Robert Byrd

Robert Byrd

Cornelius Sale was born in North Wilksboro, North Carolina, on 20th November, 1917. His mother died the following year during the flu pandemic and he was brought up by his aunt and uncle, Vlurma and Titus Byrd, in West Virginia. As a result he changed his name to Robert Byrd.

After attending local public schools he worked in a gas filling station, meat cutter and as a salesman. On the outbreak of the Second World War Byrd found work as a welder building ships in the construction yards of Baltimore and Maryland.

A strong opponent of African American civil rights Byrd was an advocate of the Ku Klux Klan. In 1946 Byrd announced that: "The Ku Klux Klan is needed today as never before and I am anxious to see its rebirth in West Virginia". Byrd later claimed that he did this because he thought it would help his career in politics.

A member of the Democratic Party, Byrd became a member of the West Virginia Senate in 1951. He served three terms, 1952-58, before entering the US Senate. He became a member of the powerful appropriations committee. According to Christopher Reed: "This access to the federal purse allowed him to funnel monet to his home state, and over the decades he was reckoned to have appropriated a billion dollars on behalf of his constituents."

Byrd joined southern colleagues in a Senate filibuster of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. He also opposed the nomination of the African-American supreme court justice, Thurgood Marshall in 1967. Byrd was also a hawk on the Vietnam War.

After a period as a Democratic whip (1971-1977) Byrd was Majority Leader (1977-80 and 1987-88) and Minority Leader (1981-86) of the Senate. Byrd was also chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee (1989 to 2001).

In 1982 Byrd changed his mind on the subject of civil rights. He later explained that it was the death of his teenage grandson in a road accident that brought about a change of attitude: ""The death of my grandson caused me to stop and think. I came to realise that black people love their children as much as I do mine."

Byrd was a strong critic of President George Bush who he argued: "undermined, undercut, and brought under attack". He also opposed the invasion of Iraq. On 12th February, 2003, Byrd argued in the Senate: "To contemplate war is to think about the most horrible of human experiences. As this nation stands at the brink of battle, every American must be contemplating the horrors of war. Yet, this chamber is, for the most part, silent - ominously, dreadfully silent. There is no debate, no discussion, no attempt to lay out for the nation the pros and cons of this particular war. We stand passively mute in the United States Senate, paralysed by our own uncertainty, seemingly stunned by the sheer turmoil of events. And this is no small conflagration we contemplate. This is no simple attempt to defang a villain. No. This coming battle, if it materialises, represents a turning point in US foreign policy."

In June 2006, Byrd passed the record set by Strom Thurmond as the longest-serving senator in US history. In November 2009 he took the record in the longest-serving member of Congress.

Robert Byrd died at the Inova Hospital in Fairfax, on 28th June, 2010.

© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) The Nation (25th September, 2002)

Soon, you will be asked to vote on a resolution authorizing the United States to overthrow the government of Iraq by military force. Its passage, we read on all sides, is a foregone conclusion, as if what the country now faces is not a decision but the disclosure of a fate. The nation marches as if in a trance to war. In the House, twenty of your number, led by Dennis Kucinich, have announced their opposition to the war. In the Senate, Robert Byrd has mounted a campaign against the version of the resolution already proposed by the Bush Administration. He has said that the resolution's unconstitutionality will prevent him from voting for it. "But I am finding," he adds, "that the Constitution is irrelevant to people of this Administration." The Joint Chiefs of Staff, according to the Washington Post, oppose the war. Telephone calls and the mail to your offices run strongly against it. Polls and news stories reveal a divided and uncertain public. Yet debate in your chambers is restricted to peripheral questions, such as the timing of the vote, or the resolution's precise scope. You are a deliberative body, but you do not deliberate. You are representatives, but you do not represent.

(2) Robert Byrd, speech in the Senate (26th September, 2002)

In the event of a war with Iraq, might the United States be facing the possibility of reaping what it has sown? The role that the U.S. may have played in helping Iraq to pursue biological warfare in the 1980s should serve as a strong warning to the president that policy decisions regarding Iraq today could have far reaching ramifications on the Middle East and on the United States in the future.

In the 1980s, the Ayatollah Khomeni was America's sworn enemy, and the US government courted Saddam Hussein in an effort to undermine the Ayatollah and Iran. Today, Saddam Hussein is America's biggest enemy, and the US is said to be making overtures to Iran. The Bush administration is also discussing whether to arm groups of ethnic dissidents, such as the Kurds, in Iraq.

Could the US be laying the groundwork for a brutal civil war in Iraq? Could this proposed policy change precipitate a deadly border conflict between the Kurds and Turkey?

Decisions involving war and peace, should never be rushed or muscled through in haste. Our founding fathers understood that, and wisely vested in the Congress, not the president, the power to declare war.

(3) Robert Byrd, speech in the Senate (12th February, 2003)

To contemplate war is to think about the most horrible of human experiences. As this nation stands at the brink of battle, every American must be contemplating the horrors of war. Yet, this chamber is, for the most part, silent - ominously, dreadfully silent. There is no debate, no discussion, no attempt to lay out for the nation the pros and cons of this particular war.

We stand passively mute in the United States Senate, paralysed by our own uncertainty, seemingly stunned by the sheer turmoil of events. And this is no small conflagration we contemplate. This is no simple attempt to defang a villain. No. This coming battle, if it materialises, represents a turning point in US foreign policy.

This nation is about to embark upon the first test of a revolutionary doctrine applied in an extraordinary way at an unfortunate time. The doctrine of pre-emption - the idea that the United States or any other nation can attack a nation that is not imminently threatening but may be in the future - is a radical new twist on the traditional idea of self-defence. It appears to be in contravention of international law and the UN charter. And it is being tested at a time of worldwide terrorism, making many countries around the globe wonder if they will soon be on our - or some other nation's - hit list. High-level administration figures recently refused to take nuclear weapons off of the table when discussing a possible attack against Iraq. What could be more destabilising than this type of uncertainty?

There are huge cracks emerging in our alliances, and US intentions are suddenly subject to worldwide speculation. Anti Americanism based on mistrust, misinformation, suspicion and alarming rhetoric from US leaders is fracturing the once solid alliance against global terrorism which existed after September 11.

Here at home, people are warned of terrorist attacks with little guidance as to when or where such attacks might occur. Family members are being called to active military duty, with no idea of what horrors they may face. The mood of the nation is grim. The economy is stumbling. Fuel prices are rising.

This administration, now in power for a little over two years, must be judged on its record. This administration has squandered a projected surplus of some $5.6 trillion. This administration has fostered policies which have slowed economic growth. This administration has ignored urgent matters such as the crisis in health care for our elderly. This administration has been slow to provide adequate funding for homeland security. This administration has been reluctant to better protect our borders. This administration has failed to find Osama bin Laden. This administration has split traditional alliances, possibly crippling for all time order-keeping entities like the United Nations and Nato. This administration has called into question the traditional worldwide perception of the United States as well-intentioned peacekeeper. This administration has turned the patient art of diplomacy into threats, labelling and name-calling.

We may have massive military might, but we cannot fight a war on terrorism alone. We need the cooperation of our allies as well as the newer friends. Our military will do us little good if we suffer another attack on our homeland which damages our economy. Our military is already stretched thin and we will need the support of those nations who can supply troop strength, not just sign letters cheering us on.

The war in Afghanistan has cost us $37bn so far, yet there is evidence that terrorism may already be starting to regain its hold in that region. We have not found Bin Laden, and unless we secure the peace in Afghanistan, the dark dens of terrorism may yet again flourish. This administration has not finished the first war against terrorism and yet it is eager to embark on another conflict. Is our attention span that short? Have we not learned that after winning the war one must always secure the peace?

And yet we hear little about the aftermath of war in Iraq. Speculation abroad is rife. Will we seize Iraq's oil fields? To whom do we hand the reigns of power after Saddam Hussein? Will our war result in attacks on Israel? Will Israel retaliate with its own nuclear arsenal? Has our bellicose language and our disregard of the interests of other nations increased the race to join the nuclear club?

This reckless and arrogant administration has initiated policies which may reap disastrous consequences. One can understand the anger and shock of any president after September 11. One can appreciate the frustration of having only an amorphous, fleeting enemy on which it is nearly impossible to exact retribution. But to turn one's frustration and anger into the kind of destabilising foreign policy debacle that the world is currently witnessing is inexcusable. Many of the pronouncements made by this administration are outrageous. There is no other word.

Yet on what is possibly the eve of horrific infliction of death and destruction on the population of the nation of Iraq - a population of which over 50% is under age 15 - this chamber is silent. On what is possibly only days before we send thousands off to face unimagined horrors of warfare - this chamber is silent. On the eve of what could possibly be a vicious terrorist attack in retaliation for our attack on Iraq, it is business as usual in the Senate. We are truly "sleepwalking through history".

To engage in war is always to pick a wild card. And war must always be a last resort, not a first choice. This war is not necessary at this time. Pressure appears to be having a good result in Iraq. Our mistake was to put ourselves in a corner so quickly. Our challenge is to now find a graceful way out of a box of our own making. Perhaps there is still a way if we allow more time.

(4) Robert Byrd, speech in the Senate (10th July, 2003)

Weeks ago, the president gave vague assurances about the timely withdrawal of our troops. He said, "We will stay as long as necessary to get the job done, and then we will leave." Such words are without substance. They are "doublespeak." They do nothing but feed the hopes of the American people that our troops will soon return from Iraq while avoiding any real indication of when that might happen. The fact is that the administration has carefully avoided telling the American people when it expects our occupation of Iraq to conclude. So far, this administration has yet to even estimate how soon it will be able to hand Iraq over to the Iraqi people. In short, it appears that we have no exit strategy. The word "quagmire" is starting to be used by the media. Clearly, many people are very worried about our situation in Iraq. The death toll keeps mounting.

Last week, the president actually taunted those forces who are murdering our troops in the streets of Iraq. He dared the violent militants by saying "Bring 'em on." One can hardly think of a more inappropriate comment for a president to make when Americans are under siege in Iraq and being asked to deal with the treacheries of urban guerrilla warfare with no end in sight. Chest thumping should have no place in such a situation. This was the president who went to the trouble to put on a flight suit, land on an aircraft carrier, and, with great fanfare, tell the American public that "major combat operations in Iraq have ended." But, British and American soldiers are still dying in Iraq. Now, the president is saying, "Bring 'em on." What are we to believe?

The president has backed away from earlier suggestions of a foreseeable end to U.S. peacekeeping efforts in Iraq. He warns of the return of tyranny if our troops begin returning home. Judging by the president's statements, our armed forces have become the thumb in the dike - the only obstacle that prevents the return of a repressive dictatorship in Iraq.

How did it come to this? Members of Congress were told that our forces would be greeted as liberators. Iraqi citizens were supposed to eagerly embrace democracy and serve up Saddam Hussein on a silver platter the moment that they sipped from the cup of freedom. We should have known that the burden of democratizing Iraq would be no easy task. The administration should have been more forthcoming about the difficulty of that task, about the time it would take to execute it, and about the cost to the taxpayer.

To be sure, the Defense Department is now scrambling to scrape up as many as 20,000 foreign troops to join our forces in occupying Iraq by the end of September. I applaud these efforts. But it would be folly to believe that a deployment of 10,000, 20,000 or even 30,000 foreign troops would significantly reduce the dangers to the nearly hundreds of thousands of Americans who are now in Iraq.

The failure of this administration to adequately plan for post-war Iraq has become painfully evident. At yesterday's Armed Services Committee hearing, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said that he did not know if the United States had made any formal request for assistance from NATO or the United Nations since the beginning of the war in Iraq. The deployment of experienced peacekeepers from our friends and allies would go a long way to relieving the strain on our troops. It is simply shocking that our Secretary of Defense would be unaware of any efforts by the administration to make a formal request to NATO and the U.N. to provide these troops.

The tragic failure of the administration's efforts to build international support before launching its impatient rush towards war against Iraq is now bearing its bitter, bitter fruit. The difficulty in finding just 20,000 peacekeepers to patrol Iraq is evidence that White House efforts to assemble 49 nations into a "coalition of the willing" was merely an exercise in rhetoric, meant to cover the lack of significant military or financial contributions from dozens of nations, save for those of Britain, Australia and Poland.

Has the lack of a plan for post-war Iraq needlessly cost American lives? If we had not been so convinced that Iraqis would greet our armies with flowers and smiles, could we have better anticipated the chaos and lawlessness that broke out in the days after the war?

If we had not been so cocksure about our ability to neatly decapitate the leadership of the Iraqi regime, could we have fashioned a better plan to deal with the collapse of civil order as our tanks rolled into Baghdad?

Perhaps this White House should have listened to the advice of many senior military leaders who foresaw the need for several hundred thousands troops to stabilize post-war Iraq. Perhaps it should have contemplated the consequences of a Saddam Hussein driven into hiding, but still potent and dangerous. Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps.

The administration appears quite ready now to dedicate our military to a long-term occupation of Iraq. War-weary soldiers will continue to patrol the areas around Baghdad. The citizen-soldiers of the National Guard and the Reserves will be kept from returning to their homes, their jobs and their families. Thousands of American families will continue to worry about the fate of their loved ones.

And in spite of the heavy commitment that this administration has made to the most ambitious policy of nation-building in more than half a century, it appears to be on the verge of sending unknown numbers of U.S. troops to yet another peacekeeping mission in Liberia.

In my home state, there is a growing sense of disenchantment with these foreign adventures. Every day, more letters come to my office from West Virginians asking when their family members will be coming home. They contain details about National Guard and Army Reserve units with unclear missions and open-ended deployments. I have received word that some units are without mail service, others must wait weeks between phone calls home to their families. One unit had to ration water to just 20 ounces per day because of supply shortages. I suspect that other Senators are experiencing a similar phenomenon in the content of their mail from families of the Guard and Reserve.

These part-time soldiers are proud to serve in our nation's military, but they know that they are also full-time members of their communities. Our nation's reservists have important duties in their civilian lives, serving their cities and towns as police officers, businessmen, doctors, teachers and laborers. Members of the Guard and Reserves proudly joined to serve their country in times of crisis, not to be a permanent constabulary force in the Middle East.

Our brave and professional fighting men and women are awesome on the battlefield, but they must not be expected to carry out the role of peacekeepers or nation-builders in an open-ended mission, whether it take place in Lebanon, Somalia, Bosnia, Afghanistan, Liberia or Iraq. Our American soldiers are not Iraqi bureaucrats. Our Armed Forces are trained to win wars, not run countries. Putting our men and women in such an untenable situation is a misuse of our military and a disservice to our military personnel.

This administration should think hard about whether we have the manpower to sustain a large commitment of troops in Iraq for the long term. We currently have overseas commitments in South Korea, Japan, the Balkans and Afghanistan. Keeping tens or hundred of thousands of troops in Iraq for as many as 10 years may demand more troops than our voluntary armed forces can muster.

This administration should think hard about whether we have the money to single-handedly pay for the occupation and reconstruction of Iraq. The Department of Defense has reported that we are spending $3.9 billion each month to occupy Iraq, in addition to the $950 million we are spending each month for our mission in Afghanistan. At a time when the United States is running record-breaking deficits of $400 billion each year, the administration has not even included these $58 billion in occupation costs in its budget. In sharp contrast to the 1991 Persian Gulf war, where our allies contributed $54 billion of the $61 billion cost of that war, the American taxpayer is virtually alone in bearing the burden for the staggering cost of this most recent war with Iraq.

Americans have good cause to be proud of the men and women who unselfishly serve our country in uniform. They have carried out their duty in Iraq admirably. But what is the next step? The last thing we want to do is repay the services our troops have given to our country by committing them indefinitely to a fuzzy reconstruction mission of uncertain duration.

Iraq is fast becoming an urban guerilla shooting gallery with U.S. troops as the targets. It is time to go to the United Nations and work to deploy a trained multinational peacekeeping force to cope with the perils of the occupation of Iraq. Before there is a disaster to cope with. Before there is a major loss of life. Before there is a crisis, we must read the tea leaves.

This White House cannot further presume on the patience of the public. The American people must be given an exit strategy for our troops. We must ask the international community for help in Iraq.

(5) The Daily Telegraph (28th June, 2010)

In the early 1940s Byrd belonged briefly to the Ku Klux Klan, flattered by the regional grand dragon's encouragement to use his talents in politics. The affiliation was short-lived, and Byrd later apologised repeatedly for his membership, calling it a "sad mistake" that was driven by ambition and anti-Communist sentiment, rather than racism. He did, however, concede that he "reflected the fears and prejudices" of the time.

Byrd found a more salubrious entry into politics via his work as a lay Baptist preacher; his fundamentalist sermons became so popular that the local radio station began to broadcast them. When he ran for West Virginia state legislator in 1946 he called on every voter in the district, often bringing out his violin to entertain crowds with country classics such as Cripple Creek.

Byrd went to Washington in 1953, serving six years in the House of Representatives, before winning his Senate seat in 1958. He was an avid autodidact, once reading an entire dictionary from cover to cover, and was fond of quoting Cicero, Shakespeare and the Bible on the Senate floor. In 1963 he became the first senator to earn a Law degree while in office; it was conferred on him, at American University, by President John F Kennedy.

Although reluctant to join the Washington party circuit, Byrd grew to love the Senate, displaying a passion for preserving the institution and its prerogatives. "Nobody has ever used the rules of the Senate more than I have," he once said. In 1960 he set a record for the longest filibuster with a speech of 21 hours and eight minutes, including a lengthy passage about raisins, one of his favourite foods.

He often spoke out against abuses of the Constitution, a copy of which he carried in a breast-pocket. Byrd opposed President Nixon's resignation during the Watergate affair in 1974 on the grounds that it would "change our system from one of fixed tenure to one in which a president would remain in office only by popular approval".

He again took up this argument, in 1999, during efforts to oust President Clinton. Warning that the Senate risked becoming a "pit of partisanship and self-indulgence", Byrd brokered an agreement which led to Clinton's censure rather than his removal from office.

(6) New York Times (28th June, 2010)

In the early 1940s, he organized a 150-member klavern, or chapter, of the Klan in Sophia, W.Va., and was chosen its leader. Afterward, Joel L. Baskin, the Klan’s grand dragon for the region, suggested that Mr. Byrd use his “talents for leadership” by going into politics.

“Suddenly, lights flashed in my mind!” Mr. Byrd later wrote. “Someone important had recognized my abilities.”

Mr. Byrd insisted that his klavern had never conducted white-supremacist marches or engaged in racial violence. He said in his autobiography that he had joined the Klan because he shared its anti-Communist creed and wanted to be associated with the leading people in his part of West Virginia. He conceded, however, that he also “reflected the fears and prejudices” of the time.

His opponents used his Klan membership against him during his first run for the House of Representatives in 1952; Democratic leaders urged him to drop out of the race. But he stayed in and won, then spent decades apologizing for what he called a “sad mistake.”