Ronald Reagan picture

Remarks on Board the U.S.S. Constellation off the Coast of California

August 20, 1981

[The President arrived at the U.S.S. Constellation via Marine One at approximately 10:50 a.m. He was met by Capt. Dennis M. Brooks, Commanding Officer, and Capt. William Carlson, Chief of Staff, Carrier Group Seven.

The President, escorted by Captain Brooks, proceeded to the flag bridge where he was presented with a U.S.S. Constellation jacket and cap. He then entered the navigation bridge and spoke to the crew via the ship's public address system at approximately 11:02 a.m. His remarks follow.]

Remarks to the Crew of the U.S.S. Constellation

Captain Brooks and crew of the Constellation, thank you for extending me this opportunity. This ship represents a powerful force in an uncertain world, and we all sleep a little better at night knowing that you're on duty. Everything we as Americans hold dear is safer because of what all of you are doing. I'd like to especially greet those who will be in the air department, the combat direction center, in engineering and communication later on. Although you won't be with us later, you're certainly not forgotten.

The engineering unit, I understand, faces a major recertification examination tomorrow, and a September readiness evaluation is also rapidly approaching. These are two of the major challenges for which you've been preparing, so can I just express my confidence that you're going to come through with flying colors?

So, for those who will be standing watch, my very best wishes. For the rest of the officers and crew, I look forward to meeting you and getting to know more about the job that you're doing. After all, this is quite an experience for an ex-horse cavalryman. So, I wish all aboard "a good Connie day."

[Following his remarks, the President proceeded to the auxiliary conning station to view a demonstration refueling operation. When the U.S.S. Fletcher came alongside the aircraft carrier, the President spoke to the crew of the destroyer at approximately 11:15 a.m., via the Constellation's public address system. His remarks follow.]

Remarks to the Crew of the U.S.S. Fletcher

Officers and men of the Fletcher, it's my privilege and I'm greatly honored to have this opportunity to say hello to you but also to tell you how grateful all of us are for all that you're doing. We are truly grateful. I have just finished telling the crew here of the Constellation that this is really kind of an earth-shattering experience for me, since my military experience was as a horse cavalryman. This is somewhat different.

But, we are proud of all of you, and while there may be some people who think that the uniform is associated with violence, you are the peacemakers. It's because of what you're doing that we can be sure of peace.

So, again, thank you for giving me this opportunity to greet you and to tell you how proud we are.

[At this point, the President toured the navigation bridge, stopping briefly to take the helm. He then hem an informal question-and-answer session with reporters at approximately 11:30 a.m. The excerpts included in the White House press release follow.]

Question-and-Answer Session on the Downing of Libyan Planes by U.S. Pilots

Q. Mr. President, why did we have to conduct training exercises so close to Libya?

The President. It is an area in which we have conducted training exercises rather regularly—not only us but others. And Libya has created an artificial line, claiming waters that are actually international waters. And we just felt that we gave the routine notice that is always given for such maneuvers, and we conducted those maneuvers on the basis of what are international waters and not that artificial line that had been created. This foray by the Libyans was nothing new. Over the last couple of years, they have frequently harassed our aircraft out beyond that line in the Mediterranean; French aircraft. There have even been incidents of threats of fire, and we decided it was time to recognize what are the international waters and behave accordingly.

Q. But why did we feel we had to challenge them at this particular time?

The President. We didn't challenge them. This was the scheduled time for the maneuvers. We've been holding them every year and in that area. And this time we didn't restrict ourselves on the basis of what, as I say, is an artificial line. We utilized the international waters there for the training exercise.

Q. Are you trying to destabilize Qadhafi's government, Mr. President?

The President. No. We responded as we will respond anywhere when any of our forces are attacked. They're going to defend themselves.

Q. Mr. President?

The President. Yes.

Q. There is some feeling that perhaps your aides should have awakened you earlier, because most of the country knew about the incident before you did.

The President. Well, no, there was no-everything was going forward and everything that had to be done—and there was no decision to be made or they would have. They would have awakened me if there had been a decision. But it was—the incident had taken place; there was no other reason, so they waited to call me when they had all the full information.

Q. Do you think that was right?

The President. What?

Q. Do you think that was proper?

The President. Yes. Yes.

Q. As you sit here in the bridge of this ship, what do you think the message should be from yesterday's event and your appearance here today?

The President. Well, that we're determined, that we are going to close that window of vulnerability that has existed for some time with regard to our defensive capability.

Q. Sir, your message wasn't just to the Libyans, but the Soviets as well?

The President. The message to the Libyans was brought on by the Libyans. We didn't go there to shoot down a couple of Libyan planes. They came out and fired on ours when we were holding maneuvers, and which everyone had been notified, all of our allies. All of the countries there in the area had been notified that we were going to hold those maneuvers, which we do every year in that same place.

Q. You wouldn't be sorry to see Qadhafi fall, would you?

The President. Well, I would think that diplomacy would have me not answer that question.

Q. We're a little confused as to whether you deliberately ordered a test of Qadhafi's challenge.

The President. No, the maneuvers have been planned for a long time.

Q. So, there was no deliberate—

The President. No. We were, as I say, faced with the knowledge that you could not go on recognizing this violation of international waters and that we were going to plan our maneuvers as we would have planned them without that rule, without his artificial line.

Now, if I could call to your attention that periodically we send some ships into the Black Sea just for the same reason, just as the Soviet Union sends ships into the Caribbean, to assure that everyone is observing international waters and the rules pertaining to them.

Q. But it sounds like you're saying, no, it wasn't a test, but you aren't sorry you've bloodied Qadhafi's nose.

The President. This is a rule that has to be followed. If our men are fired on, they're going to fire.

[Following the question-and-answer session, the President viewed an aircraft launch and recovery exercise from the navigation bridge and then went to the flight deck to watch a weapons training exercise. He then had lunch with enlisted personnel in the mess.

Following lunch, the President proceeded to the hangar deck for a reenlistment ceremony. Adm. James D. Watkins, Chief of Staff, Pacific Fleet, administered the oath, and the President congratulated the reenlisted men individually as they crossed the dais.

Captain Brooks then presented the President with several mementos of his visit to the ship and introduced the President, who addressed the crew at approximately 1:25 p.m. as follows.]

Remarks to Crew and Signing of John Barry Day Resolution

Thank you all very much for this warm hospitality and this greeting. Admiral Watkins, Captain Brooks, the officers and men of the Constellation:

You know, Presidents are permitted to experience a great many things, but I can assure you, this day will be long remembered as a most special experience that I have had. It is my first time to ever be on a carrier. As I told many of you on the horn this morning when I arrived, I'm an old exhorse cavalry man. But then I'll remind you that there was an admiral of the Navy that rode a horse into Tokyo at the end of World War II, so maybe we have something in common.

But this ship, what I've seen today and the officers and crew, you all make me very proud to be able to say I'm the Commander in Chief of all of you. The demonstration of firepower and efficiency by the air wing was impressive, but what's most important, it is also impressive to the enemies of freedom in the world. And we had an example of that just night before last on the carrier Nimitz.

But this carrier and its air wing represent the cutting edge of our naval power. It takes an extra bit of dedication to do this job. I know it's rough. It's rough on you, rough on your families, but it's never been more necessary at any time in our history than it is right now. Without someone willing to put in the long hours, willing to suffer the frustrations, willing to risk the dangers, our country wouldn't be sure of continued peace and freedom. There's no greater gift that you can give to your family, your community, or your country than the protection that you afford all of them by this job that you're doing.

I know there've been times when the military has been taken for granted. It won't happen under this administration. We're going to make sure to the best of our ability that your pay is fair and that you have the equipment that is needed to do the job right, from spare parts to new ships.

Today, military adventurism and subversion threaten in faraway areas of the world. Providing security for the United States is the greatest challenge and a greater challenge than ever, but we'll meet that challenge. We're committed to a 600-ship Navy, a Navy that is big enough to deter aggression wherever it might occur. Let friend and foe alike know that America has the muscle to back up its words, and ships like this and men like you are that muscle.

Of course, more than equipment is needed. You deserve compensation worthy of the sacrifices you're making, and you'll get it. We're taking the steps necessary to encourage you to stick with the service, because you're needed. And I am so proud and so thrilled by the evidence of that that we've seen here today.

But you know that it takes more than money to keep you out here. The word "patriotism" is defined as love for or devotion to one's country, and that can't be bought. But it's present on this great ship, on the destroyer Fletcher and the cruiser Jouett, the frigate Wadsworth as well.

There's a new spirit, I can tell you, sweeping America, and you're part of it. The Navy's pride and professionalism campaign is part of it. The push for quality by American workers is part of it. That young Marine sergeant, Jimmy Lopez, and the naval aviator, Commander Don Scherer, who wouldn't bend to their Iranian captors during the days of the hostages, were part of it. Maybe some of you don't know that Sergeant Jimmy Lopez, before he left his place of confinement in Iran, wrote on the wall in Spanish—which evidently they could not understand, "Long live the red, white, and blue."

Your country won't forget that while those people were held hostage, you were nearby, ready to help, setting a new record for the number of continuous days any conventional ship has been at sea. And your countrymen knew what that meant—long hours, strenuous effort, the pain of being away from loved ones. And yet, there were many out here that were a part of that long stretch who reenlisted and are still here with the Constellation.

I don't know whether you've read the book. There's a book by the novelist, James Michener, "The Bridges at Toko-Ri." He wrote very movingly of the men who had fought in that Korean conflict. But in the final scene of the book, Michener writes of the admiral, standing on the darkened bridge of his carrier, waiting for the pilots who had flown off the carrier's deck that day to bomb the Toko-Ri bridges and who now must try to find that deck, big as it is when you're on it, but a postage stamp when it's out there in an ocean in the dark for men trying to find it.

The admiral wondered at their selflessness, standing there alone in the darkness, and then in the book he asked aloud, "Where do we get such men?" Well, you're the answer to that question. Those men he was speaking of came from cities and towns, as you have come, from farms and villages, all a product of the freest and the greatest society that man has ever known. When you and I seek together peace, you're doing it with what you are doing here. And you are, as I said to the crew of the Fletcher when they went by this morning, you are ensuring peace just by doing what you're doing, because any potential enemy has to see that the price of aggression is just more than he might want to pay, and that's the greatest service that can be performed.

You know, today your ship's motto, "The Spirit is Old; The Pride is New," fits this Nation as well as the vessel. And I have a little chore that I'm going over here for just a second to do, and then I'll just finish with a few remarks.

There was a Commodore John Barry in the United States Navy back in the days of the Revolution, and he has been called by many the Father of the United States Navy. So, I'm going to go over here and tell you a little bit of what it is that I'm signing, and then I'll finish telling you something, a story that I think you might like to hear. I'll just go to the table.

This is a proclamation [resolution]. It was passed by the 97th Congress of the United States authorizing and requesting me to designate September 13th, 1981, as Commodore John Barry Day. He was a hero of the American Revolution, holder of the first commission in the United States Navy. He was born in 1745 in County Wexford, Ireland. He was commissioned to command the brig Lexington, equipped for the Revolution, and became a national hero with the capture of a British man-of-war, the Prince Edward, April 1776.

Following the Revolution, when the sovereignty of this new nation was threatened by pirates, Commodore Barry was placed in command of the first ships authorized under the new Constitution and was named Senior Captain of the United States Navy in 1794. As I said, he's considered by many as the father of the United States Navy. He was honored in 1906 when the Congress had a statue of him erected in Lafayette Square in Washington, D.C., and since then a statue has also been erected by our Government in County Wexford, Ireland.

"So, now, therefore, be is resolved that the President is authorized and requested to designate September 13th as Commodore John Barry Day as a tribute to the Father of the United States Navy and to call upon Federal, State, and local government agencies and the people of the United States to observe such day with appropriate ceremonies and activities." It is signed by Congressman Thomas O'Neill, the Speaker of the House, and by George Bush, the Vice President of the United States and President of the Senate.

I'm going to use about four pens. I could have signed this at the hotel, but I just thought with this chance, I had to sign it right out here where the Navy is.

[At this point, the President signed the bill. As enacted, S.J. Res. 87 is Public Law 97-43, approved August 20.]

If I could take another moment of your time, there's a little story maybe known to some of you about the United States Navy. Back in about 1840, around there, when this Nation of ours was so little that the great powers of Europe still were planning to come—they didn't think the experiment would work and they would eventually take us over and colonize various parts of this country—there was a revolution in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. And a Hungarian by the name of Kostia, one of the lieutenants of that revolution, fled to the United States, and he took out his first papers to become a citizen here.

Then he became an importer by trade, and he was in a port on the Mediterranean when someone tipped off the admiral in command of an Austrian warship in the harbor that he was there. And he was kidnaped in the night and taken aboard that ship to be returned to Austria because the revolution had failed—where he would be hung.

The man who he had had working for him there—he had told him about his new country and about that flag, described the flag. And that man was down on the waterfront the next morning, knowing what had happened, and he saw an American flag. It was on a tiny warsloop, an American warsloop. And he went aboard and told Captain Ingraham of the United States Navy what had happened.

Ingraham went to the American Consul in that port. The Consul was reluctant to do anything when he learned that the man had only taken out his first papers, was not yet a citizen. But Captain Ingraham said, "I believe I am the senior officer in this port. I believe that my oath of office requires that I do something for this man who has announced his intention to be a citizen."

He had himself rowed out to the Austrian warship. He demanded to see our citizen. They were amused at the effrontery of this captain of the tiny warsloop, but they brought him on deck in chains. Captain Ingraham said, "I can understand him better without those chains." So they struck the chains, still amused. And then he said, "I'm going to ask you one question. Consider your answer carefully. Do you ask the protection of the American flag?" And Kostia, who had been badly beaten, nodded yes. And he said, "You'll have it."

He went back to his own ship, and in the meantime, three more Austrian warships sailed into the harbor. There were now four. He sent a message over to the admiral again that said, "Any attempt to leave this harbor with our citizen on board will be resisted with appropriate force. And I will expect an answer by 4 o'clock."

Well, at 4 o'clock that afternoon everyone was looking at everyone else through those long spyglasses. No evidence of motion, but it was evident that the four ships were getting ready to sail. He ordered that the guns be rolled into the sally ports. Now it was just seconds until 4 o'clock, and he ordered the men to light those tapers with which they touched off the cannons. They did. And then the lookout called down and said, "They're lowering a boat." And they rowed Kostia over and turned him over to Captain Ingraham. One sloop against four warships. He then went below and wrote his resignation to the United States Navy. He said, "I did what I thought my oath of office required, but if I have embarrassed my country, I tender my resignation."

The United States Senate turned down his resignation with these words: "This battle that was never fought may turn out to be the most important battle in our Nation's history."

For many, many years, indeed for more than a century, there has been a U.S.S. Ingraham in the United States Navy. I have just learned that with the reduction of forces that has taken place in recent years, there is not one now. I promise you there soon will be.

Now, speaking for all your fellow citizens, I want to say how proud you have made all of us. In the weeks ahead when the "Connie" sails into the Western Pacific, remember wherever you are, there also is America and there goes the pride and the good wishes of all your fellow citizens.

Well, men of the Constellation, it's been an honor for me to be here with you. Thank you very much, and God bless all of you.

Note: The President left the U.S.S. Constellation on Marine One and traveled to the Santa Ana Marine Air Facility in Tustin, Calif, where he boarded the motorcade for the ride to Costa Mesa, Calif

Ronald Reagan, Remarks on Board the U.S.S. Constellation off the Coast of California Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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