Remarks at the American Legion's Annual National Convention in Chicago, Illinois
Commander Geiger, my comrades in the American Legion, those who are here from the Legion Auxiliary, all of our very distinguished guests, and all of the past commanders and others who are distinguished guests here on the platform:
It is indeed a very great honor for me to appear before this convention. It seems that this is my week to appear before conventions. But having first addressed a Legion convention when I was a junior Senator from the State of California back in the year 1951, I know that we do not discuss partisan politics, so I won't tell you which party nominated me.
What I would like to say today is that, first, I am aware of the magnificent tradition of the Legion, the fact that we think in terms of our country; we recognize that partisan differences really don't matter where the national defense is involved and where the peace and security of America is involved. We are not Republicans, we are not Democrats, we are Americans. And that is what the Legion feels.
My friend Don Johnson--I was saying to Commander Geiger that he was the tallest man who had been commander of the Legion since Johnson, and they are both from Iowa. That is where the corn grows tall. But in 1965, when he was the commander and I had the privilege of addressing the convention---incidentally, I appreciated your invitation to come today when I am serving as President. I appreciated it even more when I didn't hold any office in 1965.
On that occasion, Don Johnson, as commander, introduced me. He later, as you know, has become the head of the Veterans Administration. Something has happened that is very important that may not have come to your notice, that we have appointed him as a member of the Cabinet Domestic Council which raises, for the first time in this country, the status of the man in this country with responsibility for veterans affairs to the position of Cabinet status. That is where it ought to be because we have to have those matters discussed in the Cabinet.
Now I could stand here and tell you all of the great things that Don Johnson has stood for and what this Administration has done, and immediately we could write that into a partisan context.
I don't do that because, first, it is not true, and that is a good reason. I could say that perhaps the best way to describe the attitude we have on veterans affairs in the House, in the Senate, in the Administration, whether it is a Republican administration or Democrat administration, is: We must do the right thing for our veterans, for those who have served.
And on that score, it is very significant to note that when we look at the House Veterans' Affairs Committee, that we have, of course, a Democrat who is chairman of the committee and a Republican who is the minority leader. Both of them, however, have the name of Teague, but I can tell you that if I call Tiger [Olin] Teague or Charlie Teague, I get the same answer on veterans affairs, because they agree all the time.
We are proud of our record in this area. We appreciate your advice and I know, commander, that you have a number of resolutions that have been passed. I want you to, of course, submit them to us for our consideration, and we hope that, in all the years ahead, whoever serves in the office of President will remember that it is so easy to forget those who have served. Let's never do it in the United States of America.
Now I have selected for my subject to address this great convention of the American Legion here in Chicago-national defense.
When I use the subject of national defense before a Legion convention, I am sure that many would say that is like the preacher talking to the choir, because after all, you are already converted. I hope all members of the choir are converted, but in any event, you are people who believe in national defense.
You pass resolutions for strong national defense year after year. And whenever issues come up, whoever is President of the United States, he can be sure that the commander of the American Legion as he comes to the White House, as your commander here now and others through the years have been there, will be there, always supporting strong national defense.
I tell you why I talk about it today. I talk about it because it is an issue. It happens to be an issue in an election campaign. But even if there were not an election, it would be an issue, because the American people naturally would like to spend more of their money on domestic needs. They would like to spend enough to defend the country, but they don't want to spend more than they need to.
And so naturally there is honest difference of opinion as to how much we ought to spend in order to have an adequate national defense. I want to talk to you about it now with those thoughts in mind.
How much is enough? What do we really need?
Let me begin by saying something that is quite obvious, and that is that when we speak before a group like the American Legion, you know from personal experience the importance of keeping America strong.
I think perhaps the most eloquent statement in recent times in that respect was by General MacArthur in his very famous speech on the plain at West Point, "Duty, Honor, Country." If you haven't read it, read it again. It is one of the greatest speeches perhaps ever made on national defense, and also on what is great about America. About the soldier, he told them, those young men on the plain, "above all other people," he said, the soldier "prays for peace, for he must suffer and bear the deepest wounds and scars of war."
That is something we forget sometimes. We think that a veterans organization is primarily interested in the problems of war. I have found that veterans organizations have the strongest commitment to peace, because you know what war is, and you are for strength because you want to avoid more war.
Others may talk of the dream of peace and the horrors of war, but no one understands them better than you, you who have to pay the toll. It is the military man, as much as the poet or the politician, who is the guardian of peace when it comes, and is the restorer of peace when it is challenged.
History is strewn with the ruins of countries that sometimes, for the most idealistic of reasons, lost the will to defend themselves and ultimately lost the will to survive at all.
George Washington stated it also very well, perhaps it has not been surpassed, when he said, "To be prepared for war is one of the most effectual means of preserving peace." Let us not forget that warning of his, because the stakes now for us and for the rest of the world are infinitely greater than it was in that early period when the United States was a very strong country in terms of its own spirit, but very weak militarily, and not a great factor in the world.
Washington was not alone in his conviction that it takes a strong America to keep a free America. Lincoln, Wilson, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, John • Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson--each time we have found that they have spoken on this subject--always reflected in eloquent terms the need for a strong national defense.
I am convinced those are the views of a majority of Americans, whatever their partisan affiliations. I feel, of course, that there are naturally some small antimilitary activists who totally disagree. They have rights to their opinions.
As I will point out, I believe that when we consider what the goal is--and the goal is peace--that it is certainly irrefutable that we need the strong national defense if we are going to reach the goal.
That is why my principle, like yours, is that the United States must never have a defense which is second to that of any other nation in the world.
I say that for a number of reasons which, I suppose, might be open to question, but one of them is not that it is a matter of jingoistic pride, although we should be proud of our country; it is not a matter of national ego, although we should not be ashamed of our country. But, you see, I have sat across the bargaining table with representatives of other great powers. I know what they stand for. I know that the only way that we can get a reduction of arms, the only way that we can get agreements that will limit the danger of war, is to be sure that the President of the United States, whoever he is, is never negotiating from weakness. That is what we have to have.
Now the question is, "What is enough?" because I realize that others have spoken to this convention and others will speak to Legion conventions in the future and say, "We have enough; we can cut." You should consider that, but I ask you now to consider, very calmly, very quietly, what I have to say about what is enough. I have studied this a great deal. I have had the opportunity not only to negotiate, where I found out what the other side had and I knew what we had, but I also have had an opportunity, as we have wound down the war in Vietnam, to do something that we all want to do--to cut on defense where it is not needed.
We have economized. We will continue to economize on military spending whenever it is safe to do so. But I have never gambled, and I never will gamble, with the safety of the American people under the false banner of economy.
Lasting peace is built on strength. Economy always, but weakness never.
Now, look at the record. Let's see what we have done.
We have been able to reduce defense spending to a safe minimum without betraying our security or dishonoring our treaty commitments.
We have successfully reduced our overall military manpower by nearly one-third. This is all over the past 3 1/2 years.
We have closed overseas bases which were no longer needed for our national security, and we have done that without undermining the confidence of our allies.
We have successfully persuaded our allies to take up a greater share of the free world defense burden than they have in the past, under the Nixon Doctrine.
Separate the facts from the campaign rhetoric and you will find that the 1973 defense budget, which has been subject to so much criticism, accounts for only 6.4 percent of our GNP, and that imposes the smallest economic burden on our country of any defense budget in more than 20 years. Now, that is real progress.
Now we come to the key point.
We have cut our defense budget in terms of its burden on our American economy. Can we go further? In my belief, it would be a mistake to go further, and I am supported in that belief by a bipartisan majority in the House and the Senate. And to their great credit, let me say, speaking as one who is a member of the minority party as reflected in those two bodies, Democrats and Republicans who put their country above their party voted down big defense cuts because they knew it would cut into the muscle of American defense, and that we must never do.
Now that, of course, is a conclusion. Let me give you the facts to back it up. Let me give you the reasons why I think that Democrats join with Republicans in voting overwhelmingly in both the House and the Senate against these big cuts in defense that were supported by other people who believed that we could cut and still be strong enough, still be, as some have said, the strongest nation or at least with a defense second to none.
When we talk about who is going to be first, who is going to be second, let's put it in terms of what is sufficient for both countries. In that connection, what we find as we look at the Soviet Union and the United States, taking the two strongest powers in the world, we find that today they are relatively equal when we balance it all out in terms of their defenses. We are ahead in some areas; they are ahead in others. We are ahead in the areas we believe are necessary for our defense; they are ahead in the areas that they believe are necessary for their defense.
At the present time, for example, the Soviet Union has a much greater army than we have because they are a land power. They need more. On the other hand, in other areas we are ahead. But now let's look at these various cuts.
If we want to keep the United States from having the second best defense, we must recognize that if we should take the Minuteman III program, the Poseidon missile program, and if we should halt the development of those programs, it would mean that the United States would be the second strongest country in the world in missiles. We would be number two, not number one.
So now we start. We are second in manpower already. Now we are second in missiles. If we were to cut 60 percent of our strategic bomber force, which is the second recommendation made by some of the others, and if we cancel development of the B-1 bomber, it would mean that the United States would become the second strongest nation in the world in air power. There are no other conclusions you can reach.
If we cut back on our naval strength, as some have recommended, and they have recommended that we can cut carrier forces from 16 to 6, if we do that at a time when the Soviet Union is actively engaged in the greatest naval buildup in history, the United States would become the second strongest nation in the world in naval power.
What this adds up to, my friends, very simply is this: We would be second on the ground; we would be second in air power; we would be second in terms of missiles; and we would be second as far as the Navy is concerned. That means we would be hopelessly behind. We cannot let that happen to America. We have to see that America always has enough.
So the issue of whether we cut or don't cut is very simply this: The cuts that I have mentioned make the United States the second strongest nation in the world. That is why I have had to oppose them. That is why a majority of the Members of the House and Senate oppose them, and that is why I ask the American Legion to oppose them in the interest of strong national defense for this country.
Let's turn to a couple of other areas.
Many of the Legionnaires here have served in Europe, either in World War II or, after that, in our peacetime forces in NATO. If we would have a major, unilateral reduction of our forces in NATO, what it would do would be to undercut the confidence of our friends, but more important, it would destroy an initiative that we are now undertaking with the Soviet Union and with the Warsaw Pact forces mutually to reduce our forces.
Let's look at another point, looking to the future. If we were to cut back the money going into research and development for a more modern national defense, we risk the safety of the next generation of Americans, because this I know: The Soviet Union is not cutting back on its research and development.
Let us remember: We have made a significant step forward in our talks with the Soviets, but it was hard-headed bargaining. We expected them to bargain hard. We bargained hard. We have had the first step taken to limit nuclear arms. We have had a treaty to limit, of course, nuclear arms as far as defensive arms are concerned. We have an offensive limitation as an understanding. We are going to go on with further negotiations, we trust, later in this year.
But, my friends, the only way, in any kind of a negotiation, you can get something in dealing with a major power like the Soviet Union, or any other major power--the only way you can get something is if you have something to give. If the United States unilaterally cuts back on what we have, you have destroyed their incentive to come to the conference table, because they will already have what they want.
That is another reason why we have to keep these defenses up. That is the responsible position. We are going to continue to be responsible. If we do, putting it on the positive side, we stand today on the brink of a more peaceful, more secure era for all mankind, because from a positive standpoint, we can negotiate in these areas-negotiating not from weakness.
Now, none of this could have been achieved without the strong moral support of groups like the American Legion, of individual Americans of both political parties, as I have indicated. If there is one thing that can sustain a President in trying times, it is the support and faith of the people themselves. More than any other American, the President has the opportunity to witness this faith in a thousand big and little ways.
People write letters. They say they are praying for you. A commander of the American Legion or the VFW or another veterans organization comes in or he calls on the phone. These things mean a great deal, particularly when we have difficult times. I am grateful for the support that you have given, not to me as an individual, not to my party, but to the President of the United States, who is Commander in Chief of our Armed Forces. You have stood behind your Government during the difficult but successful policy of winding down the war in Vietnam and settling it in an honorable way.
That is why we have been able to bring home half a million American fighting men from Vietnam. But what is more important, we have done it without selling out our allies, without surrendering to our enemies, and without abandoning our prisoners of war or our missing in action. That we will never do.
Now, I would like to say something, if I could, about the men who have served and are serving our country in Vietnam and other parts of the world. I know that it has become rather fashionable in recent times, perhaps in the last 4 or 5 years as we have gone through the terribly difficult war in Vietnam, to find everything that is wrong about the men who serve in our Armed Forces: They are drug addicts; they are dangerous people; they are savage; they are people that are really the inferior people, the ones who, from a moral standpoint, agreed to serve rather than not to serve, and so on and so forth.
Let me tell you that I have been to Vietnam a number of times. Since our involvement there began, I have been there in '64, '65--six times, as a matter of fact, before I became President, and once since. I have gone out in the field. I have been to Danang with the Marines. I have been up in the highlands with the Army. I have been down in the Delta, also with Army forces. I have seen some of the Naval forces, too.
Let me tell you, yes, there are, as there always are in every war, as there always are in any American community of young men, there are men who don't live up to the standards that we would like. But I can tell you that as I have seen the young men who have served in Vietnam, I am proud of them. They are fine young men, and we should stand up for them.
I am very proud, for example, of Marine and Army groups who, in the year 1967--and it has happened every year since then, that was the last time I was there and had a chance to look at it though in this particular matter--contributed $1 million out of their very small pay for the purpose of helping to build schools and community centers and roads for the people of South Vietnam.
I have seen Marines, I have seen young men, enlisted men, not officers necessarily--oh, they were there, too---but I have seen them out there teaching language, working, taking their time, helping these people in a peaceful way. Let me say, instead of making moral heroes of a few hundred who have deserted their country, let's honor the real heroes who have served their country in Vietnam.
They are gallant men. They are not ashamed of their country. They are brave men who did not desert their Nation. They are heroes who will stand just as tall as those who fought at Normandy and Iwo Jima. America is not going to turn her back on them. We are not going to make a mockery of their sacrifice and devotion by talking of amnesty for deserters while some of their comrades are held captive in brutal North Vietnamese prisons.
What they fought for and what we seek today is a true generation of peace, not a short and humiliating truce that will encourage aggression and have the effect of rewarding the foes of freedom. I know that many say that the journey to such a peace is long, and of course it is. But it is a journey that we have begun. We have begun it in opening a new relationship with the world's most populous country, the People's Republic of China. We have begun it in our negotiations with the Soviet Union. I have gone to the four corners of the earth, including even other countries that a President never visited before.
I don't mean that trips alone do it, but I do mean that because the United States is strong, because the United States is respected, the United States can be and should be the leader in the world for peace.
That is why we must keep our strength, because if we were not strong we would not be respected. Let's never have a President in that position as he goes abroad. I found a desire for peace in Peking and Moscow. Many of you will find that hard to believe, but it is not desired for the same reason or the same terms in each of these world centers. But it is desired, so that if America does not falter or weaken we have a basis to build on.
We can have a hope that the next generation of Americans will not have to face the same specter of war in their time that we have had in ours. This is a noble hope, a hope we all should work to build into reality. It will not become a reality if we heed the honest but misguided voices of those who say we should weaken America today and naively hope for peace tomorrow.
But it can become a reality if we continue to follow a responsible, rational foreign policy, if we keep America strong enough to make that policy credible.
Therefore, I say, let us join together-join together to keep America strong. If we do this, a strong America can continue to lead the world toward a just and lasting peace.
I should like to close my remarks, if I could, Commander Geiger and my comrades in the American Legion, with these rather personal notes: Having been a member of the Legion since 1947, spoken to local posts, then State groups, and then national conventions, I think I know my comrades and I know what you want for your country.
These parting words are what I think the role of the Legion can be in these years as we move from war to peace:
First, it is vitally important to keep America strong; I know you will support that proposition. Second, it is vitally important to honor the men who have served, because, remember, we are now moving to a volunteer armed force. In order for that volunteer armed force to be adequately served, it is going to have to be something more than money. We are going to have to give respect to those that guard the United States in times of peace.
Finally, my third request to my comrades in the American Legion is this--in addition to keeping our country strong and honoring those who serve, continue the wonderful work you are doing with young Americans. I was tremendously excited to see the young voters that I saw in Miami over this last week. The fact that for the first time the 18- to 21-year-olds are voting means that we have a new element in American politics. It will be good for the country and good for both parties because they bring idealism and enthusiasm that we need.
But let me say that I have also been tremendously moved when I have seen the representatives of Boys Nation and Girls Nation, and Mrs. Nixon has met with them, too, when they have come to Washington. You wonder whether that kind of work is worthwhile. I will tell you, it certainly is, because the important thing for our young Americans to realize-and a great majority of them, I believe, do realize that--is that they should not give up on the system, which was the fashionable thing 3, 4, 5 years ago, is that they should remember that this American system is one that you can change peacefully by working within the system. Here is the message to give them: Tell them that the answer to throwing a rock is to cast a vote. That is the answer.
Finally, let us also tell them and tell all of our fellow Americans that we have nothing to be ashamed of in terms of what we seek in the world. Oh, we have made our mistakes in foreign policy. I know that we look back to World War I--and there are not so many of those veterans still here, but some fortunately are still with us--World War II, Korea, Vietnam. Do you realize we have sent millions of Americans abroad in four wars in this century? But never for the purpose of destroying freedom, only to defend it; never for the purpose of breaking the peace, only to keep it.
The United States has had, in terms of its foreign policy, an idealistic thrust which has been very unusual in the history of great nations. That is why strength in the hands of the United States means safety for the world. Keep America strong. Be proud of what America has done in fighting its wars and how it is now fighting to bring about generations of peace for the years ahead.
Note: The President spoke at 12:01 p.m. in the McCormick Place convention center.
The President spoke from a prepared text. An advance text of his remarks was released on the same day.
Richard Nixon, Remarks at the American Legion's Annual National Convention in Chicago, Illinois Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/254757