Bill Clinton photo

Remarks at a Memorial Day Ceremony in Arlington, Virginia

May 29, 1995

Thank you very much, Secretary Perry, Secretary Brown, Major General Gorden, Chaplain Cottingham, General and Mrs. Shalikashvili, and to the other members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and their wives, to all the members of the Armed Forces who are here, and the veterans, especially to the POW's and their family members and the family members of MIA's whose sacrifice and service we honored today just a few moments ago with the unveiling of the special stamp in honor of POW's and MIA's, and of course, to Sergeant Major Rodriguez and Mrs. Rodriguez.

Sergeant Major, if you had known 50 years ago you were going to be here today and had 50 years to get ready, you could not have done any better job than you did, and we thank you. This fine American was decorated by President Roosevelt with the Purple Heart for his action in combat on Iwo Jima. He later led an honor guard for President Truman. He represents the vital ties to the past that inspires us today, and we thank him and all others for their service.

Today we feel close to that past and to all those who stood fast when our freedom was in peril 50 years ago. We remember the valiant individuals from all of our wars who fell while defending our Nation. They fought so that we might have the freedom which too many of us take for granted but, at least on this day, we know is still our greatest blessing.

At this sacred moment, we put aside all that might otherwise divide us to recall the honor that these men and women brought to their families and their communities and the glory they bestowed upon our beloved Nation. All across our great country today, in cities and towns great and small, wreaths and flags adorn our cemeteries. Friends and family members and those who simply are grateful for their liberties will gather for a parade or visit the graves of some of these heroes, tell a new generation the stories of how America was kept free and strong. We must remember to do justice to their memories. We must remember that so we can go forward.

Especially in this last year, the 50th since World War II, we Americans have remembered and paid homage to the generation that fought that great struggle in ceremonies in Normandy, at Nettuno Beach in Italy, at Cambridge Cemetery in England, the Manila Cemetery in the Philippines, the Iwo Jima Memorial here in Arlington, and in Moscow.

As we look across the gulf of time and look at the veterans of that conflict who still are among us, we continue to draw strength from their marvelous achievement. We remember anew the indomitable power of free men and women united by a just cause.

Fifty years ago today, the war in Europe was over. American armed forces worked to restore order to a wrecked continent, taking charge of shattered communities, tending to the survivors of the awful concentration camps. But the celebration of victory was short because our battleweary Nation was shifting troops and energies from one theater to another. Little was certain. Virtually every household still had someone in uniform, and no one could say even then who would survive.

In the Pacific war, fighting raged on in the Philippines. Okinawa, the bloodiest battle in the Far East, was already almost 2 months old and far, far from over. By the time it ended on June 22, that small island would claim the lives of more than 12,000 Americans.

Still, our forces never faltered. Half a world away from their homes, far from their families, they fought for their country, their loved ones, and for the ideals that have kept this country going now for more than 200 years. They knew their mission was unparalleled in human history: to fight for freedom, for democracy, and for human dignity all the world over. In those distant places and harrowing times, ordinary people performed extraordinary deeds.

Many who fell there are now here in Arlington, in this hallowed ground. We come here to honor their sacrifice, to give them thanks for safeguarding our homes and our liberties and for giving us another 50 years of freedom. But we also come here because we understand what they fought for. Here, among the dead, in the perfect rows of stone, we see the life of America for which they sacrificed so much.

Four graves around here today tell a good story. Right over there, down Grant Drive, is the grave of Colonel Justice Chambers of the United States Marine Corps Reserve. For his extraordinary courage in taking vital high ground during the landing on Iwo Jima, he was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. Just next to him lies Lieutenant Commander Barbara Allen Rainey. She was the mother of two daughters and the Navy's first female aviator. She died in a plane crash in 1982. Further down the walk lies the grave of Rear Admiral Richard E. Byrd, Jr., known throughout the world as the first person ever to fly over the North Pole. And next to him lies General Daniel "Chappie" James, a Tuskegee Airman who flew nearly 200 combat missions, a pilot in Korea and Vietnam as well. He rose through the ranks to become the first African-American four-star general.

These four were very different in race and gender, service and generation. But they were united in their service to America. Together, their lives are proof of perhaps our greatest American truth: that a nation of many really can be brought forth as one. Together, they show the tremendous strength that not only our Armed Forces but our entire Nation has drawn from our remarkable diversity. They remind us of the riches our democracy creates by bringing the benefits of liberty to all Americans, regardless of their race or gender or station in life. They remind us of why so many have sacrificed so much for the American idea.

Today, more than ever, we rededicate ourselves to the vision for which they live. Generations before ours met challenges to democracy and freedom, defeated the threats of fascism and communism, and now it is for us to rise to the new challenges posed by the forces of darkness and disintegration in this age at home and abroad.

In an uncertain world, we still know we must maintain armed forces that are the best-trained, best-equipped, and best-prepared in the world. That is the surest guarantee of our security and the surest guarantee that we will not repeat the mistakes of the past, when America disarmed encouraged people to abuse the decent liberties we all are willing to fight for.

Now, we must finish the security work of the last 50 years by ending the nuclear threat once and for all. I am very proud of the fact, and I know all of you are, that today, we and the Russians are destroying the weapons of our nuclear arsenal and that for the first time since the dawn of the nuclear age, no Russian missiles are pointed at the people of the United States of America. I am proud of the fact that the nations of the world recently voted to extend indefinitely the Non-Proliferation Treaty and that Russia and the other states of the former Soviet Union and the United States were on the same side, asking countries to forswear ever developing nuclear weapons.

I know we have more to do in trying to stem the proliferation of biological and chemical weapons and to defeat the forces of terrorism around the world. No free country is immune from them. But we can do this, and we must.

In honor of all those who have fallen, from the dawn of our Nation to this moment, we resolve to uphold not only their memories but their ideals: the vision of America, free and strong, conferring the benefits of our beloved land on all our citizens. They sacrificed so that we could do this.

Our debt is, therefore, to continue freedom's never-ending work, to build a Nation worthy of all those who fell for it, to pass to coming generations all that we have inherited and enjoyed. This must be our common purpose: to make sure all Americans are able to make the most of their freedoms and their God-given abilities and still, still, to reaffirm our conviction that we are, from many, one.

And so we go forth from this place today, remembering the lives of people like Chambers, Rainey, Byrd, and James. From their example, let us carry forth that passion and let us strengthen our national unity.

God bless you all, and God bless America.

NOTE: The President spoke at 11:32 a.m. at Arlington National Cemetery.

William J. Clinton, Remarks at a Memorial Day Ceremony in Arlington, Virginia Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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