A Time to Weep
2004 Commencement Address at the
New School University
Theodore Sorensen, May 21, 2004
This is not a speech. Two weeks ago I set aside the speech I prepared. This is a cry from the heart, a lamentation for the loss of this country's goodness and therefore its greatness.
Future historians studying the decline and fall of America will mark this as the time the tide began to turn - toward a mean-spirited mediocrity in place of a noble beacon.
For me the final blow was American guards laughing over the naked, helpless bodies of abused prisoners in Iraq. "There is a time to laugh," the Bible tells us, "and a time to weep." Today I weep for the country I love, the country I proudly served, the country to which my four grandparents sailed over a century ago with hopes for a new land of peace and freedom. I cannot remain silent when that country is in the deepest trouble of my lifetime.
I am not talking only about the prison abuse scandal, that stench will someday subside. Nor am I referring only to the Iraq war - that too will pass - nor to any one political leader or party. This is no time for politics as usual, in which no one responsible admits responsibility, no one genuinely apologizes, no one resigns and everyone else is blamed.
The damage done to this country by its own misconduct in the last few months and years, to its very heart and soul, is far greater and longer lasting than any damage that any terrorist could possibly inflict upon us.
The stain on our credibility, our reputation for decency and integrity, will not quickly wash away.
Last week, a family friend of an accused American guard in Iraq recited the atrocities inflicted by our enemies on Americans, and asked: "Must we be held to a different standard?" My answer is YES. Not only because others expect it. WE must hold ourselves to a different standard. Not only because God demands it, but because it serves our security.
Our greatest strength has long been not merely our military might but our moral authority. Our surest protection against assault from abroad has been not all our guards, gates and guns or even our two oceans, but our essential goodness as a people. Our richest asset has been not our material wealth but our values.
We were world leaders once - helping found the United Nations, the Marshall Plan, NATO, and programs like Food for Peace, international human rights and international environmental standards. The world admired not only the bravery of our Marine Corps but also the idealism of our Peace Corps.
Our word was as good as our gold. At the start of the Cuban Missile Crisis, former Secretary of State Dean Acheson, President Kennedy's special envoy to brief French President de Gaulle, offered to document our case by having the actual pictures of Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba brought in. "No," shrugged the usually difficult de Gaulle: "The word of the President of the United States is good enough for me."
Eight months later, President Kennedy could say at American University: "The world knows that America will never start a war. This generation of Americans has had enough of war and hate ... we want to build a world of peace where the weak are secure and the strong are just."
Our founding fathers believed this country could be a beacon of light to the world, a model of democratic and humanitarian progress. We were. We prevailed in the Cold War because we inspired millions struggling for freedom in far corners of the Soviet empire. I have been in countries where children and avenues were named for Lincoln, Jefferson, Franklin Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy. We were respected, not reviled, because we respected man's aspirations for peace and justice. This was the country to which foreign leaders sent not only their goods to be sold but their sons and daughters to be educated. In the 1930's, when Jewish and other scholars were driven out of Europe, their preferred destination - even for those on the far left - was not the Communist citadel in Moscow but the New School here in New York.
What has happened to our country? We have been in wars before, without resorting to sexual humiliation as torture, without blocking the Red Cross, without insulting and deceiving our allies and the U.N., without betraying our traditional values, without imitating our adversaries, without blackening our name around the world.
Last year when asked on short notice to speak to a European audience, and inquiring what topic I should address, the Chairman said: "Tell us about the good America, the America when Kennedy was in the White House." "It is still a good America," I replied. "The American people still believe in peace, human rights and justice; they are still a generous, fair-minded, open-minded people."
Today some political figures argue that merely to report, much less to protest, the crimes against humanity committed by a few of our own inadequately trained forces in the fog of war, is to aid the enemy or excuse its atrocities. But Americans know that such self-censorship does not enhance our security. Attempts to justify or defend our illegal acts as nothing more than pranks or no worse than the crimes of our enemies, only further muddies our moral image. 30 years ago, America's war in Vietnam became a hopeless military quagmire; today our war in Iraq has become a senseless moral swamp.
No military victory can endure unless the victor occupies the high moral ground. Surely America, the land of the free, could not lose the high moral ground invading Iraq, a country ruled by terror, torture and tyranny - but we did.
Instead of isolating Saddam Hussein - politically, economically, diplomatically, much as we succeeded in isolating Khadafy, Marcos, Mobutu and a host of other dictators over the years, we have isolated ourselves. We are increasingly alone in a dangerous world in which millions who once respected us now hate us.
Not only Muslims. Every international survey shows our global standing at an all-time low. Even our transatlantic alliance has not yet recovered from its worst crisis in history. Our friends in Western Europe were willing to accept Uncle Sam as class president, but not as class bully, once he forgot JFK's advice that "Civility is not a sign of weakness."
All this is rationalized as part of the war on terror. But abusing prisoners in Iraq, denying detainees their legal rights in Guantanamo, even American citizens, misleading the world at large about Saddam's ready stockpiles of mass destruction and involvement with al Qaeda at 9/11, did not advance by one millimeter our efforts to end the threat of another terrorist attack upon us. On the contrary, our conduct invites and incites new attacks and new recruits to attack us.
The decline in our reputation adds to the decline in our security. We keep losing old friends and making new enemies - not a formula for success. We have not yet rounded up Osama bin Laden or most of the al Qaeda and Taliban leaders or the anthrax mailer. "The world is large," wrote John Boyle O'Reilly, in one of President Kennedy's favorite poems, "when its weary leagues two loving hearts divide, but the world is small when your enemy is loose on the other side." Today our enemies are still loose on the other side of the world, and we are still vulnerable to attack.
True, we have not lost either war we chose or lost too much of our wealth. But we have lost something worse - our good name for truth and justice. To paraphrase Shakespeare: "He who steals our nation's purse, steals trash. T'was ours, tis his, and has been slave to thousands. But he that filches our good name ... makes us poor indeed."
No American wants us to lose a war. Among our enemies are those who, if they could, would fundamentally change our way of life, restricting our freedom of religion by exalting one faith over others, ignoring international law and the opinions of mankind; and trampling on the rights of those who are different, deprived or disliked. To the extent that our nation voluntarily trods those same paths in the name of security, the terrorists win and we are the losers.
We are no longer the world's leaders on matters of international law and peace. After we stopped listening to others, they stopped listening to us. A nation without credibility and moral authority cannot lead, because no one will follow.
Paradoxically, the charges against us in the court of world opinion are contradictory. We are deemed by many to be dangerously aggressive, a threat to world peace. You may regard that as ridiculously unwarranted, no matter how often international surveys show that attitude to be spreading. But remember the old axiom: "No matter how good you feel, if four friends tell you you're drunk, you better lie down."
Yet we are also charged not so much with intervention as indifference - indifference toward the suffering of millions of our fellow inhabitants of this planet who do not enjoy the freedom, the opportunity, the health and wealth and security that we enjoy; indifference to the countless deaths of children and other civilians in unnecessary wars, countless because we usually do not bother to count them; indifference to the centuries of humiliation endured previously in silence by the Arab and Islamic worlds.
The good news, to relieve all this gloom, is that a democracy is inherently self-correcting. Here, the people are sovereign. Inept political leaders can be replaced. Foolish policies can be changed. Disastrous mistakes can be reversed.
When, in 1941, the Japanese Air Force was able to inflict widespread death and destruction on our naval and air forces in Hawaii because they were not on alert, those military officials most responsible for ignoring advance intelligence were summarily dismissed.
When, in the late 1940's, we faced a global Cold War against another system of ideological fanatics certain that their authoritarian values would eventually rule the world, we prevailed in time. We prevailed because we exercised patience as well as vigilance, self-restraint as well as self-defense, and reached out to moderates and modernists, to democrats and dissidents, within that closed system. We can do that again. We can reach out to moderates and modernists in Islam, proud of its long traditions of dialogue, learning, charity and peace.
Some among us scoff that the war on Jihadist terror is a war between civilization and chaos. But they forget that there were Islamic universities and observatories long before we had railroads.
So do not despair. In this country, the people are sovereign. If we can but tear the blindfold of self-deception from our eyes and loosen the gag of self-denial from our voices, we can restore our country to greatness. In particular, you - the Class of 2004 - have the wisdom and energy to do it. Start soon.
In the words of the ancient Hebrews:
"The day is short, and the work is great, and the laborers are sluggish, but the reward is much, and the Master is urgent."
*Theodore Sorensen was special counsel to President Kennedy and a member
of the Executive Committee of the National Security Council (ExComm)
that met during the Cuban Missile Crisis.