Ronald Reagan picture

Radio Address to the Nation on Defense Spending

February 19, 1983

My fellow Americans:

This Monday will mark the 251st birthday of George Washington, the Father of our Country. Unlike Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, and most other famous Presidents, Washington was not a great orator or man of words. He was, above all, a man of action and character. His courage, firmness, and integrity first led a ragged, outnumbered army to triumph against the mightiest empire of his time and then guided our infant republic to maturity as the first President of the United States.

George Washington didn't say much, but when he did speak, as both a soldier and a statesman, what he said was worth listening to. As President, in his first annual address to the Congress, he offered a wise piece of advice on defense preparedness that is as timely today as it was when he uttered it nearly two centuries ago.

"To be prepared for war," George Washington said, "is the most effectual means of preserving the peace." When I reread this quote a few days ago, it brought to mind the current public debate over this administration's efforts to protect the peace by restoring our country's neglected defenses.

Now, I know that this is a hard time to call for increased defense spending. It isn't easy to ask American families who are already making sacrifices in the recession, or American businesses which are struggling to reinvest for the future, and it isn't easy for someone like me who's dedicated his entire political career to reducing government spending.

On the other hand, it's always very easy and very tempting politically to come up with arguments for neglecting defense spending in time of peace. One of the great tragedies of this century was that it was only after the balance of power was allowed to erode and a ruthless adversary, Adolf Hitler, deliberately weighed the risks and decided to strike that the importance of a strong defense was realized too late. That was what happened in the years leading up to World War II. And especially for those of us who lived through that nightmare, it's a mistake that America and the free world must never make again.

I want you to know that members of my administration and I have agonized over the current defense budget. We've trimmed back our plans for rebuilding defense by more than half. We've hunted for savings in nonessential programs. We've weighed economic risks and economic benefits. The defense budget we finally presented is a minimal budget to protect our country's vital interests and meet our commitments.

For those who wish to cut it back further, I have a simple question. Which interests and which commitments are they ready to abandon? Let me make just a few key points about our defense program.

First, we must develop a responsible and balanced understanding of the danger we face. Over the past 20 years, the Soviet Union has accumulated enormous military might, while we restrained our own efforts to the point where defense spending actually declined, in real terms, over 20 percent in the decade of the seventies.

Today, the Soviets out-invest us by nearly 2 to 1. Even with the defense increases of the past 2 years, they outproduce us substantially in almost every category of weapons. And in actions such as the brutal invasion and occupation of Afghanistan, they have demonstrated their willingness to use these weapons for aggression.

Finally, Soviet military power has spread around the globe, threatening our access to vital resources and our sea lines of communication, undermining our forward line of defense in Europe and Korea, and challenging us even at home, here in our own hemisphere.

We must face the facts. If we continue our past pattern of only rebuilding our defenses in fits and starts, we will never convince the Soviets that it's in their interests to behave with restraint and negotiate genuine arms reductions. We will also burden the American taxpayer time and again with the high cost of crash rearmament. Sooner or later, the bills fall due.

For instance, our land-based missiles were designed in the 1950's and installed in the sixties, and many of the pilots of our B-52 bombers are younger than the planes they fly. The fact is these past fits and starts in a decade of neglecting our defenses have left this administration, this Congress, and the American taxpayer stuck with double duty.

We had to act quickly to increase the basic readiness and staying power of our forces so that they could meet any immediate crisis if one arose. At the same time, we have to make up for lost years of investment by undertaking the research and development and the force modernization needed to meet crises that could arise in the future. We simply cannot afford [avoid] performing this double duty unless we're willing to gamble with our immediate security and pass on to future generations the legacy of neglect we inherited. That kind of neglect would only weaken peace and stability in the world, both now and in the years ahead.

I have lived through two world wars. I saw the American people rise to meet these crises, and I have faith in their willingness to come to their nation's defense in the future. But it's far better to prevent a crisis than to have to face it unprepared at the last moment. That's why we have an overriding moral obligation to invest now, this year, in this budget, in restoring America's strength to keep the peace and preserve our freedom.

Till next week, thanks for listening, and God bless you.

Note: The President spoke at 12:06 p.m. from the Oval Office at the White House.

Ronald Reagan, Radio Address to the Nation on Defense Spending Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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