First Bob Kerrey, Now Joe Ellis?


Mr. Sleeper teaches a course on journalism and democracy at Yale. He performed alternative-to-military service as a Conscientious Objector during the Vietnam War.

It's the return of the repressed. Two months ago, former Senator Bob Kerrey threw his presidency of New York's New School University into turmoil by admitting but downplaying his role in an apparent massacre in Vietnam. Now Joseph Ellis, a Pulitzer Prize-winning American historian, has been caught inflating his role in Vietnam.

For years, he admits, he told students at Mt. Holyoke and Amherst Colleges that he'd seen combat, some at My Lai, and had served on General William Westmoreland's staff in Saigon. But Ellis never set foot in Vietnam. He claimed that upon returning to the United States, he'd become an anti-war activist at Yale. He didn't do that, either.

Ellis seems to have imagined he was like Massachusetts Senator John Kerrey, who did serve and then did protest, founding Vietnam Veterans Against the War and heaving his combat medals back at the Capitol building in a demonstration few of my generation will forget.

Ellis's students are stunned and dismayed. Amherst senior Erich Carey, who took Ellis's course,"The Literature of Vietnam," told the Boston Globe that Ellis's accounts of his Vietnam service"allowed me to imagine myself in the circumstances he faced. Having the course taught by someone who was there helped."

At both Bob Kerrey's New School and Ellis's Mount Holyoke, administrators are doing damage control. Mt. Holyoke president Joanne Creighton is blaming the media and standing by her college's brightest academic star. But colleges aren't just firmaments of scholars. They're sites of reckoning between generations, where professors, whether they like it or not, teach young people the arts and graces and principles of public discourse and national self-discovery.

Lying about choices made or events witnessed in war, to students who could end up fighting or protesting another war, is reckless and wrong. For those of us Vietnam-era draft-age men who opposed the war but respected those who served out of duty or conviction, to pretend to have served and to have protested is unforgiveable. And since I really was at the Yale anti-war demonstrations which Ellis claimed to have joined, it hurts.

This piece was delivered over the air on NPR's"All Things Considered," June 19, 2001.

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