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A Right and Responsibility to Speak Out
Senator John Kerry
May 11, 2006
Thank you. Thank you. Thank you very much. Thank you very much for a wonderful welcome here at American University at the Kay Spiritual Center. I must say, listening to Jeremy as he was doing his introduction, I was both mesmerized and moved, and I’m sure every single one of you were as touched as I were. In the trips I have made to Iraq, quite a few of them now, I have always been impressed, really beyond anything I anticipated, by the quality and dedication and commitment of our troops to the mission. They’re there to get the job done, and they are doing it with amazing courage and amazing ability. And Jeremy Broussard is just one example of these people as he said –sort of this hidden few – they don’t deserve to be hidden at all. They are really the best of America and Jeremy we are so grateful to you. Thank you for the example you set and thank you for serving. [Applause]
Dean LeoGrande, thank you for welcoming me here and the president who had to go elsewhere, but I appreciate enormously. And for any of you who are seniors here in the audience today, congratulations, I know you are looking forward to Sunday. [Laughter] I presume you got your exam scores.
Thirty-five years ago, as Jeremy said – Thirty-five years ago this spring, just bout a month ago, I testified before the Foreign Relations Committee of the United States Senate, and I called for an end to the war I had returned from fighting not long ago.
It was 1971 – twelve years after the first American died in what was then South Vietnam, seven years after Lyndon Johnson seized on a small and contrived incident in the Gulf of Tonkin to launch a full-scale war—and three years after Richard Nixon was elected president on the promise of a secret plan for peace. We didn’t know it at the time, but four more years of the War in Vietnam still lay ahead. These were years in which the Nixon administration lied and broke the law—and claimed it was prolonging war to protect our troops as they withdrew—years that ultimately ended only when politicians in Washington decided they would settle for a “decent interval” between our departure of our forces and the inevitable fall of Saigon.
I know that some active duty service members, some veterans, certainly some politicians scorned those of us who spoke out, suggesting our actions failed to “support the troops”—which to them meant continuing the war, or at least keeping our mouths shut. Indeed, some of those critics said the same thing just two years ago in the presidential campaign.
I have come here today to this great university that George Washington envisioned a hundred years before it came about, to reaffirm that it was right to dissent in 1971 from a war that was wrong. And to affirm that it is both a right and an obligation for Americans today to disagree with a President who is wrong, with policies that are wrong today, and a war in Iraq that weakens our nation. [Applause]
I believed then, just as I believe now, that the best way to support the troops – and you heard this from Jeremy – is to oppose a course that squanders their lives, dishonors their sacrifice, and disserves our people and our principles.
I believed then, just as I believe now, that it is profoundly wrong to think that fighting for your country overseas and fighting for your country’s ideals at home are contradictory or even separate duties. They are, in fact, two sides of the very same patriotic coin. And that’s certainly what I felt when I came home from Vietnam convinced that our political leaders were waging war simply to avoid responsibility for the mistakes that doomed our mission in the first place.
By then, it was clear to me that hundreds of thousands of soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen—disproportionately poor and minority Americans—were being sent into the valley of the shadow of death for an illusion privately abandoned by the very men in Washington who kept sending them there. It was time for the truth, and time for it all to end, and my only regret in joining the anti-war movement back then was that it took so long to succeed—for the truth to prevail, and for America to regain confidence in our own deepest values.
Then, and even now, there were many people in this country who were alarmed by dissent—many who thought that staying the course was eventually going to produce victory no matter what the intelligence or the signs said—or that admitting the mistake and ending it would embolden our enemies around the world. Well history disproved them before another decade was gone: Fourteen years elapsed between the first major American commitment of helicopters and pilots to Vietnam and the fall of Saigon. Fourteen years later, the Berlin Wall fell, and with it the Communist threat. You cannot tell me that withdrawing from Vietnam earlier would have changed that outcome.
The lesson here is not that some of us were right, and some of us were wrong about Vietnam. The lesson is that true patriots must defend the right of dissent, and hear the voices of dissenters, especially now, when our leaders have committed us to a pre-emptive “war of choice” that does not involve the defense of our people or our territory against aggressors. The patriotic obligation to speak out becomes even more urgent when politicians refuse to debate their policies or even disclose the facts. And even more urgent when they seek, perversely, to use their own military blunders to deflect opposition and answer their own failures with more of the same. Presidents and politicians may worry about losing face, or losing votes, or losing a legacy; but it is time to think about young Americans and innocent civilians who are losing their lives—and their limbs. [Applause]
Now dissenters are not always right, but it is always a warning sign when they are accused of unpatriotic sentiments by politicians seeking a safe harbor from debate, from accountability, or from the simple truth.
Ladies and gentlemen, truth is the American bottom line. Truth above all is fundamental to who we are. It has defined us all through our history and it is no accident that among the first words of the first declaration of our national existence it is proclaimed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident…”
The bedrock of America’s greatest advances—the foundation of what we know today are the defining values of our country—was formed not by cheering on things as people saw them and as they were, but by taking them on and demanding change.
So here today we must insist again that fidelity, honor, and love of country and untrammeled debate and open dissent take place. At no time is that truer than in the midst of a war rooted in deceit and justified by continuing deception.
Think about that now—in a new era that has brought old temptations and that tests abiding principles of our country. This is a serious moment, and everyone needs to take it seriously.
America has always embraced the best traditions of civilized conduct toward combatants and non-combatants in war. But today our leaders hold themselves above the law—in the way they not only treat prisoners at Abu Ghraib, but in the way that they assert unchecked power to spy on American citizens.
We witnessed the CIA being bullied by the Rumsfeld Pentagon and the Cheney White House into shredding its credibility with unfounded claims of “slam dunk” intelligence for mythical evidence of weapons of mass destruction. Now that the President has tapped the chief defender of his warrantless wiretapping program to become CIA Director, we need to demand a full and vigorous debate over the nomination of Michael Hayden to head this wayward agency. [Applause]
Peter Hoekstra, the Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee describes this nominee as “the wrong person, in the wrong place, at the wrong time.”
His words ring especially true on a day when we are reminded of the Administration’s determination to keep the extent of their illegal domestic spying program secret. Just today, the Department of Justice abruptly ended an investigation into the conduct of department lawyers who approved the program – not because the approving lawyers were cleared of wrongdoing but because investigators were denied information to conduct the investigation. All this on a day when we learn that the NSA isn’t just listening to international calls from al-Qaeda but is collecting the phone call records of tens of millions of Americans who aren’t suspected of wrong-doing whatsoever. How many times will government secrecy shield decision-makers from real accountability in our country?
Enough is enough. It is long overdue for this Congress to end the days of roll-over and rubber stamp and finally assert its power on behalf of the American people to advise and consent before General Hayden becomes Director Hayden and proves Chairman Hoekstra right by doing the wrong job at the wrong time. [Applause]
My friends, America has always rejected war as an instrument of raw power or naked self-interest. We fought when we had to in order to repel grave threats or advance freedom together with like-minded people everywhere in the world. But our current leadership, for all its rhetoric of freedom and democracy, behaves as though might does make right. They discard alliances and institutions that served us so well in the past as nothing more now than roadblocks in the way of their exercise of unilateral power.
What they forget is that America—this America that we love and fight for and want to be all that we know its ideals speak to us about—this America has always been stronger when we have not only proclaimed free speech, but when we listened to it. In every war, there have been those who demand suppression and silencing. Some have even gone to jail in the past. And although no one is being jailed today for speaking out against the war in Iraq, the spirit of intolerance has risen steadily, and the habit of labeling dissenters as unpatriotic has become the common currency of the politicians currently running our country.
My friends, dismissing dissent is not only wrong, but dangerous when America’s leadership is unwilling to admit mistakes, unwilling to engage in honest discussion, and unwilling to hold itself accountable for the consequences of decisions that have been made without genuine disclosure, or genuine debate. As Thomas Jefferson said, “dissent is the highest form of patriotism.”
In recent weeks, a number of retired high-ranking military leaders, several of whom played key roles in the combat or planning of Afghanistan and Iraq, have come forward publicly to call for the resignation of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. And across the administration, we’ve heard these calls dismissed or even attacked as acts of disloyalty, or – amazingly – as threats to civilian control of the armed forces. Now there’s some clear thinking folks. Someone please explain how a civilian speaking out is a threat to civilian control of the military! We have even heard accusations that this dissent gives aid and comfort to the enemy. That is cheap and that is shameful. How dare those who never wore the uniform in battle attack those who wore it all their lives—and who, retired or not, never resigned their citizenship in order to serve their country. [Applause]
At a time when mistake after mistake is being compounded by the very civilian leadership in the Pentagon that ignored expert military advice in the invasion and occupation of Iraq, those who understand the price for each mistake being paid by our troops, our country, and Iraq itself not only deserve to be heard, they need to be heard.
Once again we are imprisoned in a failed policy. And once again we are being told that admitting mistakes, not the mistakes themselves, will provide our enemies with an intolerable propaganda victory. Once again we are being told that we have no choice but to stay the course of a failed policy. At a time like this, those who seek to reclaim America’s true character and strength have a duty to speak out and they must be respected.
The true defeatists today are not those who recognize the facts on the ground in Iraq. The true defeatists are those who believe America is so weak that it must sacrifice its principles to the pursuit of illusory power.
The true pessimists today are not those who know that America can handle the truth about the Administration’s boastful claim of “Mission Accomplished.” The true pessimists are those who cannot accept that America’s power and prestige depend on our credibility at home and around the world. The true pessimists are those who do not understand that fidelity to our principles is as critical to national security as our military power itself. [Applause]
And the most dangerous defeatists, the most dispiriting pessimists, are those who invoke September 11th again and again and again to argue that our traditional values are a luxury we can no longer afford. [Applause]
I understand fully that Iraq is not Vietnam, and the war on terrorism is not the Cold War. But in one very crucial respect, we are now in the same place now as we were thirty five years ago. When I testified in 1971, I spoke out not just against the war itself, but the blindness and the cynicism of political leaders who were sending brave young Americans to be killed or maimed for a strategy that the leaders themselves knew could not accomplish the mission.
The War in Vietnam and the War in Iraq are now converging in too many different respects.
As in Vietnam, we engaged militarily in Iraq on official deception.
As in Vietnam, we went into Iraq ostensibly to fight a larger global war under the misperception that the particular theater we were in was just a sideshow, but we soon learned that the particular aspects of the place where we fought mattered more than anything else.
And as in Vietnam, we have stayed and fought and died even though it is time to go. [Applause]
If you go down to the Vietnam Memorial here in town. I hope many of you have done that. If you stand in the center of the wall at the dividing line, you’ll see 1959 where it begins and 1975 at the end. Half of the service members on that wall died after America’s leaders knew our strategy would not work. It was immoral then and it would be immoral now to engage in the same delusion. We want democracy in Iraq – you bet we do – but Iraqis must want it as much as we do. [Applause] Jeremy will tell you that no matter how valiant our soldiers are, and they are valiant. They can’t bring democracy to Iraq if Iraq’s leaders are unwilling themselves to make the compromises that democracy requires.
As our generals have said, the war cannot be won militarily. It must be won politically. And to achieve a political reconciliation in Iraq, we need hard and fast deadlines. Why? Because Iraqi politicians have only responded to deadlines – a deadline to transfer authority, and a deadline to hold three elections. And it was only the most intense “deadlineish” 11th hour pressure that pushed aside Prime Minister Jaafari and brought forward a consensus Prime Minister. That is why we need a deadline now for Iraqis to stand up and fight for Iraq – their own country. [Applause]
Our soldiers have really done their job. What’s the biggest killer of our soldiers? IEDs and suicide bombers. They’re not out there fighting World War II, they’re not fighting uniformed troops – they’re driving down the street and getting blown up. You can’t tell me that after three and a half years – and we’ve been told about all the training – that we can’t find Iraqis to drive the trucks down the street. It is time for the Iraqis to do their job, and stand up for their country, and it is time for our combat troops to come home in 2006 and put Iraq up on its own two feet. [Applause]
What we need to do is two major things, number one, we need to agree with the new Iraqi government on a schedule for the phased withdrawal of American forces by the end of the year. Which will actually empower the leadership of Iraq. It will put Iraqis in the position of running their own country, it will take away many of the arguments that are being used to recruit for al-Qaeda and for the insurgency. It will undermine the support for the insurgency, which is fueled in large measure by the majority of Iraqis who want us to leave their country.
The second key to this transition is a long overdue genuine engagement in serious and sustained diplomacy. To give Iraq its best hope for a peaceful, secure future, the Administration should convene a summit that includes the leaders of the Iraqi government, Iraq’s neighbors, representatives from the Arab League, NATO, the UN and the European Union--bring them all together and forge the comprehensive political solution necessary to give confidence to the different sides to create the structure necessary and to bring stability to Iraq.
The time has come for a Congress that shares some responsibility for getting us into Iraq to help to get us out. [Applause] It’s time for us to demand a change in policy, a change in course – for Iraq, and for our own country here at home.
So now, as in 1971, we are engaged in another fight to live the truth and to make our own government accountable to the citizens it is supposed to be accountable to. This is another moment when American patriotism demands more dissent and less complacency in the face of bland assurances from those in power.
We have to insist now that patriotism does not belong to those who defend a President’s position—it belongs to those who defend their country. That’s the real definition. [Applause] Jeremy referred to it, and he’s right. Patriotism is not love of power or position; it is love of country. And sometimes loving your country demands that you speak the truth to power, and this is one of those times.
When I testified thirty five years ago, I asked the Senate the question – I asked the country the question: ‘where are the leaders of our country?’
An I think it’s time we ask that question again – and time we say clearly it’s not just in Iraq but on every issue where Washington has either failed to lead – or misled America in the wrong direction.
Rarely has there been a moment more urgent for all Americans to engage, to step up and define our country again.
Some people suggest and I hear this occasionally ‘Oh Democrats, they don’t have any ideas.’ They say, ‘you don’t have any ideas.’ You know, I have to laugh at that. If by ideas they mean running up the debt up to nine trillion dollars, losing America’s manufacturing base, denying children after-school programs, cutting kids from Medicaid, not funding the VA hospital and privatizing Social Security; if by ideas they mean violating the law, spying on Americans, ignoring international treaties and forgetting diplomacy; if by ideas they mean filling the trough of the special interests’ pig pen by giving the money folks their bankruptcy bill, giving the oil industry their energy bill, and giving the big pharmaceutical companies their prescription drug bill -- then they’re right: we don’t share those ideas. They are bad ideas and we should say no to every one of them. [Applause] Those ideas are wrong ideas, those ideas are bankrupt values – that’s what they represent – and I’m proud we stood up and said no to them every step of the way.
No -- we don’t have a selfish agenda masquerading as ideas and facilitated by people who refuse to hold them accountable and speak the truth and ask for the truth.
In fact, the Administration’s agenda of the last years has really so distorted American politics that now, straightforward, little ideas have actually become big ones.
So you want to know, ‘Okay Senator what do you say yes to?’ What are our ideas?
How about starting with this: tell the American people the truth! And tell it to hem all he time [Applause]
Then, full-on fire the incompetents! And hold government accountable. [Applause]
And how about depending on America’s ingenuity and creativity rather than the Saudi Royal Family and make America energy independent.
And whatever happened to the basic conservative of valuing work, not wealth, and make our tax code fair for the middle class and people struggling to get into it. [Applause]
Here’s an idea, pretty simple, straight forward, fundamental to America. How about exporting products, not jobs. [Applause]
And long overdue is an idea we’ve been fighting for for along time against great resistance. How about making health care accessible and affordable for all Americans and our children. [Applause]
And how about fundamentally acknowledging science and do something about global warming and, while we’re at it, clean up our lakes and rivers and our streams so people can fish and swim in them and leave them to the next generations. [Applause]
And as I said earlier, and I don’t think it is a little idea: Set a deadline for Iraqis to run Iraq and bring our troops home. [Applause]
You want to make it really simple? All of these ideas – all of this should be done because our one big idea is that leading America and building community requires the shared sacrifice and commitment of all Americans to a set of ideals that are bigger than self, and based on the truth. We need a Washington that doesn’t just talk about family values, but actually values families. [Applause]
That’s why I think we ought to pay for the war instead of passing the bill to our children; that’s why I think we ought to invest in renewable and alternative energy to lower the prices for Americans to make alternatives available, to do something about the quality of our air. That’s why we ought to provide all of our kids with health insurance, so they can actually go to school and pay attention in the classroom, rather than be distracted because they don’t have adequate nutrition, or because they have a chronic headache or earache that they never get attention for. That’s why we need to make America more secure by waging and defining to Americans a real war on terror.
A war on terror that is based on the real demographics and real challenges of parts of the world that are living in abject poverty with young people who have no future. I believe that agenda was worth fighting for in 2004, and I’ll tell you what – it’s even more urgent and more worthwhile and we will be better off today if we get started on these things now. [Applause]
Now let me be blunt. These ideas are only going to become powerful if you give voice to your values. We need you - We need you to make your issues the voting issues of this nation.
I can remember back in 1970 actually before I even demonstrated against the war. I took part in Earth day in 1970. I remember back then you couldn’t even mention environmental issues without a snicker from a lot of people. But then in the 1970’s people got tired of seeing the Cuyahoga River out in Ohio light on fire because of the level of pollution across it. They got tired of living next to chemicals and toxic waste dumps that gave them cancer. So one day millions of Americans marched – came out and said ‘We-this is a voting issue.’ And politicians had no choice but to take notice. Twelve Congressmen with the worst voting records in the United States Congress were labeled the Dirty Dozen- the Dirty Dozen- and in the next election seven of them were kicked out of office. The floodgates were opened. We got the Clean Air Act, The Clean Water Act and Safe Drinking Water Act, the Marine Animal Protection Act, the Costal Zone Management Act, and even Richard Nixon was brought to sign into existence the EPA. Imagine that, in 1970 America didn’t even have an EPA. What happened? Quality of life improved for all Americans because concerned citizens made their issues matter in elections.
So my friends we need you – this is not just up to us, us in Congress. This up to us, all of us in America. We need you to speak out. We need you to go out and knock on doors and talk to people and talk to your neighbors, and convince your families. We need you to speak out if you want an America that is finally and forever independent of Mid-east oil – if you want an America that relies on its own innovation and technology to provide us with a future.
We need you to speak out so that instead of making a mockery of the words Leave No Child Behind when China and India are graduating tens of thousands more engineers and PhDs than we are, we’re watching grants be cut, we’re watching Pell loans go up in price. We’re watching tuitions go up. Families have a harder time to educate. Speak out – we want to see a college education be affordable and accessible to every student willing to work for it. [Applause]
Speak out so that instead of letting a few ideologues get in the way of progress that can cure Parkinson's, or diabetes, or Alzheimer's or AIDS, we build an America where the biology students here today will do the groundbreaking stem cell research of tomorrow. [Applause]
We need you to speak out if you want to restore a politics to America of big ideas, not small-minded attacks and smears.
Speak out if you’re tired of seeing America divided into just red states and blue states, when every one of us knows who we are and what we ought to be is an America that is one America -- red, white, and blue all together. That’s who we are. [Applause]
So we need you to dissent. This moment asks for your dissent – against this unacceptable status quo because every one of you here knows, as a result of the value of this education here, and what your parents have given you, you know that the job of leadership is to prepare for the future - not ignore it. The people who run Washington today give in to special interests and rob future generations. Real leadership stands up to special interests and sets the course for future generations. [Applause] You need to demand – there’s nothing like and election to concentrate the mind of an elected official – you need to demand leadership that works to solve problems - not create them.
Our challenge today is to speak out and organize as loudly as we can so that Washington has no choice but to make choices that are worthy of the sacrifice of those soldiers abroad and of so many of our citizens here at home.
I’ll just leave you with this thought: When we protested the war in Vietnam, among the different folks who opposed us, were those who looked at us and said, “What’s a matter with you, ‘My country right or wrong.’” And we’d look back at them and our response was simple: “Yes, my country right or wrong. When it’s right, keep it right but when it’s wrong, make it right.” That’s our mission – to get off our rear ends – and go out – and make this country right.
Thank you, and God bless you all. [Applause] Thank you.
President John F. Kennedy spoke at American University's Spring Commencement on June 10, 1963. In this speech Kennedy called on the Soviet Union to work with the United States to achieve a nuclear test ban treaty and help reduce the considerable international tensions and the specter of nuclear war at that time. (text of speech)
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