Under Secretary [Rudy] de Leon, thank you for your very kind introduction. Assistant Secretary [Frank] Rush; General [Johnnie] Wilson; Deputy Assistant Secretary [William] Leftwich; Mrs. [Peggy] George, I was very moved by your rendition tonight, thank you; Reverend [Larry] George; distinguished guests; ladies and gentlemen.
Let me too extend my special thanks to our guests from other countries who are here tonight to share with us this evening and to wrestle with these very, very important issues. We're glad to have you here. I hope you take home what you hear. This is a task worth fighting for, and it is not over yet. You're just starting on your way as we have been. We're happy to have you here with us. We want to be your partners.
It's a great honor for me to be here to open this very important conference. And it is an even greater honor for me to be with all of you, the people on the front lines everyday ensuring that the Department of Defense is a place of progress and opportunity for all of our men and women who serve in the Department of Defense.
Yesterday, as Secretary DeLeon said, President Clinton spoke at the commissioning of our newest aircraft carrier, the Harry S Truman. It is a fitting tribute to the President who, fifty years ago this day signed the Executive Order that eliminated, at least started to eliminate, racial segregation in our Armed Forces. The young men and women who will serve on the Truman are the best in the world at what they do. They come from all regions and all races of our country. Their diversity and their talent make them living and breathing memorials to the man who opened up the Department to their service, testimony to the wisdom of Truman and his decision and they are a reminder of why we are meeting here in Birmingham these next few days.
This conference is a chance to review the history of our armed forces and to highlight the sacrifices and the contributions of all Americans, especially those too long ignored by a system that struggled to see the greatness in people of color and the potential of women. It is altogether fitting and proper that we celebrate and remember the successes of the past. But we should also remember that we still have a long way to go. Tonight is an opportunity for me to highlight both the success and problems that lie ahead. Because I know that when you leave here in three days, you will be returning to your home stations, and that you will be at the forefront of that task. We are counting on you on behalf of the Department to carry on this work.
For too long, men and women of color served our nation without the recognition they deserve. Worse yet, they fought to defend our country and the ideals of the Constitution, only to return home after war and be told yet again, "It's time to go to the back of the bus." They experienced discrimination that belied the very principals of the Constitution for which they had fought.
Few people realize that even before there was a Declaration of Independence or a Constitution, African-Americans could be counted among our most fervent revolutionaries. In the fall of 1775, the Continental Army tried to appease large landholders in the South by barring all slaves and most freemen from enlisting or re-enlisting. But by the end of the year the war took a turn for the worse, and the order was rescinded. So on Christmas night, in 1776, African-American soldiers made that famous crossing of the Delaware River with Washington to help him capture the Hessians at Trenton. All told, some 5,000 African-Americans served for the cause of independence, and their sacrifices have been little remembered but should never be forgotten.
In fact, every American war, whether in time of slavery or freedom, segregation or integration, has witnessed the service of minorities who responded to the call to duty. And every time they have answered with great bravery and valor. African-American veterans have a long honor roll.
Shaw's 54th Regiment proved its mettle in the famous assault on Fort Wagner in South Carolina during the Civil War on July 18th, 1863. Last weekend, on July 18th, 1998, the Spirit of Freedom statue was unveiled in Washington to honor all African-American veterans of the Civil War.
In the years that followed, the Buffalo Soldiers kept the frontier settlers safe from attacks and the banditry of the outlaw areas.
The famous Tuskegee Airmen of World War II overcame resentment, suspicion, and segregation to become the first African-American fighter pilots, and time and again they shielded Allied planes on bombing runs into Germany. Until the recruits of Montford Point broke the color barrier, the Marine Corps did not accept African-Americans. But they went on to serve with distinction on the frontlines in Guam, Saipan, Iwo Jima and Okinawa. The 761st Tank Battalion, the first African-American Army unit to go into combat, fought its way through France and into Germany, amassing a record of accomplishment that eventually was recognized with a Presidential citation.
To see the contributions of Hispanic-Americans, one need only walk down one block on Second Street in the small town of Silvis, Illinois. In 1957, it was officially and aptly named Hero Street, because it was the home of more than 100 Hispanic-Americans who answered the call of patriotism from that one little street.
For Asian-Americans, there can be no better example than the 442nd Regiment. Composed almost entirely of Japanese-Americans, it defeated both discrimination and the defenses of the famous Gothic Line in Italy, becoming the most decorated unit in our country's military history.
The heroism of Native Americans speaks loudly through the words of the Navajo Code Talkers, who worked with Marine combat units in World War II. Instead of succumbing to the anger of social injustice, they used their native language as a secret code that the Japanese code-breakers could never break. They played a key role in making the offensive at Iwo Jima a success.
The women of America, of course, have borne the brunt of senseless chauvinism for decades. But they have never forsaken the call to duty. Last month we gathered at the Women's Memorial in Arlington National Cemetery to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the integration of women into the regular military; a big step in the long history of the service of women to their country. It is a history that stretches from the women who made hospital beds during the Civil War to the women who are breaking the glass ceiling as military pilots today.
All of these proud legacies stand in stark contrast to the low and often cruel treatment that minorities have received over the history of our nation, often as they returned from winning America's wars.
- At each step of the way, the military has reflected the larger tensions in the civilian society. However, the military is different in one key respect because in the heat of a battle, suddenly the color of one's skin doesn't matter very much. Survival matters. Death, by a bullet, a bomb, or a biological weapon, has never been known to discriminate. It is the great equalizer.
- And when we face it together and prevail, we find that our victory is one of solidarity. Wars are not won by white soldiers or black soldiers or yellow soldiers or brown soldiers. Wars are won by strong soldiers, good soldiers, brave soldiers - soldiers who have earned their honor and their colleague's respect.
Harry Truman knew this truth. Truman ranks as a great president, though in all honesty he was not exactly the model of an enlightened civil rights engineer. But at the end of World War II, he was shaken when he saw black soldiers, just back from overseas, being pulled out of army trucks in Mississippi and beaten. He said, "My very stomach turned. Whatever my inclinations as a native of Missouri might have been, as President I know this is bad. I shall fight to end evils like this." And so he did.
With a stroke of a pen, he breathed new life into our basic constitutional principles. Fifty years ago this day, today, he used the plain, direct language of principle, declaring that, "There shall be equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed services without regard to race, color, religion or national origin."
That may have been the most telling moment in a presidency, when one person, speaking from the greatest pulpit in the land, redefines our freedoms for the rest of the nation. Jefferson first wrote these freedoms when he drafted the Declaration of Independence. Lincoln redefined the freedoms set forth by Jefferson, most prominently in the Emancipation Proclamation. FDR redefined these freedoms set forth by Lincoln. Truman, in turn, took these freedoms and extended them.
Roosevelt, in his third inaugural address, appealed to Americans to rally to the aid of European democracies as they tried to defend themselves. He described a future where "Four Essential Human Freedoms," freedoms that were then under attack, should be guaranteed.
Here in 1998, we too can say - with respect to racism and sexism - that there are certain freedoms that should be guaranteed for all who serve in our armed forces. Friday night, Secretary [of Defense William] Cohen spoke of four new freedoms, and I believe that we should commit ourselves to these freedoms to guide us for the next 50 years.
First, every man and women should be guaranteed freedom from prejudice. We must make sure that every soldier, sailor, airman, and Marine knows that bias is a four-letter word, and it will not be tolerated. With every day that passes our services are more and more diverse, and drawing false distinctions of race or sex denies our oaths and our obligations.
Of course, what it takes to keep someone free from prejudice is not always easily defined in principle, nor is it easily reached in practice. Those of you here tonight undoubtedly know that better than anyone in the Department.
Is there progress to celebrate? Absolutely. Today, the armed forces of the United States are more diverse than ever. We can see progress. The proportion of African-Americans entering the services is higher than their proportion in the general population. Despite the drawdown, we are recruiting and retaining versatile, educated men and women, and I can point to four-star officers in three of the services who are African-Americans.
I think I saw General [Joe] Ballard here when I came in; he's head of the [Army] Corps of Engineers. I think I saw General [Russell] Davis, who is going to be head of the National Guard Bureau. These are great things to celebrate. But while that is reason to celebrate, candidly, it is also an acknowledgment of how far we have to go if we find ourselves celebrating three or four examples of success. The fact that we can name three or four as examples shows we have a long way to go.
At the same time, we have serious problems that we have to address. The proportion of Hispanics in the services has grown, but they are still underrepresented. Minorities in general are still underrepresented in the officer corps. While minorities represent 1 in 5 enlisted men and women, they represent only 1 out of 10 officers. African-Americans and women are still more heavily represented in areas such as support and administration, and have not gained equal standing in combat arms. Promotion rates are still lagging. This is a complex problem. Minorities do not get the opportunities they need in order to compete well for promotions later. We need to go back and read Truman's declaration again.
President Truman's Executive Order did not create equal opportunity and end racism in the armed services overnight. Nor can we expect the solutions that emerge from these discussions and our efforts to work overnight. Make no mistake: creating a system free from prejudice, our first freedom, is unfinished.
The second freedom that every man and woman should be guaranteed is freedom from indifference or apathy. Few know better than you that in many ways, the battle against discrimination is harder now. Overt racism and racist laws and institutional barriers have been removed, but we still have to change attitudes and perceptions, and they change very slowly. Our hallmarks must be fairness and opportunity. But it will not happen if apathy and indifference are standing in the door.
I don't remember the precise quote from Dr. Martin Luther King, but he was talking about the tumultuous times of the early 1960s. He said that history will not record this as being about the few people who were so actively opposed to integration; rather, history will judge the large number of good people who sat by and did nothing.
Those of you at our bases and facilities see our laws in action everyday, but you also see unchanged attitudes everyday. That is why we appreciate President Clinton's national dialogue on race. We need to have this discussion now more than ever. At a time when we should be opening more doors to minorities, too many places are closing them.
The President has pledged to have a government that "looks like America." The Department of Defense wants to meet that goal and go one better. Our goal is to have an all-volunteer force that has all the diversity of America, but is uniform in its excellence. Whether someone is white, black, brown, yellow, male, or female is not the issue. We want to find and keep the best minds, talent and leaders available. But seeking excellence will never be an excuse for indifference to diversity. It is possible to have a superb military and one that looks like America.
The third freedom every man and woman should be guaranteed is freedom from ideologies of hate. Many people find it baffling that in this day and age, after the lessons of Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin anyone would consider allegiance to the politics of repression and racial superiority. But we must remember that intolerance, the compulsion to disparage or dominate other groups, has plagued mankind since the dawn of civilization. Those who say that we have made enough progress, that there is no need for discussion, that there is no need to solve these problems, should just consider that history. Or perhaps they should talk to those of you here who have had to deal more directly with this.
The Army Inspector General recently found that the viruses of racial supremacy, extremism, fascism, and ethnic hatred can occasionally find a welcome host in the lives of the frustrated. When I was down in San Antonio this spring, I was briefed about two instances at bases in Texas where misguided military personnel dressed up in white hoods, imitating the KKK, and drove through our bases. One of them said, "It was just a joke."
Throughout the services, these hate groups are small. But the tragedy of Oklahoma City proved that even small groups have the power to destroy lives and devastate communities. We cannot afford to ignore them: the cost is far too high. Even if there were no racism and sexism in America today, we would have to guard against its return tomorrow. People who must resort to secrecy and anonymous acts of terror do not belong in this military. There is no place in this Department for hatemongers. (Applause)
The last freedom every man and woman in uniform should be guaranteed is freedom from intimidation. Women in the military should not have to face an environment of harassment or intimidation as they serve on behalf of this nation. A woman should not have to sacrifice her dignity, through either direct attacks or a predatory environment, when she chooses to serve her country.
To those who want to wave this off by saying "boys will be boys," we need to send a clear and consistent message. We do not want boys whose goal is simply to learn the rules, we want men whose goal is to honor them. (Applause) I appreciate all your efforts to help us get that message out, and enforce it firmly.
America's fighting force is the best in the world because we know we are fighting for the most revolutionary idea of all time - "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all [people] are created equal." If we are prepared to fight for that goal, we need to embody that goal in our organization. The power of that principle, the promise that it holds, is one of the reasons why we have the best fighting force in the world today. This is a country worth fighting for. (Applause) But it is also a country that continually must live up to its own promises.
You are the very key to helping America's military live up to our own promises. Secretary Cohen and I are immensely proud of what you do and consider your work essential to the future. More importantly, the men and women of our Armed Forces know the effect you have on their quality of life and their quality of service every day. I know your work is not easy. I know your work is very hard. But it is you who will lead in our efforts to ensure that we have a military free from prejudice, free from indifference, free from apathy and free from intimidation.
Fifty years ago, Chaplain Roland Gittelsohn dedicated the 5th Marine Division Cemetery on Iwo Jima. He spoke about the valor of the men who died there, and I would quote from his sermon to conclude tonight. He said
Here lie officers and men of all colors, rich men and poor men together. Here are Protestants, Catholics and Jews together. Here, no man prefers another because of his faith or despises him because of his color. Here, there are no quotas of how many from each group are admitted or allowed. Among these men there is no discrimination, no prejudice, no hatred. Theirs is the highest and purest democracy. Any man among us, the living, who failed to understand that, will thereby betray those who lie here. Whoever lifts his hand in hate against a brother, or thinks himself superior to those who happen to be in a minority, makes of their sacrifice an empty, hollow mockery. Thus do we consecrate ourselves, the living, to carry on the struggle they began. Too much blood has gone into the soil for us to let it lie barren.
As we look at the difficulty of the problems before us, we would do well to bear in mind that little sermon. Building a better future for all men and women, regardless of race, color, or creed is the only appropriate way to honor the sacrifices of these true American heroes. You are doing this noble work, and I wish you Godspeed. Thank you very much.