Global Policy Forum

Senator 'Admits Vietnam Massacre'

April 26, 2001

Former United States Senator Bob Kerry, a possible contender for the White House in 2004, has admitted that his commando unit massacred civilians when he was a Navy officer in Vietnam, The New York Times has reported.

Mr Kerry was awarded a Bronze Star for the 25 February 1969 action in the village of Thanh Phong in the Mekong Delta.

The two-time Democratic senator from Nebraska says his unit of seven Navy Seals - elite commando troops - killed at least 13 women and children during indiscriminate night-time firing.

One of the men under his command at the time disputes Mr Kerry's version of events, claiming that the unit rounded up the civilians and killed them to hasten their escape. Mr Kerry refused to contradict the man, saying their memories differed.

In-depth investigation

Mr Kerry, who stepped down from the US Senate in January and is now president of the New School University in New York, admitted his role in the massacre over the course of more than two years of interviews with The New York Times.

A possible presidential candidate, Mr Kerry said it would be "very interesting to see the reactions to the story. I mean, because basically you're talking about a man who killed innocent civilians." It is not clear what effect the revelations would have on any decision that Mr Kerry might make to run for office in the future.

In Mr Kerry's version of events, his group approached Thanh Phong near midnight on 25 February, 1969. They encountered a hut on their approach, and men under his command entered it and killed the people inside. Mr Kerry denied participating in the killings, but took responsibility for them as commanding officer.

Indiscriminate firing

When his group reached the village, they were fired upon in the darkness and shot back, firing some 1,200 rounds. When they investigated after they stopped shooting, he said, they found they had killed a number of women and children. There were no adult men among the dead.

Gerhard Klann, a more experienced soldier who was under Mr Kerry's command at the time, remembers events differently. He said Mr Kerry helped him kill an old man and woman and three children at the first hut, and that the unit then rounded up and shot the women and children of Thanh Phong to prevent them raising the alarm.

The Army Field Manual explicitly forbids killing prisoners "on grounds of self-preservation", but many people who served in Vietnam said the unwritten rules of the conflict made it clear that such actions were acceptable.


A Vietnamese woman who says she was an eyewitness supported Mr Klann's story. The only other member of the commando unit willing to speak to the press about the raid supported some elements of each account and contradicted others.

Mr Kerry - who was given the Medal of Honour for a later operation and lost a leg to a grenade in the conflict - says he has been wracked by guilt for 32 years since the event.

"I thought dying for your country was the worst thing that could happen to you," he told The New York Times, referring to how he felt before he went to Vietnam as a 25-year-old lieutenant. "I think killing for your country can be a lot worse. Because that's the memory that haunts."

The New York Times magazine will publish its full investigation into the incident on Sunday. The CBS television series 60 Minutes II, which collaborated on the report, will broadcast a programme on it on 1 May.

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