By Howard Zinn • The Progressive • January 1, 2004
A note of explanation: In the spring of 1967, my book Vietnam: The Logic of Withdrawal was published by Beacon Press. It was the first book on the war to call for immediate withdrawal, no conditions. Many liberals were saying: “Yes, we should leave Vietnam, but President Johnson can’t just do it; it would be very hard to explain to the American people.” My response, in the last chapter of my book, was to write a speech for Lyndon Johnson, explaining to the American people why he was ordering the immediate evacuation of American armed forces from Vietnam. No, Johnson did not make that speech, and the war went on. But I am undaunted, and willing to make my second attempt at speech writing. This time, I am writing a speech for whichever candidate emerges as Democratic Party nominee for President. My supposition is that the nation is ready for an all-out challenge to the Bush Administration, for its war policy and its assault on the well-being of the American people. And only such a forthright, courageous approach to the nation can win the election and save us from another four years of an Administration that is reckless with American lives and American values.
My fellow Americans, I ask for your vote for President because I believe we are at a point in the history of our country where we have a serious decision to make. That decision will deeply affect not only our lives, but also the lives of our children and grandchildren.
At this moment in our nation’s history, we are on a very dangerous course. We can remain on that course, or we can turn onto a bold new path to fulfill the promise of the Declaration of Independence, which guarantees everyone an equal right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
The danger we are in today is that the war–a war without any foreseeable end–is not only taking the lives of our young but exhausting the great wealth of our nation. That wealth could be used to create prosperity for every American but is now being squandered on military interventions abroad that have nothing to do with making us more secure.
We should listen carefully to the men serving in this war.
Tim Predmore is a five-year veteran of the army. He is just finishing his tour of duty in Iraq. He writes: “We have all faced death in Iraq without reason or justification. How many more must die? How many more tears must be shed before Americans awake and demand the return of the men and women whose job it is to protect them rather than their leader’s interest?”
What is national security? This Administration defines national security as sending our young men and women around the world to wage war on country after country–none of them strong enough to threaten us. I define national security as making sure every American has health care, employment, decent housing, a clean environment. I define national security as taking care of our people who are losing jobs, taking care of our senior citizens, taking care of our children.
Our current military budget is $400 billion a year, the largest in our history, larger even than when we were in the Cold War with the Soviet Union. And now we will be spending an additional $87 billion for the war in Iraq. At the same time, we are told that the government has cut funds for health care, education, the environment, and even school lunches for children. Most shocking of all is the cut, in billions of dollars, for veterans’ benefits.
If I became President, I would immediately begin to use the great wealth of our nation to provide those things, which represent true security.
Immediately on taking office, I would propose to Congress, and use all my power to ensure that this legislation passes, that we institute a brand new health care system, one that builds on the success of our Medicare program, and that has been used effectively in other countries in the world.
I would call it Health Security, because it would guarantee to every man, woman, and child free medical care, including prescription drugs, paid for out of the general treasury, like the free medical care for members of Congress, and for members of our armed services. This would save billions of dollars wasted today in administrative costs, profits for insurance companies and pharmaceutical firms, huge salaries for CEOs of private medical plans. There would be no paperwork for the patient, and no worries about whether any medical condition, any medical emergency, would be covered. No worry that losing your job would mean an end to your medical insurance.
I would do something else immediately on taking office. I would ask Congress for a Full Employment Act, guaranteeing jobs to anyone who is willing to work. We would give the private sector all the opportunity to provide work, but where it fails to do so, the government would become the employer of last resort. We would use as a model the great social programs of the New Deal, when millions of people were given jobs after the private sector had failed to do so.
I would also take steps to reverse the attacks on our environment by the Bush Administration, which has been more concerned for the profits of large corporations than for the air, land, and water we depend on. In December of 2002, it relaxed its pollution standards for antiquated coal-fired power plants in the Midwest, and those emissions cause hundreds of premature deaths each year. It has refused to sign the Kyoto agreement on global warming, though climate change is an enormous peril to the coming generations. The Nuclear Regulatory Agency in January of 2003 refused to order a nuclear reactor closed though its lid had rusted nearly all the way through, because, according to an internal commission report, the agency did not want to impose unnecessary costs on the owner and was reluctant to give the industry a black eye.
This Administration has done nothing to stop the emissions from the chemical plants all over the country, and it has stored chemical weapons in areas where residents have become sick as a result. In April of 2003, Darline Stephens of Anniston, Alabama, told a journalist: “I live five or ten miles from chemical weapons. We’re over there searching for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, but we have them here in our hometown.”
The Bush Presidency has sacrificed the cause of clean air and clean water because it has ties to the automobile industry, the oil industry, the chemical industry, and other great commercial enterprises. I would insist on regulating those industries in order to save the environment for us, our children, our grandchildren.
A decision must be made, and I promise to make it. We cannot have Health Security, or job security, or a decent environment, unless we decide we will no longer be a nation that sends its military everywhere in the world against nations that pose no threat to us.
We have already lost 400 lives in Iraq. Over 2,000 of our young have been wounded, some of them so seriously that the word “wounded” does not convey the reality.
Robert Acosta is twenty years old. He has lost his right hand and part of his forearm.
Twenty-one-year-old Edward Platt has had his leg amputated above the knee.
The entertainer Cher, visiting the Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, called in to a television program, saying, “As I walked into the hospital the first person I ran into was a boy about nineteen or twenty years old who’d lost both of his arms. . . . And when I walked into the hospital and visited all these boys all day long . . . everyone had lost either one arm . . . or two limbs. . . . I just think that if there was no reason for this war, this was the most heinous thing I’d ever seen. . . . I go all over the world and I must say that the news we get in America has nothing to do with the news that you get outside of this country.”
The families of those who have died in this war are asking questions which this Administration cannot answer. I read recently about the mother of Captain Tristan Aitken, who was thirty-one years old, and died in combat in Iraq. She said about her son: “He was doing his job. He had no choice, and I’m proud of who he was. But it makes me mad that this whole war was sold to the American public and to the soldiers as something it wasn’t. Our forces have been convinced that Iraqis were responsible for September 11, and that’s not true.”
This mother has it right. Americans were led into war, being told again and again by the highest officials of government, including the President, that it was absolutely necessary. But we now know that we were deceived. We were told that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction that were a danger to us and the world. These weapons, despite enormous efforts by both an international team and our own government’s investigative body, have not been found.
Virtually every nation in the world, and public opinion all over the planet, believed we should not go to war. Countries much closer to Iraq than ours did not feel threatened, so why should the United States–with its enormous arsenal of nuclear weapons and with its warships on every sea–have felt threatened?
Common sense should have told us that Iraq, devastated by two wars (first with Iran, then with our country) and then ruined by ten years of economic sanctions, could not be a threat sufficient to justify war. But that common sense did not exist in Washington, either in the White House, which demanded war, or in Congress, which rushed to approve war. We now know that decision was wrong and that the President of the United States and the people around him were not telling us the truth.
As a result of believing the President, we went to war in violation of the United Nations Charter, in defiance of public opinion all over the world, and thus in a single move placed ourselves outside the family of nations and destroyed the goodwill that so many people everywhere had toward our country.
On September 11, 2001, a terrorist attack in New York and Washington took close to 3,000 lives. The Bush Administration has used that tragic event as an excuse to go to war, first in Afghanistan and now in Iraq. But neither war has made us safer from terrorism. The Bush Administration lied to the American people about a connection between Iraq and Al Qaeda, when even the CIA has not been able to find such a connection.
Indeed, by its killing of thousands of people in both countries, the Bush Administration has inflamed millions of people in the Middle East against us and increased the ranks of the terrorists.
The Iraqi people are happy to be rid of Saddam Hussein, but now they want to be rid of us. They do not want our military to occupy their country. If we believe in self-determination, in the freedom of the Iraqis to choose their own way of life, we should listen to their pleas, leave their country, and allow them to work out their own affairs.
I would, therefore, as President, call for an orderly withdrawal of our troops from Iraq and Afghanistan. I would remove our troops from elsewhere in the Middle East. Only the oil interests benefit from that military presence.
I am proposing a fundamental change in the foreign policy of our country. This Administration believes that we, as the most powerful nation in the world, should use that power to establish military bases all over the world, to control the oil of the Middle East, to determine the destinies of other countries.
I believe that we should use our great power not for military purposes but to bring food and medicine to those areas of the world that have been devastated by war, by disease, by hunger. If we took a fraction of our military budget we could combat malaria, tuberculosis, and AIDS. We could provide clean water for the billion people in the world who don’t have it and would save millions of lives. That would be an accomplishment we could be proud of. But how proud can we be of military victories over weak nations, in which we overthrow dictators but at the same time bomb and kill the people who are the victims of these dictators? And the tyrants we overthrow are very often the ones we have helped stay in power, like the Taliban in Afghanistan or Saddam Hussein in Iraq.
We are at a turning point in the history of our nation. We can go on being a great military power, engaging in war after war, in which innocent people abroad and our own men and women die or are crippled for life. Or we can become a peaceful nation, always ready to defend ourselves, but not sending our troops and planes all over the world for the benefit of the oil interests and the other great corporations that profit from war.
We can choose to use the wealth of our nation and the talents of our people for war, or we can use that wealth and talent to better the lives of men, women, and children in this country. We can continue being the target of anger and terrorism and indignation by the rest of the world, or we can be a model of what a good society should be like, peaceful in the world, prosperous at home.
The choice will come in the ballot box. I ask you to choose for the peace of the world, and the security of the American people.
Published in The Progressive • January 1, 2004