California Congressman and Holocaust Survivor Tom Lantos, 80

Congressman Tom Lantos (D-Calif.), died February 11, 2008, due to esophageal cancer. Lantos, the only Holocaust survivor to be elected to Congress, served 14 terms in the House and rose to become chairman of the influential Committee on Foreign Affairs.
By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Tom Lantos, 80, a California Democrat whose experience as the only Holocaust survivor elected to Congress shaped his strong support for human rights and U.S. military intervention abroad, died Feb. 11 at National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda. He had esophageal cancer.

Rep. Lantos, born in Budapest to Hungarian Jews, served 14 terms in the House of Representatives. His district included southwest San Francisco and much of San Mateo County, where he was known for supporting the socially liberal agenda of his constituents. Last month, he announced he would not seek reelection because of his cancer treatment.

Rep. Lantos was a powerful figure on the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, where he had been the senior Democratic member since 2001 and its chairman since last year.

For years, he sided with Republican conservatives who believe the United States should assert democracy abroad and use the military to intervene when a moral imperative or national interest is at stake. In 2002, he supported the congressional resolution that authorized President Bush to invade Iraq and played a decisive role in gaining Democratic support for the measure.

On the House floor at the time, he noted his own past as a Nazi-resistance fighter during World War II. "Had the United States and its allies confronted Hitler earlier, had we acted sooner to stymie his evil designs, the 51 million lives needlessly lost during that war could have been saved," he said. "Just as leaders and diplomats who appeased Hitler at Munich in 1938 stand humiliated before history, so will we if we appease Saddam Hussein today."

After the Democrats gained control of Congress in 2006, Rep. Lantos became increasingly critical of the direction of the war in Iraq and called for large withdrawals of U.S. troops. He also held more than a dozen hearings on the situation.

Political scientist Bruce E. Cain of the University of California at Berkeley said Rep. Lantos's long alliance with Republicans on the war made him politically vulnerable at home.

"Lantos was able to have a very hawkish position on foreign policy because in every other dimension he was completely in sync with the peninsula constituents," said Cain, who is also executive director of the Washington campus of the University of California system.

Throughout his tenure, Rep. Lantos was a reliable supporter of Israel in Middle East peace talks and denounced Saudi Arabia for its alleged role in financing terrorists.

Yet he also described himself as "passionately committed to having a dialogue with people we disagree with," including Moammar Gaddafi of Libya. The North African leader long faced U.S. sanctions for his sponsorship of terrorist operations, including the plan that downed Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988.

Gaddafi made overtures to the West in the early 2000s, saying he was ready to abandon nuclear, biological and chemical weapons programs. In 2004, Rep. Lantos was among the first members of Congress to visit Libya in decades, and he reported back that it was time to make initial steps toward normalizing relations with Tripoli by lifting the travel ban. (In 2006, the State Department rescinded Libya's designation as a state sponsor of terrorism, leading to further contacts between the two countries.)

Rep. Lantos was co-chairman and founder of the Congressional Human Rights Caucus, a group that highlights human rights violations around the world. Early on, he provided a public platform in the United States for the Dalai Lama by inviting him to Capitol Hill to meet members of the caucus, founded in 1983.

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