In transformational times, assessing and reassessing one’s basic assumptions is critical for navigating the confusing and dangerous shoals of public and foreign affairs. Like those who perpetually “fight the last war,” far too many people are inclined to view every development through the lens of their own experience. The conflict in Syria and the U.S. government shutdown may be two differing but relevant cases in point.
The United States and Russia may have agreed to a framework for identifying and destroying Syria’s chemical weapons, but for all of the difficulties associated with getting rid of this arsenal it is no longer the critical issue it once was in determining the outcome of the conflict. The nature of the opposition to Bashar al-Assad is. With a Geneva II peace conference in the works, the international community is grappling with the inherent problems of assessing and making progress with a dangerously fractured opposition.
Despite the U.S.-Russian agreement, these two countries have yet to have a full meeting of the minds on the nature of the Syrian opposition and what that means for the outcome of the civil war and the future of the region.
It appears from the outset that the United States has downplayed the growing role of al-Qaeda- linked groups among the anti-Assad opposition. Just last month, Secretary of State John Kerry said, “I just don’t agree that a majority are al-Qaeda and the bad guys. That’s not true. There are about 70,000 to 100,000 oppositionists…Maybe 15 percent to 25 percent might be in one group or another who are what we would deem to be bad guys.”
Secretary Kerry also suggested that the United States would somehow end up as the power broker were Assad to be ousted — going on to say that this would require a negotiation on who would eventually run Syria.
The Russians have been at best skeptical of American assumptions and at worst shocked by what they might describe as U.S. naiveté. Rightly or wrongly, their take on the what they regard as an opposition riddled with Islamist radicals has led them to support the Syrian government at all costs –as their way of keeping a lid on the growing extremism in that country, and the potential for it to further destabilize the region.
The differences in Russian and American perspectives on this says a lot about the way our respective cultures interpret facts—not surprisingly, largely through the lens of our own historical experiences.
The potential for a minority faction takeover of an opposition movement is is infused in the Russian mind. Vladimir Lenin, the leader of the minority Bolshevik faction in the opposition Russian Social Democratic Worker’s Party, staged a successful coup in 1917. This power grab marginalized the majority of his party, the Mensheviks, and overturned a nascent parliamentary government in Russia—thus ushering in communism and the establishment of the Soviet Union, which lasted for more than seventy years.
The power of a radical minority, as the Russians well know, garners its strength and capability from its utter devotion to its cause and a willingness to use any means whatsoever to accumulate and ultimately seize power. With such determination, others who are unwilling or unable to be similarly focused and ruthless often have virtually no leverage at the end of the day.
On the U.S. home front we enjoy the blessings of stable government. The prevailing mood of the majority has largely triumphed. But due to continuing standoffs over fiscal matters, many people in America are beginning to wonder if we may have inaccurately analyzed a developing brand of domestic extremism. While they do not necessarily advocate violence, fringe elements on the right and left are extremists nonetheless as they do not accept any form of compromise; they get their energy from the unwavering righteousness of their causes.
At the moment, a faction of the Tea Party movement has provided the “leadership,” albeit one with a radical agenda, to shut down the United States government for the first time in 17 years. Moderates and traditional conservatives, fearful of their political tactics, have only just begun to realize the true danger posed by this dedicated and unyielding group.
Until now moderate Republicans have tolerated this minority in their ranks, assuming that in the end they could control, if not appease, this small faction. But the GOP establishment’s gamble may fail, threatening the party’s prospects for the mid-term elections and possibly damaging its longer term viability. The attention-seeking Senator Ted Cruz and his ilk are not dedicated to defunding the Affordable Care Act as much as they seek to dismantle much of the federal government. It appears that they will stop at nothing short of getting their way, since they have no strategy for ending this stalemate. While it is inconceivable that this minority’s tactics could extend beyond legislative measures, the potential to do catastrophic harm to our economy looms with the coming debt ceiling negotiations.
While the situation in Syria and the United States are in no way contextually similar, there is at least one lesson we can learn from what is now unfolding. Our collective experience of “majority rules” is the lens through which the United States often reflexively evaluates developments – at home and abroad. In the 20th century our system largely shielded us from political and sectarian violence. Even with a fortunate history, however, we are living in a fast-moving era that requires us to keep an open mind – constantly reevaluating the true nature of what is really happening. The United States should not underestimate people who have a fanatical passion to prevail – not overseas, and apparently not even in the halls of Congress.
Last night, President Obama confirmed that he is in favor of giving diplomacy a chance to succeed in defusing a potential conflict with Syria. It was a relief for most people to think that there might be an alternative to a U.S. military strike, which could have brought with it a cascade of unintended consequences. However, it was somewhat disheartening that the president did not say more in recognition of the Russians’ initiative. Their proposal is not just a tactical opening, its a strategic one.
Earlier this week the Russians gave President Obama a gift — a way out of a potentially embarrassing failure to garner support in Congress for striking Syria. The president tried to spin the diplomatic development last night by saying it was a direct result of the administration’s “tough” position on strikes. This does not ring entirely true. The president’s campaign to gain authority to strike Syria was not a credible threat. Russia had only to read the public opinion polls, as well as the Washington Post to see the daily head count on Congressional votes. The support simply wasn’t (and isn’t) there. Given the budget, sequester and debt ceiling talks that are in the offing, it is unimaginable that Obama could have ordered air strikes over the objections of Congress.
Now that this proposal is on the table there are two important questions that arise: Are the Russians sincere in trying to find a solution to this crisis? And is their proposal to identify and dismantle Syria’s chemical weapons feasible, given the magnitude of the undertaking, especially in a war zone?
As someone who has spent more than twenty-five years of my career travelling to the former Soviet Union, I can offer one overarching principle regarding the Russians—an observation shared by nearly every person who knows them well. The Russians are not easy to work with when they are being forced to comply with orders from elsewhere and when they feel they are being treated in a patronizing or disrespectful way. But, they can be counted on in big ways when they feel that a plan or a proposal is truly in their best interests. (For further reading on this see my book, Partners in Space: U.S.-Russian Cooperation after the Cold War—only one book among many that makes this point.)
Is the effort to identify and destroy Syrian stockpiles of chemical weapons, then, seen by the Russians as decidedly in their interest? I think so.
First, the Russians would probably like to know for sure where all those weapons sites are. Right now we may overestimate how much they know about the exact whereabouts of this material. They have an overarching interest in the country as well. There are Russians living there and they have an important naval port at Tartus, on the Mediterranean coast.
Second, the Russians would want to make sure that those stockpiles don’t end up in the hands of Sunni Islamic radicals, fearing that in a worst-case scenario these extremists – with probable ties to Islamic radicals in Chechnya and the former Soviet Union – would pose a threat to Central Asia and Russia.
Finally, the Russians would like to reestablish themselves as players on the international scene. This episode has put President Vladimir Putin and his Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, back into the public eye as diplomats – in contrast to the shoot-first-and-ask-for-the-UN-report-later Americans.
Contrary to the credit the president took for himself last night, the Russian initiative is not the result of a warm or particularly constructive relationship between the two presidents. It was an agile attempt by the Russians to take up Secretary Kerry on his off- hand comment that dismantlement might be the one thing that would avert the strikes. Whatever the reason for it, it is a welcomed effort. And it is that effort that holds the key to the second question: is such a proposal feasible?
Disarmament experts have warned about the complexity of identifying and destroying Assad’s chemical weapons—and they are correct in that. It is a very big tactical consideration, which would entail a great deal of time, resources, and personnel. But the Russian initiative has uncovered two factors of strategic importance. First, the Syrian government has finally admitted the existence of its stockpile, and second, the Russians, if given an incentive to do so, are apparently willing to leverage their relationship with the Assad regime to find a resolution to the current crisis. These are not necessarily the intransigent Russians National Security Advisor Susan Rice and UN Ambassador Samantha Power say they are.
In the last fifteen to twenty years Russia has been largely ignored on the international stage. There is no real downside to making them feel important again. The last two decades of U.S./Western interaction with the Russians have been rife with perverse incentives. Let’s now work with the Russians to see if, through them, we can bring to closure the arrangements with Assad on chemical weapons and move toward a broader approach to ending the civil war– not to mention helping to make the UN Security Council functional again. If they have some “skin in the game” they are more likely to use the United Nations in a constructive way.
Let’s try and restore the spirit of cooperation with Russia that made it possible for us to successfully meet earlier U.S. goals: to build an international space station; to secure weapons of mass destruction with Russia through the Cooperative Threat Reduction programs under the Nunn-Lugar initiatives; and to negotiate and ratify the New START Treaty. With the right diplomatic approach to the Russians, we can use their Syrian initiative as a way to meet our larger more enduring objectives. It will be challenging, but as the old adage goes: you can get anything done if you don’t care who gets the credit for it.
The long days of summer are coming to an end. In palpable ways the beginning of fall has been felt by a reenergized pace and fast-moving political and international developments – which I will write on in the coming weeks and months.
This summer, however, I had moments to reflect on what has gone before and what this might mean to rising generations. I was honored to be asked to give the First-Year Walk address for incoming first-year students at Gettysburg College. For nearly a decade, these undergraduates have retraced the steps of Gettysburg students who walked from the College in 1863 to the National Cemetery that November day when Abraham Lincoln came to dedicate the gravesite and deliver a speech. As part of this new tradition, a speaker is asked to read Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address from the very pavilion where Lincoln uttered his immortal words – and then offer some reflections on the 16th’s president’s remarks.
It was a daunting assignment. After reading Lincoln’s original address, I offered some personal thoughts to the class of 2017. This class is fortunate, as other Gettysburg College students and graduates have been, to be surrounded by a century of history that transformed our nation and the world:
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate – we cannot consecrate – we cannot hallow – this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract.
The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us – that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion – that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain – that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom – and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
What a humbling experience it is to read Lincoln’s unforgettable speech. And it is with a sense of honor, and some unworthiness, that I read it this evening from the very spot where Lincoln spoke those words.
The honor is even more meaningful for me because the nation’s attention has been turned, in recent times, to history and specifically to the 150th anniversary of the Civil War and the Battle of Gettysburg. The scale of destruction, and the suffering endured on these surrounding fields, defies the imagination – even that of the most creative of minds.
The importance of Lincoln’s words were their inspirational qualities, and they survive today primarily because they so eloquently frame the nation’s imperfect ideal. Lincoln presents us with a timeless challenge to the living – to be better than we are.
Much about this speech, this place and what happened here has shaped my own view of the world. I was living as a young school girl in Gettysburg during the 100th anniversary events, and even before the commemorations began every year on May 30 – Memorial Day – the school children from Gettysburg area schools would walk to the cemetery to put flowers on the graves.
In addition, I grew up on a property adjacent to my grandparents’ farm – located on an important part of the battlefield, near Longstreet’s headquarters. My grandfather, Dwight Eisenhower, was a five-star general and two-term president. Despite the demands on his time, he made a point of taking his family and close associates onto the battlefield. Many of the greatest figures of the 20th century who came to visit Eisenhower were the beneficiaries of his personalized tour – British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, French President Charles de Gaulle, and German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, to name a few. They reflected on the past as they visited the town’s famous ridges, and came back to Eisenhower’s farm to talk about a new world in the making – after the devastation of another war; the fight against Nazi Germany.
Eisenhower knew the Gettysburg story well. Before World War I, he and his generation of West Point cadets had learned military strategy on the Gettysburg battlefield, and before graduation they came and studied the terrain and immersed themselves in the battle’s events. They saw and learned of:
- the strategic importance of occupying the high ground;
- technological advancements and their impact on strategy and tactics—and ultimately on the outcome of any war;
- the importance of pursuing a weakened enemy;
- the value of military surprise; and
- the essential elements of leadership that are necessary to inspire bravery and valor in any fighting man.
After America’s entry into World War II, almost thirty years after first Gettysburg visit, the class of 1915 produced more generals than any other. Under Dwight Eisenhower’s supreme command, they went on to take some of the highest ground of all – that of the Atlantic wall on the Normandy coast. From there they fought their way to the heart of Germany, ultimately to assure the Nazis’ defeat.
Years later, Dwight Eisenhower returned to Gettysburg. As President of the United States he continued Lincoln’s vision by pursuing a path toward “a more perfect union,” that offered steps to a “new birth of freedom” – by passing in 1957 the first civil rights legislation since reconstruction, and initiating other landmark civil rights measures.
The story of Gettysburg has personal meaning for all of us who take the time to reflect on it. This is a multifaceted place. To me, Gettysburg is synonymous with commitment – the assertion of freewill to do a duty, imbedded in which is self-sacrifice, tenacity and bravery. The battle is not just about leadership at all levels – though it is that – but there were failures and miscalculations that led to futility and bloodshed of epic proportions.
Commitment, as a human value, is now under siege today in ways too numerous to mention. Contemporary life celebrates freedom – but not in the way that Abraham Lincoln would have used that word. Today, freedom has been informally redefined as “keeping your options open” – about your career, your relationships, and the course of what you will do with your life. Freedom is now seen as a privilege, as a way to avoid being “pinned down.” It is often the mantra of those who really want the license to put themselves first.
Even in this transformational time, I believe that people are not afraid of change as much as they are afraid of making commitments.
Commitment. Look around this cemetery, take in this scene. Countless soldiers lying in these graves had been volunteers for their causes. The neighbors and brothers of both sides fought with every ounce of their beings. Six-thousand and six-hundred (6,600) Americans lost their lives in those three days, and as many as 50,000 were casualties of this tragic debacle. Right or wrong, they died as part of a great spiritual impulse, and their commitments changed the trajectory of history.
It was at this very spot that America’s 16th president—one of our very greatest – stood among the newly dug graves and uttered the words that have become the expression of who we are as a united people.
And just down the road from this site, there is a farm where our nation’s 34th President and his wife lived – also devoted public servants. Eisenhower, as a cadet, and later as commander of the WWI-era Camp Colt at Gettysburg, was deeply inspired by all that had happened here at Gettysburg in 1863. And he, too, went on to become the leader of another great cause – the liberation of Europe.
You are at the beginning. You too can devote yourself. You too can make a difference and be counted on when the crisis comes. You too can stand for something larger than yourself. Commit yourself here at Gettysburg College to preparing yourself for the future. Make your life count for something. Help our country be better than it is—this was Lincoln’s charge.
Help make our country be better than it is—for this remains our most enduring national challenge.
Congratulations and good luck to you.
What a sad and unworthy place we have come to on the Eisenhower Memorial! Yesterday, the Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial Commission convened a public meeting to discuss the proposed Eisenhower Memorial. But instead of talking about the substance and feasibility of building Frank Gehry’s design, the commissioners acted as if nothing has changed in this country since 1999 when they started the effort to build a national memorial to the five-star general and two-term president. The commissioners gave nary a nod to the sequester, which has cut public funding to many vital national programs. Nor did they properly assess and account for the likelihood of continuing and future fiscal constraints. Instead, Chairman Rocco Siciliano chose to focus on his frustrations with the Eisenhower family–specifically “the girls”– without properly acknowledging the overwhelming public opposition to the design.
In Washington we are used to political and public policy disappointments, but I have been continually astonished by the degree to which the commission has gotten away with baldly mischaracterizing my family’s position. The attacks directed at me specifically yesterday were a transparent attempt to sideline the views of our father – Ike’s son and executor of his will – John S.D. Eisenhower. Rather than acknowledging my father’s views on this design, as expressed in a letter last fall, Chairman Rocco Siciliano talked about “the girls” – as if my sister and I, the designated spokespersons for our father and siblings, were willful rogues. He also declared that the Eisenhower family had been involved over the years but had not spoken up until recently. This claim is counter to a decade of correspondence to the commission from various family members about our concerns with the process and the design. Lastly he repeated again that my brother, David, had voted for the Gehry design, when in fact David supported the concept of another architect.
The unanimous vote yesterday – defiantly rejecting my family’s appeal for consideration of fiscal realities (see below) – was a sorry show of group-think. The commissioners were appointed to serve the public and guide this effort, which has been funded at the taxpayers’ expense.
The Eisenhower family is united in its belief that the nation and Congress must get this memorial right. The current design will be seen clearly from Capitol Hill, it will reconfigure the traffic pattern in a congested part of Washington, and it will cost far more than current estimates, since the 80-foot metal scrims will have to be replaced over time and the National Park Service will have difficulty in keeping them clean and free of debris.
The scrims remain the central issue. In addition to durability concerns, they serve to undermine an important facet of the Eisenhower legacy: bipartisanship. Our family has pointed out they will create a metal barrier – a curtain – which will separate the Eisenhower Memorial from the Department of Education’s Lyndon Baines Johnson Building. President Eisenhower and then Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson worked together in a way not seen in decades.
Mr. Gehry told my sister and me last year that the metal scrims are a non-negotiable part of the memorial design – the element that makes this a Gehry.
Apparently this consideration has trumped all else.
It is impossible to predict if the Commission will ultimately succeed in getting the Gehry built. But if they do they will have succeeded through the promotion of half-truths, disinformation about Dwight Eisenhower’s family, and most importantly an apparent disregard for the interests of the American taxpayer in this resource-constrained era.
Below is the appeal my family submitted yesterday for the Commission’s consideration.
While the Eisenhower family was not in attendance for this meeting, this blog is based on several reports we’ve received. Chairman Simpson read the following letter on our behalf:
Lewis H. Lapham, former editor of Harper’s Magazine, once said that leadership “…imposes on both leader and follower alike the burdens of self-restraint.” In other words, self-control as a national value is vital in any democracy, especially in one such as ours with a powerful constitutional safeguard on expression.
Last week, President Obama offered us such a lesson on the First Amendment when an unexpected heckler managed to crash his invitation-only speech at National Defense University, shouting to him about the prisoners on hunger strike at Guantanamo and the importance of closing the facility. POTUS let her talk for a minute and encouraged the audience to listen to what she had to say. When he asked to finish his point, she continued to persist. Obama finally stopped her, “Part of free speech,” he said, “is…you listening.”
The miracle of modern technology has given voice to the unheard and empowered the weak. It has created new communities, and opened the door for an unprecedented level of dialogue among other citizens and strangers. It has connected people who’ve lost touch. It has made once lonely people feel part of a bigger social circle.
It has also amplified the noisiest among us and turned people who had once valued social skills into distracted, self-absorbed citizens. No one seems to be listening any more—to anybody on any issue. If they were, empathy, persuasion and open-mindedness might have a chance in contemporary life. Instead, increasing numbers of people believe that influence is about shouting the loudest.
In this context, the First Amendment of the Constitution is now being increasingly evoked—some would say abused—at nearly every turn. This is the price, perhaps, of failing to provide more than a half a semester of civics for students in most of the nation’s high schools. Earlier generations, at least, were steeped in the notion that there is no freedom without responsibility.
The Washington Post’s venerable national security columnist, Walter Pincus, wrote this week about the leaking of highly sensitive national security documents. “When will journalists take responsibility for what they do without circling the wagons and shouting that the First Amendment is under attack?” he asked. Citing a case currently under investigation, he points out that “…I believe the First Amendment covers the right to publish information, but it does not grant blanket immunity for how that information is gathered.” It does not, he went on, include breaking the law.
On another front, federal law enforcement officers have also been investigating a former U.S. Marine and several active-duty Marines for posting threatening and “lewd” messages aimed at President Obama and Congressman Jackie Speier (D-CA). According to USA Today, when Speier apparently reported this to the authorities, these same bloggers “referred to her in vulgar terms and accused her of trampling their First Amendment rights.”
We will find out in the coming months the results of these two cases. But President Obama is right in a larger sense. There is a flip side to our rights. Freedom belongs to everyone, not just to those who outspokenly “exercise” their rights. Constitutional protection may assure you a lot, but it was not intended – as Obama pointed out – to be a license to scream without listening. It does not give the media the right to break the law for the sake of a scoop. Nor was it created so you could slander someone or gratuitously ruin another person’s image or reputation just to get attention. Without responsibility and self-control, the road that lies ahead leads to strife, an erosion of our collective security and safety—and possibly chaos.
Senator Elihu Root, one of this nation’s greatest public servants, summed it up best just after the turn of the twentieth century. “Religion, the philosophy of morals, the teaching of history, and the experience of every human life point to the same conclusion—that in the practical conduct of life the most difficult and necessary virtue is self-restraint.”
It is only in this way that democracy, and the fairness that it promises, can thrive.
Cornell Law School has this to say about the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States:
The First Amendment of the United States Constitution protects the right to freedom of religion and freedom of expression from government interference. Freedom of expression consists of the rights to freedom of speech, press, assembly and to petition the government for a redress of grievances, and the implied rights of association and belief. The Supreme Court interprets the extent of the protection afforded to these rights. The First Amendment has been interpreted by the Court as applying to the entire federal government even though it is only expressly applicable to Congress. Furthermore, the Court has interpreted, the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment as protecting the rights in the First Amendment from interference by state governments.
Earlier this week, I spoke at the Nuclear Energy Assembly to help commemorate their 60th anniversary. The multi-day event was hosted by the Nuclear Energy Institute. My speech focused on strategic leadership as exemplified by the Atoms for Peace initiative – and the need again for a view of energy that factors in the long-term perspective.Nuclear Energy Assembly Atoms for Peace . . . 60 Years Later Washington, D.C.
May 14, 2013
Mr. Chairman, Distinguished Guests,
What a pleasure it is for me to address this Assembly today, to help mark the 60th anniversary of the founding of the Nuclear Energy Institute, originally the Atomic Industrial Forum.
Also sixty years ago this December 8, in a speech before the United Nations, President Dwight D. Eisenhower outlined a strategic vision for the United States and for the world. It changed the way we see the potential of atomic power and ushered in a new era of international cooperation and partnership in a security sensitive area—nuclear science−which until that time had threatened us all.
It was a vision for the future that would be long-term in nature and bold in its results. It placed the United States at the forefront of events, assuring that it would be through our guidance and our standards that the world would make a transition to the peaceful use of this mighty source of power and energy. It brought the Soviet Union back to the arms control bargaining table—leading to the declassification of an entire area of nuclear science, fusion—and it engaged former colonial countries in peaceful cooperation rather than in the pursuit of nuclear weapons.
Would you or I have shown the same courage, humanity and enduring spirit? That was the question I asked on Sunday, April 28 at the Holocaust Museum’s 20th Anniversary dinner. I was honored to receive the Elie Wiesel Award on behalf of the World War II veterans who defeated Nazi power and liberated the concentration camps. Many of them were in the audience, as well as hundreds of concentration camp survivors.
This magnificent award gave me the opportunity to reflect on our veterans’ bravery, but also on the many Jews who saved the lives of other Jews during the Holocaust.
Chairman Bernstein, Vice Chairman Bolton, Elie Wiesel, distinguished veterans and survivors – I am honored to accept this award on behalf of the World War II veterans. It is especially meaningful that it bears the name of Elie Wiesel.
I am also pleased to be here this evening to help celebrate the Holocaust Museum’s 20th anniversary. A remarkable set of accomplishments have been achieved in the last two decades. And what an appropriate place to think about what happened nearly seventy years ago and to reflect on what it means today.
After the terrorist attacks in Boston much has been written on why, in the face of the explosion, some people rushed in to help while others ran away. It has been rightly pointed out that no one can really know what he or she would do until faced with a crisis. Would one rise to the occasion or back away?
In April of 1945, it was a crucial period at Allied headquarters as General Eisenhower, Supreme Commander of Allied Forces Europe, was engrossed in decisions about Berlin and other crucial matters. On the morning of the 12, Eisenhower visited the salt mines in Germany where the Nazis had hidden stolen art work. Later that evening he received the news that Franklin Roosevelt had died. As Eisenhower wrote in Crusade in Europe:
“The same day, I saw my first horror camp [Ohrdruf]. It was near the town of Gotha. I have never felt able to describe my emotional reactions when I first came face to face with indisputable evidence of Nazi brutality… Up to that time I had known about it only generally or through secondary sources. I am certain, however that I have never at any other time experienced an equal sense of shock. I visited every nook and cranny of the camp because I felt it my duty to be in a position from then on to testify first-hand about these things in case there ever grew up at home the belief or assumption that the stories of Nazi brutality were just propaganda. Some members of the visiting party were unable to go through with the ordeal. I not only did so but as soon as I returned to Patton’s headquarters that evening I sent communications to both Washington and London, urging the two governments to send instantly to Germany a random group of newspaper editors and representative groups from the national legislatures. I felt that the evidence should be immediately placed before the American and British publics in a fashion that would leave no room for cynical doubt.”
Dwight Eisenhower showed extraordinary presence of mind. Instinctively he could imagine, even in the pressure of the moment, that someday — at some distant time— there would be people who might try to deny such heinous crimes. What would you or I have done at such a moment? Most people at the time thought his insistence on documenting the camps was unnecessary. Yet Eisenhower’s immediate response has had a lasting, historic impact. Imagine today trying to counter the Holocaust deniers, including Iranian President Ahmadinejad, without having the historic evidence Eisenhower demanded.
My father, John S.D. Eisenhower, was serving in the European Theater at that time. He saw his father the day after his visit to Ohrdruf. Based on Ike’s account, a few days later John visited Buchenwald to bear witness as well.
A month later, on June 18, General Eisenhower held a press conference at the Pentagon. The press corps asked him about his determination to shine a light on the atrocities.
“When I found the first camps like that I think I never was so angry in my life,” Eisenhower replied. “The bestiality displayed there… and the horrors I really would not even want to describe… I think people should know about such things…I think the people at home ought to know what they are fighting for…”
From North Africa and Italy, to the beaches of Normandy through France and into Germany, those armed forces fought hard, demonstrating legandary courage and tenacity. At the same press conference, Eisenhower spoke in emotional terms about the sacrifice of the American fighting men. He told of the more than 10,000 of them who had volunteered to fill out important divisions before the decisive Battle of the Bulge. 2,600 of them were American blacks.
“These are America’s fighting men!!” They did their duty, the general said, with “cheerfulness under conditions of unbelievable hardship.”
What would you and I have done in their places? And would we have responded, when the call for volunteers had gone out? We honor our veterans, and salute those who are here with us tonight.
There are many other people from all walks of life who exhibited uncommon bravery during the war. But there is a specific group that has not been given the attention it so richly deserves. They are the Jews in the ghettos and in the camps who risked their lives to save other Jews. I was moved by a recent story in the Washington Post by Menachem Z. Rosensaft. He told his mother’s story – of the tragic loss of her parents, her husband and small son in the Holocaust. Despite this, Hadassah Rosensaft never gave up. While at Bergen-Belsen she and her other campmates found countless ways to save lives—by stealing food, smuggling medicine, and nurturing the orphaned children. She and others like her gave those terrified children not just songs and comfort – but more importantly – hope.
Hadassah Rosensaft and a handful of campmates helped to keep as many as 149 children alive throughout the winter and spring of 1945.
Later, she reflected on the inmates of Bergen-Belsen:
“For the greater part of the liberated Jews of Bergen-Belsen there was no ecstasy, no joy at our liberation. We had lost our families, our homes. We had no place to go, nobody to hug, and nobody who was waiting for us, anywhere. We had been liberated from death and from the fear of death, but we were not free from the fear of life.”
What would you and I have done? With courage and conviction, survivors of the Holocaust rebuilt their lives, and those same people worked hard to help make the United States the free world’s global superpower.
I cannot say it strongly enough: this Museum is more than a place for the remembrance of the victims of the Holocaust and those who liberated them. It is a monument to the indomitable human spirit.
Last week was a stark reminder that in one split second life can end or be altered forever. The bombings in Boston and the explosion in Texas brought home to us this fragility of life. In one case, the death and maiming came at the hands of people whose agenda was terror and tragedy. In the other, possible negligence led to an industrial accident that killed fourteen people and leveled five city blocks. For many of those who survived, life on the other side of that second will be a burden unanticipated, a struggle unimagined. But they still have the greatest gift of all — life. Of those who died in last week’s tragedies, the majority were first responders. An MIT police officer was killed during the manhunt for the Boston Marathon bombing suspects. In Texas, eleven of the fourteen people who perished had dedicated their lives to saving others. From the outpourings in the paper — as fleeting as they are — we will remember these people as devoted public servants. But how often do we reflect on what that really means? Did we ever really think of how profoundly different their choices were from our own? Their job descriptions were uncertainty; their stock and trade, potential sacrifice. Many of them lived with the prospect that on a fully engaged day of work they might not return to their homes. And this past week, many of them didn’t.
This came to me in an especially personal way over the weekend. I learned that the lives of my colleague and associate Major General Joseph D. Brown IV and his wife Susan were suddenly extinguished in a small aircraft accident on Friday. Both Joe and Sue devoted themselves to this country. Though Joe did not die in the line of fire, he had put himself in extreme danger many times. A 32-year Air Force veteran, he spent more than 4,300 hours in the cockpit — including sorties into Iraqi “lethal airspace” to take out GPS jamming towers — under fire from surface-to-air missiles and anti-aircraft barrages. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his “extraordinary airmanship and bravery.” And the citation for his Bronze Star read, for “the near flawless execution of over 700 combat missions.” Later in his career he served as deputy director of the U.S. Strategic Air Command before taking up his assignment as the first Commandant of the newly renamed, Dwight D. Eisenhower School of National Security and Resource Strategy at the National Defense University. Then, one April weekend Joe and Sue were gone. He was an exceptional leader, an educator, and a defender of our national security — an energetic and optimistic force in these troubling and difficult times. General and Mrs. Brown, like the others who served the public and lost their lives this week, have left us with a debt — one that is hard to put into words. To say they will be missed does not begin to give meaning to what their lives really represented. With humility and purpose, they made a commitment to clear the way so that others could be first — to enjoy peace, freedom and our days without worry. Their lives may have gone in a flash, but their legacies of service will endure with every task we undertake and every challenge we will face.
Pundits beware: Punxsutawney Phil gained a reprieve last week, after narrowly escaping lynch mobs and the possibility of time on death row. NBC News announced that “Punxsutawney Phil is innocent beyond a shadow of a doubt.”
An Ohio prosecutor, Mike Gmoser, had issued an indictment for the Pennsylvania groundhog who, on February 2, erroneously predicted an early spring. His handlers eventually took the fall, but frustration and disdain were still directed at the varmint. In no time at all Gmoser’s phone was ringing off the hook. “There’s a lot of people who want a piece of him,” he told reporters. “I know because I’m getting recipes from around the country.”
It’s true. With temperatures still hovering in some places around freezing, the seasonal scene for many central and northern states has been grim. The promise of spring has been, until now, just that—a promise.
That’s why Phil’s narrow escape should be a cautionary tale to all the pundits and talking heads who speak with such conviction and authority about the future. The public is tired of experts who continue to get it wrong.
Weather forecasts aside, as a nation we spend entirely too much television and radio time making unnecessary predictions. A significant percentage of these scenarios are advanced only in the context of now, rather than in reference to deeper underlying trends. A lot of it is just sheer entertainment.
Unfortunately, erroneous predictions in the policy world can cost lives, divert resources or leave the country flat footed. Remember the number of experts who issued dire warnings about the impending disaster of Y2K? (Think of how much money we spent on that non-event!) Or the group-think conviction that the Soviet Union was a coherent country, prompting President George H.W. Bush to admonish the Ukraine in 1991 to remain part of it. Within months the USSR collapsed. And tragically, there were far too many “me toos” who publicly said that the war in Iraq would be easy and that their oil would pay for it. Remember, the military operation would go “swimmingly” (Bill Kristol)? And finding weapons of mass destruction would be a “slam dunk” (George Tenant)?
Conversely, where were the experts and pundits to warn us of the 2008 economic meltdown? Fundamentals clearly pointed to an unsustainable housing bubble, and the toxic financial products that underpinned it.
Wrong-headed political punditry has also reached new levels, though with far fewer consequences. How many pundits told us that Sarah Palin was a brilliant choice as John McCain’s Vice Presidential running mate? How many talking heads predicted Michelle Bachman would be the Republican nominee in 2012—or even Donald Trump?
“The dirty little secret about political punditry,“ wrote Jim Newell in Salon, is that “it requires very little knowledge or skills and there are no consequences for being wrong.” This is a good thing for the community of talking heads, since the likes of Fred Barnes, Karl Rove, Michael Barone, Larry Kudlow, Jim Cramer, and Dick Morris all predicted a run-away victory for Mitt Romney.
Recently, pundits of the other persuasion, including Chris Matthews, James Carville and Ed Schultz, have spoken passionately about Hillary Clinton’s prospects for 2016. As they know better than most of us, any number of things could intervene between now and the 2016 race. President Obama is only 63 days into his second administration and much remains uncertain about his term, as well as the evolving mood of the country and any line-up of candidates that may seek to succeed him.
So if you want a forecast on who will be the candidates and the next president of the United States, there’s no need to tune into your favorite cable station. Why not ask Punxsutawney Phil for a prediction? The LA Times noted that “According to stormfax.com, since Punxsutawney Phil began issuing predictions in 1887, he has been correct about 39% of the time.” According to the writer, Phil Whitefield, this “is a much higher percentage than say someone like Karl Rove and his prediction in the 2012 presidential election, and no one called for Rove’s balding head on a stick.”