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Remarks at a Memorial Day Ceremony in Arlington, Virginia

May 30, 1994

Thank you very much, Mrs. McIntosh, for your fine introduction and for your service to our Nation in Asia during the Second World War. To you and your husband, Professor Shriner, who sang so well—I could imagine him at the age of 24 singing again; to Katy Daley; all the others here; and General Gordon; the distinguished leaders of our Armed Forces, the Congress, and the administration; to the leaders of the veterans' organizations present here; to all of you who are veterans and your families; my fellow Americans.

This morning we join, as we always do on this day, to honor the sacrifices that have made our Nation free and strong. All across our Nation, small towns are holding quiet Memorial Day ceremonies. Proud veterans are pinning on their medals. Children are laying wreaths. Men and women in uniform everywhere stand a little bit taller today as they salute the colors.

Here at Arlington, row after row of headstones, aligned in silent formation, reminds us of the high cost of our freedom. Almost a quarter of a million Americans rest here alone, from every war since the Revolution. Among them are many names we know: General Pershing, Audie Murphy, General Marshall, and so many others. But far more numerous are the Americans whose names are not famous, whose lives were not legend but whose deeds were the backbone that secured our Nation's liberty. Today we honor them. We honor them all as heroes, those who are buried here and those who are buried all around the Nation and the world.

If you look at the headstones, they don't tell you whether the people buried there are poor or rich. They make no distinction of race or of age or of condition. They simply stand, each of them, for one American. Each reminds us that we are descendants, whatever our differences, of a common creed, unbeatable when we are united: one nation under God.

Fifty years ago, the world learned just what Americans are capable of when we joined in common cause in World War II. Later this week it will be my great honor to represent our Nation in Europe at the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the World War II campaigns at Normandy and in Italy.

World War II was an era of sacrifice unequalled in our own history. Over 400,000 Americans died in the service of our Nation. At D-Day alone, over 5,200 were killed or wounded in Normandy. But the battle that was fought there was not just between two armies; it was, as clearly as any conflict in all of human history, a battle between two ways of life.

The totalitarians whose tanks had overrun so much of the earth honestly believed democracies were too undisciplined to survive. Hitler believed a free people would never muster the unity of purpose to win the Second World War. But in the chaos of battle, it was the independence and the can-do confidence of the sons and daughters of America and the other democracies that won the day. And all across our Nation, in factories and farms and hospitals and blood banks, it was the energies of free people who turned the tide. General Eisenhower called it then "the fury of an aroused democracy," the self-reliant fury that took Omaha Beach and liberated much of the Continent and, within a year, brought the war in Europe to an end.

Today, too many of our youngest Americans know too little about what the heroes of that war did. The children and grandchildren of that generation have not been taught enough about the meaning of Normandy or Anzio or Guadalcanal or Midway. And that's why the commemorative ceremonies this year are so very important to all of us: To honor, we must remember.

Today somewhere in America, a curious child rummaging through an attic will stumble upon his grandfather's insignia patches, a pocket guide to France, a metal cricket, a black-and-white photo of a smiling young man in uniform. But learning about those times and those deeds must be more than accidental.

Fortunately, many of our fellow Americans understand that. Gail Thomas of Brentwood, Missouri, was one of them. Her parents both served in World War II. She's a librarian at the Mark Twain Elementary School in her community, and every year she brings in veterans of D-Day and other battles to speak to the students. She says the kids can't believe what those gray-haired men did when they were young. Then they understand that America is the way it is today because of what people gave up 50 years ago. That is the lesson we must all remember, not only for the veterans of World War II but for all our veterans on Memorial Day, on Veterans Day, and every day.

The American veterans of World War II, though they fought in a terribly destructive conflict, at heart were builders. When they came home, they laid down the ribbons of interstate highways across this land. And through the GI bill, those who had fought and won the war were educated so they could win the fruits of victory in peaceful cooperation. In countries ravaged by war, they helped to lift cities from rubble to renewal. They created the international institutions that have undergirded our security for a half a century.

Now our generation honors them for what they did 50 years ago, knowing full well that the greatest honor we can give is to build for the future ourselves at home and abroad: revitalizing our economy so that our people can live to their fullest capacities; strengthening the fabric of our communities and our families; putting our children first and giving them the values they need to do well in a difficult world; making our Government work for all the people, for it took all the people to win the Second World War and to keep this country going forward.

In this uncertain world, we must also remain vigilant against new threats. Today American men and women in uniform stand sentry all around the globe, in Europe, in the Adriatic, in Korea, and on bases here at home. They are the finest, best trained, best motivated fighting force the world has ever known. And our highest commitment must be to ensure that they remain exactly that. If they must be sent in harm's way, we owe them the support they need and deserve.

On this day, we honor those who died for our country. But let us also hold a special place for all of our living American veterans. We owe them a lasting debt of gratitude, and their wellbeing must be always the cause of our common concern. And let us recognize again our solemn obligation to find answers for those whose loved ones served but were never accounted for.

A year ago today, just before I came to this hallowed place, I spoke at the Vietnam Memorial to honor those who died in that war. I was proud to be joined there by a remarkable man who became a friend of mine, Lewis Puller, Jr. This year, as virtually all of you must know, he rests here on this holy place. This morning when I got up I thought of Lew Puller and the countless heroes he has joined and the terrible sacrifices men and women had been willing to make for this great land.

Every one of them, no matter what war they served in or what battlefield they died on, every one helped to build a nation we love. Let us remember them. Let us pray for their souls and those of their families and resolve to carry on the never-finished work of freedom.

Thank you, and God bless you all.

NOTE: The President spoke at 11:33 a.m. at Arlington National Cemetery. In his remarks, he referred to World War II veteran Elizabeth P. McIntosh and master of ceremonies Katy Daley.

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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