Jimmy Carter photo

Boston, Massachusetts Remarks at the Annual Convention of the American Legion.

August 21, 1980

National Commander Frank Hamilton, fellow Legionnaires, fellow Americans:

It's a real honor to address this wonderful convention representing more than 2.7 million American veterans. The American Legion, of which my father was also a member, having helped organize American Legion Post II in Americus, is a very important organization to me and a very proud and rapidly growing organization.

As I was preparing my remarks, I tried to think of the difference between my father's attendance at American Legion conventions and my own coming here to make a speech. One obvious difference is that my father used to have a lot more fun at the conventions than I do these days. [Laughter]

Yours is one of the proudest organizations and rightly so. The American Legion embodies the traditions of the citizen-soldier, the ideals of patriotic service equally dedicated to the duties of war and to the challenges of peace—both extremely difficult tasks for patriotic and enlightened Americans.

As President, I'm conscious of your service, and I'm conscious of our Nation's debt to veterans, and I have full confidence in Max Cleland, the director of the Veterans Administration, to serve you well. He and I have worked hard to meet the needs of veterans. Pension benefits, as well as compensation for veterans who are disabled in the service of our country, will increase by more than a third during my first term. I noticed that Max said that for disabled veterans the increases will approach 40 percent in the short period of time.

The Veterans Administration continues to provide more and better health services, particularly in the critical areas of out-patient and long-term care. And we've initiated a psychological counseling program for Vietnam era veterans. We already have 91 centers under this program all across the country. They are well attended, growing, being used, reaching thousands of young veterans who, until now, have felt that they had no place to turn. Also, the Veterans Administration and the Department of Labor are concentrating their work to increase employment among veterans, particularly through the Disabled Veterans Outreach program, which has successfully helped thousands of disabled Vietnam era veterans to find jobs.

Max Cleland bas especially dedicated his effort to helping disabled veterans, and we have not had to lower standards at all to match their performance in their new jobs. And I can promise you that we'll continue to improve the services rendered to veterans throughout this country.

Today, as in the past, America needs your service, your commitment, your courage, and your common sense. While our country demands these qualities from all of us, you veterans who have offered your lives for our Nation's honor and survival in the past have an extra incentive to fight to secure peace for Americans today and peace for Americans in the future.

The surest guarantee of that peace today is an American military force strong enough for now and for tomorrow. All of us—myself, the American Congress, you, and other citizens—are making the hard and sometimes costly choices that ensure that American strength remains not only unsurpassed for the present but equal to all our needs in the future.

This morning, as Commander in Chief, I want to talk to you very briefly and very frankly about some of the problems that we face, some of the achievements that we've had, some of the uncertainties about the future, and how you can help. As Commander in Chief of America's Armed Forces, working with the Congress, I have the final responsibility for making those difficult choices. They are critical choices. They are far from simple. I need your support and your understanding based on experience in the Armed Forces in understanding the real choices that we face in defense and in the broader realm of national security policy.

Our goals, simple but profound: security, honor, and peace. Those are the victories we seek for ourselves, for our children, and for our children's children. These victories can be won, but not by nostalgic nor wishful thinking, and not by bravado. They cannot be won by a futile effort either to run the world or to run away from the world. Both of these are dangerous myths that cannot be the foundation for any responsible national policy.

America requires the authority and the strength—and the moral force—to protect ourselves, to provide for the defense of our friends, and to promote the values of human dignity and well-being that have made our own Nation strong at home and respected abroad. To this end, our national security policy has four specific objectives.

First, to prevent war, through the assurance of our Nation's strength and our Nation's will. In this we will not fail.

Second, to share with our friends and allies the protection of industrial democracies of Europe and Asia. In this we will not fail.

Third, to safeguard and to strengthen our vital links to the nations and the resources of the Middle East. In this we will not fail.

And fourth, to defend America's vital interests if they are threatened anywhere in the world. And in this we will not fail.

All of these objectives require America's great military strength. But arms alone cannot provide the security within which our values and our interests can flourish. Our foreign policy must be directed toward greater international stability, without which there is no real prospect for a lasting peace. Thus, our strength in arms—very important—must be matched by creative, responsible, and courageous diplomacy.

We have as a nation that strength and that courage now to present clearly to potential adversaries as well as to our allies. We must continue to build wisely for a future when our patience and persistence will be taxed by challenges perhaps even more diverse and even more dangerous than those that we've seen in recent years. In planning for that future we must have the foresight to accept the reality of change. Americans have never feared change. We must prepare for what we cannot completely predict—there is no way for any nation or any person to know what might happen next—and to know with certainty the objectives that we intend to reach and to hold.

For the sake of all humanity, we must prevent nuclear war. To do so requires the most modern strategic forces based on America's superior technology. Our country has always been in the forefront of new developments, new ideas, new technology, new systems for defense. The decisions that we make today, some of them highly secret, will affect the risks of nuclear war well into the next century.

Like our weapons, our diplomacy must also be aimed at enhancing strategic stability. Thus far in my administration we've strengthened every single element of our strategic deterrent, and we have also worked to enhance strategic stability through world peace and through negotiation of mutual and balanced limits on strategic arms. And I'm thankful to the American Legion for your support of that effort to control nuclear weapons.

We could have spent more money on our strategic forces, but we would not have spent it as wisely. We could have placed our chips on the B-1 bomber, which would have been in service quickly, and obsolete almost as quickly. In order to capitalize on advanced American technology and to deal with predictable improvements in Soviet air defense capabilities, I decided instead, after close consultation with the Secretary of Defense and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to accelerate the development of cruise missiles.

Four years ago there was no program for long-range air-launched cruise missiles. This year, in a very quick period of time, we will actually begin production of those kinds of missiles. Because of their accuracy and because of their ability to penetrate Soviet air defense systems, they represent a far more effective deterrent than would have the B-1 bomber. We needed the right answer for the long run, and Soviet air defense capabilities, as known today, and U.S. technological developments, as known today, have proven this answer to be the right one.

Similarly, we could have decided, and some still propose, to resume production of land-based intercontinental missiles and simply build more vertical silos to house them. But that solution would not have increased our strategic strength, because the new missiles in fixed silos would have been just as vulnerable as the old ones to the predictable improvement in the accuracy of Soviet missile systems. Instead, we conducted a searching evaluation of our real and responsible choices, and I chose to go forward with the MX missile program.

Four years ago, there was no known solution to the increasing vulnerability of fixed silos. Today, we've devised a mobile system for basing these missiles that will really shelter them from attack. The MX will be ready to strengthen our strategic defenses just when we need that added strength. And I might point out to you that the total area covered by the MX system from which civilians, newsmen and others, would be excluded, only would comprise 25 square miles, a block of land in our whole country just 5 miles on a side. And the total cost of the MX mobile missile system, in constant dollars, would be less than the B-52 bomber system, less than the Minuteman missile system, and less than the combined cost of the Poseidon and the Polaris submarine-launched missile systems.

At sea, as well, we've altered the wayward course that we were steering in 1977. We've put the Trident missile system and the Trident submarine programs back on track. The U.S.S. Ohio, the first Trident submarine, is about to begin sea trials. Its sister ship, the U.S.S. Michigan, is ready to be launched, and five more Tridents are under construction.

And finally, in this combined system, let me mention that we've made steady progress in a less visible and less dramatic but crucially important area of our strategic forces, and that is the system of command and control to ensure that they and the communications associated with them can survive a crisis, a peremptory, unexpected attack or a major conflict. This has been an area of our defense system which has been too long overlooked and neglected in the past.

All these steps add up to a prudent and a forward-looking program for enhancing our strategic forces and the credibility of our deterrent. In order to keep those forces adequate for the future, we continue to work on new aircraft and on new technology and weapons of all kinds that will be equal to any threats that may arise in the next decade or beyond.

Our strategy, now modernized to take advantage of Soviet planning and Soviet attitudes, must leave them no room for the illusion that they can obtain any advantage over the United States of America by the use of their force. And we will keep our forces that strong and that clearly dominant.

Recently there's been a great deal of press and public attention paid to a Presidential directive that I have issued, known as PD-59. As a new President charged with great responsibilities for the defense of this Nation, I decided that our Nation must have flexibility in responding to a possible nuclear attack—in responding to a possible nuclear attack. Beginning very early in my term, working with the Secretaries of State and Defense and with my own national security advisers, we have been evolving such an improved capability. It's been recently revealed to the public in outline form by Secretary of Defense Harold Brown. It's a carefully considered, logical, and evolutionary improvement in our Nation's defense capability and will contribute to the prevention of a nuclear conflict.

No potential enemy of the United States should anticipate for one moment a successful use of military power against our vital interest. This decision will make that prohibition and that cautionary message even more clear. In order to ensure that no adversary is even tempted, however, we must have a range of responses to potential threats or crises and an integrated plan for their use.

Equally vital for our strategic purposes is the pursuit of nuclear arms control and balanced reduction of nuclear arsenals in the world. Just as we build strategic forces equal to our needs, we seek through negotiated agreements to keep unnecessary competition from carrying us into a purposeless and dangerous nuclear arms race to the detriment of our Nation's security and to the detriment of the adequate strength of our conventional and other forces. We will continue to make every responsible effort to bring our forces and those of any potential foe under strict, balanced, and verifiable controls, both in the quantity of strategic arms and in their quality.

I want to make clear that if an unlimited nuclear arms race should be forced upon us, we will compete and compete successfully. Let no one doubt that for a moment. But to initiate such a dangerous and costly race, abandoning our efforts for nuclear weapons control, would be totally irresponsible on our part.

The destructive power of the world's nuclear arsenals is already adequate for total devastation. It does no good to increase that destructive power in search of a temporary edge or in pursuit of an illusion of absolute nuclear superiority. To limit strategic nuclear weapons, as the SALT treaties do, is not to reduce our strength, but to reduce the danger that misunderstanding and miscalculation could lead to a global catastrophe. This is a course that has been pursued by the last six Presidents, both Democratic and Republican. To go beyond the reductions that were outlined in SALT II treaty, as I firmly intend to do, is to advance the stability on which genuine peace can be built.

Stability in the strategic area, however, leaves us still to meet serious challenges now and in the future in Europe, in the Far East, the Middle East, and in Southwest Asia. We must understand those challenges in order to deal with them prudently and responsibly. We do not need massive standing armies in place everywhere in the world to defend our friends and our interests. But we do need and we and our allies are acquiring the skilled, modernized, specially equipped conventional forces that can respond fast and effectively to crises and threats before they engulf us in larger conflicts.

With NATO in Europe, for example, we do not need overwhelming tank forces. We and our allies do not plan to start a war on the European continent. What we do need and what we will maintain are the weapons to repulse any force that seeks or threatens the domination of Europe. After years of neglect during the Vietnam war, we have led NATO's commitment to the deterrent levels of strength it actually needs. The Long-Term Defense Program to which we are now all committed, a 15-year program, will add $85 billion to NATO's fighting strength over the next decade or so and will permit the Alliance to meet any real threat to Europe's security and to our own. This is a major step forward in the closer coordination among ourselves and our allies and a restoration of the spirit of NATO that is crucial to the defense of Europe and to the security of our own country. It must be continued, and it will be continued.

Reversing a long, downward trend in real defense expenditures, above and beyond inflation, we have had real growth for the last 4 years, and we will continue this commitment during the years ahead. That is a promise that I make to you, and that is a promise that the Congress of the United States has also confirmed. We will not permit us to take a downward trend, as was the case during the 8 years before I became President.

A very significant development was the NATO decision last December to modernize theater nuclear forces in Europe, a direct response to the Warsaw Pact buildup of the last 10 years with their SS-20 medium-range missile and others similar to it. This is a vital part of our commitment. It was very difficult politically for some of the European nations to agree to take this major step. The Soviets used every possible propaganda that they could marshal. But our efforts and those of our allies were successful.

In the Pacific and in East Asia, our alliances and our military strengths are firm and they're adequate. We have the military presence on land and at sea to ensure that no would-be aggressor can profit at the expense of ourselves or our friends from any upheaval in that region. Sustained, normal relations with China are very important and improve the prospects for a stable and a peaceful future in Asia.

You of the American Legion have pledged at this convention to the cause of Cambodian relief. It's important that we Americans show the world the strength of American compassion and concern. I applaud your decision to alleviate human suffering and to help the cause of peace in Southeast Asia.

In the most volatile and vital area to our security, the Persian Gulf and Southwest Asia, we're taking additional steps to protect our vital interests. The security of the region and the crucial energy that it supplies to us and other nations are both now exposed to the new threat of Soviet forces in Afghanistan, which have turned that country from its former status as a buffer state into a wedge pointed at the sealanes of the Persian Gulf and to the rich oil deposits. To deter any further encroachment of Soviet power in this region, we must help to strengthen the resolve and the defenses of the countries there.

We are continuing to build up our own forces in the Indian Ocean and in the adjacent areas and to arrange to use facilities on land which we might need to aid our friends in the region in case of conflict and primarily to prevent the need for conflict. We've speeded up formation of a mobile force of up to 100,000 personnel that could be rapidly deployed to any area where sudden trouble loomed and needed to be met. We've arranged to put supplies and equipment for such a force in place ahead of time so they will be there when and if they're needed.

Most of all, in the Middle East, we've pursued the arduous, difficult, frustrating but absolutely essential cause of peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors. The real security of that crucial area of the world depend heavily on the force with which we promote stability and political compromise to avoid the outbreak of conflict. It's crucial that our Nation use all its influence to prevent a fifth Middle East war. The Camp David accords and the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaties that followed them were two extraordinary steps on a long road that until 1978 no one had been able to travel.

In the real world we know that we cannot expect miracles on the Middle East peace negotiations. The issues are too emotional. The difficulties are too great. The obstacles sometimes appear to be insurmountable. But I'm convinced that Israel wants peace, and I'm convinced that the Egyptians want peace, and I'm equally as convinced that those who live in Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, and the Palestinians all want peace. We know that our own future peace makes this work very important, and it's work that must be continued.

At home, over intense opposition, as you know, but with great help from the American Legion, we have won the fight for peacetime draft registration. We need the ability to mobilize quickly and effectively, and we have shown our resolve to both friend and foe alike.

It should be clear to everyone who studies national security or defense that our work to keep America the strongest nation in the world is not finished. There are no laurels on which to rest. There are no victories which are final. There are no challenges which have disappeared magically. But we've resumed a firm and steady course of diplomacy and defense preparedness to lead our allies and our friends and ourselves with confidence toward the challenges facing the world of today and the world of tomorrow.

The independence, the security, and the development of the countries of the Third World, the small nations, the new nations, the developing nations, the nonaligned nations, are also very important to our national security. Violence and radical revolution thrive in an atmosphere of political repression, economic want, massive unemployment, and hunger. Our interest is served when the countries of the developing world are able to meet the needs and aspirations of their people peacefully, democratically, and through cooperation with the United States of America and the other Western nations.

In helping them to achieve these objectives, we are encouraging democracy, yes, but we are also strengthening our ability to compete effectively with the Soviet Union. Those who are most concerned about Soviet activism in the world should be the strongest supporters of our foreign aid programs designed to help the moderate transition from repressive tyranny to democratic development and to bolster the strength and independence of our friends.

We've revived in this administration the policy that gives added purpose to our Nation's strength: our whole-hearted, national commitment to promote the universal standards of human rights. Freedom for ourselves is not enough. Americans want to see other people enjoy freedom also. It's an unswerving commitment of our Nation, and as long as I'm in the White House, it'll be a major part of our international policy.

We do not maintain our power in order to seize power from others. Our goal is to strengthen our own freedom and the freedom of others, to advance the dignity of the individual and the right of all people to justice, to a good life, and to a future secure from tyranny. In choosing our course in the world, America's strength must be used to serve America's values.

The choices ahead are every bit as demanding as the ones we've already .made. Facing them takes a clear understanding of where we are and where we want to go as a nation. Responding to dangers that might menace our future security also will measure America's common sense and courage, just as previous history has measured America's common sense and courage.

I've known America's courage by seeing it tested. I've seen it in the men who went to Iran to attempt so valiantly in an isolated desert to rescue their fellow Americans who are still held hostage there. I saw it in the families of the men who died in that effort, and I've seen it in the families with whom I've met as frequently as possible of the citizens who are still held captive in Iran. What a nation we are to produce such men and women. All Americans are thankful to them.

And finally let me say that our country also has the courage to reject the easy illusions of something for nothing, the fantasy goals of strength without sacrifice, the irresponsible advocacy of shortcut economics and quick-fix defense policy. There are no magic answers. Easy solutions are very difficult to find. Courage, sometimes quiet courage, unpublicized courage, is the most to be appreciated.

I see this kind of courage in you, as veterans who have served and sacrificed already, but who still work continuously for the sake of service, not for recognition or reward. Your example strengthens my faith in our Nation and in the future of our Nation. With your help and with your courage and with your common sense, I know America will continue to to be a nation of unmatched strength, a nation that faces the world as it is today and works with realism to bring to the world of the future freedom, peace, and justice.

Thank you very much.

Note: The President spoke at 11 a.m. at the John B. Hynes Veterans Auditorium.

Jimmy Carter, Boston, Massachusetts Remarks at the Annual Convention of the American Legion. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/251832

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