Bill Clinton photo

Remarks to the American Legion Girls Nation

July 21, 1995

Thank you. Well, good afternoon. I'm delighted to see you all. I'm sorry we're beginning a little late, but I think all of you know that we have been working very hard for the last few days on the crisis in Bosnia. So I'd like to say a few words about that and then make the remarks that I wanted to make to the delegates to Girls Nation.

As you know, there are meetings now going on in London in which the United States is working with our allies to reach a common position which would permit the United Nations mission to continue but would empower the international community to stand up against the outrages that have occurred in the last few days.

We're all concerned about those events, and we welcome the statement by Foreign Secretary Rifkind that an attack by the Bosnian Serbs on the United Nations safe area of Gorazde will be met by a substantial and decisive response. For the United States, the most important word is "decisive."

The conference has also agreed that the U.N. mission should be strengthened and that access to the city of Sarajevo should be ensured by the rapid reaction force that the British and French and others are attempting to establish and that we have strongly supported. There is more work to be done, and the United States is determined to do everything that we can not only to deal with the problems of Gorazde and Sarajevo but also to find a peaceful end to this war.

The meetings so far, from my point of view, are proceeding well. There seems to be a real sense of resolve to come together in common purpose, and I am encouraged. We will have more reports later.

Now, let me welcome all of you here. As all you know, I hope—or some of you doubtless know, I was here as a delegate to Boys Nation on this month, 32 years ago. This is a very different time but a very challenging time for our country. And I'd like to make, if I might, just a few observations about the world that will be your future.

At the end of the cold war and the dawn of the next century, our country is in so many ways better positioned for the future than any other country in the world. And I believe that the chances are very strong that the young people of America will have, by far, the most exciting lives, the most full of possibility, and the most free of the fear of war and destruction of any generation of Americans ever.

But this is a difficult time as well. And let me just sort of put out the two sides of the coin. If you look at it, the positive side is our economy is strong. We have seen 7 million new jobs in the last 2 1/2 years, very low inflation, low unemployment. The stock market's at an all-time high. Business profits are high. The last 2 years in America, in each year we have had the largest number of new businesses formed of any year in our history and a record number of Americans becoming millionaires, through their own efforts, through their own efforts, succeeding in our system. In almost every major area of our country where the crime rate has been high, there has been a substantial drop in the crime rate. That is the good news.

On the other hand, it is also true that in spite of all this economic good news, more than half the American people are working harder today for the same or lower incomes they were making 2 1/2 years ago, so that this opportunity is only coming to part of our people. It is also true that even though the crime rate is down overall in the United States and in many of our major cities, young people are still subject to extraordinary rates of violence and crime, that drug usage is still way too high, and that an increasingly high percentage of our children are born into poverty in a welfare culture.

So the question for you is: How are we going to solve the problems and keep the opportunities? What kind of country do you want to live in? If you look beyond our borders, it's the same thing. The United States now is living in a world where we and the Russians are dismantling our nuclear weapons, where—you know, when I was your age we were still worrying about whether we had nuclear fallout shelters in case there was a bomb dropped. We don't have to worry about that now.

We're seeing peace progress being made everyplace from South Africa to Northern Ireland to the Middle East, democracy restored in Haiti, a lot of good things going on. But what you see in Bosnia and what you see in Rwanda and Burundi is an example of the continuing power of division, division by race, by religion, by ethnic group, to tear people apart and destroy lives.

What you saw in Oklahoma City, what we see when a bus of children or innocent tourists is blown up in the Middle East, what you saw in the subway in Japan where sarin gas was released and killed people, is the new threat to our security from terrorism. And the freer and the more open the world gets, the more vulnerable free people everywhere will be to the organized forces of destruction. So the question is how to reap the benefits of freedom and the end of the cold war and openness and still fight the organized forces of destruction.

My vision for this country is that in the 21st century, in your great lifetimes, we will be a high-opportunity society; a high-growth, highwage, smart-work society, making real progress on our social problems; that people will be empowered to make the most of their own lives and the most of their God-given abilities; and communities and families will have the ability to solve their own problems. That is the kind of America that I want to see in a world where peace and freedom and progress are always moving in the right direction.

There will never be an end to problems as long as we're on this Earth, but we need to be going in the right direction and taking advantage of these opportunities. And I am convinced that in our country at this time, when we're changing so much, there is sort of a commonsense consensus about what we ought to do that has been damaged by excessive partisanship and excessive reliance on harsh rhetoric and extreme positions to divide the American people for the political advantage of those who seek to reap it.

And in a time like this of really profound change, we all have to try to imagine the future we want and then ask how are we going to get there and what do we have to do to pull together to get there. That's essentially what we're trying to do here.

So that, for example, I find myself—I agree with the Republican majority in Congress that we ought to balance the budget. We can't afford to have a permanent deficit. But I disagree that we ought to do it in ways that will imperil the Medicare system, undermine our ability to guarantee all the young people in this country the right to go to college and get the education that they need, or undermine our ability to protect our environment and our natural heritage and our future. So we have to get through those disagreements.

The main thing I want you to know is that this is an exciting time. On balance, it's a good time. I believe that your adult years will be lived out in America's best period in history if, but only if, we find a way to live together and work together and bridge our divisions and focus on the challenges before us.

And that really will be the great issue of your time. We're going to change regardless. The question is, what kind of change will it be? And are we going to see a country like ours, which is so diverse—well over 150 different racial and ethnic and religious groups in the United States—are we going to see that country come together and take advantage of that, or are we going to suffer from some of the same problems we've seen paralyzing the rest of the world and leading to the deaths of innocent people?

On balance, I am quite optimistic. But this is a very serious time for the United States and a very important time for you to be here. So I hope you will keep that in the back of your mind as you spend all this time here and then when you go back home next year.

Welcome, and God bless you all. Thank you.

NOTE: The President spoke at 2:21 p.m. in the East Room at the White House. In his remarks, he referred to Secretary of State for Defense Malcolm Rifkind of the United Kingdom.

William J. Clinton, Remarks to the American Legion Girls Nation Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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