The Right to Dissent
Speech By Senator John Kerry
Saturday 22 April 2006
Thirty-five years ago today, 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
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. When brave patriots suffer and die
on the altar of stubborn pride, because of the incompetence and self-deception of mere politicians, then the only
patriotic choice is to reclaim the moral authority misused by those entrusted with high office.
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. Indeed, one of the architects of the war, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, confessed in a recent book that he
knew victory was no longer a possibility far earlier than 1971.
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. All the horrors of a jungle war against an invisible enemy
indistinguishable from the people we were supposed to be protecting - all the questions associated with quietly
sanctioned violence against entire villages and regions - all the confusion and frustration that came from defending a
corrupt regime in Saigon that depended on Americans to do too much of the fighting - all that cried out for dissent,
demanded truth, and could not be denied by easy slogans like "peace with honor" - or by the politics of fear and smear.
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.
The fissures created by Vietnam have long been stubbornly resistant to closure. But I am proud it was the dissenters -
and it was our veterans' movement - and people like Judy Droz Keyes - who battled not just to end the war but to combat
government secrecy and the willful amnesia of a society that did not want to remember its obligations to the soldiers
who fought. We fought the forgetting and pushed our nation to confront the war's surplus of sad legacies - Agent Orange,
Amer-Asian orphans, abandoned allies, exiled and imprisoned draft dodgers, doubts about whether all our POWs had come
home, and honor at last for those who returned from Vietnam and those who did not. Because we spoke out, the truth was
ultimately understood that the faults in Vietnam were those of the war, not the warriors.
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
This is not the first time in American history when patriotism has been distorted to deflect criticism and mislead the
In the infancy of the Republic, in 1798, Congress enacted the Alien and Sedition Acts to smear Thomas Jefferson and
accuse him of treason. Newspapers were shut down, and their editors arrested, including Benjamin Franklin's grandson. No
wonder Thomas Jefferson himself said: "Dissent is the greatest form of patriotism."
In the Mexican War, a young Congressman named Abraham Lincoln was driven from public life for raising doubts about
official claims. And in World War I, America's values were degraded, not defended, when dissenters were jailed and the
teaching of German was banned in public schools in some states. At that time it was apparently sounding German, not
looking French, that got you in trouble. And it was panic and prejudice, not true patriotism, that brought the
internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II - a measure upheld by Supreme Court Justices who did not uphold
their oaths to defend the Constitution. We are stronger today because no less a rock-ribbed conservative than Robert
Taft - "Mr. Republican" himself - stood up and said at the height of the second World War that, "the maintenance of the
right of criticism in the long run will do the country maintaining it a great deal more good than it will do the enemy,
and will prevent mistakes which might otherwise occur."
Even during the Cold War - an undeclared war, and often more a war of nerves and diplomacy than of arms - even the
mildest dissenters from official policy were sometimes silenced, blacklisted, or arrested, especially during the
McCarthy era of the early 1950s. Indeed, it was only when Joseph McCarthy went through the gates of delirium and began
accusing distinguished U.S. diplomats and military leaders of treason that the two parties in Washington and the news
media realized the common stake they had in the right to dissent. They stood up to a bully and brought down
McCarthyism's ugly and contrived appeals to a phony form of 100% Americanism.
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...".
This hall and this Commonwealth have always been at the forefront of seeking out and living out the truth in the
conduct of public life. Here Massachusetts defined human rights by adopting our own Bill of Rights; here we took a stand
against slavery, for women's suffrage and civil rights for all Americans. 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 and now 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. For
what is at stake here is nothing less than life itself. As the statesman Edmund Burke once said: "A conscientious man
should be cautious how he dealt in blood."
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 and self-determination in concert with like-minded people everywhere. But our
current leadership, for all its rhetoric of freedom and democracy, behaves as though might does make right, enabling us
to discard the alliances and institutions that served us so well in the past as nothing more now than impediments to the
exercise of unilateral power.
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 of the nation's direction, and unwilling to hold itself accountable for the consequences
of decisions made without genuine disclosure, or genuine debate.
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, from the president on down, we've heard these calls dismissed or even attacked as acts of
disloyalty, or as threats to civilian control of the armed forces. We have even heard accusations that this dissent
gives aid and comfort to the enemy. That is cheap and it is shameful. And once again we have seen personal attacks on
the character of those who speak out. 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.
The former top operating officer at the Pentagon, a Marine Lieutenant General, said "the commitment of our forces to
this fight was done with a casualness and swagger that are the special province of those who have never had to execute
these missions–or bury the results." It is hard for a career military officer to speak those words. But at a time when
the administration cannot let go of the myths and outright lies it broadcast in the rush to war in Iraq, those who know
better must speak out.
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 being paid for each
mistake 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 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" in Iraq. 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.
Let's call it the Bush-Cheney Doctrine.
According to the Bush-Cheney Doctrine, alliances and international institutions are now disposable - and international
institutions are dispensable or even despicable.
According to the Bush-Cheney Doctrine, we cannot foreswear the fool's gold of information secured by torturing
prisoners or creating a shadow justice system with no rules and no transparency.
According to the Bush-Cheney Doctrine, unwarranted secrecy and illegal spying are now absolute imperatives of our
According to the Bush-Cheney Doctrine, those who question the abuse of power question America itself.
According to the Bush-Cheney doctrine, an Administration should be willing to spend hundreds of billions of dollars on
the Iraq war, but unwilling to spend a few billion dollars to secure the American ports through which nuclear materials
could make their way to terrorist cells.
According to the Bush-Cheney Doctrine, executive powers trump the constitutional doctrine of separation of powers.
According to the Bush-Cheney Doctrine, smearing administration critics is not only permissible, but necessary - and
revealing the identity of a CIA agent is an acceptable means to hide the truth.
The raw justification for abandoning so many American traditions exposes the real danger of the Bush-Cheney Doctrine.
We all understand we are in a long struggle against jihadist extremism. It does represent a threat to our vital security
interests and our values. Even the Bush-Cheney Administration acknowledges this is preeminently an ideological war, but
that's why the Bush-Cheney Doctrine is so ill-equipped to fight and win it.
Our enemies argue that all our claims about advancing universal principles of human rights and mutual respect disguise
a raw demand for American dominance. They gain every time we tolerate or cover up abuses of human rights in Abu Ghraib
or Guantanamo Bay, or among sectarian militias in Iraq, and especially when we defiantly disdain the rules of
Our enemies argue that our invasion and occupation of Iraq reflect an obsession with oil supplies and commercial
opportunities. They gain when our president and vice president, both former oil company executives, continue to pursue
an oil-based energy strategy, and provide vast concessions in Iraq to their corporate friends.
And so there's the crowning irony: the Bush-Cheney Doctrine holds that many of our great traditions cannot be
maintained; yet the Bush-Cheney policies, by abandoning those traditions, give Osama bin Laden and his associates
exactly what they want and need to reinforce their hate-filled ideology of Islamic solidarity against the western world.
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 mission the leaders themselves no longer believed in.
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.
We are now in the third war in Iraq in as many years. The first was against Saddam Hussein and his supposed weapons of
mass destruction. The second was against terrorists whom, the administration said, it was better to fight over there
than here. Now we find our troops in the middle of an escalating civil war.
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.
Our call to action is clear. Iraqi leaders have responded only to deadlines - a deadline to transfer authority to a
provisional government, and a deadline to hold three elections. It was the most intense 11th hour pressure that just
pushed aside Prime Minister Jaafari and brought forward a more acceptable candidate. And it will demand deadline
toughness to reign in Shiite militias Sunnis say are committing horrific acts of torture every day in Baghdad.
So we must set another deadline to extricate our troops and get Iraq up on its own two feet.
Iraqi politicians should be told that they have until May 15 to deal with these intransigent issues and at last put
together an effective unity government or we will immediately withdraw our military. If Iraqis aren't willing to build a
unity government in the five months since the election, they're probably not willing to build one at all. The civil war
will only get worse, and we will have no choice anyway but to leave.
If Iraq's leaders succeed in putting together a government, then we must agree on another deadline: a schedule for
withdrawing American combat forces by year's end. Doing so will actually empower the new Iraqi leadership, put Iraqis in
the position of running their own country and undermine support for the insurgency, which is fueled in large measure by
the majority of Iraqis who want us to leave their country.
So now, as in 1971, we are engaged in another fight to live the truth and make our own government accountable. As in
1971, 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.
Lives are on the line. Lives have been lost to bad decisions – not decisions that could have gone either way, but
decisions that constitute basic negligence and incompetence. And lives continue to be lost because of stubbornness and
We support the troops - the brave men and women who have always protected us and do so today - in part by honoring
their service, and in part by making sure they have everything they need both in battle and after they have borne the
burden of battle.
But I believe now as strongly and proudly as I did thirty-five years ago that the most important way to support the
troops is to tell the truth, and to ensure we do not ask young Americans to die in a cause that falls short of the
ideals of this country.
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." And that's what
we must do again today.,p>