Ronald Reagan picture

Remarks at the Farewell Ceremony for Secretary of Defense Caspar W. Weinberger

November 17, 1987

The President. Admiral Crowe, thank you. This is a bittersweet moment for me and, I think, for all of us who have known and worked closely with Cap Weinberger. It's so fitting to see this fine military tribute to the one American who has probably done as much as any other in history to restore the morale and readiness of our nation's military. In the Rose Garden recently, I called you America's finest Secretary of Defense, and that was no exaggeration.

There are many qualities that made Cap's service at the Pentagon and in my Cabinet so invaluable, and I'll speak to some of those in a moment. But at the heart of the matter, well, it was really a matter of heart. Cap Weinberger started his service to this country more than 40 years ago as a buck private, and he never forgot his origins. He never forgot the men and women of America's armed services, who guard our nation's safety and protect our freedom. And if he was known up on Capitol Hill as a stalwart and determined fighter for our country's defenses—if maybe, Cap, they even thought you a little stubborn at times—well, that's because he was going to make sure that if our servicemen are ever asked to put their lives on the line to defend our country they have the best training, equipment, and support America has to offer.

Yes, Cap has been the point man in the effort to rebuild our nation's defenses, and he has assembled an unparalleled record of achievement. But I bet if you were to ask him what his proudest achievement was he would say restoring morale in our Armed Forces and bringing back pride in our country's uniform. And Cap can take a lot of the credit for the fact that, as one base commander said to me, the young men and women coming into our military are some of the smartest, best-educated, most highly motivated he had ever seen.

But Cap's tenacity comes from another source as well: a recognition of the tragic reality of a world divided, a world torn between those who believe in freedom and cherish the value and dignity of each individual human soul and forces implacably hostile to those ideals. If one faces that reality foursquare, without illusions, it produces a certain, well, clarity of vision. And in 1980, to someone entrusted with the great responsibility of Secretary of Defense, it could only produce a profound sense of urgency.

When Cap came to this job more than 6 years ago, the Navy had been permitted to dwindle from more than 1,000 ships to less than 500. There were planes that couldn't fly for lack of spare parts. And our men and women in uniform were seeing their pay in real terms shrink, while pay in the private sector rose. With Caspar Weinberger at the helm, we turned that around, and today we have a military that is once again ready, able, and willing—a modern defense worthy of the leader of the free world. Yes, Cap, we have come a long distance from 1980. But let me also promise you this: No one here is going to be resting on their laurels after you leave. Frank [Carlucci] and I know the job is not yet complete. And to anyone who calls for even the slightest slacking off in commitment to a strong and ready national defense, I'll only have to say two words: Remember Cap.

We will remember, and we will heed the example of Cap Weinberger, just as he learned from and heeded the example of another great champion of peace through strength. I'm thinking of one particular example: One lone Member of Parliament in the 1930's who saw the promise of new, as yet unproven, technology. He was a Member of Parliament; his name was Winston Churchill, and the technology was radar. It was unworkable, unnecessary, and too expensive, said its opponents. But with a tenacity that even Cap would envy, Churchill fought the long, hard political battle. And in a way, winning that battle was the true turning point of the Battle of Britain. In the end, Churchill's vision and foresight won the day for radar and helped save the day for Britain and freedom.

As Secretary of Defense, Cap has been one of the most eloquent and forceful proponents of our Strategic Defense Initiative. In the 1970's we watched as America cut its defenses to the bone, even as the Soviets conducted a huge buildup of offensive nuclear arsenals. We know today that the Soviet Union has spent many times more on strategic defenses in the last 10 years than has the United States. Cap is determined—I am determined—that we will not repeat the mistakes of the last decade. We will not unilaterally disarm in this one area or any area.

SDI holds out hope of a world free from the fear of ballistic missiles. It is, as Cap likes to say, an innocent technology that threatens no one. Indeed, it's hard to see how making people's lives safer will make the world more dangerous. After so many years, it will take time for some to adjust to a world based on defenses rather than offenses. But it's my sincere belief that SDI will not only make us safer, it will in the end relieve tensions between our country and the Soviet Union and, thus, open up new areas of cooperation and peaceful exchange.

Cap, today we say farewell. For more than two decades I have known you as a colleague, ally, and trusted adviser, but most of all, as a friend. How many times in the Oval Office or in Cabinet meetings have I waited to hear that patient voice, those clear, complex, and perfectly fashioned sentences building resolutely to a conclusion, always, it seemed, as an incontestable one? How many times, my friend, have I looked to you to find the safe harbor of principle in the stormy events of world affairs? And how many times have I found in you the stalwart commitment to freedom, that fierceness of belief in this land of ours that is the mark of a true man of peace?

In another farewell address many years ago, another great patriot, Douglas MacArthur, quoted an old West Point barracks song about old soldiers. Well, this old soldier, Cap Weinberger, isn't going to fade away. He's leaving his official capacity as Secretary of Defense, but he can never leave his unofficial position as my trusted friend and adviser. So, Cap, if it's all right with you, I'll continue to rely on your counsel. You know that I'll never be more than a phone call away. You have served your country well. And this old horse cavalryman is going to take one of the privileges associated with rank. In the name of America and the American people, I salute you.

Cap often has the last word, and today will be no exception. So, now I'm going to hand the microphone over to you, but first, Cap, there's something special here for you. I'm happy to announce that today I'm awarding you the Presidential Medal of Freedom with Distinction. The citation reads:

Military officer, State legislator, State Cabinet member, Federal regulatory agency chairman, and three-time Federal Cabinet member, Caspar (Cap) W. Weinberger has, in the tradition of our Founding Fathers, dedicated his life to the service of his country. His proudest public accomplishment is the rebuilding of our country's national defenses so that the freedom we so cherish might endure. His legacy is a strong and free America—and for this, and for a lifetime of selfless service, a grateful nation thanks him.

Secretary Weinberger. Mr. President, I'm really quite overwhelmed. I really like that part about strategic defense much better. But this is an enormous honor and one that can come to very few people, and as I say, I am entirely overwhelmed by it. But, Mr. President and your excellencies and very distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen, thank you all very much for coming.

I've always thought that service to a noble cause was actually the definition of happiness. And those of us who had the honor to serve you, Mr. President, and to serve our very great nation have reason to feel not only privileged but blessed. We have all been engaged in the task you set before us in January of 1981, which was to restore pride in the Republic, to return government to the people, and defend liberty not with words alone but with a robust military strength and with great courage.

That seems a little more than common sense, actually, but when we came to this building nearly 7 years ago, we learned that common sense had actually not been ruled. Amidst a very feverish buildup of Soviet military power, which aimed clearly at producing an arsenal of undisputed superiority, the United States had weakened our own military through deep reductions in funding in the hope, perhaps, that somehow that could soothe the Nation's nerves that had been rent so far apart after Vietnam. But sadly, nothing had changed, really, in the world to warrant this, and the threats to our security and freedom increased annually. Our responsibilities to allies and friends could not be reduced. Our obligation to help those in need remained strong. What had changed was our resolve. Indeed, to many of us it seemed as if our very ability to act as a great power should act—to support liberty, to deter aggression, to keep the peace—was being challenged and denied by some.

That decade of neglect was fed, really, by a rather insidious idea that somehow American power was immoral. We began by doubting the war in Vietnam, but we ended by doubting ourselves. Such doubts, of course, led to this great thirst for contrition, which seemed to justify nearly any act of self-criticism. The more guilty we could proclaim ourselves, the better we seemed to feel. And astonishing as it may seem, I remember President Ford had to fight to get Congress even to fund our withdrawal from Vietnam.

The goal seemed to be that we should forget our Vietnam soldiers and sailors, marines, and our airmen as quickly as we could and never acknowledge their quiet heroism. And, Mr. President, I well recall the first time you came to this building as President, which was in early March of 1981, and it was to present a Congressional Medal of Honor to a remarkable soldier. And that medal had been approved sometime before, but the feeling always was that somehow we couldn't keep reminding ourselves of this war. The President saw right away that the first thing he wanted to do was to remind ourselves of the enormous courage and heroism of the people who had participated in that—fully as great as the heroism that had accompanied all of our other wars. Well, that dark era is behind us, Mr. President, and it's behind us because of your leadership.

Naturally, I leave with profound regret this very great post that you entrusted to me just about 7 years ago. But so much has been accomplished to restore our military strength and preparedness, that I also leave with a very real sense of accomplishment, with deep gratitude to you and to all with whom I've been deeply privileged to serve here.

And I would like to mention particularly Will Taft, whose dedicated and enormously valuable efforts have benefited us all; our Service Secretaries, whom we've seen this morning; Jack Marsh, who has served in his post as Secretary of the Army longer than, I think, any other Secretary; and Secretary Aldridge of the Air Force, who has brought enormous skills to a number of projects, classified and otherwise, that are vital for us all; and Secretary Webb, who is away today—ably represented by Secretary Garrett, who has presided at the great naval expansion; and their predecessor. These are all great people. And I also leave very firm and very content in the knowledge that with Frank Carlucci, who served here at the very beginning of your term, in this great building; and Colin Powell, at the White House, that we have a team that will mean that, as it should, there will not even be a ripple when the change of command passes.

Well, our recovery that we had to do, our recovery from neglect—our recovery, really, from indifference—had to attack many problems at once. But one problem stood out as the most acute. One problem above all demanded instant redress, and that was the condition of our soldiers and sailors and airmen and marines. We had to demonstrate that our own commitment to security was equal to that of the troops. We had to give them the tools they urgently needed to do their ever more difficult task. We had to show the troops that we cared, and we had to care. And we had to do that by making dramatic improvements in their pay and their housing—their living conditions. We had to restore their faith in the support of the Nation. We had to secure for them the admiration of the Nation, which so rightly belongs to our troops.

Well, sir, we accomplished a great deal. But the really important thing is how little our men and women ask. As you and I know, Mr. President, every time we've had a chance to visit our troops—and you've discussed it with me and I've mentioned to you—we have been struck by how much they really want to do that job and how proud they are of what they're doing. They are a very special breed of young people, and they're led by an exceptional cadre of officers and noncommissioned officers, and we are fortunate beyond all expression to have them.

Of course, they rightly deserve the tools that are required to defend freedom and keep the peace for us. We've given them those tools. They are using them with extraordinary skill. And to have those tools available, we had to invigorate research and development efforts. We had to begin plans for new ships and aircraft and ground forces. Frequently, I was asked: When will you be done? When will the job be over? And I guess the job will be over perhaps two ways: one, if we don't care about freedom anymore, and the other, if the world changes in a way that none of us can foresee.

We had to see to it, of course, that many of the systems that were on the drawing board were deployed. And we had to shore up the nuclear deterrent with long overdue improvements, because that was the only defense we had. We had to have new bombers and ICBM's and submarines, and some of these had been sacrificed before. From strategic and conventional systems to mobilization, to reforms of our acquisition system, we had to regenerate America's ability to defend herself in her interests.

And you, Mr. President, set us on a course that will ultimately strengthen deterrence even more. Because you asked us, as you so frequently did in Sacramento, to reject the conventional wisdom. "Maybe," you said, "it isn't so wise." You asked us to make sure that our people do not have to remain always vulnerable to ballistic missiles. You asked us to join you in a bold move to study and then to deploy strategic defenses. And already we are a long way toward that beckoning goal. Faced with predictable demands that we trade away our right to deploy defenses, which I suppose to my mind is one of the most dangerous ideas ever to infect our political discourse, you redoubled your efforts to move our nation toward a safer world. And we as a nation will always be grateful to you for that.

I am, of course, thankful that we have been as successful as we have, because that success can be seen in a renewed respect for the United States throughout the world—for freedoms won in Grenada, for freedoms not lost in threatened lands, and for the clear support for our military that now comes from the American people.

I am thankful, of course, as always, to have served under a man of your unique vision, unmovable moral courage, and a penetrating understanding of the principles and goals of our nation. And of course, it's impossible to express my thanks to those of you in the Department of Defense—those of you who served and worked with me and with Jane every day, those of you who are here in Washington, those of you on the ships at sea and in the air, and at every one of our military installations throughout the world. To all of you, I owe a measure of gratitude that can never properly be paid and that I can never express fully.

Mr. President, some here were worried about the weather today. It's one of the things I never worried about, because I don't believe I've ever been at a public function with you that the rain didn't hold off and, possibly, even the sun come out. And I think it's just one of the things that goes with being Governor of California and that you've continued that as our President. And so, that is a great blessing among others that you have brought to us today.

Most of all, I would like to say that I am thankful to have had the good fortune to have grown up in the freest, most prosperous, and yes, the most just society that the world has ever known. Mr. President, I am very proud to have joined with you in the service to our nation and to have participated in that noblest cause for which so many of our countrymen have given the last full measure of their devotion. So, now, I'd like to say thank you, goodbye, and God bless and keep all of you. [Applause]

Note: The President spoke at 10:28 a.m. on the grounds of the Pentagon. He was introduced by Adm. William J. Crowe, Jr., Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff. Frank C. Carlucci was Secretary of Defense-designate; William Howard Taft IV was Under Secretary of Defense; Edward C. Aldridge, Jr., was Secretary of the Air Force; James H. Webb, Jr., was Secretary of the Navy; H. Lawrence Garrett III was Under Secretary of the Navy; and Colin L. Powell was Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs.

Ronald Reagan, Remarks at the Farewell Ceremony for Secretary of Defense Caspar W. Weinberger Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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