George McGovern, a former South Dakota Senator and Democratic presidential nominee, delivered this speech at the National Press Club in Washington, DC on January 12, 2007.
I’m glad to be back at the National Press Club. Indeed, at the age of 84, I’m glad to be anywhere. In my younger years when the subject of aging came up, trying to sound worldly wise, I would say, “It doesn’t matter so much the number of years you have, but what you do with those years.” I don’t say that anymore. I now want to reach a hundred. Why? Because I thoroughly enjoy life and there are so many things I must still do before entering the mystery beyond.
The most urgent of these is to get American soldiers out of the Iraqi hellhole Bush-Cheney and their neo-conservative theorists have created in what was once called the cradle of civilization. It is believed to be the location of the Garden of Eden. I mention the neo-conservative theorists to recall Walter Lippman’s observance, “There is nothing so dangerous as a belligerent professor.”
One of the things I miss about my 18 years in the U.S. Senate are the stories of the old Southern Democrats. I didn’t always vote with them, but I loved their technique of responding to an opponent’s questions with a humorous story. Once when Senator Sam Irvin of North Carolina had to handle a tough question from Mike Mansfield, he said, “You know, Mr. Leader, that question reminds me of the old Baptist preacher who was telling a class of Sunday school boys the creation story. ‘God created Adam and Eve and from this union came two sons, Cain and Abel and thus the human race developed.’ A boy in the class then asked, ‘Reverend, where did Cain and Abel get their wives?’ After frowning for a moment, the preacher replied, ‘Young man–t’s impertinent questions like that that’s hurtin’ religion.’”
Well, Mr. Bush, Jr. I have some impertinent questions for you.
Mr. President, Sir, when reporter Bob Woodward asked you if you had consulted with your father before ordering our army into Iraq you said, “No, he’s not the father you call on a decision like this. I talked to my heavenly Father above.” My question, Mr. President, if God asked you to bombard, invade and occupy Iraq for four years, why did he send an opposite message to the Pope? Did you not know that your father, George Bush, Sr., his Secretary of State James Baker and his National Security Advisor General Scowcroft were all opposed to your invasion? Wouldn’t you, our troops, the American people and the Iraqis all be much better off if you had listened to your more experienced elders including your earthly father? Instead of blaming God for the awful catastrophe you have unleashed in Iraq, wouldn’t it have been less self-righteous if you had fallen back on the oft-quoted explanation of wrongdoing, “The devil made me do it?”
And Mr. President, after the 9-11 hit against the Twin Towers in New York, which gained us the sympathy and support of the entire world, why did you then order the invasion of Iraq, which had nothing to do with 9-11? Are you aware that your actions destroyed the international reservoir of good will towards the United States? What is the cost to America of shattering the standing and influence of our country in the eyes of the world?
Why, Mr. President did you pressure the CIA to report falsely that Iraq was building weapons of mass destruction including nuclear weapons? And when you ordered your Secretary of State, Colin Powell, to go to New York and present to the U.N. the Administration’s “evidence” that Iraq was an imminent nuclear threat to the United States, were you aware that after reading this deceitful statement to the U.N., Mr. Powell told an aid that the so-called evidence was “bullshit”?
Is it reasonable to you, President Bush, that Colin Powell told you near the end of your first term that he would not be in your administration if you were to receive a second term? What decent person could survive two full terms of forced lying and deceit?
And Mr. President, how do you enjoy your leisure time, and how can you sleep at night knowing that 3014 young Americans have died in a war you mistakenly ordered? What do you say to the 48,000 young Americans who have been crippled for life in mind or body? What is your reaction to the conclusion of the leading British medical journal (Lancet) that since you ordered the bombardment and occupation of Iraq four years ago, 600,000 Iraqi men, women and children have been killed? What do you think of the destruction of the Iraqi’s homes, their electrical and water systems, their public buildings?
And Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney, while neither of you has ever been in combat (Mr. Cheney asking and receiving five deferments from the Vietnam War), have you not at least read or been briefed on the terrible costs of that ill-advised and seemingly endless American war in tiny Vietnam? Do you realize that another Texas President, Lyndon Baines Johnson, declined to seek a second term in part because he had lost his credibility over the disastrous war in Vietnam? Are you aware that one of the chief architects of that war, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, resigned his office and years later published a book declaring that the war was all a tragic mistake? Do you know this recent history in which 58,000 young Americans died in the process of killing 2 million Vietnamese men, women and children? If you do not know about this terrible blunder in Vietnam, are you not ignoring the conclusion of one of our great philosophers, “Those who are ignorant of history are condemned to repeat it.” And, Mr. President, in your ignorance of the lessons of Vietnam, are you not condemning our troops and our people to repeat the same tragedy in Iraq?
During the long years between 1963 and 1975 when I fought to end the American war in Vietnam, first as a U.S. Senator from South Dakota and then as my party’s nominee for President, my four daughters ganged up on my one night. “Dad, why don’t you give up this battle? You’ve been speaking out against this crazy war since we were little kids. When you won the Democratic presidential nomination, you got snowed under by President Nixon.” In reply I said, “Just remember that sometimes in history even a tragic mistake produces something good. The good about Vietnam is that it is such a terrible blunder, we’ll never go down that road again.” Mr. President, we’re going down that road again. So, what do I tell my daughters? And what do you tell your daughters?
Mr. President, I do not speak either as a pacifist or a draft dodger. I speak as one who after the attack on Pearl Harbor, volunteered at the age of nineteen for the Army Air Corps and flew 35 missions as a B-24 bomber. I believed in that war then and I still do 65 years later. And so did the rest of America. Mr. President, are you missing the intellectual and moral capacity to know the difference between a justified war and a war of folly in Vietnam or Iraq?
Public opinion polls indicate that two-thirds of the American people think that the war in Iraq has been a mistake on your part. It is widely believed that this war was the central reason Democrats captured control of both houses of Congress. Polls among the people of Iraq indicate that nearly all Iraqis want our military presence in their country for the last four years to end now. Why do you persist in defying public opinion in both the United States and Iraq and throughout the other countries around the globe? Do you see yourself as omniscient? What is your view of the doctrine of self-determination, which we Americans hold dear?
And wonder of wonders, Mr. President, after such needless death and destruction, first in the Vietnamese jungle and now in the Arabian desert, how can you order 21,500 more American troops to Iraq? Are you aware that as the war in Vietnam went from bad to worse, our leaders sent in more troops and wasted more billions of dollars until we had 550,000 U.S. troops in that little country? It makes me shudder as an aging bomber pilot to remember that we dropped more bombs on the Vietnamese and their country than the total of all the bombs dropped by all the air forces around the world in World War II. Do you, Mr. President, honestly believe that we need tens of thousands of additional troops plus a supplemental military appropriation of $200 billion before we can bring our troops home from this nightmare in ancient Baghdad?
In your initial campaign for the Presidency, Mr. Bush, you described yourself as a “compassionate conservative”. What is compassionate about consigning America’s youth to a needless and seemingly endless war that has now lasted longer than World War II? And what is conservative about reducing the taxes needed to finance this war and instead running our national debt to nine trillion dollars with money borrowed from China, Japan, Germany and Britain? Is this wild deficit financing your idea of conservatism? Mr. President, how can a true conservative be indifferent to the steadily rising cost of a war that claims over $7 billion a month, $237 million every day? Are you troubled to know as a conservative that just the interest on our skyrocketing national debt is $760,000 every day. Mr. President, our Nobel Prize winning economist, Joseph Stiglitz, estimates that if the war were to continue until 2010 as you have indicated it might, the cost would be over $1 trillion.
Perhaps, Mr. President, you should ponder the words of a genuine conservative–England’s 19th Century member of Parliament, Edmund Burke: “A conscientious man would be cautious how he dealt in blood”.
And, Mr. President at a time when your most respected generals have concluded that the chaos and conflict in Iraq cannot be resolved by more American dollars and more American young bodies, do you ever consider the needs here at home of our own anxious and troubled society? What about the words of another true conservative, General and President Dwight Eisenhower who said that, “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and not clothed.”
And, Mr. President, would not you and all the rest of us do well to ponder the farewell words of President Eisenhower, “In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of the unwarranted influence of the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.”
Finally, Mr. President, I ask have you kept your oath of office to uphold the Constitution when you use what you call the war on terrorism to undermine the Bill of Rights? On what constitutional theory do you seize and imprison suspects without charge, sometimes torturing them in foreign jails? On what constitutional or legal basis have you tapped the phones of Americans without approval of the courts as required by law? Are you above the Constitution, above the law, and above the Geneva accords? If we are fighting for freedom in Iraq as you say, why are you so indifferent to protecting liberty here in America?
Out of Iraq
Many Americans are now saying in effect, “The American war in Iraq has created a horrible mess but how can we now walk away from it?” William Polk, a former Harvard and University of Chicago professor of Middle East Studies and a former State Department expert on the Middle East, has teamed up with me on a recent book requested by Simon & Schuster. It is entitled, “Out of Iraq: A Practical Plan for Withdrawal Now.”
I feel awkward praising it, so I give you the respected journalist of the New York Times, and now of Newsweek, Anna Quindlen who told Charlie Rose on his excellent TV program: “There is a wonderful book I am recommending to everyone. It’s a very small, readable book by George McGovern and William Polk called “Out of Iraq.” And it just very quickly runs you through the history of the country, the makeup of the country, how we got in, the arguments for getting in–many of which don’t withstand scrutiny–and how we can get out. It’s like a little primer. I think the entire nation should read it and then we will be united.”
If you need a second for the judgment of Anna Quindlen, I give you the esteemed Library Journal, “In this crisp and cogently argued book, former Senator McGovern and scholar Polk offer a trenchant and straightforward critique of the war in Iraq. What makes their highly readable book unique is that it not only argues why the United States needs to disengage militarily from Iraq now…but also clearly delineates practical steps for troop withdrawal…Essential reading for anybody who wants to cut through the maze of confusion that surrounds current U.S. policy in Iraq, this book is highly recommended for public and academic libraries.”
Professor Polk is a descendant of President Polk and the brother of the noted George Polk, is here today from his home in southern France and he will join me at the podium as I conclude this impartial interrogation of President Bush. And now, members of the National Press Club and your guests, it’s your turn to cross-examine Bill Polk and me in, of course, an equally impartial manner.