"But to those who gave this Holocaust-denier a hearing, I say on behalf of my people, the Jewish people, and decent people everywhere: Have you no shame? Have you no decency?"
-- Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
So, in your discussions of the nuclear freeze proposals, I urge you to beware the temptation of pride -- of blithely declaring yourselves above it all and label both sides equally at fault, to ignore the facts of history and the aggressive impulses of an evil empire, to simply call the arms race a giant misunderstanding and thereby remove yourself from the struggle between right and wrong, good and evil."
-- President Ronald Reagan
He was blunt.
Hearing him, the press corps gasped, literally and audibly.
No, the reference isn't to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's recent wake-up call at the United Nations. The man throwing cold water in the face of a somnolent world was Ronald Reagan.
A mere nine days after taking office, at the height of the Cold War, Ronald Reagan strode into his very first presidential press conference in 1981 and found himself asked by ABC reporter Sam Donaldson what he thought the Soviet Union's long-range intentions were.
Said Donaldson, always eager to pose what he thought was the toughest, most impossible question that could not be answered without the subject sheepishly changing positions or sounding appropriately mealy-mouthed: "Do you think, for instance, the Kremlin is bent on world domination that might lead to a continuation of the Cold War, or do you think that under the circumstances détente is possible?"
And then it came. After decades of presidents talking the Washington gobbledygook of détente favored by the town's diplomatic mandarins (Reagan's predecessor Jimmy Carter won wide approval from this crowd when he went to Notre Dame and announced that Americans needed to get over their "inordinate fear" of Communism), Reagan's blunt answer stunned.
Here's what he said:
Well, so far détente has been a one-way-street that the Soviet Union has used to pursue its own aims… I know of no leader of the Soviet Union since the revolution, and including the present leadership, that has not more than once repeated in the various Communist congresses they hold their determination that their goal must be the promotion of world revolution and a one-world Socialist or Communist state… Now, as long as they do that and as long as they, at the same time, have openly and publicly declared that the only morality they recognize is what will further their cause, meaning they reserve unto themselves the right to commit any crime, to lie, to cheat, in order to attain that, that that is moral, not immoral, and we operate on a different set of standards, I think when you do business with them, even at a détente, you keep that in mind.
With this plainly delivered response as recounted in Steven F. Hayward's magnificent new book, The Age of Reagan, Ronald Reagan delivered the proverbial electric shock to the Washington and global establishment's way of doing business with the Soviets. The shock waves reverberated from Capitol Hill all the way to Moscow, rippling through every national capital beginning with the Europeans. Reagan didn't stop talking like this either. Having had an adult lifetime to work out his view of Communism and Communists, having fought them close up in postwar Hollywood as the president of the Screen Actors Guild (and been on the receiving end of a threat to throw acid in his face), Reagan knew exactly the kind of people he was dealing with.
Addressing the National Convention of Evangelicals, Reagan kept the spotlight on the nature of the Communist foe, while directly speaking to an American audience that was being besieged to support the latest foreign policy fad of the moment, the nuclear freeze:
So, in your discussions of the nuclear freeze proposals, I urge you to beware the temptation of pride -- of blithely declaring yourselves above it all and label both sides equally at fault, to ignore the facts of history and the aggressive impulses of an evil empire, to simply call the arms race a giant misunderstanding and thereby remove yourself from the struggle between right and wrong, good and evil.
As Hayward reminds, the phrase "evil empire" in particular "provoked outrage and contempt among liberals." The prominent liberal historian Henry Steele Commager declared Reagan's talk "the worst presidential speech in American history, and I've seen them all." The media was apoplectic, by now predictably.
All of this comes to mind having watched the speech that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivered to the United Nations this past week. His subject: the United Nations, Iran and the Holocaust-denying, nuclear bomb-building President of Iran Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The man who has vowed to wipe Israel off the map.
Said the Prime Minister:
Yesterday, the man who calls the Holocaust a lie spoke from this podium. To those who refused to come here and to those who left this room in protest, I commend you. You stood up for moral clarity and you brought honor to your countries.
But to those who gave this Holocaust-denier a hearing, I say on behalf of my people, the Jewish people, and decent people everywhere: Have you no shame? Have you no decency?
A mere six decades after the Holocaust, you give legitimacy to a man who denies that the murder of six million Jews took place and pledges to wipe out the Jewish state.
What a disgrace! What a mockery of the charter of the United Nations! Perhaps some of you think that this man and his odious regime threaten only the Jews. You're wrong.
History has shown us time and again that what starts with attacks on the Jews eventually ends up engulfing many others.
This Iranian regime is fueled by an extreme fundamentalism that burst onto the world scene three decades ago after lying dormant for centuries. In the past thirty years, this fanaticism has swept the globe with a murderous violence and cold-blooded impartiality in its choice of victims. It has callously slaughtered Moslems and Christians, Jews and Hindus, and many others. Though it is comprised of different offshoots, the adherents of this unforgiving creed seek to return humanity to medieval times.
The appropriate description of Netanyahu's words was used in the speech itself. It was a model of moral clarity -- one might even say Reaganesque moral clarity. In a moment of drama Netanyahu held aloft a copy of the detailed minutes of the meeting held by senior Nazi officials in the Berlin suburb of Wansee, where the infamous decision was taken in January of 1942 to methodically exterminate the Jews. Then he produced the actual blueprint for the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, signed by Hitler's deputy Heinrich Himmler. This, of course, became the notorious camp where a million Jews were murdered.
Let's say that again. The place where one million Jews were murdered.
The revelation that along with a third of the Jewish population the entire family of Netanyahu's wife Sara, in Netanyahu's words, his "wife's grandparents, her father's two sisters and three brothers, and all the aunts, uncles and cousins were all murdered by the Nazis" was nothing if not a clear recognition of what remains one of history's most brutal realities. Asked Bibi: "Is that also a lie?"
It is, of course, not a lie. It is something much more dangerous. It is irrelevant -- to those who are willfully closing their eyes to the considerable danger that is looming in Iran. Closing their eyes because they are either unwilling, unable or -- infinitely worse -- in fact in sympathy with the anti-Semitic ravings of Mr. Ahmadinejad.
With the Prime Minister's words still resonating, let's go back to Reagan's "evil empire" speech. For perhaps obvious reasons, the "evil empire" phrase is what is most remembered about the speech. But President Reagan said something else that applies directly to Netanyahu's felt need to deliver his recent speech to this particular audience -- the United Nations. Said Reagan:
It was C.S. Lewis who, in his unforgettable Screwtape Letters, wrote: "The greatest evil is not done now in those sordid 'dens of crime' that Dickens loved to paint. It is not even done in concentration camps and labor camps. In those we see its final results. But it is conceived and ordered (moved, seconded, carried and minuted) in clean, carpeted, warmed, and well-lighted offices, by quiet men with white collars and cut fingernails and smooth-shaven cheeks who do not need to raise their voice."
Well, because these "quiet men" do not "raise their voices," because they sometimes speak in soothing tones of brotherhood and peace, because, like other dictators before them they're always making their "final territorial demand," some would have us accept them at their word and accommodate ourselves to their aggressive impulses. But if history teaches anything, it teaches that simpleminded appeasement or wishful thinking about our adversaries is folly. It means the betrayal of our past, the squandering of freedom.
As Benjamin Netanyahu looked straight into the eyes of the United Nations General Assembly, he was quite literally confronting those who, over the decades since the UN's founding in 1945, have quietly morphed the UN into the home of the type of "quiet men" Reagan was discussing. Men who have taken the ideal that was once the United Nations at its birth in 1945 and "moved, seconded and minuted" the UN over the decades into a glass-tower Wansee-on-the-East River, a clubhouse for anti-Semites and dictators.
How did this place that was once the fervent hope of mankind ever degrade into this?
On June 26, 1945, President Harry Truman stepped onto the stage at the Veterans War Memorial Building in San Francisco to witness the signing of the Charter of the United Nations. On his arrival the day before, a million Americans had lined the streets of San Francisco to greet him, so enthusiastic were they at both the ending of World War II (the Germans had surrendered, the Japanese would do so shortly after Truman dropped two atomic bombs to force their hand) and the creation of the United Nations. Looking out before him at the forerunner of the scene confronting Netanyahu last week, Truman saw the flags of all the UN members impressively decorating the scene.
Signing the Charter for the United States was Secretary of State Edward Stettinius. Truman moved to shake his hand, then took the podium to address the now officially formed United Nations, the first president of the United States to do so.
Using the bulk of his speech to express his hopes for the future of the UN, it is mostly forgotten today that Truman went out of his way to warn future generations by saying this:
Hitler is finished -- but the seed spread by his disordered mind have firm root in too many fanatical brains. It is easier to remove tyrants and destroy concentration camps than it is to kill the ideas which gave them birth and strength. Victory on the battlefield was essential, but it was not enough. For a good peace, a lasting peace, the decent peoples of the earth must remain determined to strike down the evil spirit which has hung over the world for the last decade.
It was precisely that objective that led Ronald Reagan to step forward the moment he took office and, mincing no words, publicly target the Soviet Union as an "evil empire." In doing so, Reagan began to break the spell of a Washington and global foreign policy establishment that had become mesmerized by process, trading the acceptance of evil for endless rounds of negotiations filled with the arcane minutia of throw weights and who sat where and when at what sized table in some exotic port of call.
Now it is Benjamin Netanyahu who has picked up Reagan's torch, looking the "quiet men" of the United Nations straight in the eye and speaking as plainly of evil as Reagan once did of the Soviet Union. In doing so he addressed a body that has gone out of its way not to defeat evil but to coddle it, to give seats on the UN Human Rights Commission to notorious violators of human rights like Cuba, the Sudan and Zimbabwe. A body that finally replaced its discredited Human Rights Commission only to re-create it in the form of a UN Human Rights Council -- which has managed to condemn Israel some fifteen times in a mere two years while giving a free pass to the activities of Hezbollah in Lebanon. A body in which the "quiet men" in the carpeted precincts of the UN sat by in silence while, as the Prime Minister noted, Hamas used Gaza to fire "thousands of missiles, mortars and rockets on nearby Israeli cities" out-and-out murdering Israeli civilians over the course of eight years.
Where is President Obama? Where is the President of the United States as the "fanatical brains" of Iran go merrily along their path of endlessly sweet-talking the UN and the world while building a nuclear arsenal that will surely be used to bring about Ahmadinejad's expressed desire to wipe Israel off the face of the map? "Iran is breaking rules that all nations must follow," says the president. Really? No kidding? Is there anyone else this pathetically naïve who is shocked at this?
The world is entering yet another perilous moment in a history filled with such moments. One would like to think that humankind would learn from them. One would like to believe that the one million Americans who joyfully filled the streets of San Francisco in 1945 to cheer an American president and the United Nations were the precursor of a wiser age. Instead, once again, we are face-to-face with a moment in which yet another madman will seek to inflict a tragedy of unimaginable proportions on the Jews, a tragedy that could engulf the rest of the world in the blink of an eye.
Unlike the horrors of the Holocaust, this time the quiet men in white collars padding about the carpeted precincts of the United Nations itself are bidding to effectively become accomplices to the modern version of the quiet men of Wansee -- the mullahs of Tehran. This time, instead of Nazi uniforms the favored dress of the new Wansee will be that of the Islamic cleric, smooth-shaven cheeks replaced with the requisite beards.
Ronald Reagan made history by his unwillingness to gloss over the hard truths of his time. He told us that "if history teaches anything, it teaches that simpleminded appeasement or wishful thinking about our adversaries is folly. It means the betrayal of our past, the squandering of freedom."
Today there is one nation, at least, that has a leader who understands this.
That leader would be Benjamin Netanyahu.
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