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Transcript of Al Gore's Remarks
50th Anniversary of NATO
Ellis Island

Wednesday, April 21, 1999

Al Gore at Ellis Island

Click here to download a 60-second mpeg file of the speech.
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We know the inner meaning of what happened here at Ellis Island—where outcasts by the millions, described on the base of this statue as "tired," "poor," "homeless"— "wretched refuse"—came in different garb, often isolated by language and culture from the mores they encountered in the land where they arrived. Here, they connected with the American dream.

Here, in the glow of liberty's torch, the forebears of nearly one hundred million Americans first set foot on our shores.

Even on this day of remembrance, Ellis Island is comparatively calm and quiet. But eighty years ago, it was a blur of movement and emotion—alive with the dreams and fears of more than 5,000 immigrants who arrived on this island every day. Some carrying steamer trunks. Some holding their children close to them. Some coughing from a week's cramped voyage on the open sea.

Many chilled with fear as they faced the health inspectors and customs officials who had the power to welcome them to America, or send them back to where they came from.

Theirs was more than a geographic journey. It was journey of the heart. And in a very real sense, we cherish Ellis Island not merely as a gateway for millions of new Americans, but also as an expression of the most profoundly American values—the values we have pursued in our effort to build that more perfect union: political, economic, and religious freedom; tolerance and diversity; democracy and self-government.

And so, as we honor our immigrants, we also honor the growing dream of people everywhere to create in their own lands a democratic framework through which tolerance and freedom can take root in the human heart.

For fifty years now, NATO has given us the means and the might to defend those values in Europe. And now, after traveling so far on our journey, America and our transatlantic alliance are at a crossroads.

A continent away, hundreds of thousands of homeless Kosovar Albanians are struggling to win back their basic rights and freedoms—not by leaving their homeland, but by returning to their homeland in peace.

Today, I want to talk about the crisis of Kosovo—what it says about our role in the world, and our values here at home—and the course it demands from us at the dawn of a new century.

First, let us recognize that throughout this century, the greatness of America has been reflected in the waters of New York Harbor. The promise of freedom brought a broad and brilliant spectrum of people to America—and that diversity demanded an ever-widening circle of tolerance and human dignity.

Each generation of seekers and idealists found a common identity here—as Americans. Not a "melting pot" that dissolved all differences—but a common purpose, and a shared stake in our democracy, that allowed them to respect and overcome ethnic and religious differences.

America's union has been far from perfect. But the great lesson of our history is that we can transcend our past—that we are not victims of fate, but authors of destiny; that human beings can learn better ways, and put them into practice. Indeed, part of our founding purpose is to form a more perfect union.

We know how things should be—and we can become what we are meant to be, in war and in peace: the defenders of freedom, democracy, and opportunity for all people.

With each wave of immigrants, we have become not only more diverse—but also more open and equal; not only culturally richer—but also spiritually stronger. Now, in our present time, we can say with pride that we are not only the most diverse multi-ethnic society in human history, but also the nation with the strongest and most enduring common values.

A great deal of that progress toward unity can be traced right back here, to Ellis Island. Now we must take the lessons of freedom and tolerance that Ellis Island brought to America, and bring them to the world.

The first is one we have long understood and embraced. Our mission has always been to prove that religious, political, and economic liberty are the natural birthright of all men and women, and that freedom unlocks a higher fraction of the human potential than any other way of organizing human society.

But we have a second, closely-related mission—and it is one that has become apparent to us more slowly, more gradually, as we have uncovered the deeper wisdom contained in words that were boldly stated in our founding documents, well before we found the means to reflect them in our national life.

America has a mission to prove to men and women throughout this world that people of different racial and ethnic backgrounds, of all faiths and creeds, can not only work and live together, but can enrich and ennoble both themselves and our common purpose.

In Kosovo today, a dictator by the name of Slobodan Milosevic has an entirely different goal. It is called "ethnic cleansing." It is built not on the simple logic of racial and ethnic harmony, but on the brittle and hateful doctrine of ethnic purification.

Let us consider the offensive phrase "ethnic cleansing," a phrase intended to mask the stench of its true meaning: the combination of mass murder and mass expulsion. It is not a new metaphor. The Nazis used the term "Judenrein" to describe an area that had been "cleaned" of Jews.

"Ethnic cleansing" is where human arrogance becomes human evil. It means that someone who believes he is better than you or me has the right to change the laws of nature, the laws of man, and the will of God.

It means that a dictator can simply throw away the people he does not need—like so much dirt and disease. It means we can reduce human beings to objects, germs, with no inherent dignity or value. It dehumanizes along ethnic lines, so that murder and displacement become scientific, antiseptic, something other than atrocity.

So I say to Slobodan Milosevic: we are not fooled by your hateful rhetoric. We see through your veil of evil—and we will stop it.

For we know that the incitement of ethnic hatred is the tool of the dictator. He cannot hold onto power through the freely-given consent of the governed. He cannot build consensus through open debate and self-government. He cannot summon unity of purpose through a search for the common good.

So he seeks instead a unity of hatred based on the fear of ethnic or religious difference.

Every generation, like every individual, faces spiritual and moral tests. And this is a test for us. We cannot allow Milosevic to "ethnically cleanse" an entire region—to carry out, in other words, mass murder and mass expulsion against those of a different ethnicity and religion. We cannot do so because it would jeopardize the stability of Europe, and could plunge us into a wider war. And we cannot do so because it will jeopardize our efforts to bring freedom and justice to the world—to spread human dignity abroad, just as we have struggled to do so here at home.

First, let us consider our strategic and security interests in Europe. One of the lasting lessons of this century is that Europe's fate and America's fate are joined. When the people of Europe are at war, or divided, or enslaved, then our own freedom, security, and prosperity are at risk.

In the early part of this century, it was the murder of the heir to the Habsburg throne by a Serbian nationalist that led to the largest war the world had ever seen.

Then, at the close of World War One, America and the triumphant European powers took precisely the wrong steps to preserve peace. America withdrew from Europe and retreated into isolationism.

Of course, two decades later, Hitler re-armed Germany and plunged us back into world war.

At the close of World War Two—by the grace of God and the wisdom of our leaders—we did not make the same mistake again. We helped our former enemies build prosperous new societies based on equality, freedom, and the rule of law. We joined in the founding of NATO, the United Nations, and the Bretton Woods institutions—to defend security, promote freedom, and spread free markets everywhere. America led the world, standing as the greatest force for peace and freedom.

The fiftieth anniversary of NATO marks the success of that policy of engagement.

I believe in a western alliance that is willing to put its military might on the line—for the sake of our common security and the deepest principles of democracy.

We've seen before how instability in the Balkans can set off wider conflict. It happened with the fall of the Ottoman Empire at the dawn of this century.

And it happened again with the fall of communism in the final decade of this century—each time leaving a vacuum that was filled by dangerous and suddenly reawakened nationalism, ravenous to clasp to its collective heart the vainglories of its prideful memories.

The tensions and hatreds in Kosovo run very deep. Kosovo sits directly atop some of the deepest and most bitterly drawn ethnic, ideological, and religious fault lines in human history. The border between Rome and Byzantium was drawn there. Bitter battles between Muslims and Christians took place there. Turks and Serbs killed each other there. Communism battled for the minds of the people there. All these struggles have left scars, and each scar has fed a lust for vengeance.

As the poet Yeats wrote: "too long a sacrifice can make a stone of the heart."

Our poet laureate, Robert Pinsky, calls this burden of history the "accumulating prison of the past."

In June of 1989—600 years to the day after the Serbs' defeat by the Ottomans in Kosovo—Milosevic went to the very site of that battle to announce that "six centuries later, again we are in battles," and to hint darkly at the coming armed conflict.

That same year, Milosevic stripped the autonomy Kosovo had been granted under Tito. The parliament was disbanded, thousands of ethnic Albanian police were fired, and Albanian-language schools were closed.

Over the next ten years, Milosevic started four wars—each with the same objective: to murder, terrorize, and expel non-Serbs.

Now he has created a crisis of staggering dimensions: up to 1.2 million Kosovar Albanians are displaced. Serb security forces have burned entire villages, and killed thousands of ethnic Albanian civilians. Reports are reaching us of young girls pulled away from their families and raped by gangs of Serb security forces.

One report described how an ethnic Albanian civilian stood with 14 of his fellow Kosovars as they were about to be murdered by Milosevic's paramilitary forces.

He asked one soldier standing nearby: "Do you have children?" He said: "Yes." The ethnic Albanian pleaded, "Then please think of our children." The soldier replied: "It doesn't interest me." Seconds later, the shooting started, and the dying bodies were set ablaze.

I cannot shake from my mind one story of a little girl awakened at night by a knock on the door by a man wearing a black ski mask, who shouts: "give me your family's money or I will kill your mother." The family is forced into the street, and left to weep as their home is looted, their village burned, the men in the family separated out, and women and children forced on a terror-filled march to who knows where.

Let us call this what it is: it is evil.

Our strategic interests are important. But so are our moral interests. I spoke of our continuing struggle to form a more perfect union here at home. We face a different but similar challenge around the world.

Just as the moral imagination of America was slow to encompass African slaves, Native Americans, women, and successive waves of immigrants—so, too, has the moral imagination of our world been slow to encompass the suffering in less developed nations. The poor. The hungry. The powerless.

We've learned in this century to recognize the horrific consequences of ethnic hatred married to totalitarian purpose. Now we need a shared determination to prevent another tragedy where we can do so.

Some will say that because we cannot help people everywhere, we should help people nowhere. I believe that is wrong. We should work toward the day when there will be both the moral alertness and the political will on every continent to respond to human suffering.

But this much is clear: In Europe today, we see the need to act. Thanks to NATO, we have the means to do it. Now is the time to apply our strategic and moral wisdom, and spread the lessons of Ellis Island to Eastern Europe.

Slobodan Milosevic is one person standing in the way. Kosovo stands as an outpost of barbarism and hatred in the heart of Europe—and on the far reaches of our growing circle of freedom.

It is tragically fitting that the last communist dictator in Europe should try to take us back to the worst horrors of this century. We must not allow him to succeed.

Can we really allow the 21st Century to be shaped by men in black ski masks with weapons in their hands and hatred in the hearts?

We will roll back Milosevic's reign of terror—and we will not stop until he withdraws his forces, allows the refugees to return, and accepts an international security force to protect all Kosovars, including the Serb minority, as they work toward the self-government they once enjoyed and still deserve.

If he refuses to back down, we will continue to target and degrade the military capacity he uses to repress and torture the people of Kosovo.

Today, I am proud to announce that we are doing our part to help the Kosovar people. We will accept, on the American mainland, up to 20,000 of the hurting and homeless Kosovar refugees—those with close family ties in America, and those who are particularly vulnerable—until they are able to return home safely.

We are determined to see peace returned to Kosovo, and, one day, democracy throughout the Balkans. Indeed, I believe that peace can never endure without democracy. Healing deeply-rooted ethnic hatred requires more than a mere laying down of swords. Achieving tolerance and unity demands the honest dialogue that only democracy and open debate can allow.

First, there must be a genuine recognition of and respect for difference—a recognition of each group's historic suffering, and an appreciation of each group's contributions and heritage. Second, there must then be a transcendence of difference to embrace what we have in common—to mutually endorse the highest aspirations of the human spirit.

That is how America has been able to heal so much of the suffering of our own past. And it is why democracy can be the humanizing solution—for the Balkans, and one day, for the entire world.

The 12 million people who came through Ellis Island found through democracy the opportunity they needed to leave their hatreds behind, and embrace a higher ideal. Through Ellis Island alone have come 169,000 people who immigrated from Serbia and Montenegro, 491,000 immigrants who came from Croatia and Slovenia, and 52,000 people who came from Bosnia and Herzegovina. They found a way to live together, to transcend religious and ethnic differences, to widen the circle of human dignity to enrich our common humanity.

As President Truman said on the day the NATO Treaty was signed: "it is possible for nations to achieve unity on the great principles of human freedom and justice, and at the same time to permit, in other respects, the greatest diversity of which the human mind is capable."

"This method of organizing diverse peoples and cultures," he said, "is in direct contrast to the method of the police state, which attempts to achieve unity by imposing the same beliefs and the same rule of force on everyone."

Now, at the dawn of a new century, that is the choice we face—and these are the questions we must confront: how wide is the wisdom that embraces democracy? How strong are the forces aligned against hatred? How deep is the will of those who stand for freedom?

Last fall, I saw one glimmer of an answer. I had the honor of swearing in George Haley as our Ambassador to the Republic of the Gambia. George Haley is the brother of Alex Haley. And the Republic of the Gambia is the land of his great, great, great, great grandfather—Kunta Kinte.

Two months after his 18th birthday, George Haley was drafted by the Air Force to fight in World War II. After basic training, he was traveling with his fellow soldiers to a base in Arizona, when they stopped to get food. The waitress looked at their uniforms, looked at their faces—all black—and said, "Sorry, colored soldiers can't eat here."

A few minutes later, they were astonished to see a group of white soldiers get served at the same table. These soldiers weren't American soldiers—they were German prisoners of war.

Somebody asked George Haley how it made him feel. He said: "you can get hostile and make things worse. Or you can get determined, and make things better."

The horrors and mass genocide of World War Two led to a Universal Declaration of Human Rights—and the realization that all members of the human family possess an inherent dignity, equality, reason, and conscience—and that this is the foundation of freedom, justice, and peace in the world.

The manifest evil our World War Two veterans saw on the European and Pacific theaters of that war provided a new spark for the fire of our civil rights movement.

We still have work to do, to redeem the promise of liberty here at home. But as we do so, let us not forget that America's destiny is increasingly intertwined with that of the world.

America can and will live up to its role as the decisive power in the world today. Let us choose a course that is grounded in our national interests, but recognizes our common interests. A course that is built on our strength and security, and also our willingness to use our strength—to lead the world toward what is right and just.

I believe that the United States of America is the greatest nation on God's earth, because we have always been a beacon for those who love freedom. A place where we strive to give every child the chance to live out their dreams. A nation that never stops striving to perfect its union.

We learned as children about the "lowest common denominator;" America is about the highest common denominator. And we now have a chance to build an America and a world that are not just better off, but better, in every way.

That is how we can honor the journey of the heart that so many millions began here on Ellis Island. And it is how we can finish it. Now is our time. Liberty is calling. Join with me, and let us lift our lamp beside the golden door. Thank you.


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