Ronald Reagan picture

Remarks at the Annual Conference of the Veterans of Foreign Wars

March 07, 1988

Thank you, Commander Earl Stock, and it's good to see here Ladies Auxiliary President Joan Katkus. I've always said it's a pleasure and an honor to speak before a meeting of the Veterans of Foreign Wars. You are the men who, from the Marne to the Bulge, from Okinawa to Omaha Beach, from the Chosin Reservoir to Hamburger Hill, have defended America's heritage and fought for the freedom not only of our nation but peoples all over the world.

Today as veterans you're still defending freedom. Whether it's supporting adequate defense budgets or aid to the freedom fighters in Nicaragua or teaching America's young people the meaning of our precious rights through your Voice of Democracy program, the members of the VFW are still on the front lines, still leading the charge, and still showing what true patriotism really means. That's why when you sound the bugle this is one old rider in the horse cavalry who snaps to attention.

As you may know, I returned last Thursday from a 2-day visit to Europe, where I met with the leaders of the other Western allies, and I'll talk about that meeting in a moment. At another time, I might have liked to take a few more days over there, see some sights, and maybe buy Nancy a few presents. But I had a meeting here in Washington I couldn't miss. I've told you this before, and it's true as ever. I'd travel halfway around the world to meet with the VFW.

Let me say here something that I regard as an obvious truth, but one that seems to need repeating. America owes a great debt to its fighting men. And it's a debt that our nation will carry as long as it lives, for without our fighting men, our nation would not live. That's why I don't understand those who would so easily forget. I'm speaking about those who would turn their backs on the men missing in action in Southeast Asia. We have a moral bond as sacred as any a free people can make with one of their own to close no books, write no last chapters, reach no final conclusions until we have the fullest possible accounting of every soldier, airman, aviator, marine, and civilian lost in Laos, Cambodia, or Vietnam.

To you who came home, the Emergency Veterans' Job Training Act I signed at your convention in New Orleans 5 years ago and the new GI bill I signed last June are the least we can do to show America's gratitude. And as you know, I believe we also should create a Cabinet-level Department of Veterans Affairs.

I've always found that Americans are deeply grateful to our veterans—even those Americans who aren't too good at showing it. This is my way of sliding into a story. While it doesn't concern an American veteran, it's about a great allied fighting man. It was during World War II, and British Field Marshal Montgomery had come to America to help spur the war effort. A dinner was held in his honor in Hollywood. Sam Goldwyn, one of the founders of MGM, was to toast Field Marshal Montgomery. And when the time came, Sam, who has a reputation for misspeaking, got up, waited for silence, then after a few words said, "I propose a toast to Marshall Field Montgomery." [Laughter] Well, Jack Warner was sitting next to Sam and tried to help. And he said, "Montgomery Ward, you mean." [Laughter]

Well, as I said a moment ago, I've just returned from meeting with the leaders of our North Atlantic allies. And next year, the alliance marks its 40th anniversary. Its achievement has been simple and historic: 40 years of freedom and democracy in Western Europe—and without armies clashing anywhere on the continent. Since the fall of Borne more than 1,500 years ago, Europe has known few longer periods of total peace. Americans, including some of you, have helped keep that peace and preserve that freedom. As President Kennedy told our troops in Germany 25 years ago: "Millions sleep peacefully at night, because you stand in this field." You know when I hear about peace marchers in Europe or here I think of our young men and women in uniform. They're the real peace marchers.

At the meeting last week, the Atlantic alliance celebrated one of the great achievements of its history. More than a decade ago, without warning, without provocation, the Soviet Union challenged the strategic balance in Europe and stationed an entirely new level of weapon, one for which NATO had no fully effective deterrent: the intermediate-range SS-20 nuclear missile. To keep the balance that keeps the peace, NATO had to meet this challenge, and meet it NATO did. In 1979 it voted to deploy U.S. intermediate-range nuclear forces. It also voted to press for a U.S. negotiation with the Soviets on this issue.

Shortly after I came into office, I proposed that our negotiators should work for what we called the zero option—remove all U.S. and Soviet longer range INF missiles. You may recall that some of our critics said I couldn't be serious, that this was just a ploy to ambush arms control and put it out of commission for the duration. The Soviets said they would walk out of negotiations if we went ahead with deployment. Well, we did, and they did.

But NATO stuck to its guns. In the face of heavy political fire, the leaders of NATO moved forward. Many faced demonstrations at home, and some of those demonstrations turned to violence. But eventually, after the missiles went in place, the Soviets returned to the bargaining table, and today we have the agreement our critics said was impossible: the zero option. Now, I can't think of any better demonstration of what you and I've been saying for years: that the road to peace is through American and free world strength.

And no one should ever forget that you helped America stand its ground against the political assault here at home and finally to take the hill in arms talks. Yes, once again you defended our nation's security, peace, and freedom. And now your support is needed on another front. I hope that you, the members of the VFW, will vigorously support ratification of the INF treaty.

And by the way, let me just tell you, I wouldn't have signed that or any other agreement with the Soviets if I didn't believe we could effectively verify it. The networks have been having fun in the last few months playing clips of my statement just after I came to office that the Soviets reserved to themselves the right to lie and cheat for their own ends. They say I've changed. I've got news for them. [Laughter] If I trusted the Soviets, I wouldn't have insisted on the strict verification provisions that we have in this treaty—the toughest that have ever been adopted. Now, maybe they call that trust. Well, if so, it must be the kind of trust a sage meant when he said, "Trust everybody, but cut the cards." [Laughter]

But something amazing has happened since Mr. Gorbachev and I signed the INF agreement in Washington in December. In Europe and here at home, some of the very same people who told us not to deploy the Pershing II and ground-launched cruise missiles, who said we were being provocative and that our defense buildup in general was a step back in the safety of the world-these same people are now taking credit for the INF agreement. They say that the agreement is a victory for what they've been calling for: cuts in defense, eliminating or sealing back vital weapons systems. Well, as a great general said once at the Battle of the Bulge, "Nuts!" [Laughter]

The truth is just the opposite. This is not the time to drop our guard. It's time to look forward and ask what we must do to keep the peace not only in Europe but around the world. And the answer is the same as it's always been: Keep America and its allies strong. In Europe this means continuing to modernize our remaining nuclear forces and modernizing our conventional forces as well, giving them what is called smart weapons that help even the odds against the much larger armies of the Warsaw Pact. It's just this simple: If we're going to put young Americans in harm's way, we owe them the best weapons money can buy.

Keeping America strategically strong means going forward, as well, with our research, development, and testing on a strategic defense against ballistic missiles. SDI is America's best guarantee that the Soviets will stick to their agreements in arms reductions. It's also protection against an accidental missile launch and against some madman who might take over a country that can get ballistic missiles. In short, as I've said before, it's an insurance policy, and we're not the first ones the agent has visited.

The Soviets have been spending far more money developing strategic defenses than we have and have been doing it longer. In the last decade, they've poured roughly $200 billion into their programs. In 2 weeks, we mark the fifth anniversary of our Strategic Defense Initiative, and in that time, we've spent only $13 billion—less than 7 percent what the Soviets spent in the decade. To give you an idea of the magnitude of the Soviet efforts, they've assigned 10,000 of their top scientists and engineers to their military laser program alone. It would be foolhardy not to pursue SDI, and that's why America must research, develop, and test SDI. And when it's ready, we must deploy it.

Now that we have the INF treaty, our negotiating priorities are a 50-percent reduction in strategic arms; a conventional arms balance in Europe; and an effective, verifiable, and truly global ban on all chemical weapons. We'll need to keep up our strength if we're to succeed, and that's why the Congress must not further reduce the defense budget.

Not long ago I saw a letter from your commander to Members of Congress. He sent it following his recent visit to Central America, and I think he summed things up as well as anyone ever has when he said that, in his words: "The real issue before the Congress and the country is not the contras, it is communism in Central America."

You know, recently the Government of El Salvador found documents on the body of a Communist courier. The papers included a review of the situation in Central America, and in those papers it said: "The defeat of the contras would be a grave strategic defeat for the United States, especially if we take into account the geopolitical position of Central America." Well, the VFW understands this. The Communists in Central America understand this. The Soviets understand this. It's time that Congress understood it, too. A Soviet base on the American mainland is a pistol pointed at the heart of the Americas.

During the first round of debate on aid to the freedom fighters a few weeks ago, one of the congressional leaders opposing aid said that we shouldn't keep money flowing to the contras, because for every dollar we gave them, the Soviets would give the Sandinistas five. Well, he ought to remember something Pericles, the great leader of ancient Athens, said: "The secret of liberty is courage." Too many of the opponents of aid to the freedom fighters claim to be the heirs of Franklin Roosevelt, who told us when the odds are stacked against us that America had a rendezvous with destiny and then led us to the fight, and of Harry Truman, who helped Greece and Turkey stand up to communism and led us into NATO.

You know, when I listen to the critics and their claims to be what F.D.R. and Truman would be today, it reminds me of a time I was on the set of a movie that happened to involve Irving Berlin. As a matter of fact, it was called "This is the Army." I was already in the Army, but some of us on active duty were sent back temporarily to be in that film, which as you all know, all the proceeds went to Army emergency relief. Well, Irving Berlin, who had written that and who had written the first one in World War I, "Yip Yip Yaphank," was on the set. And Irving asked if he couldn't play one part there, because there was a flashback to World War I, and Irving wanted to sing his song "Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning." [Laughter] Now, he's a great writer of songs, not particularly a great singer of songs. [Laughter] And as we were filming that scene and he, in his World War I uniform, was singing, one of the crew leaned over to me and whispered, "If the fellow that wrote that song could hear this guy sing it, he'd roll over in his grave." [Laughter]

Courage hasn't exactly been the watchword of some opponents of contra aid. Harry Truman said: "The buck stops here." But last week, aid opponents tried to pass the buck of responsibility for abandoning in the field the young men and women of the democratic resistance. And that ploy failed, as it should have. Now it's time for Congress to show that it knows you can't have real peace negotiations when one side has helicopter gunships and the other has bandages. Recently, Daniel Ortega has said he's going to crush the freedom fighters, and he has thrown out the peace mediator, Cardinal Obando y Bravo. You know where Ortega stands. Isn't it time for Congress to have the courage to show where it stands?

You better than anyone know that Americans have never lacked for courage. On the eve of the Second World War, an observer from another country said: "Most people think Americans love luxury and that their culture is shallow and meaningless. It's a mistake. I can tell you that Americans are full of the spirit of justice, fight, and adventure." Those were the words of Japan's senior admiral in the war, Admiral Yamamoto, who added: "Japan cannot beat America."

In thousands of foxholes and trenches, cockpits and decks, around the world, the American spirit of justice and the just fight, our love of freedom and devotion to the dignity of man have been the hope of millions for liberty and a better life. You more than anyone else know what courage it has taken. It was courage like that of Sergeant Howard Collette, whose bomber was hit over the Celebes, and as it plunged toward the Pacific, he was heard over the radio reading aloud from his pocket Bible to his wounded comrades, calming them, comforting them, as he and they fell to their final rest.

On every continent and ocean in this century, Americans have left such stories. Courage is our mark, freedom and democracy our gift to mankind. And you, who know this so well, help us keep it that way forever. Thank you, and God bless you.

Note: The President spoke at 10:34 a.m. in the Sheraton Ballroom at the Sheraton Washington Hotel.

Ronald Reagan, 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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