Call me a cynic, if you will, but there’s something about this unhappy business that former Senator Bob Kerrey was subjected to last week that just doesn’t ring right to me. A former national-security correspondent for Newsweek, Gregory Vistica had been trying for some years now to get this massacre of innocents on a dark night in Vietnam laid at the door of Kerrey. Three years ago, Newsweek turned it down.
Vistica didn’t give up easily. He finally got the New York Times Magazine to run his story April 29, getting the cover with a text: “For 32 years, Bob Kerrey has been haunted by a memory he kept to himself: He and his squad killed more than a dozen unarmed women and children in Vietnam. He says he is still struggling to understand what happened, and why.” The tag line identifying Vistica in the story notes he “is co-producing a segment on Bob Kerrey and Thanh Phong for ’60 Minutes II.’ The New York Times Magazine and ’60 Minutes II’ have coordinated reporting efforts for this story. ’60 Minutes II’ plans to air its segment May 1.” (Which it did.)
The one accuser is Gerhard Klann, member of the seven-man SEAL team commanded by 25-year-old Lieutenant Robert Kerry on that night in Thanh Phong. I think we can dismiss the evidence of a Vietnamese woman who first claimed she was witness to the killings, then backed down — claiming now she had only heard what had happened. Vietnamese authorities were always present during her interviews, a detail which make her evidence all the more suspect.
All the other members of Kerrey’s team challenge Klann’s charges. In fact, they outright deny them. War is, and always has been, a nasty business. The innocent can and do die unjust, terrible deaths. The war in Vietnam is no exception. It is, however, a war still bearing heavy emotional baggage for Americans who lived through that period. James Webb, a combat Marine in Vietnam, later to become secretary of the Navy, is well qualified to speak of the Kerrey case, which he did in the Wall Street Journal.
Webb rightly points out, judging from the body language and word choices of media commentators, we see that how history will judge our involvement in Vietnam is an issue still very much in play. For Webb, a large part of that issue is how so many in the media and others continue to demean the American sacrifices in that war.
What remains then? Farewell to any chance of Kerrey deciding to run for the presidency. An opportunity for those aging anti-Vietnam warriors to react in virtuous outrage, shored up in their conviction that yes, Americans were and always will be the villains when it comes to bad and evil deeds committed in the name of the United States. The aftermath of the war, what the Vietnamese did — the Boat People — and the Cambodians and their deadly “killing fields” barely merit a word in passing.
Messers Vitica and Klann have had their nanoseconds of glory. Do they feel any extra little glow that they’ve succeeded in derailing a good man? Probably not. But what can they expect — another “60 Minutes II” follow-up? Another New York Times Magazine feature? Unlikely. We’re left with a messy blot on the career of a man who has already given a lot to his country.