George Bush photo

Remarks at the Annual Conference of the Veterans of Foreign Wars

March 06, 1989

Well, thank you very much, Larry. I remember when Larry Rivers first took over. I was Vice President -- came in to greet me. I wasn't sure he knew what he was getting into. But he's holding up real well -- [laughter] -- and doing a first-class job, and you're lucky to have this dynamic young man as your leader.

You know, it's a pleasure to be here. I also want to express my best wishes to a real institution of the VFW; you know who I'm talking about -- Cooper Holt. I can't believe it, I can't believe that he's stepping down this year, after more than a quarter of a century of distinguished service as the executive director. But let me tell you something: Members of the VFW -- others who stand for a strong defense, whoever they may be -- Cooper has earned the gratitude of veterans everywhere for making the VFW his life-long cause, but also the way he has conducted himself in Washington and elsewhere in this high office. He has my respect and my friendship, and I don't know what it's going to be like without him around here, I'll tell you.

I want to pay my respects to General Al Gray, member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, a Commandant of the Marine Corps, outstanding soldier -- outstanding marine, I should say. Sorry, Al. [Laughter] Really know how to hurt a guy, but -- [laughter] -- an outstanding leader. And also, to my former colleague and dear friend, the veterans' friend, Congressman Sonny Montgomery, over here.

Before I begin -- and I want to talk to you about two or three major issues -- but before I begin, let me just say a word about an issue that is of particular importance, I'd say, to the people in this room. You know John Tower as a fellow veteran, and you know him as a lifelong public servant. And you also know him as a fighter. And he's fought for his country as a 17-year-old enlisted man in the United States Navy. And now he and I are fighting for what I think are some very important principles, principles that the American people understand, like fairness and truth, and principles like the prerogative of a President of the United States to assemble the most talented and qualified team to guide this nation forward.

And I have asked the Senate to vote on this nomination with those principles in mind, asked the Senate to put aside partisanship. I've asked them to use their own experience with John Tower as an expert on defense issues; as a former colleague; and as a tough, hardnosed negotiator to guide them as they move towards a vote on this nomination. It is very interesting that not one single United States Senator has challenged John Tower's knowledge on defense matters or his experience to do this job -- not one single Senator.

And I stand by this man, I stand by him because he is uniquely qualified as the right man to take charge of the Pentagon. Enough of that now. [Laughter] I wanted to get it off my chest. I'm getting sick and tired of some of the rumors and the innuendoes that are used against this decent man. Back to the gentler and kinder message. [Laughter]

Look, it's always an honor to meet with fellow members of the VFW. The love of liberty is the birthright of all men, certainly all Americans, and that's why our nation owes a special debt of gratitude to its veterans, who freely and courageously took up the defense of freedom. I am especially pleased to welcome the Department of Veterans Affairs to a place in the Cabinet, and it's a cause, I might add, that you were in the lead on. And it's a sign of America's commitment to her veterans, of the importance we place in repaying in some way the sacrifice that veterans have made in answering their country's call. And in my view, it is important that the first Secretary is someone who is close to the President, who has the President's full confidence on a personal basis, and Ed Derwinski, my former colleague in Congress and my friend of longstanding, fits that description to a tee. He will be an outstanding Secretary.

Some facts: Today there are six times as many veterans alive as there were when the VA was created in 1930. Ed already has come to see me to discuss some of the challenges facing us in these programs. With the pressure the country is under -- and let's make no mistake about it, the pressures are great -- to solve our massive Federal deficit, we may not be able to do everything we'd like to do in the way of adding resources, but I can tell you that Ed is your strong advocate. And like me, he understands the needs, including the crying need for strong health care for the veterans. He already is an advocate for that.

I want to speak this morning about a matter of the utmost importance to the VFW -- keeping America strong -- today and then, just 11 years from now, into the 21st century. Opinion is nearly unanimous that today is a time of transition in world affairs. That means our powers of observation and analysis, our ability to sort out change and continuity, will be put to the test. And when it comes to predicting the future, Winston Churchill's rule is the best. It is: "I always avoid prophesying beforehand because it's much better policy to prophesy after the event has already taken place." You've got to think about that one for a while, and maybe I'm the guy to do that. Last year I told the American Legion about Pearl Harbor being on September 7th. [Laughter] Just think, if Franklin Roosevelt had listened to me, think what we could have spared the Nation. [Laughter]

You know, maybe you've read and maybe you haven't that we are in the midst of a series of systematic strategic reviews, and I've asked the members of my national security team to look hard at the international landscape and to look forward to assess the combination of security threats, technological change, and political and economic developments that will shape our security horizon well into the next century. And I am convinced that this important review, this important exercise, will have lasting benefits to our national security. In my address to Congress last month, I set a 90-day deadline for this important work. And I won't rush the final results. The insights we will gain into the problems we will face in the decades ahead are worth waiting for. And the other day I went over to the Pentagon and met with certain members of the Joint Chiefs and those running that building, and I must tell you, I'm very pleased these reviews are going forward.

But today I want to speak about the foundations of an adequate national defense program, about the world we live in, and the challenges and opportunities we'll encounter, and about the approach I'll take on issues integral to our own national security.

First, the foundations: A month ago, I presented to the Congress a sound defense spending plan that makes sense, strategically and fiscally. As a sign that my administration is serious about the deficit, I called for a freeze in defense spending in 1990, adjusted only for inflation. And I'm well aware that our national strength rests ultimately on the health and vigor of the American economy. And we need a strong defense, and we need a strong economy. And I mean to preserve both, but our crucial military modernization plans and the diverse defense commitments that we must keep cannot be achieved without additional defense funding. And that's why the budget plan follows the freeze for 1990 with real increases -- albeit they're small -- with real increases: 1 percent in 1991 and 1992, and a 2-percent increase for 1993. And my aim is to put defense spending on a modest, manageable growth path, one that we can afford and then one that will allow us to modernize and maintain forces that are formidable, flexible, and ready.

But in the defense debate, what we can and can't afford isn't just a matter of economics. It's a matter of vital national security. And I say we can't afford to continue the downward trend in defense spending. 1989 -- now listen carefully to this -- 1989 will be the fourth straight year that budget authority for defense has declined in real terms. And we've worked hard to rebuild America's strength, and it's paid off. Today America is strong; its voice is heard. Its forces are ready, and the values we stand for are more secure.

Secondly, we can't afford to mistake a more stable international environment as proof that we can spend less on national defense. The secret to our success can be summed up in a single word: strength. And let's sustain the military strength that helped turn the world situation around.

And finally, we can afford adequate defenses. The defense budget that I'm calling for in 1990 represents 5.5 percent of our annual gross national product. And that's a far smaller share of our national wealth than the United States spent on defense at any point throughout the 1950's or the 1960's -- periods of rapid and sustained economic growth though they were. The bottom line is not a question of cost or a question of resources: It's simply a question of will. And you have my word, as long as I am President: America will stand fast on the front line in defense of freedom.

Today around the world, a number of longstanding regional conflicts are closer now to resolution than ever before. The stirrings of freedom and the advance of democratic rule are evident and undeniable. In the economic sphere, the free market is increasingly seen as an engine of growth and development unmatched by any other system. And freedom is on the march. But there are still forces arrayed against it, regimes whose interests and systems are at odds with our own and with those of our allies. And then there's the spread of chemical and biological weapons, along with the means to deliver them. It's likely to make the flashpoints that always exist more dangerous than ever before.

And the key issue of change within the Soviet Union -- there are still far more questions than answers. There is no doubt that the changes taking place are significant and far-reaching, but it is equally true that the ultimate outcome of the events unfolding in the U.S.S.R. remains certain [uncertain]. My view is this: We should press for progress that contributes to a more stable relationship between the United States and the Soviet Union, but we must combine our readiness to build better relations with a resolve to maintain defenses adequate to secure our interests.

America and her allies must recognize that even in light of the military cuts proposed by President Gorbachev the Soviet Union remains the most formidable military power facing the free world. We must be ready to cope with change and favorable opportunities and ready in any event to defend our interests and ideals. And what this means in terms of our national security should be clear. We need to maintain and modernize our forces, nuclear and conventional. For America and its allies, a survivable nuclear force will remain the ultimate deterrent of aggression.

We need to make a concerted effort to turn our technological strengths into a source of advantage to our national security. And that includes, in my view, vigorous pursuit of the Strategic Defense Initiative.

And we need to make an active effort in arms control, to strive for increased stability at lower levels of armaments. But I will strongly oppose legislative attempts to withdraw U.S. troops from Europe unilaterally. Imprudent unilateral reductions are not the path to peace and security and freedom.

And I've been listening to General Gray. We need to keep our forces ready and well-trained. The dedicated men and women who serve our country deserve no less.

We need to reform our procurement process to deliver a dollar's worth of defense for every dollar we spend. And the way to do that is to begin to follow through on the sensible reforms suggested in the Packard commission report and the findings of the defense management review now underway. I'll look carefully at those management review findings and then move to implement them.

And we need to maintain the alliance of like-minded nations in Europe and Asia that have helped us keep peace in the postwar era. As strong as we are -- and we are strong -- as strong as we are, the United States of America in this complex world cannot go it alone. Keep our alliances strong.

Before I close, I want to focus for a moment on a threat no less real than the adversaries you have battled. And I'm speaking about not a military threat; I'm speaking about the insidious threat to our society and our values: drug abuse. The notion that America is a nation at peace is only partly true as long as the violence and destructive power of drugs assault our communities.

As I talk, our Attorney General is holding a series of talks with three South American Presidents and their attorney generals or their ministers, seeking their full participation in this war and offering our full cooperation. My able drug czar, Bill Bennett -- some of you know him, able man -- he will be confirmed as my hard-hitting point man to be at my side in the White House to keep the focus on winning this unconditional war; and I mean to mobilize all our resources, wage this war on all fronts. We're going to combat drug abuse with education, treatment, enforcement and, yes, interdiction and, yes, with our nation's armed services. When that prudently can be done and when that's what it takes, we are going to have to go all-out. We need to break the deadly grip of drugs and prevent the drug scourge from taking hold.

And the VFW can help. Many of you have already started. Many of your posts are actively involved. You've got 2.3 million members, 750,000 auxiliary members, 10,000 chapters nationwide. The VFW is, and always will be, a respected member of communities across our country; and today I call on you to form a community of action. "For America, whatever it takes" -- that's the motto of the VFW. And you've fought for your nation once, and your nation needs you again. And today I want to enlist you in the antidrug campaign. Meet with other leaders in your community -- church, clergy, law enforcement officers -- tell them the VFW volunteers are ready to help. And go to the schools and put the full weight of this magnificent organization behind the antidrug education effort that provides our kids with the reasons and willpower that they need to resist drugs. Speak to your State and local elected officials. Urge them to make the passage of strong antidrug legislation a priority.

I am reaching out to you, so I want to extend my help as well. Bill Bennett stands ready to meet with the VFW leadership to share ideas that can help you map a strategy. VFW has proven many times over its dedication to the health and well-being of our nation, proven it over and over and over again. And the 50 young people that you've honored here today, with whom I had a chance to meet very briefly a minute ago, underscore the VFW's interest in our nation's youth and in our future. I know that we can count on the veterans of America all across this country to help us wage and win the war on drugs. Your country needs you once again.

Veterans share a special bond. We've seen the face of war; we know its terrible costs. Americans never willingly choose conflict. But we know, as well, that we must be ready and willing to respond when our interests and our ideals come under threat.

Let me be very clear. I prefer the diplomatic approach. Nations can and should explore every avenue toward working out their differences without resorting to force or military intimidation, but I'm also a realist. I know that there is no substitute for a nation's ability to defend its ideals and interests. And too often we hear that we face a stark choice in coping with conflict. We can pursue a diplomatic situation, or we can seek a resolution through military means. One, we're told, is incompatible with the other.

Well, this doesn't square with real-world experience. Diplomacy and military capability are complementary; they're not contradictory. Creative diplomacy can help us avert conflict. Negotiations stand the greatest chance of success when they proceed from a position of strength. The fundamental lesson of this decade is simply this: Strength secures the peace. America will continue to be a force for peace and stability in the world provided we stay strong.

Let me close with a word to these young people, who you appropriately are honoring here today. If I were in your shoes, I'd be an optimist. I'd be an optimist about world peace, changes in the Soviet Union. As I said earlier in this talk, nobody is talking about the Socialist model or the Communist model as to a way to solve their problems. But never forget that, when a President of the United States goes to the negotiating table, the way to enhance our values, the way to enhance the principles that everybody in this room holds dear, is to be dealing from a position of a strong America. We have the ideals. Keep America strong! Thank you all, and God bless you. And good luck to you guys.

Note: The President spoke at 11:08 a.m. in the Sheraton Ballroom at the Sheraton Washington Hotel. In his remarks, he referred to Larry W. Rivers and Cooper T. Holt, national commander in chief and executive director of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, respectively; Gen. Alfred M. Gray, Commandant of the Marine Corps; Representative G.V. (Sonny) Montgomery, chairman of the Veterans' Affairs Committee; and Edward J. Derwinski, Secretary-designate of the Department of Veterans Affairs.

George Bush, Remarks at the Annual Conference of the Veterans of Foreign Wars Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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