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Remarks to Students From Southern Regional High School of Manahawkin, New Jersey, in Baltimore, Maryland

October 15, 1986

The President. Playing hooky? [Laughter] No, I know you aren't. Well, this was kind of a new thing that came along, and I'm certainly—a great pleasure for me to have this chance to speak with you in this historic location—all of you from Southern Regional High School in Manahawkin, New Jersey. And I hope I haven't interrupted your tour too much by taking advantage of your presence here.

Well, during the Second World War, General Marshall, who later became Secretary of State and was the creator of the Marshall plan, he was asked at the beginning of the war, what was our secret weapon in World War II. And the General said, "Just the best blankety-blank kids in the world." I've had a feeling for some time now that that can be said again about your generation. I've met a lot of you all around the country and been very proud of what I've seen. An important reason why some of us older types are still active, instead of being up on a certain ranch in California, is that we want to make certain that when it comes your turn to take over you have the same kind of a country with as much opportunity and as much freedom as we had when it was our turn to take over.

This is a fitting location to speak about our country's security and my recent talks with General Secretary Gorbachev. The British had already burned Washington by the time their fleet arrived at Fort McHenry back in 1814, and they would have continued their drive capturing and possibly destroying the metropolitan centers of our young country had they not been stopped. And what saved the day was the skill and bravery of those who fought here; some, undoubtedly, were no older than you are. The defenders of Fort McHenry withstood a tremendous naval bombardment and stopped the enemy cold. They were heroes. But in retrospect, credit must also be given to those farsighted individuals who made certain the fort was ready for action and who equipped the fort's defenders with reliable weapons. And it shouldn't be forgotten that this fort was built in 1799—during a time of peace.

I understand you're here today as part of your study in American history. And I have to tell you, I'm delighted that that is so, because there has been a period, not too long ago, when history sort of fell out of fashion in many of our schools and people like yourselves were allowed to grow up without too much knowledge of the past.

Fort McHenry, as I say, was built as a means of defending our country against the deadliest weapon of that time, which was the warship with its cannons. And no one could imagine then what accomplishments were to follow for peace and, regrettably, for war. And again today we can't imagine what the future holds. We hope and pray that there will always be peace. But like those who built this fort in the time of peace, so, too, we must be prepared to defend against those who would attempt to deny our freedom. We must be prepared. Unfortunately, today most Americans don't realize that our country has no defense at all against the deadliest weapons of our day: nuclear-tipped missiles, intercontinental ballistic missiles. Somebody pushes a button, and a half hour later our world is blowing tip.

Having such a defensive system wouldn't threaten anyone; it would protect our country. And this is what our research program, our modern-day Fort McHenry called the Strategic Defense Initiative—you've heard those letters SDI over and over again—well that's what it's all about. We're engaging some of our country's best minds to find out if it isn't possible to build a system that would provide a shield to protect all of us from a missile attack, as this fort shielded Baltimore from cannon attack. And by the time you high school students are finished with your education, a new technology may be available that will make this a far safer world than the one that we're living in today, one in which the danger of nuclear war will not cast a shadow over your lives as it has over ours.

I met with General Secretary Gorbachev over the weekend, as I'm sure you know, in Iceland. We spoke about human rights and certain conflicts in the world and a more open relationship between our two countries. We proposed the most sweeping and generous arms control proposal in history. We offered the complete elimination of all nuclear ballistic missiles—Soviet and American-from the face of the Earth by 1996. While we parted company with this American offer still on the table, we're closer than ever before to agreements that could lead to a safer world without nuclear weapons. I'm always aware that, as President, I'm not just making decisions for today's Americans, but tomorrow's Americans as well. I was not about to bargain away a safer world for you tomorrow.

It's my sincere hope that Mr. Gorbachev will review the great strides we made in Iceland and join with us in reducing nuclear weapons and in building technology that protects lives rather than destroying them. That's the only protection we have today. The policy is called the MAD policy, and really because the words are mutual assured destruction. But it really is a mad policy, a treaty called the ABM, and in reality, what it says is neither side will protect our people from a possible nuclear attack and, therefore, will be so seared of shooting at each other that we won't do it. Well, I don't place an awful lot of confidence in that. And I think if we can come up with a weapon that says to them, if you push that button your weapons can't get here—and I offered to share that weapon with them, so they could say the same thing about ours. But, well, we'll keep on working at that.

SDI is our policy, our insurance policy, to protect against a madman in the world or an attack by the Soviet Union. So, let's look forward and seek agreements and not look back and place blame. I repeat my offer to Mr. Gorbachev. Our proposals are serious. They remain on the table, and our negotiators are there in Geneva looking at them. So, we're ready to pick up where we left off. There's a unique opportunity to achieve real arms reductions, and it shouldn't be missed. Technology and freedom are opening new possibilities every day. And, clearly, I think the future is on our side.

But right now I know I have to go, and I'm taking up too much of your time, but I'd just like to mention something else to you as history students. You know, I've read a lot of constitutions. I guess every country in the world has got a constitution. The Soviet Union's Constitution I have read. And if you look at it, you will see many things in there that are in ours—the freedom to speak and the freedom to assemble and so forth. Of course, if anybody in Russia tries to do that, they get arrested. But it's in their Constitution.

Now what is the difference? Why is ours a document so great that one of the greatest of English statesmen many, many years ago said that this probably represented the greatest single achievement of mankind-the creation of our Constitution. Why was it that Daniel Webster said, "Protect the Constitution, preserve it"? Because if the American Constitution is ever allowed to fall, there will be chaos, anarchy, throughout the world.

Well, there's a difference that is so little, tiny, that you hardly notice it, and yet it is so great it tells the whole story. All those other constitutions are written by governments that in their constitutions say to their people: Here are the privileges, and here are the rights which we guarantee to you. Our Constitution says: Here are the rights and the privileges that we the people grant to government, and government can have no other rights or privileges that are not mentioned unless they are mentioned specifically in this Constitution. When our Revolution took place, a few years before this fort was built, other revolutions had taken place in the world, time immemorial and up to today. All those other revolutions simply exchanged one set of rulers for another set of rulers. Ours was the first philosophical revolution. Ours said governments are not the masters of the people; they are the servants of the people. And government can do nothing unless the people tell government specifically that government can do that.

And I don't know whether you'd thought about that, but in the very near future we're going to be recognizing and celebrating in this country the 200th birthday of the United States Constitution. And I just couldn't resist, in case you hadn't gotten to it in history, making sure that you knew about it.

Well, listen, it's good to see all of you here, and I know I've got to—incidentally, in addition to that history and everything else, you keep up with your studies; but also those of you who are 18 and those of you who are approaching 18, remember that this government of, by, and for the people won't work unless the people perform their duty, which is to vote every time there's an election. And try to make up your minds as to what the issues are and what your feeling is about them. And don't just get bothered by labels and think you've got to vote one way because you belong to a certain party or something. Vote on the basis of what you think and what you feel. There was a man, a great humorist, named Will Rogers some years ago—he's dead now—but Will Rogers said that the people that we elect to office—public office—are no better and no worse than the rest of us, but they're all better than those who don't vote at all. So, keep in mind that that's the privilege you've got. Use that privilege.

God bless you all, and thank you very much. Have fun looking at the fort. I've got to go over and get somebody elected to office now. Thank you all.

Reporter. Mr. President, did the Soviets sandbag you by offering that broad arms control that you didn't come to discuss?

The President. No, I didn't feel there was any sandbagging at all.

Q. Do you think you are winning the propaganda war with Gorbachev after Iceland?

The President. Well, he's trying propaganda. I'm just telling the truth, Sam [Sam Donaldson, ABC News].

Q. When do you think you'll have an agreement, Mr. President'?

The President. I don't know. I don't know.

Q. Do you think that you'll actually go back to the table again with him?

The President. I have to believe we will, yes.

Q. When?

The President. Ask him. I did, and he didn't answer.

Q. Mr. President, are Republican candidates going to be helped by how you did in Iceland?

The President. I don't know of any hostages that are being held in Iceland.

Q. No, Republican candidates—are Republican candidates going to be helped by how you did in Iceland?

The President. Oh, I thought you said "held." I don't know. I'm going to find out between now and November 4th.

Q. Do you think it's good politics?

Q. Are you going to write Gorbachev a personal note?

Note: The President spoke at 12:53 p.m. at Fort McHenry.

Ronald Reagan, Remarks to Students From Southern Regional High School of Manahawkin, New Jersey, in Baltimore, Maryland Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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