July 22, 2020

Video: Kaine Delivers Floor Speech In Support Of NDAA Amendment To Rename Confederate-Named Bases

You can watch video of Kaine’s floor speech here.

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today, U.S. Senator Tim Kaine, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, delivered a floor speech highlighting the importance of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) amendment to initiate a 3 year process to rename DOD facilities currently named after Confederates, including three Virginia military bases: Fort Lee, Fort Pickett, and Fort AP Hill. The amendment was sponsored by Senator Warren, co-sponsored by Senator Kaine, and passed out of the Armed Services Committee with strong bipartisan support. 

“Do you really expect us to believe that a society that continues to honor those who tried to destroy our country to save slavery will be serious about ending the racial disparities that exist today? You either support the equality of all or you do not. And if you honor those who opposed our equality, indeed, opposed the very notion of our humanity, what hope can we have about overcoming the real time injustices that are manifest all around us?” Kaine said. 

“If we continue to honor men who fought to deprive those of African descent of their equality, we signal that we are not committed to our most fundamental American value,” Kaine continued.

Below are Kaine’s remarks as prepared for delivery:

I rise today to speak about a provision of the National Defense Authorization Act that would direct a three year process to rename military bases and facilities that are currently named for those who voluntarily fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War.

I thank Senator Warren for offering this amendment and particularly thank her for making adjustments to it to accommodate concerns of colleagues on both sides of the aisle.   I was proud to co-sponsor the revised amendment in Committee and speak in favor of it today.

It is important to clearly state what this amendment will do.   If it passes and survives a threatened Presidential veto, it will require the DOD to initiate a three year process to change the name of any military base, barracks or other facility named after a Confederate military leader.    Why three years?   The timing is designed to allow a full public process in each location so that the desires of community leaders can be taken into account in choosing the new names.  

I state with clarity the substance of the amendment because one of my SASC colleagues, the junior Senator from Missouri, took the floor on July 2 and described the amendment in obscure terms—“some of the names of our Nation’s military bases must be removed.”   While his comments decried “cancel culture” and “woke fundamentalism” and mentioned the names of Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses Grant and Theodore Roosevelt, he neglected to mention that the amendment specifically sought change only to facilities named for Confederates.   In fact, he did not mention the Confederacy or the Civil War at all.   

If you are unwilling to be plain about what is at stake, it betrays a weakness in your position.  So let me be plain.  I speak today because I am a Senator from the state with the most at stake in this discussion.   Three of the ten military bases whose names must be changed under this amendment are in Virginia.   Virginia was the state whose people were most affected by the Civil War and I served as its 70th Governor.   My hometown of Richmond was the Capital of the Confederacy and I served as its 76th Mayor.   I have dealt with issues of Civil War names, statues, memorials, battlefields and buildings throughout my 26 years in public life.   

Based on decades of grappling with this question, I want to describe a principle, explain an epiphany and finally pose a question.

First a principle.   If you declare war on the United States, take up arms against it and kill US troops, you should not have a US military base named after you.  (Repeat)

This principle is nowhere stated in law, because it need not be.    It is basic common sense.    The principle explains why we have no Fort Cornwallis, Fort Santa Ana, Fort Von Richtoven, Fort Tojo, Fort Ho Chi Minh.

Someone might object that none of the names just mentioned were Americans so of course we would not name US military bases after them.   True enough.   But the sound principle I announced also explains why we have no Fort Benedict Arnold or Fort Anwar Al-Awlaki.   

If you declare war on the United States, take up arms against it and kill US troops, you should not have a US military base named after you.

But we make an exception.   Ten bases—and many other military facilities—are named after Confederate leaders who declared war on the United States, took up arms against it and killed US troops.   And—even further—they took these actions to destroy the United States, to tear it in half, so that the seceding Southern states could continue to own those of African descent as slaves, a species of property, rather than treating them as equal human beings.   Is this worthy of honor?   Does it justify an exception to the sound principle I describe?

Why were the bases so named when they were constructed in the years before and during the First and Second World Wars?    The names were not chosen due to the military skill of the Confederate leaders—some are revered for their prowess and some reviled.    The names were not chosen to honor their character—some are respected, excepting the blight on character that support for slavery confers, but others were not distinguished in their behavior or integrity.

The record makes clear that the ten bases were named for Confederate leaders upon their construction because of a lingering belief in their cause—dividing the nation to uphold slavery and white supremacy.   In days of mandated segregation, a vibrant Ku Klux Klan, popular culture painting a false picture of the War and its aftermath with films like “The Birth of a Nation” and “Gone with the Wind,” there was a powerful desire to still hold up the Confederate cause and deny the realty of African-American suffering.   That desire affected this very body during those same years as the Senate repeatedly used the filibuster to block federal anti-lynching legislation.

It is clear now, as it has been clear for a very long time, that the cause of the Confederacy was not just but monstrous.   Destroying the nation to preserve slavery would have been a catastrophe.  

History cannot be rewritten and it is important to tell it.   But choosing who to honor is another matter entirely.  So I repeat a principle which I believe brooks no exception.    If you declare war on the United States, and take up arms against it, and kill US troops, you should not have a US military base named after you.

This wisdom was understood immediately in the aftermath of the Civil War by Robert E. Lee.   He was asked about Confederate memorials and stated:  “I think it wiser not to keep open the sores of war but to follow the examples of those nations who endeavored to obliterate the marks of civil strife, to commit to oblivion the feelings engendered.”  

This amendment is consistent with Lee’s observation.

Second, let me explain an epiphany I had in the last few months. 

When I moved to Virginia to get married in 1984, I saw the Confederate statues in Richmond and was puzzled.   As a Kansas-raised civil rights lawyer and then later as a local elected official in a city that was majority African-American, I was struck with their continued prominence.   Together with the leaders of my diverse city, we viewed these statues and other symbols of the Confederacy as painful symbols of an incomplete past.    Painful because of the realty of slavery and discrimination which has warped our Commonwealth and country since 1619.   And incomplete as well.    Where were the statues to other Richmond heroes—from the Revolutionary War to the Civil Rights Movement?   Why did our City highlight 4 years of our 250 year history and downplay everything else?

My generation of Richmond leaders endeavored to solve this problem by painting a more complete picture.   Statues of Arthur Ashe, Abraham Lincoln, Maggie Walker.   A Civil Rights Memorial on our Capitol Grounds.   New municipal buildings, courts, schools named after prominent African-Americans and women leaders.   Aging bridges named for Confederate generals eventually replaced and named for Civil Rights heroes.   In short, we chose a path of addition—not replacing the painful symbols of the past but instead adding to our built environment the recognition of people and eras that had not previously been honored.   This was necessary and important work and I was proud to play my part in it during my sixteen years of local and state service.

But in recent months, as I spent our extended April quarantine in Richmond and talked to people about whether Confederate statues on Monument Avenue should be removed, I learned something.   When I referred to these statues as symbols of a painful past, again and again I was told.   “Tim, you may see these as statues as signifying a painful past, but we see them as signs of a painful present and even predictors of a difficult future.”   

When I asked my friends to explain, here is a composite of what they told me:  

“If honoring these Confederates was just about the past, that would be one thing.   But these statues are honored in the present by a City and State that maintain them, spotlight them, emphasize their beauty and market their appeal to tourists.   In the present these statues become a rallying point for neo-Confederates and others who would take us back, just as occurred in Charlottesville in 2017.”

And the present is pretty frightening.   African-Americans are dying of Covid19 at disproportionate rates.   The job losses in this economic collapse are falling so hard on African-American communities.   We see scenes of police violence against African-Americans playing endlessly on our televisions.   And we don’t  see an immediate end to these disparities.

Do you really expect us to believe that a society that continues to honor those who tried to destroy our country to save slavery will be serious about ending the racial disparities that exist today?   You either support the equality of all or you do not.   And if you honor those who opposed our equality, indeed, opposed the very notion of our humanity, what hope can we have about overcoming the real time injustices that are manifest all around us?”

I thank God that I can still learn new things.   In my view, the statues and the base names and the other Confederate honorifics that dot the American landscape have been about the past.   But now I see that, for so many, they raise deep and troubling questions about the present and future.   Are we committed to the equality of all—the moral North Star announced by Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence and reconfirmed by Lincoln at Gettysburg?    If we continue to honor those who fought to deprive those of African descent of their equality, we signal that we are not committed to our most fundamental American value.

Finally, a question for those—including the President—who attack those who want to remove Confederate names from military bases or take down Confederate statues.

When you saw young Germans in 1989 spray graffiti on the Berlin Wall and knock it down, how did you feel?   I know how you felt.   You felt good to see people standing up to leaders saying “you will no longer divide us.”

When you saw people throughout the Soviet bloc pulling down statues of Stalin and Lenin after the collapse of the Soviet Union—or Iraqis pulling down statues of Saddam Hussein--how did you feel?   I know how you felt.   You felt good to see people saying, with their actions, “we will no longer glorify tyrants who oppressed us.”

When you see hundreds of thousands of Hongkongers in the streets protesting against the Chinese government, how do you feel?  I know how you feel because I have heard you, even in this Chamber.   You feel good seeing everyday people standing up against a government that would deprive them of their basic freedom.

Since you feel that way, how can you feel otherwise about patriotic Americans, who believe in a nation committed to the equality of all, when they stand up and say:  “We will not be divided.   We will not glorify those who oppress us.   We will not accept those who would deny Americans freedom.”   That is what our people—especially our young people—are saying to us now.   Supporting this amendment will show them that we are listening.

In conclusion, we Americans have grown as a nation and as a people since the Civil War.   And we’ve grown as a nation and as a people since the first half of the 20th Century when, in very different circumstances, it was still seen to be a good idea to honor the Confederacy.  

One of the key areas of our growth—admittedly a progress of fits and starts—has been a greater acceptance of others regardless of race, or religion, or sexual orientation, or gender, or nationality, or physical ability.  Thank God for that growth.   Of course the evidence all around shows that we still have a long way to go to reach full equality.   It may be like a North Star—we can steer by it but it is not in the capacity of mortal mankind to reach it.  

But when we do steer by it, and step in its direction, we get better.   That is what this amendment will accomplish and it is why I so strongly support it.

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