On February 24, 2011, the Museum held a special event in honor of the life and legacy of the late U.S. Representative Tom Lantos, the only Holocaust survivor to serve in Congress. The featured speaker, Vice President Joseph Biden spoke about the importance of the Museum as a living memorial to the Holocaust. He referenced the role of the Museum and the Genocide Prevention Task Force in advancing a new understanding that genocide is preventable.
Joe Biden: Hello, everybody. My name is Joe Biden. I’m Annette’s eldest son. You think I’m kidding, don’t you? I want to thank you all for being here today. And it’s so great to see Annette. Everybody talks about Tom, but you cannot, you could not, you must no—no one who knows the Lantos’ ever has—talked about Tom without talking about Annette. It is simply not possible…
I understand that one of Tom’s great friends, at least, was here, may still be here, I don’t see him and the Dean of the House, [Congressman] John Dingell, was here I’m told. If he is here, I pay my respects and a great friend of Tom’s. And members of the diplomatic corps that are here and, Sara [Bloomfield], thank you for giving me the opportunity to stand on this stage. Annette, thank you for the introduction. I didn’t want you to know I was here. I had hoped you’d keep talking. I haven’t heard such wonderful things since my mother spoke of me in my absence. Thank you so much.
I’ll speak a little bit about Tom in a minute, but let me just say to all of you that to all of the Bidens, Annette and Tom were family. And that sounds like hyperbole in a town that is loaded with hyperbole, but it is literally true. Katrina, God love her, used to work for me. She was 18 years old when she graduated from Yale Law School—they’re a slow family. And I remember when I met her. I met her out in— I was doing an event in San Francisco and Tom and my brother Jimmy, who loved Tom, who can do the best Tom Lantos, you’ve ever heard, you know, “Tom Lantos. Tom Lantos.” And Tom Lantos introduced me to his lovely daughter at the time, who was at Yale Law School. And I was hoping that some day I could get her to come and work with me, but I really got a real surprise and very, very— one of the most flattering things that ever occurred. Tom Lantos said he’d like to come and work with me. And Tom Lantos came and was on my staff.
Justice Broderick, how are you? It’s good to see you.
Tom came as my both foreign policy and economic advisor at the time. He was teaching at the time, and I was stunned—flattered and stunned—that he’d be willing to come, a man of his capability, quality, and discretion would come and work for a young United States Senator. It was one of the best things that ever happened to me.
And is little Annette here? Is your sister here? She’s not here. You never heard Tom talk about their two Annette’s, little Annette and Annette. And when I first met the Lantos they didn’t have 17 grandchildren and who are the light of Tom’s life. Including Tomicah, is Tomicah here? There you are buddy. One of the smartest guys that ever worked with me. It was one of the best decisions I ever made was to ask Tomicah to come and be on my staff, as well. And so I’ve had the benefit of three generations of Lantos’ and I continue to have the benefit of their friendship and it means a great deal to me. You know, the whole clan is just that, a clan. We are a smaller clan, but we are a clan, we Bidens. And my brother Jimmy sends his apologies for not being able to be here today, Annette. My brother Jimmy was befriended by Tom and loved Tom more than I can describe. And my two sons, Beau Biden, who is the attorney general of the state of Delaware and Hunter Biden, who unfortunately went to Yale Law School, as well, where Tom cared for them and looked after them almost like they were his own sons. I apologize, we used to say in the Senate for this, you know, point of personal privilege here to give a little background of the family. So I am not very objective about Tom Lantos. And I don’t get to see you guys nearly as much as I’d like to.
Folks, this is the second time I’ve spoken here at the Holocaust Museum since I became Vice-President, and the Museum is only 20 years old but I believe this is hallowed ground. While Americans didn’t experience the Holocaust directly, thousands, thousands of brave men and women who are now American citizens not only survived it but they want on to make extraordinary contributions to the fabric of American life. Hundreds of thousands of Americans were involved in the effort to liberate the concentration camps. And America has played a leading role in commemorating the millions of lives stolen by maybe one of the worst catastrophes in the history of humanity and working to give life to the words, “Never again. Never again.”
You know, we use those words almost lightly these days. But the truth is if there was ever an embodiment of the idea of “Never again. Never again,” it was Tom Lantos. You know, the Holocaust and the legacy are not part of our country’s history, this country’s history, but they continue to inform our approach to events today. They stiffen our resolve and our conscience, God-willing, in the face of atrocities, wherever and whenever they occur. This living memorial is therefore more than some enduring monument. It’s a beacon to visitors from all around world including more than 90 heads of state who have been here. This is the largest repository of information about the Holocaust. And it is a tireless, tireless advocate for public policies that make genocide prevention a priority.
Now, you know, my daughter’s generation who Tom knew and took care of his well, my brilliant 29-year-old daughter, to her generation the idea of preventing genocide is thinkable. For the longest time, for the longest time even after World War II, the notion was somehow it was not preventable. It can be intervened but it wasn’t preventable from the outset. I give this Museum credit, the people who built it for the notion that what Tom believed with every fiber in his being that not only should it be intervened when it occurs, but it is preventable. For all of those reasons, this is hallowed ground, and I feel it every time I come here.
This Museum, I would respectfully suggest, might not be here without many of you in the audience, but particularly, Tom and Annette Lantos who, in addition to many other accomplishments spent— Tom spent 15 years on the Holocaust Memorial Council. I can remember the hours and hours which Tom and I talked about the possibility of this existing. You know, Tom was sort of intoxicating. It was literally hard to walk away once he began to speak. It was not only that magnificent Hungarian accent he had but it was his ability to tell a story. To tell a story. To bring you in. To make you feel, not only understand but feel what he was talking about. He sponsored legislation that renamed a street out in front of this Museum after Raoul Wallenberg. The man who saved tens of thousands of Hungarian Jews from Auschwitz, but literally saved Tom and Annette. I don’t know how many times I asked Tom to repeat the story of how Raoul Wallenberg would walk along where people were lined up along the canal. I remember the first time I went to Budapest with Tom and him taking me and having me stand there. And I want you to know Annette, and again, I excuse the point of personal privilege, I was there just about two months ago and I took my 12-year-old daughter because I wanted her to see. I took her to the places that Tom took me. I took her to the oldest cemetery. I took her to the oldest synagogue. And I listened to her ask such questions that I literally thought, I wish Tom were here to show her, to take her, to do for her at age 12 what he did for me at age 33.
So Tom and Annette were two of the people who Raoul Wallenberg saved. And to their great credit, and to Annette’s great credit, Annette set up the first Free Wallenberg committee when reports began to circulate that he was alive in a Soviet gulag. And I remember, Annette, how relentless you were in that charming, frightening Hungarian way. You know, Tom Lantos actually, this is the God’s truth, convinced me— your grandfather convinced me that the Irish, I swear to God, were literally descendants of Hungarians. Now, you’ve heard the story how the Huns came across in the north and Finland and, you know, I can give you the whole thing. And for the longest time I didn’t believe it, until I found out from personal experience, you know how the hell we got the Blarney Stone? We took it from Budapest. It was not there. It was a Hungarian stone. But honest to God, remember, him telling me. He’d sit me down and give me the history— he’d draw on the map how they came across. Oh, God almighty. But I’m sure that everyone here is very familiar with Tom’s biography. And I don’t apologize but I won’t go into it any further.
Suffice it to say he was truly a heroic figure to so many people. I’ve never met anyone who could match his optimism, his confidence, his dignity, and his grace. He was a truly larger than life and to me he was a great gift. He was a great gift. And as I used to kid what my dad would say if he were here, he’d look at all of the Lantos offspring and say you’ve got good blood. You’ve got really good blood. Folks, the fact of the matter is that from the day that Tom came to work for me which is— he never worked for me. The day Tom came to my office so I could work for him, it was way back in the early seventies, actually, the mid-seventies. And not only he taught me a great deal about economic and foreign policy, he taught me more about human nature. And he almost, as I said, convinced me that I was Hungarian somewhere in the background. And not only do I miss him but, again, and I’ll end the personal side of this, my brother Jimmy misses him. We talk about him all of the time, my son Beau and my son Hunter and Jill. And by the way, for the record, so there’s no investigation by Darrell Issa, I was not on a honeymoon in Budapest. I was on official business. I just want you to know.
He was not only my friend, he was a friend of all of my family. Each one of them thought he was their private counselor. Reflecting on this for a moment, Tom Lantos was a teenager, a teenager when he saw firsthand perhaps the most profound horror that man in an organized fashion inflicted upon man. After what he endured as a young man, Tom could certainly, Mr. Ambassador, had been forgiven if, in fact, he decided to live his life out of the public arena and securely as he could make it. The experience that he and Annette went through could have and did overwhelm an awful lot of people. It could very easily have caused them to seek the solace of their own environs for the rest of their days. And I don’t think anyone would have blamed them for that.
Instead of walking away, Tom strode right into the arena for the rest of his life, fighting against injustice, and for human rights, whether it was a relentless search for Raoul Wallenberg or his steadfast support for refuseniks in the former Soviet Union or responding to the cry of victims of ethnic violence in the Balkans or pleading the necessity of U.S. engagement for those infected by HIV and AIDS in Africa and across the world. Tom was genuinely committed with his entire being, as I said earlier, to the phrase “Never again.” More than 60 years after the Holocaust, Tom Lantos, 77 years old, was still fighting. He was arrested outside the embassy of Sudan in Washington protesting against the atrocities that were occurring in Darfur. Tom identified something universal in the evil he saw firsthand and the suffering that it caused. That’s the thing about him I found so fascinating. I could have understood and I did understand his absolute commitment to it being never again, that never again would the Jewish people be put in the circumstance they were in the past. But to Tom that phrase applied across the board wherever genocide was occurring. Tom made no distinctions. Something larger than his own experience was what he lived out. Something shared among the downtrodden of every faith, of every race, of every hard luck corner of the planet Tom identified with.
It was simple to Tom: evil has to be confronted head on. And he set about to fit evil and ease the suffering wherever and whenever it can be found as Tom diagnosed. His fellow Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel who’s become— I met through Tom and I’m proud to say has become a good friend and a man I seek counsel from as Vice President. Elie could have been talking about Tom when he said, “We don’t sleep much because the world doesn’t let us sleep. And in turn, in turn, we try our best not to let the world sleep. That when people suffer anywhere either we shout or we whisper, but at least, at least we try to wake it up.”
The horrors of the twentieth century that Tom and Annette Lantos, Elie Wiesel and maybe some of you in this room endured have helped give rise to an important shift in our thinking about mass slaughter. And to a range of new tools to prevent and respond to it when you smell it, feel it, taste it coming, or when it occurs and you need to react. We’re literally building a new vocabulary for talking about genocide. War crimes against humanity. Ethnic cleansing. As we develop new ways not only to stop them but to prevent them.
We’ve made the Responsibility to Protect—the simple but novel concept that states must shield their populations from atrocity—a core element of our national security strategy. Katrina may remember, I got in trouble when I said during the Bosnia crisis coming back from meeting Milosevic that— and I got in a little trouble with some of our British friends, for saying that when a state engages in atrocity it forfeits its sovereignty. And it was viewed at the time as somehow being contrary to the notions of the principles of the United Nations charter that you forfeit your sovereignty. Well, the truth of the matter is the world— and I remember the first person to call me as I was being roundly criticized was Tom Lantos, “Keep it up, Joe.”
Early this week the United Nations Security Council called on the government of Libya to live up to its responsibility to protect its population. Following recommendations from the bipartisan Genocide Prevention Taskforce commissioned by this Museum, President Obama created the first ever White House position to coordinate policies on preventing, identifying and responding to mass atrocities in genocide. And it’s not just the commission. It is located inside the National Security Council. It is not a good government tool. It is not about talking and preaching about what we should do. It is viewed as an integral part of our National Security Apparatus. The Task Force concluded that what Tom knew and taught us all who knew him a long time, what he knew and argued his whole life, that preventing genocide is an achievable goal but a goal that requires a degree of governmental organization and engagement that matches in its intensity, the brutality and efficiency required to carry out mass killings. Too often in the past, these efforts have come too late after the best and least costly opportunities to prevent them had been missed.
So our approach is four-fold. First, we must recognize early indicators of potential atrocities, and respond accordingly, rather than waiting until we are confronted by massacres, like those on Rwanda or in Srebrenica. I remember coming back from Serbia meeting with Milosevic where I was impolitic enough to refer to him as a war criminal when he asked me what I thought of him and that is unfortunately true. I remember calling Tom, seeing those pictures with the U.N. personnel carriers sitting there watching boxcars get loaded up with people. It was like watching a news reel from the late 1930s, and ‘40s, early ‘40s, and the world stood there and watched it.
The second thing that we have to do is develop and implement strategies to prevent atrocities before they occur. And the third thing we have to do is enhance the training and enrich the doctrine that guides our foreign service officers and our military personnel in their work to identify potential and confront actual atrocities. You know, we can’t do everything. But there’s a lot we can do and in the past we haven’t done… And finally, we have to work with our international partners to coordinate our efforts. And to be very blunt with you sometimes that requires us being somewhat forceful. Sometimes that requires us saying okay, you don’t want to participate, say it out loud, figuratively speaking. It’s amazing how in the Balkans it took so long.
Let’s just look at one recent example, though, where the approach has worked in action where the international community has engaged because not only we but other countries have agreed to engage. Six months ago in my view, sitting in Kenya, and I was there meeting with Southern Sudanese, it wasn’t even clear there would be a referendum that would take place in Southern Sudan. It was almost unimaginable that the Sudanese government led by a president who has all ready been indicted for genocide in Darfur would accept, let alone recognize a vote to divide his country. Further bloodshed and conflict between the North and South was not only possible, I think it was viewed by most of the world as a likely outcome. But after months of focus and to the credit of the President of the United States, in my view, months of focus and absolute sustained engagement with the Sudanese, neighboring governments, the Kenyans, the Egyptians and others, by our administration, by the international community, by organizations like this Museum which sponsored bearing witness trips to South Sudan last fall, last month hundreds of thousands of Southern Sudanese pressed and moved, voted with their thumbprints on ballots and endorsed independence. And the Khartoum government recognized the results. It’s not the end. But it was one very important step along what remains to be a very dangerous and difficult road.
The carnage in Darfur continues to demand our close attention, and Khartoum’s obstruction of peacekeepers and humanitarian workers has to stop and we have to keep the drumbeat up, but the referendum was a major achievement. A testament to the power of America and the international community to engage in an irrefutable proof, in my view, that the principle that atrocities are inevitable need not be true. Prevention is possible. Our administration also believes that holding perpetrators of mass atrocities accountable is an essential component of our prevention efforts. And that’s why we have to reinvigorate efforts to bring some of the worst war criminals to justice, such as the leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army and the Serbians that are still out there like Mladic.
And, you know, this is the lesson I learned from Tom. I thought I was a student of the Holocaust long before I met Tom. It was one of my avocations. My dinner table was, as Annette knows, a place where we sat to have conversation and incidentally eat, rather than the other way around. And my father was one of those righteous Christians who could not understand our failure to take so long to act and then was stunned by the lack of absolute immediate unanimity in the community with the establishment of a state. But to me Tom explained to me why the work that Chris Dodd’s dad and others did after the war to force the Germans to come face-to-face with how complicitous they were even if they were not working the chambers. And how it was a needed catharsis for the country to get through and beyond where it had been.
That’s why it’s so important that we pursue these war criminals. That’s why it’s so important we force the nations where there was complicity to acknowledge what has happened and what they were a part of. So it will increase the prospect it never happens again. That’s why national security officials from the President on down last year engaged with our allies and pressured the government to stop the ethnic killing that was taking place in Kyrgyzstan. And it’s why we have worked so hard to establish an international commission to investigate the perpetrators of those atrocities. That’s why we strongly support the international efforts to bring to justice those responsible for genocide and war crimes in Darfur because there cannot be lasting peace without accountability.
And that’s why as the unrest unfolds across the Middle East as we’re watching before our eyes in recent weeks and I expect for weeks and months to come we have been clear-eyed about three points. One, the violence must stop. Two, the people of the region, like everywhere, are entitled to universal rights including the freedom of speech and assembly and to have their say. And that genuine political reforms are critical to restoring legitimacy of governments and ending these crisis.
My own commitment to these issues began with the lesson I learned, as I said earlier, referenced, when I referenced my father. Long before I even met Tom when I was a child my father taught his children and me that, as we Catholics say, the cardinal sin anyone could commit was the abuse of power. Whether it was economic power, taking advantage of persons in dire economic straights, whether it’s raising your fist to someone smaller or physically weaker than you, or a government waging or allowing atrocities against civilians. That aversion of abuse of power like many of the elected officials here has guided me throughout my career. It led me to sponsor the Violence Against Women Act, to push President Clinton to intervene in ethnic cleansing in Bosnia and Kosovo. That’s why I believe the United States must continue to work tirelessly to prevent these unspeakable tragedies because we can and because as Tom Lantos always reminded us, “The veneer of civilization”—and it’s his quote—“The veneer of civilization is paper thin. We are the guardians and we can never rest,” end of Tom’s quote.
As long as he lived in the face of injustice Tom never rested. And I don’t think anyone assembled in this hall, you’re probably the only audience that doesn’t need to be reminded of this, I think we have all the obligation to never rest. I know no one in here will. I know and I look out and see so many familiar faces. We as a nation can never rest either. And for teaching me those lessons and inspiring so many of his colleagues in the House and the Senate, so many of the students he taught, so many of the people he mentored we owe a man who took a tragedy and turned it in to something to do good for so many other people. We owe him an incredible debt of gratitude. And Annette I owe you a debt of gratitude for giving me the honor to speak here today. Thank you.