The Honorable Richard C. Holbrooke
March 27, 2007
Paul (Volcker), thank you. I can’t thank you enough to have an introduction like that from you, and to be honored like this way by my cherished and dear friends and associates in so many ventures. I am even successful, Rabbi Arthur Schneier, to be here with Lloyd and my friend John Browne, who is an absolutely dedicated member of our effort against HIV/AIDS; a member of our global business coalition, as is Lloyd, I should mention, this means so much to me.

I am really not sure why I was given this award, or what I did to deserve it, but I’m here because Arthur asked me to be here, and as John already indicated, you don’t say no to Arthur. So I accept it but I will explain in a minute under what circumstances I accept it, because in a sense, given the ambitious goals of this award, none of us really accept in a world so filled with problems. But I think we accept these things in order to re-energize ourselves and to deal with the problems. Now, John Negroponte. I want to say a word about John. Every word he said about our relationship is factually true, but I need to add a couple of points— When we lived together, the coffee and the orange juice, that is true, but the really essential thing about the year we spent sharing the house together in Saigon, is that he was Felix to my Oscar. And for us to share a house together was somewhat complicated. He is so damn neat. Also, somebody said earlier that John had lost some hair over the years, but the truth is he hasn’t lost any hair over these years. He never had that much.

When John was twenty-eight years old I looked up to him, you know, as an incredibly wise senior statesman. Our age difference is about three years. John was one of the real leaders of the young group in Saigon. It was a remarkable group: Frank Wisner, Tony Lake, Peter Tarnoff, Les Aspin, even Dan Ellsberg. We grew up together, and Vietnam shaped our understanding of world affairs, although we all drew different lessons. John was our Vietnamese language desk officer, indispensable to Henry Kissinger in the negotiations with Hanoi. But in 1972, Henry Kissinger and Le Duc Tho reached an agreement in Paris, with John in the room every inch of the way. Then John and Henry and a few others got on the plane for Saigon. Kissinger’s plan was to present the agreement to South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu to sign. John, a very junior officer, said to Henry Kissinger, at the absolute height of his fame, the South Vietnamese are not going to accept this. Henry did not understand that. John said they’re going to consider it their death warrant. Henry got very angry at John. Of course, John’s prediction is exactly what happened. So an angry Henry Kissinger exiled John to Salonica as a consular officer.

When Jimmy Carter became president, I became Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia. John was one of the first people I called, and he came back and took over the Southeast Asia part of the East Asian Bureau.

One other thing-John’s statements about AIDS and PEPFAR. I want to say this clearly, because my views of criticism towards other aspects of administration policy are fairly well known: I believe that the PEPFAR Program, The President’s Emergency Program for AIDS Relief is the best program that this administration has had internationally. I saw this first hand recently, on World AIDS Day, last December, in Western Kenya, near Lake Victoria, (in fact the area where Senator Obama’s father is from). We were in an AIDS clinic, about forty of us on a mission involving some of the companies that are part of the Global Business Coalition on HIV/AIDS, T.B. and malaria. We saw people whose lives are being prolonged with anti- retrovirals that came directly from the United States. When President Bush proposed this in his 2003 State of the Union message, it immediately preceded his discussion of Iraq. And because that was the State of the Union that led directly into the war, people did not realize what an extraordinary proposal on AIDS he was making. Our Coalition did, and we immediately supported the Administration, on a bi-partisan basis, all our companies. But peoples’ lives are being saved. This is not the multi-lateral program of the global fund. A lot of the Democrats wanted this to go through international, multi-lateral funding, and about a third of it does, but I will tell you the bi-lateral program of the United States is more efficient, more limited, than the international multi-lateral programs.

And so we have joined up with the White House now on the Malaria Initiative, which Mrs. Bush is leading for the Administration.

I want to talk tonight about the conscience and responsibilities of people who come into the government. Most of the time government service is pretty routine; but every once in awhile you confront very difficult situations. I want to base what I’m going to say on a remarkable book that exists due to Rabbi Schneier’s personal efforts. It is called ‘Diplomatic Heroes of the Holocaust’ and it is written by Mordecai Paldiel, who is the head of The Commission to Investigate the Righteous, at Yad Vashem. And they determine who belongs to be in the Righteous, people who risk their lives, or even gave their lives, to save Jews during the dark days of the Third Reich.

I want you to imagine, each of you, for a minute that you are a consular officer in the middle years of a diplomatic career that you hope will lead to an ambassadorship. There are two rubber stamps on your desk, one says ‘Approved’; it will allow the desperate person sitting in front of you to travel to your country legally. The other stamp says ‘Rejected’; use it and the person in front of you might die or go to prison. This sounds simple, doesn’t it? But there is a very big catch. The person in front of you is Jewish. Your government doesn’t want you to use the stamp that says ‘Approved’. Your boss, indeed your government, does not want these people, these people waiting outside your office, milling around in the streets, hiding in their houses, in your country. Stamp too many Visas ‘Approved’ and your life will be in danger. Follow instructions and people die.

What would you have done, in 1940 in Marseille or Bordeaux or The Hague or Bremen or Hamburg, faced with this situation? What would you do if you faced the modern version of this situation with a different cast of characters? In a movie, the hero stares out the window, the music swells, and the hero does the right thing. Humphrey Bogart, in the letters of transit in Casablanca, is in fact the story I am describing.

But in the real world it is not so easy. There are few heroes in such a situation. Government services, based on the well founded principle that career officials should follow their instructions, otherwise government would turn into anarchy. What happens if their instructions had horrible, literally fatal consequences and your boss is watching you, and your career is on the line?

Everyone mocked the nonsensical defense of the Germans after World War II – “in we were just following orders, we didn’t know about the death camps.” But similar rationale was used by the overwhelming majority of non-German diplomats in Europe, during the 1930’s, 1940 and 1941. For every Raoul Wallenberg, there were hundreds of consular officers who played it safe. Using their power to keep Jews out of the country, out of their country. As a result, hundred of thousands of Jews, whose lives could have been saved, were left to fend for themselves. Most later died in the camps. Rabbi Schneier, thank God, is one of the people who was able to get out, thanks to one of the people who this book honors. In his introduction, Arthur describes why he is here tonight. Because of one man, a Swiss consular officer; a famous one. This wasn’t just officials passively following their instructions; many were enthusiastic in their rejection of Jewish visa applications. Take for example the Brazilian consul in Lyon, France in 1940, who proudly wrote his foreign minister. The people swirling around his office were, and I quote: ‘Almost all Jewish or of Semitic origin. I therefore believe that by my categorical refusal to grant the visas they request, I will have done Brazil a great service.’

Yet, a few risked everything to save the lives of people, mostly Jews whom they did not know, simply because they knew their instructions were wrong, even immoral. Tens of thousands of lives were saved by these small number of heroes. But, if it weren’t for the careful investigations carried out by the Commission for the Designation of the Righteous at Yad Vashem, in Jerusalem, we would probably not even know the names of most of them.

It wasn’t the Germans, I stress this, who punished these brave men and a very few number of women, it was their own governments. Yet in the face of such risks a few ordinary people suddenly showed great moral courage, knowing full well that they could pay with their careers or their lives. A handful of Chinese, Spanish, Portuguese, Romanian, Swiss, Brazilian, Dutch, Turkish, Italian, Yugoslav, Vatican, and even Japanese and German diplomats, risked everything--their careers, their reputation, their lives, to save Jews.

The most famous, of course, was Raoul Wallenberg. His fearlessness and creativity approached nearly insane levels and he did, indeed, pay with his life at the hands, not of the Nazis, but of the Soviets who thought he was an American spy. Because, from an aristocratic family in Sweden, Wallenberg had been sent to Budapest on a special humanitarian mission by Franklin Roosevelt. He expanded, without Roosevelt’s instructions, into this unauthorized crusade to save Jews at the very last moment, in a duel with a German bureaucrat, whom Hitler had sent to Budapest to deal with the problem. His name, of course, was Adolph Eichmann.

Most of the other people in this extraordinary book, however, had been given routine consular diplomatic assignments only to find themselves in an unexpected moral dilemma of historic dimensions. Take, for example, the astonishing story of Aristides de Sousa Mendes, the Portuguese Consul General in Bordeaux. After the Portuguese dictator António de Oliveira Salazar prohibited the issuance of transit visas to stranded Jewish refugees. Mendes, a devout Catholic with twelve children, visited the stranded Jewish refugees on the streets, then retreated to his house tossing and turning on his bed for three days, and according to his son, moaning and sweating profusely. Then he emerged, and I quote from his son’s memories, he opened the doors to the Chancellery and announced in a loud voice: ‘From now on in I’m giving everyone visas.’ Mendes later told his sons that he had heard a voice— that of his conscience or of God. For a few weeks in June 1940, Mendes was in a frenzy of activity, issuing visas as fast as possible, even going to the Spanish border to make sure they would be honored by skeptical border police. He knew he was racing against his own government in Lisbon. In July, he was removed and put under a nasty investigation, personally supervised by Salazar. He was unrepentant, and he said: “I desire to be with God against man, rather than with man against God.” His superiors thought he had gone crazy. He was dismissed from government service, and although supported to his death by the Jewish community in Lisbon, died in poverty. Not until after the fall of the Salazar regime, did the Portuguese restore his good name and honor to him. Today there are schools and streets named after him in Portugal. There is even a society that does research on him.

So far, Yad Vashem has not honored any American officials. They have honored Varian Fry and two or three other prominent non-official Americans. Breckenridge Long was then Assistant Secretary of State for Europe and he out maneuvered Eleanor when she tried to get more visas issued to Jews. He instructed his consuls and replaced them with officers who enthusiastically carried out Long’s anti-Semitic policies.

Given the risks and costs of those who defy their governments, it is not surprising there are so few people like Mendes and Wallenberg, but every age will present such difficult choices.

You may think it cannot happen again. Well, you would be wrong! In fact, it is happening right now.

Rabbi Schneier said in his early remarks that he decided years ago that he could not remain silent. I applaud you for this Arthur! In this spirit, and as Paul Volcker said in introducing me, let me speak bluntly about a very important, neglected aspect of the situation in Iraq, one with eerie similarities to the 1930’s.

I refer of course to the fact that in the last two years the United States has taken, of the two million Iraqis fleeing the country, we have taken four- hundred and four. Four-hundred and four! This morning, if you watched C-Span, you may have seen a replay of testimony yesterday in which the Assistant Secretary of State Ellen Sauerbrey, attempted to explain this as based on Homeland Security’s new security requirements.

You may have seen the 60 Minutes piece two weeks ago in which she made the same claims and said they were going to increase the number to seven thousand, still a piddling number, considering the situation.

I hope you read George Packer’s article in the New Yorker, last week, called ‘Betrayed’, on this very subject. He was followed by a three star General, retired General Paul Eton, who called this situation a moral disgrace. This is not about Ellen Sauerbrey, she is not a racist as Breckenridge Long was, but she is the senior American official responsible solely for refugees, and she should be held accountable.

John Negroponte and I worked on this problem together in 1978-1979. President Ford had famously brought one-hundred and thirty-five thousand Vietnamese out of Vietnam at the end in 1975, saying we had to do it. The Security problem existed at a lower level than it does today, but there was one, but we addressed they went into camps where they were held, examined and looked at then vetted. Sauerbrey never mentioned this. No one challenged her on why holding camps can’t be created again, as they were in the late 1970’s.

And then when John and I worked together in the Carter administration, Jimmy Carter added about five-hundred thousand refugees. We went to the Philippines and Malaysia and Thailand, and we worked on creating camps where you could put people and process them. So that you could vet them. They didn’t all get in, but most of them did. And today the Vietnamese, the Cambodians and other people from Southeast Asia are a very important and vibrant and growing part of our great country. I am dismayed that this has not been dealt with.

The person who has done great credit on this is Senator Kennedy. He has been on this issue for over forty years, since John and I first met him on his first trip to Vietnam in 1966. John was, in fact, Ted Kennedy’s Control Officer on that trip. He and Kennedy made this his issue, but it needs to be dealt with.

So, I ask all of you, what would you do if you were confronted with these situations? We stand here year after year, after year, at dinner after dinner like this one, and we say it can’t happen again, and yet it is happening again in Darfur, in Iraq. Some of these people worked for us. They were given clearances to accompany our military, where they could have betrayed them and led them onto ambushes. And now I hear this morning on C-Span people can’t get in because they have to have special vetting and special clearances, and that will take years. And meanwhile their lives are the ones that are at greatest risk.

So I hope that young, aspiring people interested in public service will remember that once in a while in their careers, as I have, you will confront issues where the rule book needs to be looked at and re-examined, and you have to talk about the human consequences of what you do.

I offer these stories, not as ancient history or to provoke domestic political controversy, but as examples of things people may confront in their own careers as private citizens, as well as, government officials. So we must all ask ourselves: ‘what would we do? So that we can be better prepared to face the challenge’?

Thank you so much for this award and this evening.
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