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Our Kurt Waldheim

by Alexander Cockburn

Kerrey's raid was part of the Phoenix program, as was My Lai
I'll tell you one of the many things that settles the Bob Kerrey thing for me. Supposedly wracked with indecision whether to accept the Congressional Medal of Honor for a military action (subsequent to the one now under dispute), he finally did so on May 14, 1970, just 10 days after the Ohio National Guard killed four student anti-war protesters at Kent State.

In other words, at a moment of maximal national revulsion against the war, Kerrey went along with the Pentagon's urgent desire for heroes and presented his chest to Nixon, who pinned the medal to it. So much for "ambiguity," one of the words now used to salvage his reputation. And now, and only now, is he considering whether to give back the Bronze Star awarded him for the 1969 mission in which, if you believe (as I do) his fellow SEAL Gerhard Klann, he assisted in the throat-slitting of an elderly Vietnamese peasant and ordered the killing of 13 women and babies.

It's pretty clear that Kerrey's raid was part of the Phoenix program (as was My Lai, where Task Force Barker killed 504 men, women and children the preceding year). The intent of Phoenix was terror, precisely the killing of not only suspected Viet Cong, but their families. The late William Colby, the CIA man who ran the program in Vietnam told Congress that between 1967 and 1971, Phoenix had killed 20,587 Vietnamese "activists." The South Vietnamese declared that 41,000 had been killed. Barton Osborn, an intelligence officer in the Phoenix Program, spelled out in a Congressional hearing the prevailing bureaucratic attitude of the agents toward their campaign of terror: "Quite often it was a matter of expediency just to eliminate a person in the field rather than deal with the paperwork."

And who was classed as a "VC sympathizer" and therefore fair game to be slaughtered by units like Kerrey's? The CIA's Robert Ramsdell, one of the two men who developed the My Lai operation, told Task Force Barker's intelligence officer, Captain Koutac, "Anyone in that area was considered a VC sympathizer because they couldn't survive in that area unless they were sympathizers."

The death squads run by the CIA men supervising Phoenix were a particular favorite of the man who pinned the medal on Kerrey, Richard Nixon. After My Lai there was a move to reduce the funding for these killing programs. According to Seymour Hersh, Nixon passionately objected: "No. We've got to have more of this. Assassinations. Killings." The funding was swiftly restored.

When he was at Newsweek in 1998, reporter Gregory Vistica had Kerrey cold, but Newsweek's editors decided that since Kerrey was no longer a presidential candidate it wasn't worth exposing him as a war criminal. It was OK for a U.S. senator to be an undisclosed war criminal. Then the New York Times finally decided to run Vistica's story because Kerrey had left the Senate. Presumably it's OK for a war criminal to be head of the New School, which, in earlier days, hosted refugees from Nazi Germany. In fact, I hope that at this very moment New School firebrands are demanding that the affluent Kerrey send his cumulative salary as reparations to the Vietnamese village of Thanh Phong and step down. And if not, why not?

So will the Kerrey brouhaha nudge the nation or Congress into confronting the past and what the Vietnam war really involved? Of course not. Right before the last election, CounterPunch, the newsletter I coedit, ran a story by Doug Valentine, who wrote "The Phoenix Program," one of the best histories of what really happened in Vietnam. Valentine's story concerned Robert Simmons, in the midst of an ultimately successful campaign to be elected as one of Connecticut's U.S. representatives. The specific charge against Simmons, originally leveled in the New London Day in 1994 was that he routinely violated the Geneva Conventions while interrogating civilian prisoners during his 20 months of service with the CIA in Vietnam. Simmons claimed he'd always steered clear of the dirty stuff. Same way Kerrey claims that when they cut the throats of the old folk in the peasant hut, he was outside.

When Simmons was battling to become a U.S. representative (after a long career in state government in Connecticut), no local or national paper cared a whit about the fact that a possible torturer and war criminal was on the hustings. Small wonder the U.S. Congress is being protective of Kerrey. How many other war criminals are strolling up and down the aisles of government?

© Creators Syndicate

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Albion Monitor May 2, 2001 (

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