Remarks on the 50th Anniversary of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at Fort Myer, Virginia
Thank you very much. Thank you, Secretary Cohen and Janet. Let me begin by thanking the Secretary for his remarks, his devotion, his remarkable leadership, and his willingness to serve in our administration, to prove that when it comes to the national security of the United States, we are beyond party, and all Americans.
General Shelton, thank you for your leadership and for your remarks. And we are delighted to be joined today not only by your wonderful wife, Carolyn, but also by your mother. We're glad she came up to be with us.
Thanks, Secretary Slater, Secretary West, Senator Thurmond, for being here. Senator Thurmond may be the only person here who served in the military before there was a Joint Chiefs of Staff. He was at D-day, and he's here 55 years later, and we're delighted to have him. In both places, he has served our country well. Thank you, Senator.
I thank the service secretaries, the members of the Joint Chiefs who are here, General Ralston and others, and the former members of the Joint Chiefs, and all the other officers who are here. One in particular I would like to mention, General Wes Clark, because of his extraordinary leadership in our most recent military victory in Kosovo. I thank him and all the men and women of our Armed Forces who have served there.
I especially want to welcome here the former Chairmen and their wives: Admiral and Mrs. Moorer, General and Mrs. Jones, General and Mrs. Vessey, Admiral and Mrs. Crowe, General and Mrs. Shalikashvili, and, of course, Alma Powell. We're glad to have them here.
Fifty years ago—you've heard a lot about already today, but I think it is worth remembering what it was like to be the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff 50 years ago. It was a new job. It was clearly overwhelmingly preoccupied with the onset of the cold war and the need to defend Europe. But soon after General Omar Bradley was summoned to assume the job, war broke out in Korea. So he had not only to defend Europe, but also to defend freedom in South Korea, and fulfill the job description to coordinate the services, and also to coordinate with the State Department and the White House.
We have our White House Chief of Staff, Mr. Podesta, and the National Security Adviser, Mr. Berger, and others who are here. I think we can say with some conviction that sometimes the hardest military job of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs is his coordination with the White House. And it has been so for 50 years. But General Bradley and then 13 other remarkable leaders have found a way to do that, and at the same time, to provide wise and honest counsel at crucial moments to every President and Secretary of the Defense. And I would like to stop a moment and emphasize that.
There will come a time in the service of every President—in my time it has come, unfortunately, on several occasions—when you have to have the honest advice of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs. And very often, it is the last thing in the world you want to hear, because he will either tell you that you really can't achieve the objective you want to achieve for the price you're willing to pay, or that you have to do something that you'd rather to go to the dentist without novocaine than do. And I can tell you that, without exception, every time a Chairman of the Joint Chiefs has had to do that to me, he has done it. He has served our country well; he has served the President well; he has served the military and the men and women in uniform well. This institution has worked because the people who are part of it did what they were required to do in times of crisis. And our country should be very grateful to all of them.
Just think what has happened over the last 50 years. We look back on 50 years of constant vigilance, of two hot wars and a long cold war, of military victories in the Persian Gulf and the Balkans, of difficulties like the Cuban missile crisis and many others too numerous to mention. But through it all, and though new threats emerged continuously, we see the march to freedom, and we see the depth of America's security.
We can look forward to the 21st century with genuine confidence, in no small measure because of the 14 leaders we honor today. So again, I say, along with the Secretary of Defense, to those who are here, to the surviving families of those who are not, and to those who could not be with us today, our Nation is grateful. You have served it well.
I was very privileged to work with three Chairs: Colin Powell, John Shalikashvili, and Hugh Shelton; to work very closely with the previous Chairman, Bill Crowe, who has been my Ambassador to Great Britain and has done a lot of important work to alert us to the continuing dangers to our Embassies and their personnel from terrorists. I had the privilege of getting good counsel on the very difficult POW/ MIA issue from General Vessey, and on our efforts to save innocent civilians from the dangers of landmines by General Jones. Of course, I still hear from General Powell on a regular basis about his work with America's Promise and our shared interest in it.
The more I know the people who are involved in these endeavors, the more my esteem for them grows. I always have separation anxiety when someone important leaves. When Shali walked out the door and went all the way across the country, I thought Joan would never let him come back. But I've even found something for him to do from time to time that doesn't get him in too much trouble at home.
These people are unique. They have these unique experiences that they blend with their abilities and their patriotism. And I think we should think just a moment about the position beyond the question of advice to the President. If you think about it, with the world changing as much as it is today, and with the United States occupying the rather unique position we occupy at this moment in history, there are few positions which require the occupant to think harder about the threats the Nation faces and will face. There are few which force a leader to weigh more soberly the costs of action— which in a world where people are comfortable, are very high—against the costs down the road of inaction. There are few which require a person to spend as much time thinking about how to avoid war as how to win one if it should become necessary.
General Bradley said a long time ago that the way to win a nuclear war is to make sure it never starts. I would like to thank the former Chairs of the Joint Chiefs who have endorsed the ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty to end nuclear testing forever, proposed by President Eisenhower, championed by President Kennedy, signed now by the United States and over 150 other countries; 41 of them have ratified it. Four of our former Chairs—General Jones, Admiral Crowe, General Powell, General Shalikashvili—have issued a statement endorsing the treaty, agreeing with the current Chair, General Shelton, that it is in America's interest.
Why? Because we have already stopped testing; our leading experts say we can maintain a safe and reliable nuclear deterrent without further tests; and the only remaining question is, will we join or lose a verifiable treaty that can prevent other countries from testing nuclear weapons. If we don't ratify it, by its terms the treaty can't enter into force. And countries all around the world will feel more pressure to develop and test weapons in ever more destructive varieties and sizes, threatening the security of everyone on Earth.
So today, once again, as we honor the Joint Chiefs, the individuals and the institution, I ask the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to hold hearings on the treaty this fall and the full Senate to vote for ratification as soon as possible. This will strengthen national security not only of the United States but of people around the world. This will help the new Chairs of the Joint Chiefs in the future not only to prepare for war but to avoid it.
Let me finally say that as we approach a new century, we can still be proud, indeed, never prouder, of our men and women in uniform. Thanks to their courage and skill in the most recent campaign in Kosovo, a brutal campaign of ethnic cleansing has been reversed; our alliance has been preserved and strengthened; there is new hope for a world where people are not murdered or uprooted because of their ethnic heritage or the way they choose to worship God.
Operation Allied Force was a truly remarkable military campaign: over 30,000 sorties flown; no combat casualties. Still we must not indulge the illusion of a risk-free war. In Kosovo, our pilots risked their lives every day. They took enemy fire, faced enemy aircraft, time and again put themselves in even greater danger just to avoid hitting civilians on the ground. And we know not every conflict will be like Kosovo; not every battle can be won from the air.
We must remember, too, that the rigorous training we require of our men and women in uniform is in itself dangerous. We lost two helicopter pilots training in Kosovo. In every single year, we lose a good number of men and women in uniform just doing their duty.
Our job from the top down is to reduce the risks of their service as much as we can and to send our service men and women into harm's way only when we're certain that the purpose is clear, the mission is achievable, and all peaceful options have been exhausted.
When we do send them, we have to make sure they have the tools to do the job. We must always match their skill and courage with a high level of readiness. And we must always prepare today for tomorrow's threats. All those jobs, in the end, fall on the shoulders of the Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
In his remarkable memoir of World War II, Omar Bradley wrote the following words. He said, "No matter how high an officer's rank, it's important to scoff at the myth of the indispensable man. For we have always maintained that Arlington Cemetery is filled with indispensable men."
Now, that statement is a tribute to his decency and his humility. Nevertheless, for 50 years now, the role of Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff has been indispensable to the preservation of life on this planet from nuclear holocaust, to the security of the United States, and to the march of freedom across the world.
Fourteen Americans of great ability and even more intense patriotism have occupied that office and made it indispensable. So, to all of those who are here and their families and those who are not here today, a grateful nation says, thank you, thank you, thank you.
NOTE: The President spoke at 10 a.m. at Summerall Field. In his remarks, he referred to Secretary Cohen's wife, Janet Langhart Cohen; General Shelton's mother, Sarah Laughlin Shelton; Gen. Wesley K. Clark, USA, Supreme Allied Commander Europe; former Chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Thomas H. Moorer, USN (Ret.), and his wife, Carrie; Gen. David C. Jones, USA (Ret.), and his wife, Lois; Gen. John W. Vessey, Jr., USA (Ret.), and his wife, Avis; Adm. William J. Crowe, Jr., USN (Ret.), and his wife, Shirley; Gen. John M. Shalikashvili, USA (Ret.), and his wife, Joan; and Gen. Colin Powell, USA (Ret.), and his wife, Alma.
William J. Clinton, Remarks on the 50th Anniversary of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at Fort Myer, Virginia Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/227745