Commander Cart and Mrs. Reid, all of the very distinguished guests here on the platform, the Governor of the State, and the mayor of this city, the Members of the House and Senate: who are here--some from Louisiana and some from all over the Nation all the former commanders of this organization, the vice commanders who automatically become commanders, all of you:
I do want you to know that it is a very great privilege for me to speak again before a convention, or an encampment, I should say, of the Veterans of Foreign Wars.
In that connection, I was thinking a moment ago that, of the public figures in America today, I have probably spoken before more meetings of this type of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, your national conventions, than anybody in public life, and I am proud to have done so.
Now, on this card, and on this one which has three parts to it, they have given me the names of the people I am supposed to mention who are on the platform, but they have all been introduced, so I am going to mention them in a group. And by mentioning them in a group, I can also bring all of you in with them, those of you who are members of our fine organization, my comrades, and those who are members of the women's auxiliary. By what I say now, you will understand why there was a relationship between the members of this organization and those who are the Members of the House and Senate who are here on the platform.
I shall not refer to all of them. I am just looking down this list from Louisiana, for example, and I see, of course, Senator Russell Long, a very powerful Senator, one of the most brilliant men in the United States Senate, the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee.
In fact, if you go down the list of Senators and Congressmen from Louisiana that are here today, you probably have no State in the Union that has more powerful representation and more effective representation than the State of Louisiana.
Going to the Congressional side, I see the name Edward Hebert. Eddie Hebert and I served in the House of Representatives many years ago, participated in an investigation together. I learned his brilliance. I also became very. much impressed by his strong, vigorous patriotism, and now to have him as chairman of the Armed Services Committee in the House, he is not only one of the most powerful men but a strong man in every respect.
I see another name, Otto Passman. He is my strong right arm. Now, actually, he is in charge of foreign aid, and I realize that many people will say, well, he is the guy that gives money away. Well, let me tell you, if it gets by Passman, it is worth spending. And that is why, whether the President is a Democrat or a Republican, Otto Passman is the man we rely upon, because we know that he is looking after the taxpayer and also looking after the interests of the United States of America abroad.
And so, that is an indication of some of those who are here. I could go on. I would not want to miss Lindy Boggs Lindy Boggs, of course, whose husband was the majority leader, and who now serves in his place in the House of Representatives. But if I were to go on and then begin to pick up the old friends from other parts of the country, from the House and the Senate, it would take too long.
Simply let me say this: There is one characteristic of the Members of the House and of the Senate from Louisiana, and the others here, like Bryan Dorn, an old friend, from other States that you have in common, you of the VFW and the auxiliary, with them. There is no party line that divides this organization or divides them when national security is concerned.
As a matter of fact, saying that about the delegation from Louisiana, there is not much of a line anyway. We have only one Republican, and he is a freshman. But nevertheless, the point that I make is this: that these days the party you belong to does not seem to make a lot of difference, which is perhaps what it should be. The important thing is that when the great votes come up, the votes that determine whether we are going to have a strong America, whether or not we are going to be a responsible nation, the delegation from Louisiana, the other Congressmen and Senators that are here, stand strong and firm behind any President, Democrat or Republican, and that is what you want in your representation in the House of Representatives.
I said that also characterizes this organization, and believe me, it does. I remember some of the hard decisions we had, decisions over the past 4 years, decisions that were necessary in order to bring us to the place that we finally do have peace with honor. And I remember once very early in my term in 1969, in the fall, when there were 350,000 demonstrators marching on the White House, and I sat there wondering if we had any friends. A delegation came in from the VFW, including the national commander. and they said, "You didn't call us, but we just wanted you to know we are with you," and that is always the way with the VFW. I don't call you; ,you come in.
Now, I want to say a word to Mrs. Reid about the Peace Award, which, I understand, is the first time this award has been given. It may not be given annually, and that, of course, makes it even more, of course, impressive from the standpoint of the recipient. I can only say that there is no award that a President of the United States would more cherish than a peace award from those who know what war is--the wives, the mothers of those who served their country in America's wars. And Mrs. Reid, the words that you spoke and, Commander [Patrick E.] Carr, the words that you spoke will remain with me always, remain with me, because I realize that here in this great hall are people who, because they have fought in war, loved peace the more. Thank God for what you do and what you stand for.
I have spoken to the Veterans of Foreign Wars on several occasions since I have been President, and I am proud that this is the first time I have spoken to you when the United States is at peace with every nation in the world. It is a good time--a good time.
It is also rather an ironic time for those who follow the Washington scene, as some of you must. We find that some of the politicians and some of the members of the press who enthusiastically supported the administration which got us into Vietnam 10 years ago, or were silent when the decisions were made that got us in, now are criticizing what I did to get us out. Well, let me say. getting us out of the war took a lot of doing, and I am proud of what we have done. I would like to talk to you about that today as to how we accomplished that goal. Because you see, my friends, I think the time has come before this organization to answer those who criticize the policies which helped to bring Americans peace with honor in Vietnam.
Now. specifically, as some of you know, the President of the United States has been accused of a secret bombing campaign against the defenseless and neutral country of Cambodia in 1969. That was 2 months after I became President. I want to tell you the facts about that, what happened, and let you judge for yourself what kind of a decision you would have made as Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces of the United States at that time. I remember the meeting in which that decision was made. Mr. Laird, who was then Secretary of Defense, remembers: he was there. Henry Kissinger, to whom you will give an award tonight, remembers it; he was there. The chairman of the CIA was there. The Secretary of State, Secretary Rogers, was there. And we looked over what was, to us, a totally indefensible position. Here is what we found when I came into office:
Three hundred Americans were being killed every week in Vietnam: 540,000 Americans were in Vietnam with no plan at all to bring any of them home. Over 500 were prisoners of war under the most cruel anti barbarous conditions--and no plans and no hope for any of them to be returned home. That was what we found. So we decided to do something about it.
Incidentally, in pointing out what we found, I am not criticizing previous Presidents. I am not criticizing the decisions that they felt were in the national interest that had to be made, they felt, in Vietnam. i am simply saying this is what we found, and we had to find a way to bring the war to a conclusion, but to bring it to a conclusion in a way that the United States would still be respected in the world, and that meant rejecting the views of those who said just bug out. We could have bugged out of Vietnam. If we bugged out of Vietnam, we would not be worth talking to anyplace in the world today. We have got to maintain the respect of America throughout the world.
Now, we come to Cambodia. All of you, particularly the young people here who study the maps of these areas, know this country is right on the border of Vietnam. When I took office, again in 1969 at this meeting that took place, we found that there was a strip of land 10 to 15 miles wide in which there were no Cambodians whatever. It was totally occupied by the enemy, the North Vietnamese. They had overrun the entire border area.
The native Cambodian population had been evacuated or driven out, and along a 10-mile strip on the Cambodian side of the border, sometimes 15, a network of supply lines anti training bases had been established, and the bulk of some 40,000 troops were there. That is what the CIA reports show, and that is what also the reports of our own military, as they examined the situation there, show.
And so, what we find is the situation that we are referring to back there in 1969, so long ago when this war was at its height, when we were trying to do something to bring it to an honorable end, was that it was not the United States, but the North Vietnamese Communists who violated the neutrality of Cambodia.
The suggestion that these staging areas for enemy troops, supplies, and artillery a few thousand yards from American troops were what we call neutral territory, exempt from counterattack or bombing, is simply ludicrous. The Communists had made a mockery of the neutrality of these border regions. The United States was under no moral obligation to respect the sham.
By January of 1969, these enemy-occupied sanctuaries were no more neutral territory than was northern France or Belgium in the late spring of 1944 when those territories were occupied by the Germans.
And so, it was in February of 1969 when the North Vietnamese responded to President Johnson's 3-month-old bombing halt and peace initiative with a country wide offensive in the South in which hundreds of Americans were killed every week, and thousands every month.
After this meeting that I have just spoken to, I made the decision. I ordered American air power employed directly and continually against the enemy-occupied base areas from which Communist soldiers bad been attacking and killing American soldiers.
And so today, there is great anguish and loud protests from the usual critics, "Why did the United States make a secret attack on tiny Cambodia?" Of course, this is absurd. These strikes were not directed at the Cambodian army or the Cambodian people; they were directed at the North Vietnamese invaders who, at that time, had occupied this area within Cambodia and were killing Americans from this area.
This is the significant thing: The Cambodian Government did not object to the strikes.
In fact, while they were in progress in the spring of that year, Prince Sihanouk, then the leader of the Cambodian Government, personally invited me very warmly to make a state visit to the Cambodian capital. This is after the strikes had been going on for a long time. That is a pretty good indication of what he thought about what we were doing.
Now, as for secrecy, as I have already indicated, the fact that the bombing was disclosed to appropriate Government leaders, the ones I just referred to, and to appropriate Congressional leaders, those in the military affairs committee like Eddie Hebert--what is most important, and here is the bottom line, soon after this bombing started, early in this Administration, there began a steady decline finally in American casualties along the Cambodian border, and the enemy was provided with one more incentive to move to the conference table, which they began to do. The secrecy was necessary to accomplish these goals--secrecy from the standpoint of making a big public announcement about it, although there was no secrecy as far as Government leaflets were concerned, who had any right to know or need to know.
Had we announced the airstrikes, the Cambodian Government would have been compelled to protest, the bombing would have had to stop, and American soldiers would have paid the price for this disclosure and this announcement with their lives.
My comrades, let me just read you a letter. The President gets a lot of very moving letters during and after any period of war. This is from the father of a soldier who served along the Cambodian-Vietnamese border back in 1969.
He said, "Dear Mr. President: Back in early 1969,"--and I have his letter he wrote then, too "I wrote to you requesting that you allow the bombing of the supply routes in North Vietnam and Cambodia. I wrote to you because my son Douglas, who was with the 4th Infantry Division near Kontum, complained to us in his letters about all the materials and men the North was shipping in from Cambodia.
"... When my son was killed on March 7, 1969, I felt you let him and the other troops down by not allowing these supply lines to be bombed.
"Today I read where . . . you did approve the bombing early in 1969 . . . I now believe the Lord led you to make a proper decision in this matter, and I sincerely feel your action saved many lives and shortened that dreadful war."
Just let me add a postscript to that letter. If American soldiers in the field today were similarly threatened by an enemy and if the price of protecting those soldiers was to order airstrikes to save American lives, I would make the same decision today that I made in February of 1969.
Of course, we have had other complaints, too, the post mortems on what happened.
You remember the huge outcry when I ordered the mining of Haiphong in May of 1972. It was going to bring on world war Ill. We did it. What it brought on was the negotiation that helped to finally end the war. And you remember that at Christmas of last year, this was a terribly difficult decision--December 18--when I ordered the use of B-52's against Hanoi, military targets only, those were the targets, and there was a great outcry then that this was a wrong decision on the part of the President. And I don't say that all the decisions are right, but just let me say this: when I wonder about those decisions and I wonder what was wrong and what was right, I recall a very young man--to me he seemed very young--who came through a receiving line in May at a reception we gave for 600 POW's after they had returned. The line moved rather fast, and there was not much time to say much to any one of them. This one man said, "I would like to ask you a question, sir," and I said, "Go ahead." He said, "Why did you wait so long to order in the B-52's?"
All I can say is this: Whether it was that decision or any other one, the decisions were made in the interests of bringing this war to an honorable conclusion as quickly as possible, using the force that was necessary and no more than was necessary. And I say further that no future American President should ever send Americans into battle with one hand tied behind their backs.
But now we have been talking about war. Let me turn from war to peace. Let me turn to it in a way that may be of great interest to you, particularly again to those of you, the young people who still read history and perhaps remember it. I read it many years ago but find it more difficult to remember as time goes on. But you all remember Waterloo. and you all remember, of course, the great hero of Waterloo on the British, or allied, side, the Duke of Wellington, and people think of him only as a man of war. Of course, he had basically two careers. He was a great general, and then after that served as a prime minister for many, many years in Britain in the early 19th century. But in reading the biography of Wellington, it is interesting to note and this is something that I know that every person in this room will agree with--that after every battle. battles which he won he did not lose any--he had a feeling of depression. and the depression was because he had seen brave men die on both sides. Whether it was the battles in India he won or the Peninsular War. The Lowlands or Waterloo, there was always that feeling, but it was in Waterloo, and after Waterloo only. that immortal words were spoken by Wellington that I know will mean something to each one of us here as you give the President of the United States and I accept it as President for all Presidents who worked for peace because everyone wants peace. After the battle of Waterloo. and as Wellington looked over that field of battle, anti he saw the brave British soldiers and the Prussian soldiers from Blucher's army and Napoleon's soldiers lying there in the field, he said, there is only one thing worse than losing a battle, anti that is winning it.
Think about that a moment. What he is really saying is that war is an answer to no problems, and winning a war, even in that time when war would not have destroyed civilization, left the winner feeling that there is only one thing worse than losing a war, and that is winning a war.
What I am saying here today to you is that as we finish the longest war in America's history with honor, as we look to the future. I want to pledge to the Veterans of Foreign Wars and to the American people that I am going to continue to work to build a lasting peace so that our children will not have the legacy that we have, a war every generation in this century--World War I, World War II, Korea, and then Vietnam. That is enough. What we have to do is to build a structure of peace for the whole world. I know that the big news as far as 1972 is concerned, and what immediately followed in January. of last year, was the ending of the war ill Vietnam. But other news was being made which is even more important in determining the future of this Nation for years and years to come and the future of peace in the world.
There was the first trip of a President of the United States to Moscow. There was, at the occasion of that trill. the negotiation of many agreements. but a nuclear arms control agreement, and then another one this year, the beginning of a long process of negotiation rather than confrontation between two super powers, each of which has the total strength within itself to destroy the other, but will not do so without recognizing that to make that decision is a decision for international suicide. That is what war has become.
There was, also looking to the future, last year another trip, a trip to Peking, the first time a President has gone there. And as we look at Peking and we think of the fact that % years from now these young people sitting here will be as old as we are, 25 years from now, one billion of the ablest people in the world are going to be living there, and because they are able, they will be a super power if they want to be, militarily and economically.
It is essential that the steps be taken now to see to it that we build the structure of peace so the United States will not be in confrontation with the Soviet Union or with the People's Republic of China.
And then there are other parts of this great spectrum that a President must think of. This is a year in which we are working with our European allies and our friends around the world, because--remember this you don't win new friends by betraying old friends, because new friends are not going to trust you if you betray your old friends. So, the United States is maintaining its alliances, we are shoring them up at the same time that we are negotiating with those who are the potential adversaries or were our potential adversaries a short time ago.
I mention these things simply to give you an idea of what we are trying to do to be worthy of this Peace Award that Mrs. Reid has so graciously presented on behalf of the Ladies Auxiliary.
Peace, not just in the sense of ending a long and difficult war, but peace in the sense of a whole open world where people with different philosophies can live together, discuss, negotiate, argue, but not engage in war which would be totally destructive of civilization as we know it, at this point. That is our goal.
Now, one final point I would make is this: If that kind of peace is to be attained, it will only be attained if the United States plays the major role from the standpoint of the free nations, because there is no one else to do it. The Europeans can't do it. They don't have the strength. And there is no nation in Asia or Africa or Latin America that has the strength to play that role.
And so, if we are going to be able to negotiate this era of peace, we have to have a United States that has a military strength second to none. We have to have a United States that is respected around the world, respected because we stand by our commitments. And we have to have a United States that has the character and the vision to play this great role and to play it for many years to come, and that is not easy.
My friends in the House and the Senate will tell you today that many of their colleagues, good and decent men--but, I think, mistaken men and women--are calling for huge cuts in our defense budget, withdrawal of our forces from Europe regardless of what the other side does, cutting back on our nuclear capabilities regardless of what the Soviet Union does. My friends, let me tell you what would happen.
Right now, we are negotiating with the Soviet Union, for example, to limit nuclear arms. We are going to have in--as a matter of fact, the negotiations begin in October, in the latter part--we are negotiating for a reduction of forces in Europe, but unless in a negotiation you have something to give, you are not going to get anything.
And so I say, let the people of the United States not listen to the unilateral disarmers that would make the United States the second strongest nation in the world.
I pledge to you our power will never be used in aggression. It will be used only to serve the cause of peace and the cause of freedom. As far as our strength is concerned, we will be willing to negotiate and we can negotiate a reduction of the limitation of arms. But my friends, the hope of the world for peace, the hope of 200 million Americans and 3 billion people in this world, it rests in America--a strong America--strong in its military defenses, but also strong in its vision and its will to act like a great nation in a period when we are very tired of the burdens we have carried abroad, particularly after Vietnam and Korea.
I can only say the stakes are high. We could cop out, as many suggest in the House and the Senate and in the press-many, not all. We could cop out from our responsibilities in the world. We could cut back our forces. We could quit playing a great role in the world. But if we do, then our children will live in a very dangerous war, and no future President will have much of a chance to get a peace award.
And so I say to my friends here in this audience, all of you, whether members of our organization or guests, that I proudly accept the Peace Award and hope that I personally can be worthy of it, but more important, I hope and I pray that America can be worthy of it, that in these years ahead a strong America and a strong people will lead the way to a generation of peace and one that will lead us even to a century of peace beyond that time.
It can be done. That is our goal. And with your help, believe me, we will reach that goal.