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Three Reasons -- What Went Wrong?

By Robert Parry
May 1, 2001

The intersection of three recent events – all anchored in the Cold War, dating from its earliest days to almost its end – help explain what went wrong with American democracy over the past half century and why an honest recounting of history is so important to set matters right.

One of these events – dating back to roughly the mid-point of the Cold War – was the revelation that former Sen. Bob Kerrey, D-Neb., led a 1969 raid against the Vietnamese village of Thanh Phong, an operation that all participants agree went terribly wrong, killing about 20 civilians.

Though there is heated dispute about whether most of those killings were deliberate, what's not in dispute about the raid is troubling enough. This was not a military attack in the conventional sense. It was not a search-and-destroy mission seeking out a military force for combat.

The raid’s goal was the assassination of Thanh Phong’s village leader – roughly the equivalent of mayor – who was suspected of Viet Cong activity. It was a “takeout” in the military euphemism of the time, much like the thousands of assassinations carried out by U.S. Special Forces teams under CIA direction in the Phoenix program.

In 1969, Kerrey was a gung-ho, inexperienced lieutenant with the Navy Seals, an elite commando unit that was created in World War II for underwater sabotage. By the Vietnam War, the Seals had changed. Like other Special Forces units, they had added assassination to their military repertoire.

“Typically, Navy Seals undertook kidnap or assassination missions, looking to eliminate Viet Cong leaders from among the local population,” wrote journalist Gregory L. Vistica in The New York Times Magazine [April 29, 2001] Quoting former Army Capt. David Marion, the senior U.S. military adviser in the area in 1969, Vistica wrote, “These were called ‘takeouts.’”

After being dropped off near the Mekong Delta village, in the dark of night on Feb. 25, 1969, Kerrey’s seven-member Seal team moved toward Thanh Phong. But his men were surprised to find a hut that was not on the map.

Out of fear that the people in the hut might alert the other villagers, Kerrey’s men slipped in and used knives to kill the inhabitants, who turned out to be two elderly civilians and their three grandchildren, according to The New York Times article.

“Standard operating procedure was to dispose of the people we made contact with,” Kerrey is quoted as saying. “Kill the people we made contact with, or we have to abort the mission.” Kerrey said he believed at the time the civilians in the hut were a Viet Cong “security” attachment and that the hut was an "outpost."

Gerhard Klann, the most experienced member of Kerrey’s squad, gave the Times the most detailed – and most damning – account of the brutality of the raid. Klann tied Kerrey directly to the killings of the civilians in the first hut, though Kerrey has claimed a faulty memory about his role in those initial killings.

Cover Story

After the story surfaced last week, Kerrey and the five other former Seals met to coordinate a counter story. This joint statement, issued on Saturday, challenges some of Klann’s account.

But the six Seals do not dispute Klann’s statements about killing Vietnamese civilians in the first hut. The joint statement said simply, “At an enemy outpost we used lethal methods to keep our presence from being detected.”

What happened next is in greater dispute. Klann says neither the targeted village leader nor any Viet Cong fighters were found in the village. Nevertheless, when the search was completed, the civilians – about 15 old men, women and children – had been rounded up and concentrated in one location.

To protect the team’s withdrawal, Kerrey ordered the civilians executed, Klann said. Kerrey’s raiders opened fire on the villagers, killing one baby last, Klann said. “There were blood and guts splattering everywhere,” he said.

Kerrey and the other five former Seals deny Klann’s account of a premeditated massacre. They claim they were fired upon by someone in the village and returned fire, ultimately expending 1,200 rounds of ammunition.

In earlier interviews, Kerrey said he and his men eventually approached the huts and were shocked to discover that the victims were all old men, women and children. "The thing that I will remember until the day I die is walking in and finding, I don't know, 14 or so, I don't even know what the number was, women and children who were dead," Kerrey said.

The joint statement issued Saturday, however, seems to contradict even Kerrey’s original version of events. “We took fire from these (enemy) forces and we returned fire,” the statement said. “Knowing our presence had been compromised and that our lives were endangered we withdrew while continuing to fire.”

The coordinated statement by Kerrey and his five comrades dropped Kerrey's description of entering the village after the firefight and finding the civilian bodies. [See the text of statement as printed in The Washington Post, April 29, 2001] In the new version of events, the Seal team simply returned fire and withdrew.

With the decision to coordinate a response, Kerrey and the others created the appearance of suspects in a crime getting their stories straight, rather than meeting individually with Navy officials or journalists and giving separate, unrehearsed recollections of events.


Two villagers in Thanh Phong gave accounts to The Associated Press, Reuters and the Los Angeles Times that generally tracked with Klann’s version of events. The survivors recalled Kerrey’s team ordering villagers out of a shelter and then shooting them.

Bui Thi Luom, who said she was 12 at the time of the raid, recounted the commandos entering the village and demanding that the villagers come outside. Luom said she was with her grandmother, four aunts and 10 cousins. The youngest was about 3.

The villagers initially thought they only would be questioned and they sat on the ground as ordered. "When a woman coughed, Luom remembers, one of the soldiers put his gun in her mouth and ordered her to be silent," the Los Angeles Times reported. "Luom's grandmother knelt and began to plead for mercy. The soldiers talked among themselves, she recalled, and then opened fire at close range."

Luom said she scrambled into a shelter, escaping with only a wound to her knee that has left a scar still visible today. "Everyone was screaming and very frightened when they began shooting," Luom said. [Los Angeles Times, April 29, 2001]

War Crimes

While a few U.S. journalists have given credence to the accounts from Klann and the Vietnamese survivors, many news outlets – including The Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal – have focused their coverage on sympathy for Kerrey's anguish and cast doubt on the allegations of premeditated murder.

Yet, it's not in dispute that the purpose of the raid was to assassinate a village leader believed to be a Viet Cong supporter. It’s also not in dispute that the raid was mounted in what was called a “free-fire zone,” meaning that the United States and its Vietnamese allies had designated the territory open for the killing of anyone living there.

Indeed, Kerrey used the “free-fire-zone” argument last week in an attempt to defend his actions. Citing the “unwritten rules of Vietnam,” Kerrey insisted that the actions were justifiable whether his team was fired upon or not. “You were authorized to kill if you thought it would be better,” he said in an interview with The New York Times.

But assassinations and indiscriminate killings of civilians are criminal acts under international law as well as violations of generally respected canons of human rights. If carried out by, say, Serbs in Kosovo or German forces in World War II, these actions would warrant war-crimes charges – and did.

In Vietnam, however, these tactics were the routine policy of the U.S. government, which bestowed medals on soldiers who engaged in these practices. Kerrey received the Bronze Star for his attack on Thanh Phong, which was misrepresented as a military victory over a force of Viet Cong.

A few weeks later, in another raid, Kerrey suffered a severe wound to his leg, which was partially amputated. For that operation, he received the Congressional Medal of Honor.


The underlying horror of the raid on Thanh Phong was that this kind of barbarity was much more commonplace than many Americans understood either then or now. The truth was that the My Lai massacre that claimed the lives of about 350 Vietnamese civilians on March 16, 1968, was not a unique case. It was just the one that gained the most notoriety.

The current secretary of state, Colin Powell, recounted similar activities in his widely praised bestseller, My American Journey. Powell served two stints in Vietnam including one with the Americal Division which had been responsible for the My Lai massacre.

After a brief mention of the My Lai massacre in My American Journey, Powell penned a partial justification of the Americal's brutality. In a chilling passage, Powell explained the routine practice of murdering unarmed male Vietnamese.

"I recall a phrase we used in the field, MAM, for military-age male," Powell wrote. "If a helo spotted a peasant in black pajamas who looked remotely suspicious, a possible MAM, the pilot would circle and fire in front of him. If he moved, his movement was judged evidence of hostile intent, and the next burst was not in front, but at him.

"Brutal? Maybe so. But an able battalion commander with whom I had served at Gelnhausen [West Germany], Lt. Col. Walter Pritchard, was killed by enemy sniper fire while observing MAMs from a helicopter. And Pritchard was only one of many. The kill-or-be-killed nature of combat tends to dull fine perceptions of right and wrong."


To many American politicians and journalists, the notion of killing unarmed civilians in the cause of winning the Cold War is not even controversial today.

How blasé U.S. politicians can be toward these atrocities was underscored by Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, who commented about the Kerrey disclosures during television interviews. "I don't understand what all the hoopla is about here," Lott said on Thursday.

Indeed, many national journalists also appear to have found reasons to sympathize with Kerrey over the slaughter of civilians. In 1998, Newsweek editors spiked a draft of the Thanh Phong story after Kerrey decided not to run for president.

The reporter, Vistica, then quit Newsweek and pursued the story on his own for a year, nailing down more details and finally convincing The New York Times Magazine to run the story.

Kerrey only began talking about the killings – giving his version of an accidental massacre – after he knew the article would appear in print.

The Nazi-CIA Link

The second revealing recent news event, with its roots at the start of the Cold War, was the disclosure of CIA documents that prove beyond question that U.S. intelligence agencies protected and collaborated with hundreds of Nazi war criminals after World War II.

Over the past 25 years, dogged researchers had pieced together much of this puzzle – despite denials and stonewalling from the CIA. But the new documents, released on Friday as part of a declassification ordered in 1998, established that the U.S. government aided Nazi war criminals deemed useful to the Cold War. [Washington Post, April 28, 2001]

Typical was the case of Gestapo officer Klaus Barbie, who was known as the Butcher of Lyon for his torturing and killing of Jews and Resistance fighters in France during the German occupation.

After World War II, U.S. intelligence protected Barbie from French authorities and spirited him off to South America, the documents confirm. There, he worked for decades with right-wing military governments that adopted many of the tactics favored by the Nazis for torturing and murdering political enemies and their suspected sympathizers. Many of those rightist governments had close ties, too, to the CIA and U.S. military intelligence.

Cocaine Coup

In 1980, Barbie figured prominently in a pivotal event in modern South American history: the full-scale merging of political elites and the international drug trade.

Barbie was a principal organizer -- within Bolivian intelligence agencies -- of a coup that saw drug lords and their military allies overthrow the Bolivian government and transform Bolivia into the first modern narco-state.

In the so-called Cocaine Coup, Barbie collaborated with the Argentine military, which was then engaged in its own “dirty war,” murdering and “disappearing” an estimated 30,000 citizens, including hundreds of dissidents who were shackled together alive and shoved out of planes over the Atlantic Ocean.

Thousands of others were subjected to barbaric torture, including rape, electric shocks applied to their genitals and submergence in water filled with human waste, according to later investigations by Argentine authorities. [For details, see Martin Edwin Andersen's Dossier Secreto.]

To help the Bolivian coup, Barbie pulled together an international band of neo-Nazis who traveled to South America and committed some of the most bizarre and brutal killings during the Bolivian putsch. Torture specialists from Argentina were flown in, too.

Besides labor activists and other leftists, the coup makers targeted government officials who had participated in jailing drug criminals, many of whom were freed and joined the violent rampage.

One important outgrowth of Bolivia’s Cocaine Coup was the creation, under Barbie, of a secure pipeline of raw coca paste for a then-fledgling drug operation in Medellin, Colombia. This operation later became known as the Medellin Cartel and flooded the United States with vast quantities of high-quality cocaine in the 1980s.

Moon as Ally

Another key ally of Bolivia’s Cocaine Coup government was the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, who sent his emissaries to La Paz to cooperate with the Bolivian regime. Moon simultaneously built up his well-financed political/journalistic operations in the United States.

By 1982, Moon’s mysterious wealth – much of it laundered into the United States from Asia and South America, according to followers who have spoken out publicly – enabled him to launch the influential Washington Times newspaper and finance other lavish political operations for the American conservative movement.

According to testimony by one Argentine intelligence officer, Leonardo Sanchez-Reisse, money from Bolivian drug lord Roberto Suarez was laundered through a Miami front company to finance the Cocaine Coup. Suarez's money also went to support Argentine intelligence operatives who moved on to Honduras to organize the Nicaraguan contra army, another group that soon became notorious for murder, rape and drug trafficking.

Michael Levine, an undercover agent for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration in South America, wrote later that the Bolivian Cocaine Coup set the stage for the Colombian cartels to transform themselves into the principal suppliers of cocaine to the United States.

“It could not have been done without the tacit help of DEA and the active, covert help of the CIA,” Levine wrote. [For more details, see Levine’s books, Big White Lie and Deep Cover, or Robert Parry’s Lost History.]

Reagan as Icon

The third recent event, helping to explain why the American people know so little about these important chapters of their own history, is the clumsy hardball politics employed by Rep. Bob Barr, R-Georgia, seeking to coerce Washington’s Metro subway system into renaming a subway stop after Ronald Reagan.

Barr threatened to withhold federal funds needed to complete the subway system unless Reagan’s name was added to the subway stop at Washington National Airport, which previously had Reagan’s name attached to it.

Local authorities in Arlington County, Virginia, have opposed the change, which would cost the cash-strapped system several hundred thousand dollars. While seemingly petty, Barr’s determination to deify all things Reagan is part of a strategy that has made a careful examination of the past few decades all but impossible.

That’s because the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 was the turning point in the United States opting for reassuring fantasy over difficult truth. Once in office, Reagan reversed the critical examination then under way of the Vietnam War and other Cold War policies, including the study of the CIA's original sin of collaborating with Nazi war criminals.

Prior to Reagan’s election, even Democratic Cold Warriors and conservative Republicans were acknowledging that the Vietnam War had been a mistake. Many other Americans were going much further, coming to recognize that the United States had inflicted possibly millions of casualties in Indochina in what had become a racist conflict that ignored Vietnam’s complex history and nationalistic tendencies.

However, Reagan’s unapologetic support for the Vietnam War – as well as for the Argentine “dirty war” and the bloody conflicts in Central America where hundreds of thousands of peasants were put to death – transformed the shape of the debate.

As Reagan hailed the Vietnam War as a “noble” undertaking, those who dared criticize U.S. human rights violations were painted as unpatriotic, the “blame-America-firsters,” in U.N. Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick’s memorable phrase.

'Bad Rap'

Tolerance of Nazi-like tactics in the prosecution of the Cold War became de rigueur for the tough-minded careerists of Washington in the 1980s.

Horrific massacres were carried out by U.S.-backed forces in Central America, including what was later deemed a genocide against Guatemala’s Indian population. While the worst of this butchery was underway, Reagan insisted that the Guatemalan government was getting a “bad rap” on human rights.

Backed by billions of dollars from Rev. Moon and other right-wing financiers, a huge conservative media/political network took shape. This Right-Wing Machine defended Reagan and attacked anyone who challenged the new historical orthodoxy. Soon, there were few voices left in Washington to tell the American people the truth.

While Barr’s subway-stop scheme drew attention -- and ridicule -- there are a raft of similar proposals promoted by Republicans eager to prove their fealty to the former president.

One plan would build a Reagan monument on the crowded National Mall, another would add Reagan’s face to the four presidents now on Mount Rushmore. One bemused columnist suggested that the nation might simply rename itself “Ronald Reagan United States of America.”

But the drive to transform Reagan into an untouchable American icon is not just a case of overzealous acolytes one-upping each other to show their devotion to the leader. It is central to the goal of writing an Orwellian history for the United States, one in which the horrendous crimes of the past half century-plus are expunged from the national consciousness and only triumphal memories are left.

Ironically, at a time when other nations, including the former communist states, are examining the crimes committed by their governments, the United States – the leader of the Free World – only wants to let its citizens experience happy thoughts.

That is why the revelations about the massacre at Thanh Phong and the disclosures about the CIA’s assistance to Nazi war criminals are important.

Before the national news media sweeps these disturbing facts back under the rug, the American people should understand that the stories offer one more chance for the nation to begin that difficult climb back to reality, back to a place where the people of the United States – as responsible members of a democracy – can view what was done in their name, the good as well as the bad.

Robert Parry is an investigative reporter who broke many of the Iran-contra stories in the 1980s for The Associated Press and Newsweek.

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