George Bush photo

Remarks at the Oklahoma State University Commencement Ceremony in Stillwater

May 04, 1990

Thank you so much for that warm welcome. And thank you, Governor Bellmon, my long-time friend; President Campbell, you, sir, for your wonderful hospitality. And Senator Don Nickles, my collaborator and colleague up in Washington, DC; Congressman Wes Watkins, another graduate of this great institution -- Bellmon, '42; Nickles, '71; Watkins, '60. I am delighted to be with these three distinguished public servants. I want to congratulate Chief Wilma Mankiller and Mr. Donnelly, the recipients of the coveted Bennett Awards, and say how proud I am of them. And salute the regents; the administrators; the faculty; the parents; Liz Taylor, right here; and most of all, O.S.U.'s centennial graduating class. Congratulations to each and every single one of you. I'm sorry Barbara couldn't be with me here. She did tell me to get a beer and some cheese fries over at Eskimo Joe's. Hoping at the same time they have enough T-shirts for all the grandchildren.

You know, when graduates of my vintage were sitting through ceremonies like this, right after the Second World War, we faced a world of changes, full of potential and new possibilities. Barbara and I got into a red two-door Studebaker -- you still drive those, don't you, around here? [Laughter] But nevertheless, we drove from Connecticut down to west Texas. I've often wondered how far I'd gone if I'd made it on up to Oklahoma.

Postwar America was ready back then in 1948 for peace and prosperity. But while the free world was recovering, the nations of Eastern Europe were being "consolidated" behind an Iron Curtain. So began four decades of division in Europe -- 40 long years of suspicion between two superpowers, the Soviet Union and the United States. And today you also graduate at an end of an era of conflict -- but a contest of a different kind, a cold and abstract war of words and walls. Now Europe and the world have entered a new era: the Age of Freedom.

I hope you'll forgive me if I use this great forum at your great university to handle a subject of a very serious nature. It may be a little longer than you want to hear. I remember the graduation at Yale University, my school. The man giving the graduation speech got up and said, "Y is for youth." And he talked about 25 minutes. "A is for altruism." Another 32 minutes. "L is loyalty." Brushed that one off in 20 minutes. "E is for excellence." And when he finished, there was one kid out here in the audience -- everyone else had fled. He looked like he was praying. And the speaker said to him, "Well, I'm glad you're saying a prayer. What are you praying for, son?" He said, "I'm praying to God and giving thanks that you didn't go to Oklahoma State University." [Laughter]

But I want you to bear with me because I'll be reflecting on the power and potential of democratic changes in several of these commencement addresses that I make this year. I begin today -- my very first, at your great university -- with a few words on the changes and America's place in the new Europe. A few of you may be wondering what a continent 4,000 miles away has to do with your class and you. Throughout our history, great upheavals in Europe have forced the American people to respond, to make deep judgments about the part we should play in European affairs. This has been true from the time of the French Revolution and the wars which followed it, to World War I and the flawed peace which ended it, on to the Second World War and the creation of the postwar order. I believe that now we are poised at another such moment -- a critical time in our strategic relationship with our neighbors across the Atlantic.

Many of the graduates of America's Class of 1916 have wondered why the faraway war making headlines in their newspapers would have anything to do with them. They might have agreed with President Wilson, who that year said, "We are not interested" in the causes of the war, in "the obscure foundations from which its stupendous flood has burst forth." But a year later those classmates and their country were swept up in the torrent, carrying them to the horror of the trenches in France. Yet after the war, we again turned away from active involvement in European affairs. Instead, we sponsored a treaty to outlaw war and then, as the outlaws gained strength, the United States passed new neutrality laws. Another generation of Americans sat in the bright sun of commencement ceremonies at colleges all across our country, thinking war in Europe would somehow pass them by. But when war came, they paid an awful price, a horrible price for America's isolation. Then when the war ended, those students who -- no longer questioned our role in the future of Europe. They no longer asked what Europe had to do with them because they knew the answer -- everything.

About a year ago in Germany, I defined the kind of Europe our country is committed to: a peaceful, stable Europe, a Europe what I call whole and free. Today that goal is within our reach. We're entering a new Age of Freedom in a time of uncertainty, but great hope. Emerging democracies in Eastern Europe are going through social, political, and economic transformations shaking loose stagnant, centralized bureaucracies that have smothered initiative for generations. In this time of transition, moving away from the postwar era and beyond containment, we cannot know what choices the people of Eastern Europe will make for their future. The process of change in the Soviet Union is also still unfinished. It will be crucial to see, for example, whether Moscow chooses coercion or peaceful dialog in responding to the aspirations of the Lithuanian people and nationalities within the Soviet Union. The only noble answer lies in a dialog that results in unencumbered self-determination for Lithuania.

President Gorbachev has made profound progress in his country -- reforms so fundamental that the clock cannot be turned back. And yet neither can we turn the clock ahead to know for sure what kind of country the Soviet Union will be in years to come. And for the sake of the future we share with Europe, our policies and presence must be appropriate for this period of transition, with a constancy and reliability that will reassure our friends, both old and new.

My European colleagues want the United States to be a part of Europe's future. And I believe they're right. The United States should remain a European power in the broadest sense: politically, militarily, economically. And as part of our global responsibilities the foundation for America's peaceful engagement in Europe has been and will continue to be NATO. Recognizing in peace what we'd learned from war, we joined with the free nations of Europe to form an Atlantic community, an enduring political compact. Our engagement in Europe has meant that Europeans accept America as part of their continent's future, taking our interests into account across the board. Our commitment is not just in defense; it must be a well-balanced mix of involvement in all dimensions of European affairs. Because of our political commitment to peace in Europe, there hasn't been a war on the continent in 45 years. Think of your history books -- not a war on the continent in 45 years. This long peace should be viewed through the long lens of history then. Europe has now experienced the longest uninterrupted period of international peace in the recorded history of that continent. The alliance is now ready to build on that historic achievement and define its objectives for the next century. So, the alliance must join together to craft a new Western strategy for new and changing times.

Having consulted intensively with Prime Minister Thatcher recently there in Bermuda, and President Mitterrand in Key Largo in Florida, and Chancellor Helmut Kohl up in Camp David, and then by telephone or cable with NATO Secretary General Woerner and all of my other allied colleagues, I am now calling for an early summit of all NATO leaders. Margaret Thatcher, one of freedom's greatest champions of the last decade, told me that while NATO has been fantastically successful, we should be ready now to face new challenges. The time is right for the alliance to act. The fundamental purpose of this summit should be to launch a wide-ranging NATO strategy review for the transformed Europe of the 1990's. And to my NATO colleagues, I suggest that our summit direct this review by addressing four critical points: One, the political role that NATO can play in Europe. Two, the conventional forces the alliance will need in the time ahead and NATO's goal for conventional arms control. Three, the role of nuclear weapons based in Europe and Western objectives in new nuclear arms control negotiations between the United States and the Soviet Union. And four, strengthening the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, CSCE, to reinforce NATO and help protect democratic values in a Europe that is whole and free.

Now, the first task the NATO summit should consider is the future political mission of the alliance. As military threats fade, the political dimension of NATO's work -- always there but seldom noticed -- becomes prominent. And so, at the NATO summit we should look for ways to help our German friends sustain freedom and achieve German unity, something which we and our allies have supported for over 40 years. And we should reaffirm the importance of keeping a united Germany as a full member of NATO. The alliance needs to find ways to work more closely with a vigorous European Community that is rightly asserting its own distinct views. And in Eastern Europe, governments once our adversaries are now our partners in building a new continent. And so, we must also talk about how to encourage further peaceful democratic change in Eastern Europe and inside the Soviet Union.

But even as NATO gives more emphasis to its political mission, its guarantee of European security must remain firm. You see, our enemy today -- if you think about it, what's the enemy today -- our enemy today is uncertainty and instability. And so, the alliance will need to maintain a sound, collective military structure, with forces in the field backed by larger forces that can be called upon in some crisis.

And which brings me then to the second task for the NATO summit: a review of how the alliance should plan its conventional defenses. While we need to recognize that it will take some time before the Soviet military presence is gone from Eastern Europe -- before those Soviet troops are taken out of Eastern Europe and before the major reductions contemplated by both sides can be implemented -- we need to develop our strategy for that world now. Obviously, as I look at the equation, Soviet actions -- what the Russians do -- will be critical. Yet even after all the planned reductions in its forces are complete, even if our current arms control proposals are agreed and implemented, the Soviet military will still field forces dwarfing those of any other single European State -- armed with thousands of nuclear weapons. Militarily significant U.S. forces must remain on the other side of the Atlantic for as long as our allies want and need them. And these forces demonstrate, as no words can, the enduring political compact that binds America's fate with Europe's democracies.

If the Soviet withdrawal continues and our arms control efforts are successful, we must plan for a different kind of military presence focused less on the danger of an immediate outbreak of war. And we must promote long-term stability and prevent crises from escalating by relying on reduced forces that show our capability and our readiness to respond to whatever may arise. The Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty which we have proposed would be the most ambitious conventional arms control agreement ever concluded. And we must finish the work on this treaty soon and plan to sign it at the CSCE summit this fall. But at the NATO summit we need to look further ahead, preparing follow-on negotiations after the conclusion of a CFE treaty. The NATO summit should develop the alliance's objectives for these talks.

Third, the NATO summit should also assess the future of U.S. nuclear forces in Europe. As democracy blooms in Eastern Europe and as Soviet troops return home and tanks are destroyed, dismantled, there is less need for nuclear systems of the shortest range. The NATO summit should accelerate ongoing work within the alliance to determine the minimum number and types of weapons that will be needed to deter war, credibly and effectively.

In light of these new political conditions, and the limited range and flexibility of these short-range nuclear missile forces based in Europe, I've reviewed our plan to produce and deploy newer, more modern, short-range nuclear missiles to replace the Lance system that's now in Europe. And we've almost finished the R&D, research and development work, for these new missiles. But I've decided, after consultation with our allies, to terminate the follow-on to Lance program. I've also decided to cancel any further modernization of U.S. nuclear artillery shells deployed in Europe. There are still short-range U.S. -- and many more Soviet -- nuclear missile systems deployed in Europe. And we're prepared to negotiate the reduction of these forces as well as a new set of arms control talks. And at the NATO summit, I will urge my colleagues to agree on the broad objectives for these future U.S.-Soviet negotiations and begin preparations within the alliance for these talks. I would also like to suggest that these new U.S.-Soviet arms control talks begin shortly after the CFE treaty on conventional forces has been signed.

In taking these steps, the United States is not going to allow Europe to become "safe for conventional war." There are few lessons so clear in history as this: Only the combination of conventional forces and nuclear forces have ensured this long peace in Europe. But every aspect of America's engagement in Europe -- military, political, economic -- must be complementary. And one place where they all come together is in the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, an organization of 35 states of Europe and North America. The CSCE is already a beacon for human rights and individual freedoms. Now, it must take on a broader role.

And so, the fourth task for this NATO summit I'm calling for is to reach common allied objectives for the future of CSCE itself. It can help the victorious forces of democracy in Eastern Europe secure their revolutions and -- as they join the commonwealth of free nations -- be assured a voice in a new Europe. The CSCE should offer new guidelines for building free societies -- including setting standards for truly free elections, adopting measures to strengthen the rule of law, and pointing the way in the needed but painful transition from centralized, command economies to the free markets. The CSCE can also provide a forum for political dialog in a more united Europe. I agree with those who have called for regular consultations among senior representatives of the CSCE countries. We should consider whether new CSCE mechanisms can help mediate and settle disputes in Europe. I believe my allied colleagues and I should agree to take up these new ideas at a CSCE summit later this year, in conjunction with the signing of the treaty I talked to you about -- that conventional force treaty, the CFE treaty.

In Eastern Europe, in this hemisphere, the triumph of democracy has cast its warm light on the face of the world like a miraculous dawn. But the outcome of this struggle for freedom is not ordained, and it's not going to be the work of miracles. All of you who graduate here today are part of a historic decision for America's engagement in the future of Europe. I am convinced that our work to protect freedom, to build free societies will safeguard our own peace and prosperity. The security of Europe and the world has become very complex in this century. But America's commitment to stability and peace is profoundly clear. Its motivation really derives from the strength of our forefathers -- from the blood of those who have died for freedom and for the sake of all who live in peace. And as you leave this great university every voice, every heart's commitment to freedom is important.

There's a story about a man trying to convince his son that in the struggle for freedom every voice counts. They stood in a valley, watching the snow fall on a distant mountain. It might have been a day like today. [Laughter] But they stood there. "Tell me the weight of a snowflake," the man said. "Almost nothing," answered the boy. As the snow swirled around them, up on the mountain they saw an avalanche whose thunder shook the Earth. "Do you know which snowflake caused that?" the old man asked. "I don't," answered the boy. "Maybe," said the man, "like the last snowflake that moves a mountain, in the struggle for freedom a single voice makes a world of difference."

America's mission in Europe, like millions of individual decisions made for freedom, can make a voice -- can make a world of difference. The cry for freedom -- in Eastern Europe, in South Africa, right here in our precious hemisphere to our south -- was heard around the world in the Revolution of 1989. Today, in this new Age of Freedom, add your voices to the thundering chorus.

It's a great honor for me to have been at this university. Thank you very much. God bless you. And God bless the United States of America. Thank you all. Thank you so much.

Note: The President spoke at 2:35 p.m. in Lewis Stadium at Oklahoma State University. In his opening remarks, he referred to John R. Campbell, president of the university; Wilma Mankiller, chief of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma; H.F. Donnelly, research associate of the OSU Center for Community Education; and Liz Taylor, the oldest living graduate of OSU. Following his remarks, the President traveled to Tulsa, where he attended a Republican fundraising reception at the Doubletree Hotel.

George Bush, Remarks at the Oklahoma State University Commencement Ceremony in Stillwater Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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