Richard Nixon photo

Remarks at Armed Forces Day Ceremonies, Norfolk Naval Base, Virginia.

May 19, 1973

Admiral Plate, Governor Holton, Members of the Congressional delegation, and all of the distinguished guests here on the platform, and all of the distinguished people in this audience today on Armed Forces Day:

Beginning on a personal note, let me say that this is a very proud day for Mrs. Nixon, for me, for America, and for the State of Virginia.

As you might imagine, there were a number of suggestions made by the Defense Department as to where the President should go on Armed Forces Day. We selected Norfolk, Virginia, for reasons that all of you understand, and the State of Virginia, it seems to me, is a very appropriate place for us to celebrate this day, because it was at Yorktown, just a few miles from here, that the Armed Forces of the then very young country, the new United States, won the final victory that secured American independence. That happened in Virginia.

It was on this soil, and in the waters offshore, that some of the most epic battles of the War Between the States were waged. It was from this great port of Norfolk that fighting ships of the United States Navy have sailed the seas to the wars in crises of this century, most recently when ships like the Independence, which is behind us here, the Newport News, both of which served in the Gulf of Tonkin, and when the Guam joined the 6th Fleet during the Jordanian crisis 3 years ago.

Virginia has proudly been the home of some of America's greatest military commanders, from Washington to Robert E. Lee to the late "Sunny Jim" Vandergrift of the Marines who was buried with the highest honors at Arlington just a few days ago.

And Virginia today has the distinction of having more of its Senators and Representatives serving on the two Armed Services Committees in Congress than any State of this Union except one. That delegation includes four members who are with us today: Senator [Harry F.] Byrd, Senator [William L.] Scott, Congressman [Robert W.] Daniel, and Congressman Bill Whitehurst.

You can see why Governor Holton always speaks with such pride of Virginia's great tradition in the field of the Armed Services.

Now, what does Armed Forces Day mean? Let us think now not just in terms of this ship, not just in terms of the men and women who are serving here in our Armed Forces but in terms of America and the world, for the rulebook says that-I speak as one who many years ago was in the Navy. As a matter of fact, I had what I, looking back, found was a very, rather subordinate position. I was a lieutenant junior grade, and if you think a lieutenant junior grade is important, ask a Navy chief, and he will tell you how unimportant he is.

Well, the rulebook says that the men and women who wear the uniform of our country are supposed to salute the Commander in Chief, and of course, anyone who is elected President of the United States is the Commander in Chief. But on this day, I, as your Commander in Chief, salute you, each and every American who serves in our Army, our Navy, our Air Force, our Marine Corps, and our Coast Guard. Your courage, your steadfastness are the backbone of America's influence for peace around the world. And I speak for all of America today--that is one of the great privileges of being President of this country--I speak for all of our fellow Americans when I say we owe you, those who serve in our Armed Forces, a debt of gratitude we can never fully repay.

For the first time in 12 years, we can observe Armed Forces Day with all of our fighting forces home from Vietnam and all of our courageous prisoners of war set free and here, back home in America.

There was and will continue to be for years to come much controversy about this longest war in America's history, but historians will record in the end that no military organization ever took on a more selfless task and completed it more honorably than the Armed Forces of the United States have done in the defense of 17 million people of South Vietnam. It was an honorable task, and they did it well, and we owe them a debt for how well they did it.

So today we pay a special, heartfelt tribute to all who made this achievement possible:

--to the more than 2 million men and women now serving in uniform;

--to the millions of veterans who have returned to civilian life;

--to those missing in action and those magnificent men who "roughed it out" in enemy prison camps; and above all,

--to the memory of those who gave their lives for their country.

Today, we are thankful, too, for the strengths and the sacrifices of America's military families. And today we are reminded and we do remind those young Americans who are completing their high school or college education--and I speak to all of you all over the country, as you complete your high school or college education this spring--let me say to you the profession of serving this country in the new volunteer armed force of the 1970's offers a career in which any young man or woman can find great pride and satisfaction; be proud to wear the uniform of the United States of America.

Over the past several years, the chances for peace have grown immeasurably stronger, not only in Southeast Asia but all over the world. We have brought this long war in Vietnam to an end. After a generation of hostility, the United States has opened a new relationship with the leaders of one-fourth of all the people who live in the world, the People's Republic of China. We have negotiated far-reaching agreements with our longtime adversary the Soviet Union, including the first limitation of strategic nuclear arms. We have begun revitalizing our Atlantic partnership with Western Europe and our Pacific partnership with Japan.

In the explosive Middle East, we averted a major crisis in 1970. We have helped to establish a cease-fire which is now well into its third year.

There are still enormously difficult problems there and in other parts of the world, but we have come a long way over these past 5 years toward building a structure of peace in the world--much further simply than ending a long war, but building a structure that will avoid other wars, and that is what every American wants, and that is what we are working toward today.

I know that some might interpret the achievements I have just mentioned as the result of diplomacy, diplomacy from the President and the Secretary of State and others who have responsibility. But that interpretation would be incomplete.

The positions that a head of state or a diplomat puts forward at the conference table are only as good as the national strength that stands behind those positions.

So it has been the respect of other countries for our military strength that has been vital to our many negotiating successes during the past 4 years. And that same military strength helps secure our own security and that of our friends as we go forward with them in building new partnerships.

What I am saying to you today is that a large share of the credit for America's progress toward building a structure of peace in the world goes to you, the men and women in uniform. You are the peace forces of the United States, because without you, we couldn't have made the progress we have made. They would not have respected us, and without strength, we would not have the respect which leads to progress. Let's keep that strength and never let it down, became our further hopes for peace also rely on you.

This year, the year 1973, we face a series of negotiations even more significant than those of the year 1972, negotiations that will help to determine the future of international peace and cooperation for the rest of this century and beyond.

Every time I see an audience like this, I look at everybody--the older people, particularly the people that I see over here in wheelchairs, and also the young people, those that are so young, with all of their years ahead--and my greatest hope is: Make this country a better country for them in the future, make this world a more peaceful world for them.

That is what leadership is all about. That is what we are dedicated to here today.

In just a few weeks, as you know, General Secretary Brezhnev of the Soviet Union will be in this country for a summit conference to build on the new negotiations that we have made in United States-Soviet relations in Moscow one year ago. We are ready to join with the Soviet leaders in efforts to seek additional ways to limit strategic nuclear arms, to expand mutually advantageous trade, and together with our allies, to work toward mutual and balanced reductions of the level of armed forces in Central Europe.

We are moving, as I have already indicated, toward normalization of our relations with the People's Republic of China, now that our two nations are opening permanent liaison offices in Peking and in Washington.

We are committed to wide-ranging talks with our friends in Europe and in Japan, with particular emphasis on placing the international economy on a more secure and equitable footing.

Because all of that is at stake in the critical period ahead, we must reject the well-intentioned but misguided suggestions that because of the progress we have made toward peace, this is the time to slash America's defenses by billions of dollars.

There could be no more certain formula for failure in the negotiations that I have just talked about, no more dangerous invitation for other powers to break the peace, than for us to send the President of the United States to the conference table as the head of the second strongest nation in the world. Let that never happen in the United States of America.

Let me put it quite bluntly, particularly in the presence of my colleagues from the House and the Senate, those distinguished Virginians who presently serve there and who happen to be also on the Armed Services Committees. Often when votes come up as to whether America will be strong enough to keep its commitments or be so weak that it will not command respect in the world, those who vote to cut our arms are said to be for peace and those who vote for strength are said to be for war.

I want to put it right on the line today, bluntly: A vote for a weak America is a vote against peace. A vote for a strong America is a vote for peace, because a strong America will always keep the peace.

If the United States were to cut back unilaterally in the strength of our Armed Forces without obtaining reciprocal actions or commitments in return, that action-and I speak with measured tones-that action of unilaterally cutting our strength before we have a mutual agreement with the other side to cut theirs as well will completely torpedo the chances for any successful negotiations, and those who vote to cut that strength will be destroying the chances, the best chance we have had since World War II, to build an era of peace. And so, support those men and women who have the courage in the Congress to vote for a strong America, rather than to vote for a weak America. We need a strong America if we are going to have peace.

Let me turn to that area of the world in which we need that strength so much-Southeast Asia.

After the long ordeal we have been through, I can realize how so many Americans say, "We want to do no more"-just 100 days after the cease-fire agreements were signed in Paris. These agreements which preserve both the honor of the United States and the freedom of South Vietnam were achieved in principle through a combination of diplomacy and strength. They can only be maintained and upheld through that same combination-diplomacy and strength.

Now, so far there has been considerable progress in carrying out the provisions of the peace agreement that we signed just 100 days ago in Paris. Our troops, our prisoners are home, violence in South Vietnam is declining, the cease-fire has been extended to Laos.

But compliance with the agreement is still gravely deficient in many respects. The cooperation which North Vietnam promised to give us in making a full accounting for Americans listed as missing in action has not been satisfactory. And I can assure you that we must and will insist that this promise, this pledge, this solemn agreement be kept, because just as America never broke faith with our prisoners of war, I can assure you today we will not break faith with those who are reported missing in action. They must all be accounted for by the North Vietnamese.

North Vietnam, as you have probably read, has also persisted in violations of the Paris agreements. They have, for example, refused to withdraw thousands of troops from Cambodia and Laos. They have poured huge amounts of military equipment into these areas and into South Vietnam. And I say to you, my friends, today, it would be a crime against the memory of those Americans who made the ultimate sacrifice for peace in Indochina, a serious blow to this country's ability to lead constructively elsewhere in the world, for us to stand by and permit the peace settlement that we reached in Paris to be systematically destroyed by violations such as this.

That is why we are continuing to take the necessary measures to insist that all parties to the agreement keep their word, live up to their obligations. A peace agreement that is only a piece of paper is something that we are not interested in.

We want a peace agreement that is adhered to. We are adhering to the agreement. We expect the other side to adhere to that agreement.

It should be clearly understood by everyone concerned in this country and abroad that our policy is not aimed at continuing the war in Vietnam or renewing the war that has been ended. Rather, the aim of our policy is to preserve and strengthen the peace, a peace which we achieved at great cost in the past, which holds such promise in the future.

During the homecoming ceremonies for our returning prisoners of war several weeks ago, you may recall that one of the men had a small American flag which he had made while he was in prison. He carried it out to freedom with him. His name was Major Robert Peel, United States Air Force. When his turn came to speak, he held up that small flag and said, "We never lost faith in the American people, and we knew these colors wouldn't run."

We can be proud today that all during the long struggle in Vietnam, these colors--and there they are, see them there, gloriously flying in the wind--these colors didn't run from America's commitment to freedom and peace in the world. And let us resolve today, they are not going to start running now, not in Southeast Asia, not anywhere around the globe, wherever people put their trust in America.

I have seen virtually all of the world-not to every country but to most of them. I have seen hundreds of millions of people--young people like those I see here today, as well as their parents. And as I see them, I know that the hopes for all the people in the world--not just the 200 million Americans, but of 3 billion people in the world--the hopes of all the world's children for peace--they rest right here and nowhere else. They rest in our hands, in America's hands, and believe me, those hopes rest in good hands, in good hands.

And that whole world today is watching to see whether the Star-Spangled Banner still waves over the land of the free and the home of the brave. Well, together let us prove that it does. Let us so conduct ourselves at home that we truly remain the land of the free. And let us so meet our responsibilities in the world as to show that we are still, more than ever, the home of the brave.

And then we can look to the future with confidence that Armed Forces Day in the years to come will be not only a day of pride but also a day of peace for America and for all the people of the world.

Note: The President spoke at 2:12 p.m. at pier 12 on the naval base.

Adm. Douglas C. Plate was Deputy to the Commander in Chief, Atlantic Fleet.

On the same day, the White House released an advance text of the President's remarks.

Richard Nixon, Remarks at Armed Forces Day Ceremonies, Norfolk Naval Base, Virginia. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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