JFK Schools Dick Cheney on Civil Rights and American Global Leadership
Former Vice President Dick Cheney is outraged--outraged!--that Barack Obama felt compelled to mention the national shame of Ferguson, Missouri during the President's powerful address to the United Nations. Accusing of Obama of comparing the killing of Michael Brown to the butchery of ISIS, Cheney declared, "I am stunned."
But he shouldn't have been. Most Presidents have long understood that American credibility and leadership around the world require linking progress on civil rights at home to the emancipation of all people. To put in another way, victory in twilight struggles against threats past and present to the global order like the Islamic State and the Soviet Union demands the United States hold both the "commanding heights" and the moral high ground. Even as the Cold War nearly turned hot, President John F. Kennedy never stopped stressing that principle.
Two years after the construction of the Berlin Wall and just 9 months after the Cuban Missile Crisis, JFK made that very linkage in his nationally-televised address on civil rights. In announcing his decision to force the desegregation of the University of Alabama, Kennedy explained:
"We are confronted primarily with a moral issue. It is as old as the Scriptures and is as clear as the American Constitution."
But that's not all he said. In the worldwide confrontation without Soviet communism, Kennedy warned his listeners in the U.S. and around the world, America's call for the freedom of all nations would fail unless the same promise was realized at home:
"Today we are committed to a worldwide struggle to promote and protect the rights of all who wish to be free...We preach freedom around the world, and we mean it, and we cherish our freedom here at home; but are we to say to the world, and, much more importantly, for each other, that this is a land of the free except for the Negroes; that we have no second-class citizens except Negroes; that we have no class or caste system, no ghettos, no master race, except with respect to Negroes?"
Kennedy understood, as Mary L. Dudziak documented in her book Cold War Civil Rights: Race and the Image of American Democracy that the U.S. government "needed to safeguard America's image and counter Soviet propaganda by constructing a story of the nation's past that acknowledged racial discrimination but presented American democracy itself as the only viable path forward." Civil rights, in a nutshell, was a national security issue during the Cold War.
As, to perhaps a lesser degree, it must be in the long-term American effort to discredit and destroy the Islamic State. Keeping with the finest traditions of American foreign policy, President Obama this week told the UN General Assembly:
"Of course, terrorism is not new. Speaking before this Assembly, President Kennedy put it well: 'Terror is not a new weapon,' he said. 'Throughout history it has been used by those who could not prevail, either by persuasion or example'...
"I realize that America's critics will be quick to point out that at times we too have failed to live up to our ideals; that America has plenty of problems within our own borders. This is true. In a summer marked by instability in the Middle East and Eastern Europe, I know the world also took notice of the small American city of Ferguson, Missouri - where a young man was killed, and a community was divided. So yes, we have our own racial and ethnic tensions. And like every country, we continually wrestle with how to reconcile the vast changes wrought by globalization and greater diversity with the traditions that we hold dear.
But we welcome the scrutiny of the world - because what you see in America is a country that has steadily worked to address our problems and make our union more perfect. America is not the same as it was 100 years ago, 50 years ago, or even a decade ago. Because we fight for our ideals, and are willing to criticize ourselves when we fall short. Because we hold our leaders accountable, and insist on a free press and independent judiciary. Because we address our differences in the open space of democracy - with respect for the rule of law; with a place for people of every race and religion; and with an unyielding belief in the ability of individual men and women to change their communities and countries for the better.
After nearly six years as President, I believe that this promise can help light the world."
Of course, Vice President Cheney doesn't welcome the scrutiny of the world. But to him, the moral high ground has never mattered, probably because he has never been there.