Last Updated June 20, 2008

Winter 2003 Commencement

ABC News Journalist Sam Donaldson
Commencement Address
Sunday, February 2, 2003

Well, I am overwhelmed President Ladner, distinguished members of faculty and board, honored graduates, friends and relatives of same who may have paid the bills. I am delighted to be here today and really am overwhelmed by this honor, I thank you very much. Raul that was a terrific speech, I wish I had given it myself. But since you have I'll have to think of another one. And I'll deliver that now and don't worry graduates I'll not going to give you lots of information about how you should live your life after you depart American University. (clapping and cheering). I'm not going to tell you how to succeed, you will figure all of that out yourself. And besides the older I get the less I'm sure that the things I used to know I actually believe.

I am reminded that the hotel man Conrad Hilton who is no longer with us of course, but founded that great empire once said after fifty years in the hotel business there's only one thing that I think that I've learned that's absolutely true, and that is it's better to put the shower curtain on the inside of the tub than the outside. (laughing). I will tell you that I have two lessons in life, but you can take it or leave them, if you want. One life is too short to associate with dull people. Avoid them, if you can. (clapping). And this is personally, two: life is too short to drink bad wine but that's just me. This is the first time I've been back to attend a commencement exercise at American University in forty years. Forty years ago as a reporter for WTOP local station here before I went to ABC I was here in June of 1963 when President Kennedy delivered his famous address. Now the news was that there would shortly be negotiated the first test band treaty. The band testing of atomic weapons in the atmosphere. Now if they hadn't come up with that all of us would be dead now. At the rate we were testing, the Soviets and others. So that was a great thing. But I reread the speech the other day and it is a remarkable speech. His vision and our vision toward peace laying it out, President said then that he wanted not an {inaudiable} Americana, enforced on world by American weapons of war, not the peace of the grave or the security of the slave, genuine peace, the kind of peace that makes life on Earth worthwhile. We all want that, but as we know and as the chaplain observed, we're about to go to war. Unless Saddam Hussein is removed by some other means I have no doubt that United States and its Allies will strike Iraq within the next several weeks. And I'd like to spend just a few moments talking about the role of the press and wartime.

In WWII it was easy, no problem we were engaged suddenly at Pearl Harbor you'll recall in trying to protect ourselves against a world wide force that was strong enough and large enough that if we did not succeed would occupy this country, would subject us. The very life of the United States was at stake, there was no quarrel over policy no one sat around and said "well should we fight," not after pearl harbor. "I mean is this important" Everyone was on board desperately believing and I think it was true, that had we not won the whole country would [have] gone out of existence, as we know it. And so the press along with everyone else was on board. I myself did not cover that war although I must admit I was alive. But I watch the coverage and have learned about it and there was no criticism of the policy. It was all out war. I guess the mildest criticism you'd find, and it was mild indeed, was my old friend Bill Molden who did the only day. Some of you of a certain age may recall he draw the cartoons as a very young solider working for Stars and Strips of Willie and Joe: two sad sack GIs, two {inaudiable} whiskers bedraggled thirty guys who had to slug through the mud and their criticism of course was to the brass, the American brass. We took Bill Molden in 1990 Primetime live the old program I used to work for to the desert in Saudi Arabia and he drew Willie and Joe in the desert and those young soldiers men and women who weren't born in WWII recognized him immediately, gathered around him, they loved him. He was the soldiers' cartoonist. But that was criticism just complaining about the inflated brass and complaining about the boss is always popular, right {inaudiable} okay.

But after WWII all of the wars we've fought have also a component of discussion, debate, controversy and dissension over policy. Vietnam of course is a perfect example, I covered it over a short period of time. And as you know reporters uncovered facts which simply warred with the official version of events. I mean the official version had us killing the Vietcong that we estimated to be in South Vietnam three times. The facts were of course the body counts didn't support it. And when Peter Rennet quoted the major as saying we had to destroy this village in order to save it. Americans thought about that, and over the years facts simply brought to the public's attention, caused the public eventually to decide that the war was not worth it. Linden Johnson is a fine man, he's no longer with us. He believes sincerely that his policy was right. He doubted as you know now from the famous tapes where [US] could succeed but he's not going to Vietnam with the massive force after President Kennedy's 19 thousand advisors because he didn't have the best interest for this country at heart. But it turns out the Policy was wrong when you looked at the facts which reporters brought to the American people. I never changed a vote I couldn't even persuade my wife to do something. But if the facts come to people and they think about them the policy maybe forced to change.

Now people say why don't you support the military, you reporters, members of the press, Ah-huh, we do. I honor the brave men and women of Vietnam as I honor them today if they go into battle. They are carrying out a policy dictated and properly by the civilian leaders it is no slap at the military if we bring information that suggest the policy may be wrong. It's not the military that lost Vietnam if you want to put it that way, but neither was it the press. Now some people didn't see it that way. Captain Powell, Major Schwarzkopf, other fine young officers came away from Vietnam saying this isn't the way to do it. Because in Vietnam we were free to travel where we wanted to travel. Go over there look at that, space available from {inaudiable} airport and we did. So when the Gulf war in 1991 was fought, these fine officers now generals said we're not going to do that any more. And the press was curtailed. We had minders; we could not go where we wanted to go. We could only go where the military wanted us to go. And people used to ask me well why do you want to go over there? And my only answer could be: I don't know until I get there. I don't know what I'll find {inaudiable} or over in this sector. Both probably nothing that the American people really want or really need to know about. But until I'm allowed to go there and take a look, I can't answer the question. It's like answering a negative. But then there's Secretary Powell attempt to do more that on Wednesday before the United Nations. Now I don't want to leave the impression that we're always at each other's throat in the Gulf War. I spent the entire seven weeks, eight weeks Gulf War over there. And we got along well, I thought, except for this disagreement about the role of the press. And the military used us and that's fine, we are used to carry messages by a lot of people.

One of my favorite memories is going out to Admiral Stanley Arthur's Flagship in the Gulf one day and it was at a time when the newspapers, radio and television was filled with the idea that when we finally struck on the ground we'd do it in two prongs. Round the left would come General Gary Luck and on the right would be an amphibious landing maybe near {inaudiable} and we would crush the republican guard and Iraqi in between these two pincers, lots of speculation and maps in the newspapers etc. So I went out to Admiral Arthur's flagship and he welcomed me and we came down to the C.O.C room the command center of the flagship with our cameras to set up the cameras, I said well there's the radar showing strikes of over Kuwait even as we were talking. And he said "well yeah, but by the time you get this on the air those planes would have landed and gone you know five times in different directions." So he's explaining all of this to us and the cameras were rolling then suddenly the field telephone, I kid you not, that had been placed on the bench by him rang. He said "excuse me a moment." Of course he picked it up and said "Yeah, Yes sir. This is Admiral Arthurů" (Ohh I thought that's good, you know) "Yes sirů" And about that time an information officer came over and said "turn off your cameras," well of course we did without protest, but no one asked me to leave. And the conversion, one side, you know I couldn't hear the other side, went something like this: "Yes sir, well I understand sir, no no, not until we get the orders, absolutely. No movement until we get the orders. That's right, got it, yes sir. Nice talking to you sir, nice talking to you General." I said, {inaudiable} that was General Schwarzkopf. Now I thought about that and I said now did General Schwarzkopf get up this morning and say "I wonder if that fool Arthur would launch that amphibious strike before I give the word. I better call him and remind him that he is not to launch that amphibious force until I call it." [Then] someone said "well General this reporter Donaldson is there," he says "well [all right] we trust him he's a good patriotic American." Ah-ha yes indeed we were used constantly by the military sending false signals, cause we had no intention at the time and of course did not plan for the amphibious force. Thereby, it was only to wheel of the left and General Boomer to wheel off the center. And I love to tell that story and Stanley Arthur later, who is retired now, has admitted it that that was the plan.

Well that's ok, if you read the newspapers today the New York Times today, was it today, [seemed] to outline a battle plan and you see all sought of things now why do you think you read them? Because the Pentagon is planting that information. I saw a story the other day that said there's a secret directive, that if they use chemical or biological warfare against us when we strike Iraq, we will in perhaps the first instance use a nuclear bomb on them, well that wasn't the Washington Times reporter who stuck into the secret safe of the national security council and purloined the document. That was the White House deliberately wanting to put the pressure on Saddam, wanting to put the pressure on his generals wanting that story out. I'm happy to be of service in those instances. Now what's it going to be like in this next strike? I can't tell you, except already we will be curtailed reporters will be allowed with some frontline units. I myself because my advance seniority in age, think I won't go this time. I will perhaps report from my listening post in Qatar or Bahrain or maybe Kuwait City, but some reporters will go with advanced units and more power to them. I suspect as most military analyst say, the war will be short. The president said the other night and grew his greatest applause, when he said that if war had to come he would use full might of the US military and we would prevail. And we all cheered and I thought to myself well will the United States not prevail against Iraq? Is it really foreseeable if when we strike we might not win? But I cheered too, because it was rallying behind the flag and his policy. And his policy, so if the war is short as I except it to be and let us hope that casualties are light on both sides as they were on our side. The coalition side in 1991. There probably won't be a lot reporting which frankly you need to know at that point in order to maybe reevaluate your idea of the policy. Of course after the strike as many people have observed the ripple effect and the consequences may last and may be incalculable. And that's where reporters will come in, meaning no offense to our brave troops. And will try to bring whatever facts they can develop. And I hope that everybody understands that or at least you understand that you don't go along with it because your fellow does.

Everybody including the press, let me just conclude, by underscoring wants peace and wants this country's to succeed and I'd like to read in conclusion the last paragraph of President Kennedy's famous speech here almost forty years ago. Now the situation is changed, the potential enemy has changed. He was conflicting as we were conflicting a Soviet Union with the same kind of nuclear forces in the sense that we had for a miscalculation could destroy both countries and the collateral damage would be incalculable. And as you would see the policy has changed. But perhaps that's necessary because of the times. But not the idea that we're all on board searching for a policy that brings peace. Here's what President Kennedy said, "The United States as the world knows will never start a war. We do not want a war. We do not now accept a war. This generation of Americans is already had enough, more than enough of war and oppression. We shall be prepared if others wish it, shall be alert to try to stop it. But shall also do our part be build a world of peace. Where the weak are safe and strong are just. We are not helpless before the task or hopeless of its success." And President Kennedy concluded, "Confident and unafraid we labor on, not toward a policy of annihilation, but toward a strategy of peace and we and certainly the press are all on the board." Thank you and good luck.