Ronald Reagan picture

Remarks to Members of the Reserve Officers Association

January 27, 1988

Well, thank you. And General Sandler, General Hultman, distinguished guests and Reserve officers, I'm grateful for this opportunity to be with you and to thank personally all of you in the Reserve Officers Association. The United States of America would not stand as secure and free today if it were not for you. You have the deep appreciation of this President and the rest of our citizenry for your dedication. General Sandler, General Hultman, as a grateful Commander in Chief, I salute you all and those who serve with you.

You know, looking around this room, I can't help but believe that in this gathering I may well hold the longevity record as a Reserve officer. [Laughter] I was, in fact, sworn into the Army Reserve as a lieutenant in 1935 at Fort Des Moines, Iowa. And that was back when the cavalry really was the cavalry. [Laughter] Now, I understand that both Generals Sandler and Hultman have served at Fort Des Moines. Back in my day, having a general come to visit was a big event.

You know, there used to be a thing called the citizen's military training camps. And then every summer, why, they would have a war game someplace, and they would come in for 2 weeks in an encampment. And then the Reserve officers would be called up, and they'd don uniforms and serve the officers in this thing that was undertaken. And I can't help but remember that one time it was at Fort Omaha. And usually they would invite some top brass from Washington to come out and add a little luster to the scene, in viewing these war games.

And it seems that one young cavalry lieutenant was sent with a message over to the commanding officer of Fort Omaha who was standing with the visiting general. You know, in the cavalry you didn't always know what horse you were on or what they'd given you. His must have had a sore mouth or something, because he came galloping up and then tightened up on the reins for a halt. And that horse just planted all four feet, and he somersaulted right over the horse's head. [Laughter] And believe me, he landed on his feet holding the reins in his left hand, and— [laughter] —realized he was facing two generals. [Laughter] And he snapped to salute. [Laughter] And the visiting general, being the ranking one there, very slowly started to respond, but as he did so, he turned to the other one and said, "Does he always dismount like that?" [Laughter]

I will always remember my time as a Reserve officer. And let me add that I will always be grateful to you for the support that you've been to our administration over these last 7 years. When it counted, you were there. Your support for a strong national defense, for American leadership and solid alliances, for an activist, profreedom foreign policy has made all the difference.

It has not been easy, but together we've rebuilt America's defenses, which in the last decade had been sorrowfully neglected. Military spending in real terms was permitted to decline by 20 percent during the 1970's. And if there's any lesson from that decade, it is that there's a measurable relationship between the military might of the United States and the state of freedom in the world. By the latter half of the 1970's, the pay level of our active duty personnel had eroded, their weapons were wearing out, spare parts were in short supply, morale hit rock-bottom, and reenlistment rates plummeted.

Not by mere coincidence, this was also a time of defeat and despair for the free people of the world. Those who suggest that the Soviet Union's disproportional military spending is a reaction to our own military expenditures need to explain why in the 1970's, when our real spending was going down, the Soviets raced ahead with a massive peacetime buildup. At the same time, Communist forces, supplied and trained by the Soviet Union, pushed forward in Southeast Asia, in Africa, and in Central America. Terrorists wreaked havoc and, much to our European allies' alarm, Soviet intermediate-range missiles, SS-20's, were deployed. Communist expansion and Western retreat were the order of the day.

Victor Hugo once said that "People do not lack strength; they lack will." Well, in 1980, the American people looked deep into their souls and proved to the world that they still had the will to be free and the courage to carry the torch of liberty, just as our forefathers did before us. We rolled up our sleeves and went to work. Since then we've brought up the pay level of our military personnel. We've replenished the stockpiles of spare parts and ammunition. We've put in the hands of those defending us top quality weapons, like the F-16 and the Abrams battle tank. And perhaps most important to these brave young men and women, to whom we owe so much, we restored the pride this country has in those who wear the military uniform of the United States of America.

Today America's military is strong, confident, and standing tall. I can't help but think that if there's one man who deserves credit for the rejuvenation of our forces and the resurgence of American military might, it is the man you honor with this year's Minuteman of the Year award, former Secretary of Defense Cap Weinberger.

Cap inherited what seemed like an overwhelming challenge. When he was appointed, I felt like I'd just handed him a bayonet and given him 2 hours to clear a minefield. [Laughter] Cap, for example, was faced with the dilemma of sweeping the waste, fraud, and abuse out of the Pentagon, realizing that every victory would be used against him. And sure enough, when contracts for $400 hammers or $9,000 wrenches were found and corrected, more often than not, it was portrayed in the media as a horror story and used to east doubt rather than praise on our defense effort.

It's a tribute to their common sense and patriotism that the American people have stuck with us. The national security of the United States is not an inexpensive proposition. It is not a job that can be done with bargain-basement equipment and second-rate weapons. And as a free people, we owe this pledge to our defenders: If they're willing to put their lives on the line for us, we at least must be willing to pay the cost of providing them with the best equipment and weapons available so they can accomplish their mission and come home safely.

I think the American people agree with that as well. They want our country to be secure and America to be a strong force for freedom in the world. Our nation's defense should be a sacred trust, above the political fray and the pressures of partisan consideration. That is the ideal, but let's have no illusions. Three years of steady decline in the value of our annual defense investment have increased the risk of our most basic security interests, jeopardizing earlier hard-won goals. We must face squarely the implications of this negative trend and make adequate, stable defense spending a top goal both this year and in the future. This is what the American people want, and you'd think those with acute political instincts would understand it.

It all reminds me of the story of the gunners mate on the American fighting frigate back in the days of our Revolution, the Bonhomme Richard. There he was in the midst of that battle, wounded and lying among the other wounded on the deck—the smoke filling the air and the shot and shell flying-when from the quarterdeck he heard that line, "I have not yet begun to fight." The gunners mate leaned over to another member of the crew and simply said, "There's always somebody who didn't get the word." [Laughter]

Thomas Jefferson once noted, "If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, it expects what never was and never will be." It is up to us then to get the word to our fellow citizens. First and foremost, we've got to inform them about the serious consequences—I would even say catastrophic consequences—of cutting off aid and, thus, pulling the rug out from under the democratic resistance in Nicaragua.

Today I'm submitting to the Congress my request for $36 million in additional aid for the freedom fighters in Nicaragua. This request ensures that the democratic resistance can keep the pressure on the Sandinistas to comply with the terms of the Guatemala accord for peace and democracy. Ninety percent of the funds is for nonlethal aid, such as food, clothing, medicine, and the means to deliver it. Ten percent is for ammunition. And this part of the request will be suspended until March 31st to determine if the steps taken by the Sandinistas are irreversible steps to democracy in Nicaragua. In reaching this judgment, I will personally consult the Presidents of the four Central American democracies.

Our approach to the Communist threat in Nicaragua has long been based on a simple principle: diplomacy and pressure in support of freedom and democracy must go hand-in-hand. President Teddy Roosevelt once said, "Diplomacy is utterly useless where there is no force behind it." We've seen the success of this two-track approach elsewhere in the world—in Afghanistan, freedom fighters have forced the Soviet Union to think seriously about a diplomatic solution to that brutal occupation; and in the INF talks, where our decision to deploy intermediate-range missiles a few years ago made possible the agreement I signed this past December.

This same approach may be working today in Nicaragua, although it's too early to tell if Daniel Ortega's promises will be matched by true efforts to allow democracy to flourish or if these promises are just a repetition of things said for nearly 10 years. It is clear, however, that the pressure of the Nicaraguan freedom fighters has forced the Sandinistas to pull back from aggression against their neighbors and to think twice about their continued domestic repression.

Although past efforts to restore peace and establish democracy in Nicaragua have invariably failed, I believe we owe it to ourselves and the people of Central America to explore fully diplomatic avenues toward solving the conflict. But only if we have the tools can diplomacy work. Last November, I pledged at the Organization of American States that if serious negotiations between the Nicaraguan resistance and the Sandinista government were underway, I would ask Secretary Shultz to enter regional talks in Central America with the Presidents of all five countries.

I reiterate that pledge today, and I hope that we may be close to fulfillment of the necessary conditions. The objectives laid out last August in the Guatemala accord and most recently affirmed in San Jose by the five Presidents are consistent with our goals. I will ask Secretary Shultz to pursue them, just as he pursues the security interests of our country and the democracies of Central America.

We must ask ourselves, however, what will create the conditions for serious negotiations? Recent months have shown clearly that only continued and to the Nicaraguan freedom fighters—aid, I should say—to the Nicaraguan freedom fighters has provided sufficient incentive for the Sandinistas to make concessions, as minimal as those concessions have been. If we remove that incentive-if Congress cuts off aid to the freedom fighters next week—there is little chance that the Sandinistas will bargain seriously.

I intend to make an all-out diplomatic effort to achieve a negotiated settlement leading to democracy in Central America. But success at the negotiating table depends on continued support for the Nicaraguan freedom fighters. We cannot expect diplomacy to work if we ourselves lack the will to negotiate from a position of strength. We cannot go to the bargaining table empty-handed. And that, in the end, would assure a Marxist-Leninist regime on the American mainland. And I didn't come to Washington to preside over the communization of Central America.

We must have the will to do what is right and the courage to stand by other free peoples, whether they're Western Europeans in the NATO alliance, Mujahidin insurgents struggling for their national independence, or Nicaraguan freedom fighters who want nothing more than the democratic government they were promised. Such support makes war less likely; it deters aggression. In the case of NATO, it has provided over 40 years of peace for the European Community. In the Third World, our support affirms to all that aggression comes with a heavy price, and that Americans will not sit back idly and watch brave people—like those in Afghanistan and Nicaragua—beaten into submission.

There is reason for cautious optimism about relations between the East and West. There's evidence of some change in the Soviet Union. We welcome it, but let me reiterate a point I've made before. If there is truly to be a new era, we must see significant changes—a far greater respect for human rights, including the right to emigrate, and an end to Soviet policies that prolong regional conflicts.

On those regional conflicts, we've heard the rhetoric. Now it's time to see the action. If the Soviet leadership wants to improve substantially relations with the West, they must realize that it will not happen while Soviet troops still occupy Afghanistan. We want to see those Soviet troops go home permanently and leave the Afghan people in peace and free to determine their own future.

The people of Afghanistan know, as do so many others around the world, that if peace is to have a chance, if the hope for freedom is to be kept alive, the United States must play a powerful and active role in world affairs. It is an awesome responsibility. President Teddy Roosevelt said it well, "The world has set its face hopefully toward our democracy, and, oh, my fellow citizens, each one of you carries on your shoulders not only the burden of doing well for the sake of your own country but the burden of doing well and seeing that this nation does well for the sake of mankind."

That has never been more true than today as our naval forces patrol the waters of the Persian Gulf, a commitment that already cost the lives of 37 brave men aboard the U.S.S. Stark. Yet because of the bravery and professionalism of our military personnel, our friends in that volatile region understand that the United States can be counted on, and our adversaries know that we will not be driven out of the Middle East or anywhere else. We're telling the world in unmistakable terms that the United States is a global power, and we intend to keep her that way.

And let me just add, we went into the Gulf alone. Yet today the naval forces of our allies can also be found patrolling those dangerous waters. They came because they believed it was the right thing to do. It underscores the common interest we share. I can't help but be proud of this kind of cooperation. And I can't help but also be proud that America still has what it takes to lead the way.

Peace through strength. We've heard it a thousand times. The validity of that truism was never more real to me than during my recent summit with General Secretary Gorbachev. In 1981 we faced the challenge of Soviet deployment of a large number of new nuclear-armed intermediate-range missiles threatening our friends and allies in Western Europe and Asia. The Soviets rejected our offer for a zero option, which I proposed in November 1981. Following that, street demonstrators and our political adversaries turned up the heat on us—not the Soviets. Our opponents insisted on acceptance of a so-called nuclear freeze, which would have frozen-in the Soviet advantage. Well, to our credit and that of our allies, we stood firm and moved forward with our deployment of Pershing II's and ground-launched cruise missiles. It was this strength of commitment that brought the Soviets back to the bargaining table in early 1985, following their late 1983 walkout. And it was this strength that ultimately convinced them then to come to an agreement similar to the one I first proposed in 1981, a zero option.

Now I understand the justifiable apprehension about dealing with the Soviet Union. Will Rogers used to say we never lost a war, and we never won a conference. [Laughter] Well, let me just

Note: The President spoke at 2:20 p.m. in the International Ballroom at the Washington Hilton Hotel. In his opening remarks, he referred to Maj. Gen. Roger W. Sandler and Maj. Gen. Evan L. Hultman, president and executive director of the Reserve Officers Association, respectively.

Ronald Reagan, Remarks to Members of the Reserve Officers Association Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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