bush and signed into law by President Clinton in 1995.

In 1991, Congress included with my support money to establish a graduate program in Vietnam through the State Department's Fulbright program. The grant went to establishing a Vietnam Center at Harvard. This center received more money in 1995 and a very big boost from legislation I co-sponsored in 2000. During my time as President of the New School in New York City I participated in two studies, done jointly with Harvard, for Vietnam's Ministry of Education, which attempted to answer the question: What would Vietnam need to do to establish a first rate independent university of its own.

What factors influenced your decision to accept the post of chairman at FUV?

FUV President  Dam Bich Thuy asked me to chair the board and I said yes, knowing it would mean a lot of additional work helping her raise the money needed to be a success but also knowing how much value FUV could be to the people of Vietnam.

Did you foresee the backlash that was to follow when the public was informed that you were a soldier involved in the American-Vietnam War?

I am neither surprised nor offended by the backlash. Three years ago we began an effort to persuade the Congress to allow the final debt repayment to be used to build an undergraduate college. Last year the Congress agreed to do this. This year we recruited President Thuy to be the first leader of this university and we are working to get some additional funds from Congress. The Vietnamese government agreed to match the U.S. gift with a gift of land in Ho Chi Minh City and a special permit to operate that was signed during my recent visit.

In a recent interview, you issued an apology to Vietnam. Do you think you will be able to overcome this incredible pressure to continue your job at FUV?

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 Vietnam for the good.

As chairman of FUV, what are your plans to develop the university and strengthen the relationship between the two countries?

FUV must develop as a Vietnamese institution. Eventually, the chairman of FUV should be a Vietnamese not an American regardless of their personal history. My plan is to help President Thuy develop a plan, raise the money needed to implement the plan and at all times honor and respect the trust that the special permit represents between the government of Vietnam and FUV.

In a recent interview you said you would gladly step down if your participation put the success of FUV at risk. Would you like to tell more about this decision?

I am afraid I do not know enough to answer that question. I do know that I will continue to help FUV president Dam Bich Thuy regardless of the title I am given in this project.

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