HANOI, Vietnam (AP) — The limits of forgiving and forgetting are being tested by the former U.S. senator picked to be board chairman of the new Fulbright University Vietnam: Bob Kerrey, who has described how his squad killed civilians including women and children during the Vietnam War.
It's an unusually sensitive point in a relationship between two nations that in many ways have put the war behind them. While a top Vietnamese Communist Party official has expressed support for Kerrey's appointment, and many people interviewed by The Associated Press were pragmatic or forgiving, others find his role upsetting.
Ton Nu Thi Ninh, a former Vietnamese ambassador to the European Union, wrote in an article published this month in the state-run online newspaper Zing that when she learned of the appointment she was "extremely stunned and could not understand."
Whether Kerrey truly felt remorse for his wartime actions was something only he could know, she wrote, but "taking a leadership role in the university with ambitions like Fulbright University should not be considered to atone for the wrongdoing in the past." Ninh declined to comment further when contacted by telephone in Ho Chi Minh City.
Fulbright University Vietnam, partially funded by the U.S. government, will be the first private nonprofit university in the country. Hoped-for corporate sponsorship and planned programs in management and public policy hint strongly at a capitalist academic agenda, but this is no cause for controversy, because the Communist Party has jettisoned most aspects of a command economy for the type of freewheeling entrepreneurship that is a hallmark of modern Asian culture.
During a visit to Vietnam last month, President Barack Obama announced the university would open this fall in Ho Chi Minh City. For some, the announcement of the university's board chairman sent old animosities rushing back.
Kerrey, a former Democratic governor and senator from Nebraska and former president of The New School in New York, was a Navy SEAL during the war. He lost part of a leg in a combat engagement for which he received the Medal of Honor.
Earlier in his war service, on Feb. 25, 1969, he led a seven-man squad in a nighttime raid on Thanh Phong, in Vietnam's Mekong Delta, to eliminate Vietcong officials. They ended up shooting dead at least a dozen women and children.
Those details came to light only in early 2001, shortly after Kerrey retired from the Senate.
Kerrey and five members of his squad issued a statement saying the civilians were caught in crossfire as the men fought their way out of the village. One member of his squad and two surviving villagers painted a darker picture, saying the civilians were executed to ensure the squad could make a safe exit without the local Vietcong being alerted.
In his 2002 book "When I Was a Young Man," Kerrey said, "I saw women and children in front of us being hit and cut to pieces. I heard their cries and other voices in the darkness as we made our retreat to the canal.
"The young, innocent man who went to Vietnam died that night. After that night, I no longer had illusions or objectivity about the war. I had become someone I did not recognize."
Controversy over Kerrey's revelation flared for a while, then eased off. The United States had little inclination to recall such old battles when facing the challenges of 9/11.
Fulbright University Vietnam had been gestating since 2013 and finally cleared all hurdles to be inaugurated on May 25 this year in a ceremony attended by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, a former Senate colleague of Kerrey's and fellow Vietnam vet.
In remarks at the ceremony, Kerry called the war "an indelible but an increasingly distant memory."
"And for most, it's not a memory at all," he noted. "Certainly, the students who are going to enroll at this university are far more interested in plugging into the world economy than in being stuck in the past or reliving memories of events that took place long before they were born."
Though news of Kerrey's appointment set off criticism among some Vietnamese in the press and on social media, Nguyen Thi Ha, a 23-year-old third-year university student in Hanoi, shares Kerry's sentiment.
"It's a desire for most students including myself to study in a university that offers good education with affordable expenses," she said in an interview with The Associated Press. "We will not forget the past, but the past should be put aside and look forward to build better future for both countries."
Kerrey said last week in an interview with NPR's "Here and Now" that he will stay on as chairman.
"The secretary of the party in Ho Chi Minh City fully supports the effort, and my measurement is, if I were to step down it would hurt the project," he said.
Nguyen Minh Thuyet, former vice chairman of the culture and education committee of the National Assembly, told the AP that Vietnamese "should look at Bob Kerrey's case in the spirit of reconciliation and place the national interests and the friendship between the two countries above the hatred of the past."
"We do not forget the past, but we should not allow the past to impede our future," he said, calling the appointment and the public's reaction to it "a test for reconciliation between Vietnam and the United States."
Dinh La Thang, secretary of the ruling Communist Party organization in Ho Chi Minh City and one of the 19 members of its all-powerful Politburo, wrote that it was "brave of Bob Kerrey to accept this position, knowing full well the reaction it would generate."
In a statement carried on many state media outlets June 4, Thang said Kerrey wants to share "the wisdom gained during a lifetime of public service." He urged Vietnamese to be "enlightened and guided by our ancestors' traditions of self-respect, compassion, forgiveness, and faith in the future," and to "give Bob Kerrey one more chance to experience the greatness of the country on which he, out of ignorance, once inflicted great pain."
Thang's statement could be taken as the definitive word on the matter — but in an indication of how sensitive the issue has become, the online version of it was removed from state media websites after a few days.
AP writer Grant Peck in Bangkok contributed to this report.