Ronald Reagan picture

Remarks to Participants in the People to People International Youth Exchange Program

June 24, 1987

The President. It's a great pleasure to be here with all of you today. Your work this summer is going to be a great opportunity for both you and our country. You'll have a chance to get to know the other peoples and cultures, and a chance to perhaps bring some of both back with you.

For many generations, we Americans were able to live in a splendid isolation, bordered as we were by the two vast oceans. But in this century, we've learned the hard way that those days are over; that, like it or not, this nation is the final repository of mankind's greatest dream: a dream of human freedom and a world at peace. For us to withdraw or retreat into isolationism again that we'd known for so many years, I think would be—well, it would simply turn back and give control to those who believe in violence and war, and they'd have the final say on the world that we live in. So, that's why I'm delighted that you're here and why I'm certain that those you encounter in your travels will find young Americans interested in the world around them, young Americans that are open to a different way of life and different ways of looking at history and current events. And I'm certain you will avoid having said of you what George Bernard Shaw said of a gentleman of his acquaintance. Shaw was quite a cynic. He said, "He knows nothing; he thinks he knows everything—that clearly points to a political career." [Laughter]

Well, many you encounter will be very curious about you and where you come from and this place called America. Bob Orben tells this story: Our son came home from college for the weekend, and I asked him, "How are things going?" And he said, "Good." And I said, "How's the food?" He said, "Good." I said, "And the dormitory?" He said, "Good." I said, "Well, they've always had a strong football team. How do you think they'll do this year?" He said, "Good." I said, "Well, now, how are your studies going?" And he said, "Good." [Laughter] And I said, "Have you decided on your major yet?" And he said, "Yes." And I said, "What is it?" He said, "Communication." [Laughter] Well, don't be afraid to tell them what you think and to speak from your heart when you're over there. There's a lot to communicate to the outside world about what's going on in this country.

I just returned from Venice where I had a chance to address the young people of Europe in a speech over WORLDNET. I mentioned then, as I mention to you now, that we're a country of peace, interested not just in controlling nuclear arms but in dramatically reducing them in number. When we first made such proposals a few years ago the critics were in full cry, saying we were impractical and our steps were unacceptable. Today the Soviet Union is publicly agreeing with those suggestions, and for the first time we have before us a chance to radically reduce the number of weapons. And this, together with new defensive systems like SDI, offer the world an historic chance to escape the cloud of nuclear terror that has hung so heavily over the last part of the 20th century.

In my WORLDNET speech, I also pointed out that the United States is for world freedom as well as world peace. I tried to convey the excitement that is freedom and the growing realization that the only way for political freedom to prosper is to guarantee the equally important right to economic freedom.

You know, we take it so for granted, this freedom of ours. I've never forgotten the story told to me by a book publisher who was of German extraction. Now, he had been growing up and at your age in Germany when it was—this was long before Hitler. This was in the era of the republic. Now, we have a republic, and they had a republic. And I asked him once—because as a publisher, I noticed that he went out of his way to publish the writings of people who were writing on events and on philosophy of our country and so forth and political works of that kind—and he told me why. And he said, "Can you imagine what it was one day in a classroom to hear a professor define freedom for us, and he used the United States." He said, "Imagine that you have arrived in the United States. You're standing on the Atlantic shore. Ahead of you is 3,000 miles of country." He said, "You are absolutely free to take off through those 3,000 miles on your own, stop anyplace you wanted to stop for as long as you wanted to stop, and finally pick where you wanted to live and decide to settle down there." And he said, "He was talking to a class of us who lived in a society where if you wanted to move from where you lived in one town just across to the other side of town you had to go to the city hall and get a permit. And then you had to explain why you were moving and where you were going and so forth." And he just never forgot that. And so, he ended up as a publisher of books in the United States.

Well, it is true. And as you look around at yourselves, and if we took all the lists of all your names and started analyzing the background of those names, it would turn out that literally every part of the world is your heritage. Here you are, all Americans, and you trace your heritage to, as I say, every corner of the world. In other words, those that we follow, our ancestors, happen to be people with a special belief in freedom and courage in their hearts that made them tear up roots wherever they lived, leave family and friends if need be, and travel to this new land where—most cases they didn't even know the language before they got here—and do it because of that extra urge for freedom that just the rest of their neighbors didn't have. And we are kind of a miracle. I have always said—you may call it mysticism f you will-but there had to be some divine plan that placed these great continents here between the two great oceans to be found by that kind of people. And that, maybe, is our purpose in life.

Now, we all have a kind of an affinity, even though we aren't the original immigrants, but some as grandparents, some great-grandparents, and further back than that are parents. And in America, the only place where you meet somebody and the first thing you know, you find out—saying, well, what are you? Well, I'm German-American, or I'm—and usually it's a mix anymore, because we've all lived here long enough that we get together and marry across what might have been national lines. And, yes, it's all right to have an affinity for what was the mother country for all of us, because if a man takes a wife unto himself, he doesn't stop loving his mother because of that. But at the same time, we're all Americans. I'll get back to that a little later on, and some more about that.

But if you look at history, I think you'll find that the first signs of decline in great nations were economic ones, decline brought on by governments that spend too much of their citizens' hard-earned money and then burden them with excessive taxation and inflation in order to foot the bill. All around the world today, there's an increasing appreciation of this lesson, an increasing realization that growth and opportunity means getting big government out of the way and letting free peoples reach as far and as high as their talents and ambitions will take them. Now there's more and more understanding that just as we have the right to speak and publish and assemble and vote, we also have rights to enjoy the fruits of our labor and not be overtaxed and overburdened by government.

I once had an adventure with a State senator in California when I was Governor who didn't understand that. We turned up with a surplus one year of $850 million. And the legislature had all kinds of ideas of what to do with it, and I had an idea, too, as Governor. I went before the people publicly and said, we're going to give it back to you. One day this senator stormed into my office. He said, "I think giving this money back to the people is an unnecessary expenditure of public funds." [Laughter] Where did he think it came from in the first place? But there are some that begin to think that it's government's money and they just let us keep a little of it. Well, in many ways, this is a reflection of what's been happening here in our own country during the past 6% years. All the way along, the choice has been the same: more taxes, more spending, more regulation, more deficits or the other choice, less of all four and a lot more growth, opportunity, and a bright economic future for my generation and yours.

When I was in Europe, several leaders spoke to me about the threat that too much deficit spending posed to the world economy. We're that important anymore economically. We can cause hard times in other countries by things we do. Here in America in the last few years, the Congress adopted something called Gramm-Rudman-Hollings, and that was a plan to gradually reduce the deficit, to set a goal down here and say each year we will come closer and finally we will reach the balanced budget, because for more than 50 years we've been deficit spending. We made progress, but now there are signs that some are going back on that commitment—the very commitment that so many other nations in the world are concerned about because they know how important our economic strength is, as I said, to their own well being.

Well, as I said the other day, we've reached breakpoint, decision time. And lately, some on Capitol Hill have been upset with me for mentioning this. They've been counseling me through the media that the people aren't listening, that they don't care any more. Well, I have to politely reject this advice. I know these decisions are important now, and they lay the foundation for our country as it faces the challenges of the 21st century, the century where you will be taking charge of this country.

I mention all this because some of those you meet abroad will ask you about this matter and our sometimes noisy arguments over here. And I hope you'll mention to them that our capacity for arguing, and arguing it all out in public, is actually the strength of our system, that dissent is not disunity. It's true there aren't many secrets here, but it's also true that that's what democracy is all about and why it's stronger over the long run and why freedom has a staying power. I guess what I'm hoping that you'll convey to our friends abroad is that sometimes in order to understand this country, you have to step back and give it a little perspective, like the cowboy who one day rode into the Grand Canyon, looked around, and exclaimed, "Wow, something happened here!" [Laughter] Well, point to America and her history, and something happened here.

You know, again, I want to speak of the uniqueness of our society, and I hope that you will find ways to gently portray this. Now, that doesn't mean you have to be the way American tourists were when we first began to go back to the motherland and visit the ancestors or the families and so forth. I guess we were a little brash at that time. They tell a story about an elderly farm couple that went over, and they were in Italy. And they were looking at one of the volcanos over there, and the tourist guide was telling them the heat that came out of that volcano and this and that and all the great power of it. And the old boy turned to his wife, and he said, "We've got a volunteer fire department at home put that thing out in 5 minutes." [Laughter]

No, you don't want to do that. But I'll tell you what is unique about us, and it's here in this room, present with all of you. You can leave here and move to Japan, but you can't become Japanese. You can move to France; you can't become a Frenchman or a Frenchwoman—Greece and not become a Greek, Turkey—all of these. But anybody, anyplace, from any corner in the world can come to live in America and become an American. And I guess that we're the only place where that is true, and that's what we're all about. You know, it's the magic and the mystery and the majesty of freedom. It's your heritage, and wherever you go, be proud of it.

And now, my very best to each of you before you go there, not only this summer but in all the days ahead. And my watch tells me that the little 11-year-old girl who wrote me a letter one day was right. Soon after I got here, I was amazed—at 11 years old—she told me all the important things I was going to have to deal with and what the great problems were. And then she wound up with a P.S. She said, "Now, get back over to the Oval Office and go to work." [Laughter] That's what I have to do.

But I wish we could stay here and visit, and I wish that we could have a meeting when you come back again. I would like to hear your assessment of the countries that you've been in and what you've seen and what you've learned from them. But also, let them learn a little bit about us, that we're not against anybody and we want peace and we want to be neighbors with all the world. And for one thing, we've proven to all the world that the old hatreds that used to exist and the rivalries on opposite sides of borders of other countries—Look at us; we've crossed all those borders. We're a melting pot, and we've found out we're all human beings, and it works.

So, God bless you, and have a good time while you're there. I know you will. Thank you.

Ms. Mandracchia. Thank you very much, Mr. President. My name is Melanie Mandracchia, and I come from Collegeville, Pennsylvania. On behalf of the People to People International, we would like to thank you for visiting with us today. Please extend our thanks to the First Lady, as well, Mrs. Reagan, for our sincere appreciation for her efforts and her many accomplishments in helping the young men and women of this country to make healthy and constructive decisions in their lives. I'd like to present you with this plaque as a token of our appreciation for your support in the International Youth Exchange.

The President. Well, thank you very much. I'm very proud to have this and proud to see you. And what did you say your name was?

Ms. Mandracchia. Melanie Mandracchia.

The President. What background is that name? [Laughter]

Ms. Mandracchia. It's Italian.

The President. It's Italian?

Ms. Mandracchia. It's very Italian.

The President. As I said, I was just there in Venice. They must have had a hard spring, because from the helicopter when I looked down, all the streets seemed to be flooded there. [Laughter] Well, I guess, as you probably know, mine's Irish, except that on my mother's side it was English and Scotch—isn't it? Here we are—America. [Laughter] Well, listen, I thank you very much for this, and I'm very honored, as I say, to have been here to see you all.

Ms. Mandracchia. Thank you.

The President. All right, go get 'em!

Note: The President spoke at 2 p.m. in Room 450 of the Old Executive Office Building.

Ronald Reagan, Remarks to Participants in the People to People International Youth Exchange Program Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

Filed Under



Washington, DC

Simple Search of Our Archives