Cohen Warns Against Discrimination, Abuse
By Rudi Williams
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Feb. 21, 1997 "I will tolerate no activity or behavior that undermines the human dignity, respect and honor of the individual," Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen said Feb. 19 during DoD's Black History Month observance.
"This means we -- all of us -- must be intolerant of racism, intolerant of brutality, intolerant of sexual harassment or abuse,"he said. "Those who wish to serve their country must demonstrate this intolerance of discrimination and abuse -- by their words and by their deeds -- if they hope to succeed in the Department of Defense."
The secretary's remarks brought thunderous applause from the standing-room-only audience in the Pentagon auditorium and praise from keynote speaker Adm. J. Paul Reason, commander in chief of the Atlantic Fleet, who called Cohen's statement "the most succinct, unambiguous statement in support of human dignity I've ever heard in this building." Reason is the Navy's first African-American four-star admiral. The Black History Month observance included dedication of the African Americans in Defense of Our Nation corridor and unveiling of the African-American Medal of Honor exhibit.
Cohen asked Medal of Honor recipient World War II Army 1st Lt. Vernon Baker, 92nd Infantry Division and Vietnam War Army Pfc. Clarence Sasser, 9th Infantry Division, to stand up for audience recognition.
Only three of 86 African-American Medal of Honor recipients are alive today. The third is Vietnam War veteran former Army Sgt. 1st Class Webster Anderson, 101st Airborne Division.
Cohen quoted President Abraham Lincoln's 1862 entreaty to the nation to remember its responsibility to posterity:
"'The fiery trial through which we pass will light us down in honor or dishonor to the last generation.'"
"Let us recall the fiery trial through which our African-American war heroes have passed, and the honor we owe to them," Cohen said. "In particular, to those 86 African Americans who performed great deeds 'above and beyond the call of duty.'"
Cohen said Medal of Honor recipients and other African-American war veterans triumphed in two wars: the fight against fascism and aggression -- enemies of freedom beyond our borders; and the fight against racism and prejudice -- enemies of freedom within.
"Vernon Baker's experience reminds us of the unspeakable injustices that African-Americans have faced throughout our nation's existence," Cohen said. "Fifty years ago, he was passed over for his Medal of Honor, not because of the content of his character but simply because of the color of his skin."
No African American in World War II received the nation's highest award, Cohen noted.
"What African Americans did come home to was a daily barrage of bigotry, bias and abuse," he said. "As the columnist Walter Winchell wrote at the time: 'Tonight there are some Americans sharing the same grave who, in the United States, could not have shared the same hotel.'"
Cohen said denying African Americans the honor they had earned on the battlefield was an invidious insult, a monstrous wrong and a stain on our nation's soul.
Vernon Baker, Clarence Sasser and all the African-Americans Medal of Honor recipients represent the heroic struggle for the rights of man that were long ago declared inalienable, he said.
"Past wrongs are not atoned for or rectified simply by the passage of time," Cohen said. "Indifference only poisons the wounds that it cannot hope to heal. We must make amends, not just to fulfill dreams too-long deferred.
"We cannot speak of democracy unless we practice equality," Cohen said. "We cannot profess dedication to duty and honor if we -- by act or omission -- behave dishonorably."
Cohen said the military has served as a model for civilian society, as a place where everybody has an equal chance to succeed, since President Harry S. Truman ended racial barriers in the military 49 years ago. Doing so was not only morally right, it's profoundly wise, the secretary said.
"As President Clinton said in his State of the Union address, our nation's diversity is our greatest strength," Cohen said. "There is no question that our military cannot maintain the best fighting force in the world if we exclude or impede qualified Americans; or if we fail to treat every man and woman in the force with equal dignity and respect.
"As we observe African-American History Month, we can find in Vernon Baker''s words of wisdom, a daily guide for our hearts and minds. He said, ""Give respect before you expect it, treat people the way you want to be treated, remember the mission, set the example, and keep going."