Senator John Kerry: “Patriotism Means Telling the Truth, Making America Stronger”
Grinnell College - Grinnell, Iowa
Thirty-five years ago this spring, I testified before the Foreign Relations Committee of the United States Senate, and called for an end to the war I had returned from fighting not long before.
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 Tonkin Gulf 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 the departure of our forces and the inevitable fall of Saigon.
I know that some active duty service members, some veterans, and certainly some politicians scorned those of us who spoke out, suggesting our actions failed to “support the troops”—which to them meant continuing to support the war, or at least keeping our mouths shut. Indeed, some of those critics said the same thing just two years ago during the presidential campaign.
I have come here today 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, a policy that is wrong, and a war in Iraq that weakens the nation.
I believed then, just as I believe now, that the best way to support the troops 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 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 alarmed by dissent—many who thought that staying the course would eventually produce victory—or that admitting the mistake and ending it would embolden our enemies around the world. 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 about Vietnam, and some of us were wrong. 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 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 votes, or legacy; it is time to think about young Americans and innocent civilians who are losing their lives.
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.
Truth is the American bottom line. Truth above all is fundamental to who we are. 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 defining values—was formed not by cheering on things as they were, but by taking them on and demanding change.
And here in Iowa we must insist again that fidelity, honor, and love of country demand untrammeled debate and open dissent. 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 tested abiding principles.
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 in Abu Ghraib, but assert unchecked power to spy on American citizens.
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. 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 to the exercise of unilateral power.
What they forget is that America has always been stronger when we have not only proclaimed free speech, but listened to it. Yes, in every war, there have been those who demand suppression and silencing. And although no one is being jailed today for speaking out against the war in Iraq, the spirit of intolerance for dissent has risen steadily, and the habit of labeling dissenters as unpatriotic has become the common currency of the politicians currently running our country.
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 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 combat or planning roles in 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. 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 it 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, did not resign their citizenship in order to serve their country.
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 must 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 call for recognizing 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.
And the most dangerous defeatists, the most dispiriting pessimists, are those who invoke September 11th to argue that our traditional values are a luxury we can no longer afford.
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 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 cynicism of political leaders who were sending brave young Americans to be killed or maimed for a strategy the leaders themselves knew could not accomplish the mission.
The War in Vietnam and the War in Iraq are now converging in too many tragic respects.
As in Vietnam, we engaged militarily in Iraq based on official deception.
As in Vietnam, we went into Iraq ostensibly to fight a larger global war under the misperception that the particular theater 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 for us to go.
Half of the service members listed on the Vietnam Memorial 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, but Iraqis must want it as much as we do. Our valiant soldiers 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. No American soldier should be sacrificed because Iraqi politicians refuse to resolve their ethnic and political differences. Iraqi politicians have only responded to deadlines – a deadline to transfer authority, and a deadline to hold three elections. That is why we need a deadline now for Iraqis to stand up and fight for their own country.
Our soldiers have done their job. Now it’s time for the Iraqis to do their job, and it is time to get our combat troops home in 2006 and get Iraq up on its own two feet.
So now, as in 1971, we are engaged in another fight to live the truth and make our own government accountable. This is another moment when American patriotism demands more dissent and less complacency in the face of bland assurances from those in power.
We must insist now that patriotism does not belong to those who defend a President’s position—it belongs to those who defend their country. Patriotism is not love of power; it is love of country. And sometimes loving your country demands you must tell the truth to power. This is one of those times.
When I testified thirty five years ago, I asked the question: ‘where are the leaders of our country?’
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 step up and define our country again.
Some people suggest we don’t have any ideas. You know, I have to laugh at that. If by ideas they mean running the debt up to nine trillion dollars, losing America’s manufacturing base, denying children after-school programs, cutting kids from Medicaid, and privatizing Social Security; if by ideas they mean violating the law, ignoring international treaties and forgetting diplomacy; if by ideas they mean filling the trough of the special interests’ pig pen – giving the money changers their bankruptcy bill, giving the oil industry their energy bill, and giving the big pharmaceutical companies their prescription drug bill — then they’re right: those are bad ideas being shoved down the throats of the American people by a Washington of bankrupt values and I’m proud we stood up and said no to them every step of the way.
We don’t have a selfish agenda masquerading as ideas and facilitated by those who refuse to hold them accountable and speak the truth.
In fact, the Administration’s agenda of the last years has so distorted America’s politics that now, straightforward, little ideas have become big ones.
So what do we say yes to? What are our ideas?
How about starting with this: tell the American people the truth!
Then, full-on fire the incompetents!
Make America secure with energy independence.
Value work, not wealth, and make our tax code fair for the middle class and people struggling to join it.
Export products, not jobs.
Make health care accessible and affordable for all Americans.
Do something about global warming and, while we’re at it, clean up our lakes and rivers so people can fish and swim in the United States.
Set a deadline for Iraqis to run Iraq and bring our troops home.
And 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 bigger than self, and based on the truth. We need a Washington that doesn’t just talk about family values, but that actually values families.
That is why I think we should pay for the war instead of passing the bill to our children; that’s why I think we should invest in renewable and alternative energy to grow the fuels of the future; provide all our kids with health insurance; and make America secure by waging and winning a real war on terror.
These are real ideas. I believe that was an agenda worth fighting for in 2004, and it’s even more urgent today and America will be better off if we start getting these things done now.
But these ideas will only become powerful if you give voice to your values.
We need you to make your issues the voting issues of this nation.
I remember when you couldn’t even mention environmental issues without a snicker. But then in the 70’s people got tired of seeing the Cuyahoga River catch on fire from all the chemicals. So one day millions of Americans marched. Politicians had no choice but to take notice. Twelve Congressmen were dubbed the Dirty Dozen, and soon after seven were kicked out of office. The floodgates were opened. We got the Clean Air Act, The Clean Water Act and Safe Drinking Water. We created the EPA. The quality of life improved because concerned citizens made their issues matter in elections.
So we need you to speak out. Speak out if you want an America that is finally and forever independent of Mideast oil – an America that relies on its ingenuity and innovation – not the Saudi royal family.
Speak out so that instead of making a mockery of the words No Child Left Behind when China and India are graduating tens of thousands more engineers and PhDs than we are, we build an America where college education is affordable and accessible for every student willing to work for it.
Speak out so that instead of letting a few ideologues get in the way of progress that can cure Parkinson’s, diabetes, Alzheimer’s and AIDS, we build an America where the biology students here today will do the groundbreaking stem cell research tomorrow.
Speak out if you want to restore a politics of big ideas, not small-minded attacks.
Speak out if you’re tired of seeing America divided into red states and blue states, because you know we can be one America — red, white, and blue.
Dissent from this unacceptable status quo because you know the job of leadership is to prepare for your 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. You must demand leadership that works to solve problems - not create them.
Our challenge today is to speak out so loudly that Washington has no choice but to make choices worthy of the sacrifice of our neighbors here at home and our troops all around the world.
When we protested the war in Vietnam some would weigh in against us saying: “My country right or wrong.” Our response was simple: “Yes, my country right or wrong. When right, keep it right and when wrong, make it right.” That’s our mission – to get off our rear ends – go out – and make it right today.