Jimmy Carter photo

Address to the American Legion Convention in Seattle, Washington

August 24, 1976

It is a pleasure to appear here today before my fellow Legionnaires and to have this opportunity to discuss matters of common concern to us as veterans and as Americans.

I am, as you may know, a member of Legion Post 2 in Americus, Georgia, as was my father before me.

A tradition of military service runs deep in our family. My first ancestor to live in Georgia, James Carter, fought in the Revolutionary War. Almost a hundred years later, others fought in the War between the States, and my father, Earl Carter, served as a first lieutenant in the Army during the First World War.

Including my time at the U.S. Naval Academy, I spent 11 years in the Navy, most of my sea duty in submarines. I had the good fortune to serve under Admiral Rickover on the development of one of the first atomic submarines, and I have tried to carry over into my business career and my political life the high standards of dedication and competence that I learned from that remarkable military leader.

My son, Jack, continued our family's tradition in the military, but his service came in an era quite different from my own. Jack left college several years ago and volunteered to serve in Vietnam. He did so because he didn't think it was right for him to escape service simply because he had the money and the educational background to stay in college.

During the Second World War, and even during the Korean War, I always wore my uniform with immense pride, and it was a badge of honor among my civilian friends and neighbors.

That was not the case when Jack came home from Danang in 1969. He and the uniform he wore were all too often greeted with scorn and derision. Many of his friends told him he was a fool to risk his life in a meaningless war that couldn't be won.

Hundreds of thousands of Vietnam veterans were meeting that same bitter reception all over America, and I believe very strongly that those scenes, and the national mood they reflected, amount to nothing less than an American tragedy.

I believe in patriotism. I believe that people should love our country, and be proud of our country, and be willing to fight to defend our country. That is how you and I grew up—never doubting that ours was the greatest nation on earth, and getting, as Senator John Glenn once put it, a warm feeling inside us whenever the American flag passed by.

I know that your patriotism has been demonstrated not only in your military service, but in your work in community and national affairs, such as your outstanding "War on Cancer" fund drive. But we must recognize that for millions of our fellow Americans, patriotism is out of fashion, or is an object of scorn and jokes. That fact is part of the bitter heritage of an unpopular war.

I do not seek a blind or uncritical patriotism. Obviously, a government's policies must be deserving of public support. But in recent years, disagreement with our nation's policies too often became rejection of our nation itself. There is a great need for the next President to do everything in his power, by word and deed, to restore national pride and patriotism in our country—and if I am elected, that is what I intend to do.

I also believe in tradition. I was Governor of Georgia when Congress passed the law that changed the observation of Armistice Day away from the traditional date of November 11. I thought that action was unnecessary, insensitive, and offensive, and we kept November 11 as Armistice Day in Georgia.

I did not come here just to get your vote or endorsement, nor just to make a good impression on you. I come here as a nominee for President who has spent full-time the last 20 months learning about this country— what it is and what it ought to be.

I want to talk to you about some tough decisions—as veterans, yes, but also as Americans who are farmers and truckdrivers, doctors and lawyers, fathers and grandfathers, school teachers and civil servants, employed and unemployed, rich and poor.

We must maintain adequate military strength compared to that of our potential adversaries. This relative strength can be assured:

• by a commitment to necessary military expenditures;

• by elimination of waste, duplication among forces, excessive personnel costs, unnecessary new weapons systems, inefficient contracting procedures;

• and by a mutual search for peace so that armament levels can be reduced among nations, because the most important single factor in avoiding nuclear war is the mutual desire for peace among the superpowers.

I would never again see our country become militarily involved in the internal affairs of another country unless our own security was directly threatened. But it is imperative that the world know that we will meet obligations and commitments to our allies and that we will keep our nation strong.

We seek friendship with the unaligned and developing nations of the world. Many of them are weak and vulnerable, and they need allies who can contribute to their peace, security and prosperity. Yet we must remember that excessive foreign commitment can overtax our national ability. We must therefore be cautious in making commitments, but firm in honoring them.

I have spoken recently with many experts in national defense matters, and I believe we have, overall, adequate ability to defend ourselves, to meet obligations to our allies, and to carry out a legitimate foreign policy. But we must be constantly vigilant to recognize and correct adverse trends.

Our total American ground combat forces are less than half those of the Soviet Union, and the number of men under arms in that country has increased by a million while ours have decreased by I/2 million since 1968. During the same period the number of U.S. ships has been cut in half. For every tank we have, the Soviets have at least eight. Because of our greatly improved anti-tank weapons, this heavy Soviet investment in tanks may prove to have been an unwise investment.

Of course, there are counterbalancing factors of strength such as superior quality of our weapons, the relative security of our own borders, our more ready access to the sea, and the trustworthiness and military capability of our allies.

There is now, in my opinion, an overall rough equivalency in direct military strength. This balance must be maintained.

Yet, as we seek an adequate defense, we must face the fact that the very words "national security" have fallen into disrepute. I want to hear those words spoken with respect once again. Too often, those words are now viewed with scorn, because they have been misused by political leaders to hide a multitude of sins, and because they have been used to justify inefficiency and waste in our defense establishment

Whatever the price and whatever the pressures, the President must insist on a national defense posture that is lean and muscular and flexible.

It is sometimes said that the threat of war has receded. But in Europe, the Middle East, in northeast Asia, potential for conflict still exists, powerful armed forces are deployed, and Americans have recently been brutally killed. To deny that these situations pose a potential danger to peace is to turn away from reality.

Our military power must be continually reviewed. In Europe, NATO must increase its combat readiness and adapt its forces to new military technology, if it is to offset steady improvements in Warsaw Pact forces. In the eastern Mediterranean, strong U.S. naval power must be maintained. We must also assure a dose and confident defense relationship with South Korea and Japan.

We must maintain rough equivalency with the Soviet Union in strategic nuclear forces. Equally important, we and our allies must have conventional military capability adequate to reduce dependence on nuclear striking power. In a world where massive mutual devastation is the likely result of any use of nuclear weapons, such strategic forces cannot solely be relied upon to deter a vast range of threats to our interests and the interests of our allies.

We must always recognize that the best way to meet ideological threats around the world is to make our own democratic system work here at home.

The strongest defense grows out of a strong home front—out of patriotism. Our defense must come not only from our fighting forces, but from our people's trust in their leaders, from adequate transportation, energy, agriculture, science, employment, and, most of all, from the willingness of our people to make personal sacrifices for the sake of our nation. Not until we restore national unity can we have a truly adequate national defense.

Only then can we, in Theodore Roosevelt's phrase, speak softly but carry a big stick.

I recognize, of course, as you do, that it is not enough for the President to talk about patriotism and national security. He must take positive, aggressive action to ensure that our defense establishment is worthy of national respect. That calls for leadership, and it calls for management

In any given annual budget, now or in the future, there is a limited amount of money available for national defense. When any resources are wasted, our nation's security is weakened. We now have an excessive drain on defense funding from waste and unnecessary expenditures.

We must better coordinate long-range planning and budgeting among departments responsible for military, foreign, fiscal, economic, transportation and social affairs of our government. A spirit of cooperation must be restored.

Foreign aid must be consistent with our national purposes, and designed to strengthen our allies and friends and to fulfill humanitarian purposes. I'm tired of our taxing the poor people in our rich country and sending the money to the rich people in poor countries.

We must frankly and constantly assess the effectiveness of our present voluntary recruitment program. As unemployment drops and civilian jobs become more plentiful, it will be much more difficult to maintain our present military strength.

We must ensure that an oversized support establishment does not prevent us from maintaining needed combat force levels.

We must recognize that our military personnel are transferred too much. At any given moment, about one out of seven of those personnel is in the process of moving, or away from their family on temporary training duty. This year $2.5 billion will go simply to move service personnel, their families, television sets and furniture from one base to another. Such frequent moves not only eat up money, they undermine morale. If we extend the average tour of duty by just two months, we could save $400 million per year.

We need to reexamine our military training programs. Recent congressional hearings, by the way, revealed that we now have an average of one and a half military students for each instructor. By moving to a ratio of only three students to each instructor, we could save an estimated $1 billion per year.

Cost overruns have become chronic. The Pentagon itself estimates that the total current cost of overruns on the 45 weapons systems now in the process of development in the three services—exclusive of inflation—is $10.7 billion. Over the next five years, that would approximate the cost of the proposed B-l bomber program over the same period.

We need sound, tough management of the Pentagon not only to eliminate waste, but to ensure that force structures are correlated with foreign policy objectives. Tough management will mean that overlaps are eliminated between Pentagon programs and similar programs of civilian agencies. It will mean that we cooperate closely with our allies in our mutual defense, that our weapons systems are integrated with each other, technically and strategically, and that we put a stop to the dubious practice of arms giveaway programs for potential adversaries.

Ever since I was Governor of Georgia, when I attended National Guard training sessions every summer, I have been concerned that our reserve forces, both the regular reserve and the National Guard, do not play a strong enough role in our military preparedness. We need to shift toward a highly trained, combat-worthy reserve, well equipped and closely coordinated with regular forces—always capable of playing a crucial role in the nation's defense.

If we can get the flab out of the Pentagon's budget, I believe that the public will evaluate questions about weapons systems and force levels on their merits in a calm and rational manner. Our people will support an adequate defense establishment without complaint, so long as they know that their tax dollars are not being wasted.

The threat to our security comes not only from states that might be hostile. International terrorism knows no boundaries, recognizes no law of warfare, accepts no standards of conduct. It is brutality at its worst, the law of the jungle in its most primitive form.

Recently at Entebbe, the Israelis reaffirmed courageously the old principle that every state has a right to defend its citizens against brutal and arbitrary violence—violence that in this case was even based on collusion between the terrorists and a government.

The issue of international terrorism must be a priority item for the entire international community. If I become President, I intend to recommend strong multinational sanctions against guilty nations as a necessary and productive means of crushing this intolerable threat to international law and peace. International terrorism must be stopped once and for all!

In our own country, we must recognize that, in far too many cases, the Vietnam veteran has been a victim of governmental insensitivity and neglect. Large bureaucracies of the federal government have often been incompetent, inefficient, and unresponsive in their fulfillment of responsibilities to veterans. Each month, thousands of veterans are plagued with late delivery of badly needed benefit checks. Hundreds of millions of dollars of benefit payments have been improperly computed. The average VA hospital has only half the doctors and supporting personnel found in the average community hospital.

The poor record of the government bureaucracy has been especially bad in programs intended to help recent veterans to find jobs. In 1973 and 1974 Congress passed legislation requiring special consideration for veterans in public service jobs, in training programs, for jobs with federal contractors, and for jobs in the federal government. None of these requirements has been fully or effectively carried out

For example, despite the mandates of the law many federal departments and agencies have few disabled veterans or Vietnam veterans serving within them. It took the Labor Department 18 months to establish administrative guidelines to ensure the hiring of veterans. In 1975, 16 federal agencies failed even to submit required plans for hiring disabled veterans until congressional inquiries were begun.

The record of placement in private sector jobs and training has been no better. In 1975 more than two thirds of the 153,000 job training slots went unfilled, largely due to inadequate administrative procedures.

Yet last month, there were still 543,000 Vietnam veterans who had.no jobs.

The reason for this dismal record is dear:

It is a failure of leadership.

Sympathetic leadership would not submit—as did the present administration—a budget recommending cuts of ten percent or more to veterans' programs and denying cost of living protection to disabled veterans.

Concerned leadership would not have vetoed a bill overwhelmingly voted by Congress for higher education allowances, better work-study programs, more educational loans, and employment and training preferences for more than two million veterans.

Only because the Congress overrode this veto do Vietnam veterans enjoy some of the educational benefits they deserve.

I believe we need to address the needs of veterans, especially of Vietnam veterans, with sympathetic and active leadership rather than with vetoes and passive resistance. Men who have endured so much suffering, so bravely, fighting in a far-off land, should not now suffer anew in their own country at the hands of insensitive bureaucrats and indifferent politicians.

If I become President, the American veteran, of all ages, of all wars, is going to have a friend, a comrade and a firm ally in the White House. My administration will act to strengthen the competence, the responsiveness, and the independence of the Veterans' Administration. I will appoint the most capable administrators available, and I will insist on fair and sensitive treatment for veterans by every employee of the Executive Branch of government from top to bottom.

I would like to speak for a moment about the single hardest decision I have had to make during the campaign. That was on the issue of amnesty. Where I come from, most of the men who went off to fight in Vietnam were poor. They didn't know where Canada was, they didn't know where Sweden was, they didn't have the money to hide from the draft in college. Many of them thought it was a bad war, but they went anyway. A lot of them came back with scarred minds or bodies, or with missing limbs. Some didn't come back at all. They suffered under the threat of death, and they still suffer from the indifference of many of their fellow Americans. The Vietnam veterans are our nation's greatest unsung heroes.

I could never equate what they have done with those who left this country to avoid the draft.

But I think it is time for the damage, hatred and divisiveness of the Vietnam war to be over.

I do not favor a blanket amnesty, but for those who violated Selective Service laws, I intend to grant a blanket pardon.

To me, there is a difference. Amnesty means that what you did is right A pardon means that what you did—right or wrong—is forgiven. So, pardon— yes; amnesty—no.

For deserters, each case should be handled on an individual basis in accordance with our nation's system of military justice.

We may not all be able to agree about what was the right course for the nation to take in 1966. But we can now agree to respect those differences and to forget them. We can come together and seek a rebirth of patriotism in which all our citizens can join.

We must bind up our wounds. We simply cannot afford to let them fester any longer. The world is too dangerous. We cannot remain distracted from what must be our overriding aim. Our attention must turn to rebuilding the military, economic and spiritual foundations of a peaceful world order.

Those who most want peace, and who best understand the need for strength as a prerequisite for peace, are our past and present servicemen and their families. As a former submarine officer, I know that fact from experience.

I can still remember hearing Prerident Truman explain to the world that the atomic bomb had been dropped on Hiroshima. I was at sea in an old battleship in the North Atlantic. None of us had ever heard even a rumor of this quantum leap in destructive power. We had no way of comprehending the meaning of this new weapon which had been dropped on Japan. We were mainly relieved at the prospect that the need for invading Japan might be averted, thus saving what would surely have been the loss of hundreds of thousands of American and Japanese lives.

After we saw the destruction in Japan, for a while we understood the terrible havoc and devastation which would follow any use of nuclear weapons. But now we have a tendency to forget Even if a strategic nuclear war could remain "limited in nature," it would still involve the death of approximately ten million Americans. A so-called "limited nuclear war" in Europe could produce an even greater number of deaths. In an all-out nuclear war, 200 million Americans could die—virtually the entire population.

Obviously, such a holocaust is beyond our capacity even to imagine. Numbers like 10 million dead or 200 million dead seem unbelievable. But they are true.

The Duke of Wellington said in 1838: "A great country cannot wage a little war." In our time that doctrine has acquired new meaning. In a nuclear world, we cannot rely on little wars to prevent big wars. We must maintain our strength and use it to prevent all wars.

Our people have been shocked and hurt over and over again. Things which we used to take for granted are now subject to widespread doubt. Things like trust in our leaders, confidence in our institutions—even love and respect for the flag and support and appreciation for the men and women who defend the flag. But I believe there is no one in this country— certainly there is no one in this room—who does not want to heal our wounds and restore the precious qualities and the national strengths we seem to have lost.

I hope to play a role in that noble enterprise.

I hope you will help.

Thank you.

Jimmy Carter, Address to the American Legion Convention in Seattle, Washington Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/347644

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