Ronald Reagan picture

Remarks at the Annual Leadership Conference of the American Legion

February 29, 1988

Thank you Commander Comer, and thank you all very much. Congressman Conte, President Behrend, General Turnage, and members of the American Legion and American Legion Auxiliary, it's wonderful to have you here in Washington. As you may have noticed, this isn't like other cities. I've heard that one of the networks is considering a midseason replacement with a new dramatic series set in Washington; it's called Capitol Hill Street Blues. [Laughter]

But it's great to be with the Legion once again. You're always so kind in your reception. But I want you to know that the trappings of office haven't gone to my head—I still wear the same size American Legion hat you gave me in 1980. In fact, I made the same point to Interior Secretary Don Hodel the other day. I said, "Don, you can't let high office go to your head. And speaking of heads, how much room is there left on Mount Rushmore?" [Laughter]

But as you may know, I'll be traveling to Brussels tomorrow to attend a summit with the leaders of the North Atlantic alliance. But I wanted to stop by here first to talk about our hopes and plans for the alliance, because it is, after all, many of you and the servicemen the Legion represents who made that alliance possible, who with their courage and sacrifice brought 40 years of peace to Europe and security to the United States.

Coming here, I was reminded of something Ernie Pyle wrote in France during the final days of World War II. I suppose there are more than a few of us here who remember Ernie Pyle and his simple, honest words that meant so much. Sitting under an apple tree in a lovely green orchard, he thought of the end of the war. Peace would come, he knew, but there would be no return to innocence.

"Last night," he said, "we had a violent electrical storm around our countryside. The storm was half over before we realized that the flashes and the crashings around us were not artillery but plain old-fashioned thunder and lightning. It will be odd to hear only thunder again. You must remember that such little things as that are in our souls and will take time. And all of us together will have to learn how to reassemble our broken world into a pattern so firm and so fair that another great war cannot soon be possible."

A pattern so firm and so fair—before Ernie Pyle, friend of the GI, was laid to rest on Okinawa, the United States and the war ravaged democracies of Europe set about that great enterprise. We embraced our old enemies and made them friends. We set about reconstructing a continent, replacing hurt and harm with a helping hand. Soon would follow the Marshall plan, an example of national charity and generosity unparalleled in history.

I've often said that there is something unique about the American form of patriotism, the kind so gloriously on display here at the Legion. It is not an exclusive attachment; it is not jealous or chauvinistic: It's the affirmation of man's deepest desires for the rights and liberties given him by his Creator. American patriotism is, quite simply, the call to freedom, everywhere, for all peoples. And that's why the American flag is more than a national flag. It has been, throughout our history, the hope and encouragement of freedom-loving peoples everywhere.

There's an account of two of America's greatest postwar statesmen traveling to Hungary soon after the war. Budapest lay devastated by weeks of street fighting, but there was rejoicing in the city. The Soviet occupiers had allowed a free election, and the anti-Communists had won a clear majority. Cheering Hungarians thronged the streets, blocking the way to the American mission. Recalled one of the diplomats: "There was an enormous crowd celebrating the victory under the American flag." He said, "It made me very humble to see how much these people looked to the United States as the protector of their freedom." And recalled the other: "Here was the hope of the world—the American flag."

The jubilation, of course, didn't last. The Hungarians did not have long to celebrate their freedom before it was snatched away from them. Soon, to use Winston Churchill's famous phrase, an iron curtain was to descend across Europe. While we had defeated one form of totalitarianism, another-just as implacable, just as greedy—threatened our hopes for a new world living in peace and freedom, a new pattern so firm and so fair that it would forever be secure.

As Churchill wrote: "In war, one must show resolution; in victory, magnanimity; in peace, good will." In this new cold war, as it was called, in this uneasy peace, we would be called upon to match our good will with resolution not just for today or tomorrow but for the long haul. We would be called upon to match the magnanimity of the Marshall plan with the tough realism and determination of NATO.

Today NATO has kept the peace in Europe and helped keep America secure for 40 years. Eight Presidents from both parties, with strong bipartisan support from Congress and the American people, have shown a clear resolution to our adversaries: A free and democratic Europe is essential to a free and democratic America. We have let there be no doubt in the Soviets' minds: An attack on free Europe would be the same as an assault on the United States. The core of our foreign policy and of our national security is our permanent partnership with our fellow democracies in the Atlantic alliance, on which the cause of freedom so critically depends. We will never sacrifice the interests of our allies and friends in any agreement with the Soviet Union.

Our commitment to the Atlantic alliance has not been inexpensive, but the tragic lessons of two world wars teach us that it has been cheap at the price. Today a rebuilt, prosperous, free Europe is taking on more of the burdens of defense. In the event of a short-warning attack, 90 percent of the defending troops would be European. And despite sluggish economies on the continent, two-thirds of our allies will be increasing their defense contributions this year.

Military aggression is not the only threat from the East. The Soviets' time-honored tactic of political intimidation designed to split the alliance was never better seen than at the time of NATO's INF deployments in response to the Soviets' SS-20's. Threatening to boycott negotiations, the Soviets mounted the most intensive campaign of political pressure any of us can remember. For a while it appeared they might be successful. The papers were full of predictions that our allies would cave. So-called peace movements sprang up trumpeting a line very close to that of the Soviets. If they had had their way, of course, the Soviet SS-20's would remain permanently in place, pointed at every major city in Europe.

But the Soviet effort to split the alliance failed. The allies refused to be intimidated and went ahead with the deployments as planned. The result—the historic treaty signed last December that, for the first time, eliminates an entire class of U.S. and Soviet nuclear missiles. Let me say one thing about the treaty: It is not based on trust. We can't forget that the very reason for NATO was the Soviets' aggressive expansionism in Eastern Europe and abrogation of their sworn commitments under the Yalta agreement.

Being, as I am, an old member of the cavalry—back in a time when the cavalry still rode horses— [laughter] —I know that even animals learn from experience. I was in a picture once in Hollywood, and one of the character actors there was the well-known Big Boy Williams—230 pounds of him. And there was a scene where Big was up there on one of those high, boarded wagons, and he was to drop down onto the horse and take off. And in the rehearsal, he did, and took off. And then they said, "Okay, roll the cameras." They called for action, and Big dropped down right on his back on the ground. [Laughter] The horse had felt him fall on him once; he wasn't going to stay there for the second time around. [Laughter] That was in a picture called "Santa Fe Trail." [Laughter]

So, we've learned from experience, too. And as I said to General Secretary Gorbachev—and I think the point struck home-when it comes to treaties with the Soviet Union, our policy is dovorey no provorey, which, as everyone knows by now, I think, means trust, but verify.

During the years of these negotiations, new realities have come into play—new realities that present new opportunities. In particular, in recent years we've seen the emergence among some of our European allies of a willingness, even an eagerness, to seek a larger, more closely coordinated role for Western Europe in providing for its own defense within the overall framework of the alliance. And we Americans welcome this.

For these four decades, NATO has, in effect, represented an alliance between a number of partners and one very senior partner. Yet today our European allies have risen from the ruins of war to vitality, prosperity, and growing unity as a continent. And so, I would submit that now the alliance should become more and more one among equals, an alliance between continents. In the words of former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger: The time has come for our country "to welcome a European identity in defense, which in the end is bound to spur Atlantic cooperation."

We will continue to push for verifiable 50-percent reductions in the strategic arsenals of the U.S. and U.S.S.R. and for a verifiable and truly global ban on chemical weapons. But at the same time, the serious imbalance of conventional forces in Europe must be addressed as an equally high priority. This imbalance represents an unacceptable threat to the West. Warsaw Pact tanks and artillery far outnumber our own. Ours are positioned for defense, theirs for an offensive attack.

There is a role for arms control negotiations here, but as a supplement to a policy of strength, not as a substitute. We have learned from experience: The only effective way to negotiate with the Soviets is from a position of strength. The Warsaw Pact's numerical superiority and the Soviet strategy, which emphasizes surprise attacks, means that our remaining nuclear forces are fully capable of supporting NATO's flexible response strategy. At the same time, we must modernize our chemical weapons to deter Soviet first-use, and we must provide for conventional forces that are capable of protecting free Europe.

And when talking about our efforts to secure a peaceful future, nothing could be more important than our Strategic Defense Initiative, SDI—a strategic defense that threatens no one, that could someday make nuclear weapons obsolete. The technology for SDI is developing more rapidly than many would have thought possible. No, technology isn't holding SDI back, but year after year Congress cuts our budget requests for SDI. General Secretary Gorbachev has stated publicly, before the American people, that the Soviets have their own SDI program, that they're doing everything we're doing. Now is not the time to cut back on SDI.

General Secretary Gorbachev talks about perestroika, or restructuring at home. Well, it's time for some perestroika in the Warsaw Pact. It's time for the removal of Soviet troops from Eastern Europe and the abandonment of Soviet offensive strategy on the continent. On my last trip to Europe, I went to Berlin and visited that infamous wall that cuts such an ugly scar through the heart of Europe. The wall that encircles the free sectors of that city is part of a vast system of barriers—of barbed wire, guard towers, dog runs, and machine guns—that divides the continent, divides nations, peoples, families.

For years, especially in the seventies, the cognoscenti spoke of the so-called superpower conflict in value-neutral terms, as if there was no essential difference between Western democracies and Soviet communism. Any suggestion that a system that denies its people their God-given liberties was fundamentally evil was met with ridicule. Well, I challenge those people to go to Berlin and look upon that wall, look upon the works of tyranny.

The question can be asked: How can we ever achieve a lasting peace with a regime that is so scared of its own people that it must imprison them behind barbed wire? And that's why I said to Mr. Gorbachev: If you really want glasnost, if you really want openness, tear down that wall.

The unnatural division of Europe remains one of the major sources of tension between the West and the Soviet Union. We accept no spheres of influence. We accept no legal division of Europe. Our policy can be based on only one principle: the right of people everywhere to self-determination, to freedom, and to the basic rights granted them by their Creator. So, the meeting of the Atlantic democracies in Brussels this week will come at a time when, in many ways, our alliance has never been stronger or more unified—also at a time when the challenges before us have never been greater.

Let me just say a few words here about Congress and defense spending. It seems ironic to me that so many of those who welcome, as they should, our historic agreement to eliminate an entire class of U.S. and Soviet INF missiles in Europe and Asia continue to undercut our ability to negotiate from strength by voting year after year to cut necessary defense spending. In the seventies we tried dealing with the Soviets and their clients from a position of weakness. The result: Angola, Cambodia, Afghanistan, Nicaragua, and at the negotiating table an arms control treaty so flawed that a Senate controlled by the President's own party spiked it. If Congress continues to unilaterally make major defense cuts that amount to strategic concessions to the Soviets, we could find ourselves back in the position we were in during the late seventies: dangerously weak and ill-prepared.

We don't have to stretch our memories back too far to remember that the American people twice, by overwhelming majorities, voted clearly and emphatically for something that all of us here believe in: They voted for peace in the only way it can ever be secured; they voted for peace through strength.

Today the people of Afghanistan are setting an example for all of us—of courage, heroism, and strength. I can assure you: We will not let them down. We will not agree to any steps that put the Afghan freedom fighters or Afghan hopes for self-determination at risk. And the fact there's progress now in the Afghan diplomacy—because we stood by our friends—should teach a lesson in another similar situation closer to home. As you know, Congress will be voting again on continued aid to the freedom fighters in Nicaragua. I hope Members of Congress will remember one thing: Those freedom fighters are inside Nicaragua today, because we made a commitment to them. Are we going to cut them off now and leave them defenseless against the Sandinistas? If we do, who will ever trust in the United States of America again? How long can we remain a world power if we gain a reputation for pulling the plug on the people who have placed their trust in us, people fighting for their own freedom and for our national security?

Before the last vote, I warned Congress: You may cut off aid to the freedom fighters, but Soviet deliveries to the Sandinistas won't stop. And in fact, Soviet military assistance to the Sandinistas was nearly doubled in the first 2 months of this year compared to the same period in 1987. Congressional opponents of aid argued that the peace process would flourish and the Sandinistas would democratize if we cut off our assistance to the freedom fighters. Well, it's been 3 weeks, and exactly the opposite has happened.

Cardinal Obando y Bravo was forced to suspend the most recent round of peace talks because of Sandinista obstructionism. And Sandinista rhetoric has become ever more warlike, full of promises to crush the resistance. And the Sandinistas continue to tighten their grip on the suffering country-threatening La Prensa; sending out the government directed turbas, or mobs, to harass dissidents; and expanding their system of political prisons. That's the Sandinistas for you. At the same time they promise a general amnesty, they're building more political prisons. They've gone from 2 to 16 prisons.

Recently a document was found on a Communist terrorist killed in battle in El Salvador. And let me quote a few lines: "The defeat of the contras would be a grave strategic defeat for the United States," it says, and goes on, "The failure of the contras and the acceptance of the Nicaraguan revolution for the United States can be a total global strategic change." I could not have said it better myself, except to add, of course, that this total global change will not be in our favor. Unless the freedom fighters remain a viable force, the peace process will quickly become what it was before: an empty charade, dragging endlessly and fruitlessly on, while the Soviets continue their military buildup on the American mainland.

The American people are watching, and Congress knows it. And some say they're willing to support some type of humanitarian aid but are doing everything they can do to disband the freedom fighters. But there's nothing humanitarian about asking people to go up against Soviet attack helicopters armed only with boots and bandages. Whatever package emerges from the Congress must include a provision for expedited procedures that would allow us to request additional military aid to the freedom fighters should the peace process break down.

We will not leave the freedom fighters to be picked off one by one—picked off by Sandinistas heavily equipped by the Soviet Union. With our help, the freedom fighters have been winning major victories in the field. With our help, they can keep the pressure on the Sandinistas to force them to democratize.

Preventing the consolidation of a pro-Soviet regime on the American mainland is a crucial test of national security. If Central America goes Communist, it would be a setback for America of incalculable proportions. I won't stake the future of the Western Hemisphere on Sandinista promises. There is no alternative: United States security demands a free and democratic Nicaragua. Nothing less will do. And let me just add that I'm aware of the Legion's tremendous support for our Central America policy, and I just want you to know I thank you from the bottom of my heart.

And finally, I'd like to turn to another side of the world: Asia. I understand you'll be hearing today about our efforts to account for our missing servicemen in Southeast Asia and Korea. Many of you here today were their comrades-in-arms. You fought the same battles, flew the same missions. Those men were fighting a noble cause. They were fighting for America and for freedom. We will never forget them. And that's one reason why I'm renewing today the personal commitment I made to the families of our POW's and MIA's: We will not give up. We will not relent until we bring our American heroes home.

Now, I can't resist just one last thing here before I go. I have become a collector of jokes that I can absolutely establish are told among the Soviet citizens. They tell them to each other, and reveals they've got a great sense of humor. But also they've got a pretty good sense of realism about their government.

This one happens to do—I was mentioning about the Berlin Wall and why it must come down. This is a story that is told in East Germany about that wall. It seems that their leader, Mr. Honecker, was attracted to a very lovely young lady, and he was making all sorts of promises. And then she said, "Well, all I want is—I want the Wall to be torn down." And he said, "The Wall to-oh," he said, "I know. You want to be alone with me." [Laughter] I haven't told that one to Secretary General Gorbachev yet, but I will. I'll get around to it. [Laughter]

I want to thank you all very much. God bless all of you.

Note: The President spoke at 1:26 p.m. in the main ballroom at the Sheraton Washington Hotel. In his opening remarks, the President referred to John (lake) P. Comer, national commander of the American Legion; Representative Silvio O. Conte of Massachusetts; Pearl Behrend, president of the American Legion Auxiliary; and Thomas K. Turnage, Administrator of Veterans Affairs.

Ronald Reagan, Remarks at the Annual Leadership Conference of the American Legion Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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