Senate floor speech of March 27, 1986 - John Kerry

Senate floor speech of March 27, 1986  (1986) 
by John Kerry


Thursday March 27, 1986

99th Congress

132 Cong R 6421-6423


Mr. KERRY. Thank you, Mr. President.

Mr. President, I congratulate Senator SASSER on his commitment to try to move the administration and indeed to move the Senate toward a sensible position of compromise on this issue.

I have been pleased to serve as part of the working group with the distinguished Senator from Tennessee, and I thank him for having adopted a number of approaches that meet concerns of mine and others.

I urge my colleagues who disagree with me on the question of the value of supporting the Contras to vote for this proposal because it is vastly superior to the carte blanche involvement that is going to be brought to us by the administration. This proposal is limited to only humanitarian aid, it gives us a second vote in 6 months, and places the highest priority on negotiations.

Mr. President, I am going to vote for this proposal not because I support the Contras, as I repeatedly have said that I do not, because I think this proposal offers the Senate the kind of opportunity that the U.S. Senate ought to be seeking when it discusses issues of war and peace.

In saying that I will support this, however, I wish to underscore one central point. Any proposal, any effort that leaves the Senate in a position, or Congress, or this country in a position, where we are looking to the Contras as some kind of final leverage as an entity that is somehow going to bring a solution to the problem in Central America is a flawed solution.

If one accepts that the Contras are part of the problem and most of the Senators I have heard talking have put forward that proposition, then they cannot continue to be part of the solution.

The debate here is not over whether or not the Contras qualify as freedom fighters; not over whether or not 10 or 12 percent are ex-Somocistas.

The debate here is over whether or not the Contras can at any point in time, in any way, contribute to a real solution of the conflict. And I think that the evidence is clear that rather than help solve that conflict, the Contras prolong it; rather than diminish the tensions in the region, we are militarizing it; rather than creating a framework for negotiations, the Contras raise hopes that fly in the face of the negotiated settlement because, as I have heard from Senator after Senator on the one hand say, "How can you negotiate with Communist nations; the Sandinistas will never negotiate." We just heard it from the Senator from California. He talked to Ortega. He knows he is never going to change.

So the reality is that hidden behind all of the rhetoric, what we are really doing here is voting on lethal aid to the Contras In order to give them the ability to be able to overthrow the Sandinistas. That is the real policy.

Rather than leaving the Sandinistas to deal with economic problems they have, with political problems they have, we are going to give the Sandinistas the excuse to be able to turn to their people and to turn to other Latin American nations and say, "Look at the colossus of the North, look at what the colossus of the North is doing to us. We need your help." So they will continue to unify their people around that threat.

What is worse, Mr. President, is that the Contras bring with them the inevitability of further U.S. involvement. I know there are many in here who said in the last days, oh, no, we do not want American boys down there. We have heard it from the White House- we are not going to widen this war. We are not going to see American troops down there. That is not our intention. How many times have we heard that in the debate?

Mr. President, how quickly do we forget? How quickly do we forget? No one wanted to widen the war in Vietnam, We heard that, Let me remind you of what we said during that period of time.

"There is going to be no involvement of America in war unless it is a result of the constitutional process that is placed upon Congress to declare it. Now let us make that clear." That was the President of the United States in 1954,

"We would not get into a war except by the constitutional process which, of course, involves the declaration of war by Congress." That was the President of the United States in 1954.

"Using United States ground forces in the Indochina jungle would be like trying to cover an elephant with a handkerchief. You just can't do it." That was the Senate majority leader in 1954.

"I would go to Congress before committing combat troops." That was another President in 1962.

"I would oppose the use of United States troops as the direct means of suppressing guerrillas in South Vietnam." That was the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, 1964.

"We have no plans at present to send combat troops to South Vietnam"-Robert McNamara, 1964.

"I don't feel expanded use of American ground troops to be an effective addition to the war"-the senior Senator from Arizona, in 1965,

"The commitment of American troops anywhere on Asian soil is a mistake"-the senior Senator from Arizona, in 1966. "There is a grave danger at the present time that the administration will go overboard in increasing American forces in Vietnam. We might be able to win the war but by doing so we would have on our hands the dependency for a long time to come. That is the wrong way to handle it"-Richard M. Nixon, in 1966.

Those words did not mean anything. Then we got into the war. We began to say, We do not want to widen it. "The United States seeks no wider war"- Lyndon Johnson, 1964.

"We can plainly say we are not escalating the war." That was the Senator from Alabama. "We seek no wider war"-William P. Bundy. "We seek no wider war"-White House, February 1965. "The United States still seeks no wider war"-Lyndon Johnson, 1965. "We still seek no wider war"-Lyndon Johnson, later in 1965. "The United States could not win militarily in a classic sense because our national policy of not expanding the war"- General Westmoreland. And so on.

Finally, President Nixon, 1970. "In cooperation with the armed forces of South Vietnam, attacks are being launched this week to clear out major enemy sanctuaries on the Cambodian-Vietnam border."

Mr. President, I remember Christmas of 1968 sitting on a gunboat in Cambodia. I remember what it was like to be shot at by Vietnamese and Khmer Rouge and Cambodians, and have the President of the United States telling the American people that I was not there; the troops were not in Cambodia,

I have that memory which is seared-seared-in me, that says to me, before we send another generation into harm's way we have a responsibility in the U.S. Senate to go the last step, to make the best effort possible in order to avoid that kind of conflict. Mr. President, good intentions are not enough to keep us out of harm's way. The danger here is our support of the Contras. Everyone knows the Contras are our Contras. We have a proprietary interest in the Contras. So with that proprietary interest we will raise the stakes, and then will come the commitment of our prestige and worse our pride, our pride. How many battles do we fight for pride? The ultimate vote today on temporary policy to give lethal aid that everyone in this Chamber says is not enough to do the job-the job, I take it, meaning to overthrow the Sandinistas is the ultimate vote.

There is an enormous contradiction in that because we will see people come back to us at the same time next year and say to us, you know, we need more money. Now, I will hear it from the senior Senator from North Carolina, and others: We have backed these guys. We have given them guns. We have given them the hope for freedom. We have given them a stake in their own country. We cannot desert them now.

I remember a politician who ran for President in 1968 with the secret plan for peace, and he was elected. The only promise he kept was that 4 years later the plan was still a secret. At the time that he ran there were only 22,000 or so names eligible to be on the wall down there at the Mall. When he finished, there were 58,000.

So, Mr. President, we have a special responsibility. We will be back here, and when the money is needed, we ultimately have to come back. We will be voting on a self-fulfilling prophecy that we have created. We give the Contras aid, and mark my words, you will see more Soviet helicopters, you will see more Cubans. Then the President will have another excuse to come back to the people of this country and say, look at what is happening down in Central America. Look at what is happening in Nicaragua. Air these Soviets and all these Cubans. We have got to do something about it, And the stakes will increase; international tensions will increase; superpower cold war rhetoric will increase. And nothing will be done to create greater stability.

(Senator WILSON assumed the chair.)

If we continue to fund the Contras, we enhance tensions, we further isolate ourselves from our allies, and we put ourselves in a much more serious predicament.

For the first time in our history, for the first time in our diplomatic history today, the U.S. Senate is going to vote on giving lethal aid to a group of people who overtly are seeking to overthrow a government with whom the United States still has diplomatic relations. This is not exactly a Gulf of Tonkin resolution. It is at least, thank God, one step removed. But it carries with it implications that are just as grave. It is bent on a course of dividing this Nation.

If there is one lesson that many learned during those terrible years of Vietnam, lessons learned both fighting in the war as well as fighting against it back in this country, it is that never again did we want to see people in American uniforms put in the position of having to fight when this Nation does not support the policy. That is where the problem of the issue of resolve, raised by the junior Senator from California, comes in. Even if you have the best intentions and a noble cause, you do not have the ability to rally around that cause if the American people do not understand why it is that sons and daughters of theirs must go to war.

This administration tells us they are serious about negotiations, and have been all along. But all of us have been watching this process. I have watched it with the distinguished, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee and others, the Senator from Tennessee. I think all of us share a deep concern that this administration is not willing to negotiate. That is why the Sasser amendment is so important-because it holds us to a regimen of accountability in negotiations without leaving the administration the open door to be able to simply define the lack of good faith in those negotiations, and automatically have military money to expend as a consequence.

Why is it, if this administration were serious that it was only shortly before the vote in the House of Representatives last week, that finally an Ambassador of Phillip Habib's stature is appointed? Why is it that that Ambassador does not visit Nicaragua? Why is it that the Ambassador of Nicaragua to the United States has never met with the Secretary of State in serious negotiations let alone discussions in this city?

Why is it that the White House has not called on the presidents of the Contadora nations to come to the White House and to meet with them? There is not a person in the media, a Senator or a Congressman in Washington, who are all well-schooled in the nature of the media and how you attract attention and give visibility to something-there is not a person here who does not know that these talks could have been put on a higher plane of activity and of intensity. Yet that we have not yet done that. We have done the direct opposite.

Last year as we were poised to vote for humanitarian aid only, just humanitarian aid, the President of the United States sent a letter to us through the majority leader, and I quote:.

I recognize the importance some Senators have attached to bilateral talks between the United States and Nicaragua and the establishment of a ceasefire. I have considered these views and believe that such steps could help to promote the internal reconciliation called for by Contadora and endorsed by so many Latin American leaders. Therefore, I Intend to resume bilateral talks with the government of Nicaragua and will instruct our representatives In these talks to press for a ceasefire as well as a church-mediated dialog between the contending Nicaraguan factions.

That is what he told us last year. That is what got him humanitarian aid. Now what is the U.S. Senate poised to do?

The U.S. Senate is poised to reward this administration for its lack of good faith in not following through on that letter and that promise, and not just give them humanitarian aid, "Hey, let us give them lethal aid, too."

That simply does dishonor to the process of legislating, it does dishonor to the nature of the words of the President, and it does dishonor to all of us in the Senate who I .think deserve better when we accept the President's word in good faith.

I do not believe that this country cannot find it in its spirit to take 6 months under the confines of this amendment to pursue a peace process. Let me just say, Mr. President, I have talked to the distinguished chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee about this. I keep hearing Senators come to this floor and say, "We have a threat of a Soviet base in Nicaragua. We have the threat of offensive weapons. We have problems of political pluralism. We have problems of whether or not we are going to be able to enforce these things."

I agree we have some of these problems. There is not a Senator on the Democratic side or the Republican side who does not believe there are riot-serious issues at stake in Central America. The issue here today is how do you fashion a policy that will allow you to protect those goals?

Mr. President, you do not pursue that policy by dividing. You do not pursue that policy by ignoring opportunities for negotiations. All of us share those concerns. But I would submit to you that it is only after we have exhausted negotiations, only after we have pursued multilateral remedies through the Organization of American States, only after we have worked closely with our allies to support our policy, and only after the American people understand the per-fidiousness of the Sandinista administration if they persist, that we will be able to take the actions that the Contras inevitably lead us to.

That is what is at stake in this vote today.

You know, it is interesting, Mr. President, that Senator after Senator has pointed to every single Latin American leader not supporting our policy, What is worse, when we imposed unilateral economic embargo on Nicaragua, it was not Libya that came in to fill the vacuum. It was not the Bulgarians. It was not the North Koreans. It was not the Soviet Union or the Cubans.

Who replaced for the United States as a source for Nicaraguan products? Japan, Belgium, the Netherlands, Italy, Canada-our own allies. Our own allies are keeping Nicaragua afloat.

If we went through the Organization of American States and if we supported strongly a Contadora agreement as the Nicaraguans say they do, then we would have a document to hold up on the floor of the Senate and say to the people, "Look, they signed this document. They agreed to do these things. They must be held accountable to it." I think, Mr. President, that that is the stuff of which a sound foreign policy is built, I think when you go through that kind of process, you earn the right to turn to the American people and say the things that have been said on this floor.

Mr. President, I do not think there is a Senator in this body who has not at one time or another walked down by the Vietnam memorial wall here in Washington. It is, I understand, the most visited area in all of Washington. I visit there at times, in an attempt to place the issues of war and peace in their proper perspective. The names of some of my friends leap out at me, from John Rose, to Johnny White, to Dick Pershing, and others. When I see those names, Mr. President, I remember that I came here to the Senate with a special responsibility.

Edmund Burke wrote a letter to the sheriffs of Bristol, and in that letter he said that conscientious men should be cautious how they deal in blood.

I see leaping out at me in those names, and in that message a reminder that we should be cautious in how we deal in blood; that we are a nation that can afford to take the extra step before we see another wall with more names.

I think the nations of the world expect that of us. I think our Latin American neighbors expect that of us. I think that our constituents expect that of us.

Finally, Mr. President, I would hope that we think enough of ourselves and of this process to expect it from ourselves, I hope my colleagues will not be stampeded and not be frightened into saying that it is not worth a few months to put to test a negotiating process and build a consensus around our policy, rather than rushing headlong into an ultimate confrontation that throws caution about blood to take wind.