Shirley Chisholm: Fund Children's Welfare, Not War in Vietnam

Shirley Chisholm: Fund Children's Welfare, Not War in Vietnam
AP Photo/Charles Gorry, File
Shirley Chisholm: Fund Children's Welfare, Not War in Vietnam
AP Photo/Charles Gorry, File
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Nineteenth in a series commemorating Women's History Month by spotlighting a significant speech or testimony delivered by a woman in the U.S. on this date.

The first black woman to serve in Congress, Shirley Chisholm delivered her so-called “maiden” speech on the floor of the House on March 26, 1969. It was a rhetorical thunderbolt delivered directly to President Nixon and her fellow legislators. She lashed out against the Vietnam War and vowed to vote “no” against any defense appropriation bill “until the time comes when our values and priorities have been turned right-side up again.”

Chisholm got her start running a day-care center in Brooklyn, and from that experience sprang her lifelong fight for early childhood education and child welfare. She never veered from the conviction that helping women, children, and the disadvantaged would benefit America far more than funding the military and defense. Those remained key themes when, in 1972, she made history as the first African American woman from a major political party to run for president, and the first woman to seek the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination.

Just over a year later, Chisholm’s hopes were realized when the last remaining U.S. troops pulled out of Vietnam.

It’s Time to Reassess Our National Priorities

By Shirley Chisholm

U.S. House of Representatives, Washington, D.C

I thank the gentleman. Mr. Speaker, on the same day President Nixon announced he had decided the United States will not be safe unless we start to build a defense system against missiles, the Head Start program in the District of Columbia was cut back for the lack of money.

As a teacher, and as a woman, I do not think I will ever understand what kind of values can be involved in spending $9 billion -- and more, I am sure -- on elaborate, unnecessary, and impractical weapons when several thousand disadvantaged children in the nation’s capital get nothing. When the new administration took office, I was one of the many Americans who hoped it would mean that our country would benefit from the fresh perspectives, the new ideas, the different priorities of a leader who had no part in its mistakes of the past. Mr. Nixon had said things like this:

If our cities are to be livable for the next generation, we can delay no longer in launching new approaches to the problems that beset them and to the tensions that tear them apart.

And he said:

When you cut expenditures for education, what you are doing is short-changing the American future.

But frankly, I have never cared too much what people say. What I am interested in is what they do. We have waited to see what the new administration is going to do. The pattern now is becoming clear. Apparently launching these new programs can be delayed for a while, after all. It seems we have to get some missiles launched first.

Recently the new secretary of commerce spelled it out. The secretary, Mr. [Maurice] Stans, told a reporter that the new administration is “pretty well agreed it must take time out from major social objectives” until it can stop inflation. 

The new secretary of health, education, and welfare, Robert Finch, came to the Hill to tell the House Education and Labor Committee that he thinks we should spend more on education, particularly in city schools. But, he said, unfortunately we can’t “afford” to, until we have reached some kind of honorable solution to the Vietnam War. I was glad to read that the distinguished member from Oregon [Edith Green] asked Mr. Finch this:

With the crisis we have in education, and the crisis in our cities, can we wait to settle the war? Shouldn’t it be the other way around? Unless we can meet the crisis in education, we really can’t afford the war.

Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird came to Capitol Hill, too. His mission was to sell the anti-ballistic-missile insanity to the Senate. He was asked what the new administration is doing about the war. To hear him, one would have thought it was 1968, that the former secretary of state was defending the former politics, that nothing had ever happened — a president had never decided not to run because he knew the nation would reject him in despair over this tragic war we have blundered into. Mr. Laird talked of being prepared to spend at least two more years in Vietnam. 

Two more years, two more years of hunger for Americans, of death for our best young men, of children here at home suffering the lifelong handicap of not having a good education when they are young. Two more years of high taxes, collected to feed the cancerous growth of a Defense Department budget that now consumes two-thirds of our federal income.

Two more years of too little being done to fight our greatest enemies -- poverty, prejudice and neglect -- here in our own country. Two more years of fantastic waste in the Defense Department and of penny-pinching on social programs. Our country cannot survive two more years, or four, of these kinds of policies. It must stop -- this year -- now. 

Now, I am not a pacifist. I am deeply, unalterably, opposed to this war in Vietnam. Apart from all the other considerations, and they are many, the main fact is that we cannot squander there the lives, the money, the energy that we need desperately here, in our cities, in our schools.

I wonder whether we cannot reverse our whole approach to spending. For years, we have given the military, the defense industry, a blank check. New weapons systems are dreamed up, billions are spent, and many times they are found to be impractical, inefficient, unsatisfactory, even worthless. What do we do then? We spend more money on them. But with social programs, what do we do? Take the Job Corps. Its failures have been mercilessly exposed and criticized. If it had been a military research and development project, they would have been covered up or explained away, and Congress would have been ready to pour more billions after those that had been wasted on it.

The case of Pride, Inc., is interesting. This vigorous, successful black organization, here in Washington, conceived and built by young inner-city men, has been ruthlessly attacked by its enemies in the government, in this Congress. At least six auditors from the General Accounting Office were put to work investigating Pride. They worked seven months and spent more than $100,000. They uncovered a fraud. It was something less than $2,100. Meanwhile, billions of dollars … were being spent by the Department of Defense, and how many auditors and investigators were checking into their negotiated contracts? Five.

We Americans have come to feel that it is our mission to make the world free. We believe that we are the good guys, everywhere, in Vietnam, in Latin America, wherever we go. We believe we are the good guys at home, too. When the Kerner Commission told white America what black America has always known -- that prejudice and hatred built the nation’s slums, maintains them and profits by them -- white America would not believe it. But it is true. Unless we start to fight, and defeat, the enemies of poverty and racism in our own county and make our talk of equality and opportunity ring true, we are exposed as hypocrites in the eyes of the world when we talk about making other people free. 

I am deeply disappointed at the clear evidence that the number one priority of the new administration is to buy more and more and more weapons of war, to return to the era of the Cold War, to ignore the war we must fight here -- the war that is not optional. There is only one way, I believe, to turn these policies around. The Congress can respond to the mandate that the American people have clearly expressed. They have said, “End this war. Stop the waste. Stop the killing. Do something for our own people first.” We must find the money to “launch the new approaches,” as Mr. Nixon said. We must force the administration to rethink its distorted, unreal scale of priorities. Our children, our jobless men, our deprived, rejected and starving fellow citizens must come first. 

For this reason, I intend to vote “no” on every money bill that comes to the floor of this House that provides any funds for the Department of Defense. Any bill whatsoever, until the time comes when our values and priorities have been turned right side up again, until the monstrous waste and the shocking profits in the defense budget have been eliminated and our country starts to use its strength, its tremendous resources, for people and peace, not for profits and war.

It was Calvin Coolidge, I believe, who made the comment that “the business of America is business.” We are now spending $80 billion a year on defense — that is two-thirds of every tax dollar. At this time, gentleman, the business of America is war and it is time for a change. 

Source: Chisholm, Shirley, “Remarks on an Appraisal of the Conflict in Vietnam,” Congressional Record 115 (March 26, 1969), p. H7765.

Dana Rubin is a speaker and consultant focused on women’s voice and speech. She’s the founder of Speaking While Female, the first-ever online collection of contemporary and historical speeches by women from across time and around the world. Dana recently gave a TEDx Talk on “Unlocking the Secret History of Women’s Speech,” and she’s working on an anthology of women’s speech. For more on how she helps organizations attract, retain and develop their women leaders, visit SpeakingWhileFemale.biz.



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