Ronald Reagan picture

Remarks at the United States Coast Guard Academy Commencement Ceremony in New London, Connecticut

May 18, 1988

The President. Thank you, Admiral Cueroni, and thank you, Secretary Burnley, Admiral Yost, Senator Weicker, Senator Dodd. I thank you all. And it's an honor to be able to participate in the commencement exercises of the United States Coast Guard Academy. I'm especially delighted to be here with the class of 1988. You see, in certain ways I envy you. For one thing, all of you know what you'll be doing next year. [Laughter]

The fact is many young people have trouble choosing their life's work. I was an exception. After college, I knew exactly where my future lay. I became a radio sports announcer. It was just a lucky guess. But I know what I would say to any young people who told me that they were torn between different careers. If they said they wanted to help people in distress, guard our borders, conserve fisheries, battle drug smugglers, enforce maritime law, test their courage against stormy seas, and defend America in times of war, and wear proudly each day the uniform of this great country, then I would tell them just one thing—I'd tell them: Join the Coast Guard.

I know a lot has happened since you started here as swabs, were presented with a copy of "Running Light," and first rode the wind on America's mighty square-rigger, the Eagle. Soon, it'll be time for you to receive your commissions and bid farewell to the Academy. It's been said that graduation is a time of sentimental goodbyes coupled with extreme relief. One student departing his alma mater wrote inside the cover of his yearbook: "All things must pass—though I almost didn't." [Laughter] Now, I don't imagine that any of you wrote anything like that inside of your copy of "Tide Rips."

You know, as President, I have a military aide from each of the five services. My Coast Guard aides have been excellent. One of them taught me that "The Coast Guard is that hard nucleus about which the Navy forms in time of war." But there's one thing I haven't been able to get a straight answer on. What I want to know is, how's the awning?

Cadets. Aye, aye, sir!

The President. Well— [laughter] —I hope that means it's all right. [Laughter] Well, graduation day belongs to the graduates, but I want to take just a moment to speak to some special people here today: your mothers and fathers. You know, I've often said that there's nothing that makes me prouder than America's young men and women in uniform. I want to ask the parents: Are you as proud of these soon-to-be officers as I am? [Applause] During World War II, one general said that America's secret weapon was "just the best darn kids in the world." Now, that may not have been the exact word he used— [laughter] —but when I look at your sons and daughters today, I know exactly what he meant. And cadets, let me ask you something: For your parents, or that special teacher or friend who helped you to be here today, can we give them a very loud salute? [Applause]

Well, since your service was founded by the first Congress nearly 200 years ago, it has served with courage and honor in every war our nation has fought. The first Coast Guard casualty of World War II came the day after Pearl Harbor, when a transport evacuating American families out of Singapore came under attack. On D-day, when our soldiers hit the beaches at Normandy, there were Coast Guardsmen piloting the landing craft. And some 1,500 soldiers whose craft were sunk by enemy fire were rescued by the Coast Guard on that fateful day. Back when Washington bureaucrats were not as sophisticated or numerous as they are today, we named things more nearly for what they were. One of my favorite examples is that one of the predecessors of today's Coast Guard was known simply as the Life Saving Service. And though the Coast Guard does many jobs, I suspect seafarers in distress will always think of you that way.

In March of last year, some 200 miles off our New Jersey coast, in stormy Atlantic waters, a Soviet freighter sent out a desperate SOS. The ship was listing 26 degrees to port in seas that were running 20 feet. Gale force winds were gusting up to 55 knots, and the skies were dark with rain and sleet. The Soviet ship was sinking. Well, three Coast Guard helicopters came to the rescue. Their fuel was low; there was little time. And despite screaming winds and pitching seas, each helicopter in turn managed to hover above the ship's heaving deck. And the helicopter crews, with infinite care, lowered a wire basket and lifted up to safety, one by one, each of the 37 people on board. It was one of the most dramatic rescues in Coast Guard history and a heroic demonstration of what we mean when we say the Coast Guard is "an armed service and more."

Today, one of the Coast Guard's most important missions is to fight the importation of illegal drugs. In the last 10 years you have arrested more than 8,500 drug smugglers, and for that, America salutes you. It's time to make illegal drugs public enemy number one. It's time to make—well, it's time to say America's tolerance for illegal drugs is zero. The Congress made a serious mistake when our fiscal year '88 budget request for the Coast Guard was reduced by $72 million and forced a curtailment in the drug interdiction effort. I hope the Congress will restore the funds necessary for you to accomplish your vital mission.

While that is one thing, it's not the only thing that all of us as a nation must do. But before I talk about what remains to be done, let's take stock of what has already occurred. Yes, it's true that across the breadth of the Federal Government we have assembled a strong antidrug team and enacted tough antidrug policies. In 1982 we set up the South Florida Task Force, which was headed by Vice President Bush. Hundreds of additional drug agents were sent to Florida, along with extra judges and prosecutors. More Coast Guard cutters were deployed, and the other military services provided surveillance assistance for the first time. We made record drug seizures, and major crime in South Florida decreased nearly 20 percent.

Because of that success, the next year we formed the National Narcotics Border Interdiction System, also led by the Vice President, to coordinate Federal, State, and local law enforcement efforts against drug smuggling nationwide. Since the formation of the Border Interdiction System in 1983, annual cocaine seizures involving the Coast Guard are up more than 20 times what they had been. In 1987 I established the National Drug Policy Board in order to coordinate all of the administration's efforts in this crusade. This board, chaired by Attorney General Meese, has developed a series of comprehensive strategies to reduce both the supply and demand for illicit drugs.

And let me stress, the Coast Guard and the other armed services have played a major role in this unprecedented campaign. In addition to the Coast Guard's tremendous efforts, last year the Pentagon provided over 2,500 ship days of maritime support and more than 16,000 hours of air surveillance. The Coast Guard and the Department of Defense gained important new resources for their drug-fighting efforts from the Antidrug Abuse Act of 1986. And last year the Coast Guard and agencies with which it works seized nearly 26,000 pounds of cocaine—26,000 pounds of a drug that has a street value of $1,000 an ounce. Don't try to figure that out in your head; it's $416 million. And by keeping deadly drugs from reaching our communities, I think the Coast Guard earned yet another good reason to be known as the Life Saving Service.

Another key part of the war on drugs has been the appointment of no-nonsense Federal judges. Not only have drug convictions doubled since 1979 but prison sentences are 40 percent longer. And last year, new, tougher sentencing guidelines were issued. The Comprehensive Crime Control Act, passed in 1984, helps put drug dealers out of business. Last year alone over $500 million in drug-related assets were seized. Drug eradication programs are now underway in 23 countries, up from just 2 in 1981. More funds than ever before are being spent on drug education and public awareness, and more funds still have been requested. Since 1981 we've tripled the antidrug law enforcement budget, and I'm asking for another 13-percent increase. That would give the Federal Government a total of $3.9 billion next fiscal year to fight this menace.

All told, it's an extraordinary demonstration of our commitment and a remarkable record of achievement. And that having been said, you know what else—extraordinary as it is, remarkable as it is, as much a testimony as it is to those in law enforcement and the Coast Guard—more has to be done. There's an additional step we must take, and without it, I don't know if we can succeed. I want to use this opportunity today to call for a special initiative. One of America's greatest strengths is our unique capacity for coming together during times of national emergency. We set aside those differences that divide us and unite as one people, one government, one nation. We've done this before. We must do it now.

Illegal drug use is the foremost concern in our country. And frankly, as I finish my final year in office and look ahead, I worry that excessive drug politics might undermine effective drug policy. If America's antidrug effort gets tripped up in partisanship, if we permit politics to determine policy, it will mean a disaster for our future and that of our children. That's why today, I'm calling on both Houses of the Congress, both sides of the aisle, to join with my representatives in a special executive-legislative task force to advance America's unified response to the problem of illegal drug use. Because if we cannot remove the politics from drugs, how can we hope to remove the drugs from our communities, workplaces, and schools?

Our task force should agree on solutions for every area of the drug problem, from blocking supplies to curtailing demand, from treatment to education to prosecution, from interdiction and confiscation to eradication—nothing should be overlooked or left out. Our policy is one of zero tolerance for illegal drugs, and we're looking for solutions, not just a restatement of the problem. And no later than 45 days from now there should be a report to me and to the bipartisan leadership of Congress laying out our proposals.

Let me take a minute to spell out some specific items that need to be considered. First, to deter violent crime and narcotics trafficking, we have to deal with the drug syndicates on our terms. That means when a death results from narcotics trafficking or when a law enforcement officer is killed in the battle the law must provide for swift, certain, and just punishment—including capital punishment. We've got to send a loud, clear message to drug kingpins and cop-killers. We also need to appoint more tough Federal judges who take drug crime seriously and to pass mandatory penalties for those who sell drugs to children.

Our military assets can be used for greater command and control functions in surveillance and drug detection. And we should consider allowing our Governors greater use of the National Guard in this effort. But one thing must be clear: When it comes to the military, let's give them a clear mission for specific situations. To assist in this effort I have also today directed Secretary of Defense Carlucci to tap the best minds both inside and outside of government to come up with creative solutions on how we can better use military resources and technologies to detect drugs and support civil law enforcement agencies in interdiction.

We need stepped-up international eradication programs to reduce the supply of drugs, and additional education and prevention programs to reduce demand, including the use of civil sanctions, such as fines and loss of Federal privileges. Our encouragement, our goal, should be for those who have never tried drugs to remain drug free.

I'm especially proud of the antidrug work that Nancy has done, which has changed the way we talk and think about drugs. You see, at the root of the drug crisis is a crisis of values and a spiritual hunger. I believe that as a society we're still paying for the permissiveness of the 1960's and 1970's, when restrictions on personal behavior came under attack by a cultural establishment whose slogan was "just say yes." There were numerous calls for repealing our prohibitions on drugs. And those who favored tougher drug laws, or even just keeping the ones we had, were labeled conservative, moralistic, reactionary, and oldfashioned—and that was back before those words were meant as compliments. [Laughter] The none-too-subtle message to young people was that they had to use drugs if they wanted to be cool. What greater shame can there be than that many of our young people began to use drugs not to rebel but to fit in? So, in the crusade for a drug free America, the next step is to enforce a policy of zero tolerance of illegal drug use. So, when we say no to drugs, it'll be clear that we mean absolutely none, no exceptions.

This concern with values goes beyond just the issue of drugs, of course. We worked hard in the early eighties on our national recovery so that we might be able to recognize, indeed, deal with social problems that had been too long ignored and sometimes obscured in the past. Well, today America is facing head-on social problems like drugs and crime. And this, as I say, stems from the renewal of our fundamental beliefs and values as a nation. And this renewal goes beyond just our own borders.

In one week I will depart for the Moscow summit. It'll be my first visit to the Soviet Union and my fourth meeting with General Secretary Gorbachev. Our goals there are something that I've been discussing for the last several months in detail, but let me summarize. There are four main agenda items in the U.S.-Soviet relationship: human rights, regional conflicts, arms reduction, and bilateral exchanges. With regard to human rights, though we note some improvements, we'll continue to press for full respect for the freedom of expression, travel, religion, and other rights contained in the Helsinki accords, and for institutional reforms that would guarantee such rights and the rule of law. We'll discuss a number of regional conflicts in which the United States supports the forces of freedom against brutal Communist dictatorships. In particular, we will note the progress of the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan. We will reaffirm America's support for the brave Mujahidin freedom fighters and the goal of an independent, nonaligned, and undivided Afghanistan, free to determine its own future. In the area of arms control, General Secretary Gorbachev and I will continue our dialog on the reduction of nuclear weapons, focusing in particular on strategic offensive systems. And with respect to bilateral exchanges, I especially want to encourage more student exchanges between our two countries. I hope that more Soviet young people can view firsthand America's democratic system and way of life.

Just the other day I met with 70-some students, 38 Americans and 38 Soviet students, who've held a conference in Helsinki, in Moscow, and are now here in the United States holding one. And I looked out at them, as I'm looking at you, and you couldn't tell which were Russian and which were American. And I had to say to them: If all the young people of the world could get to know each other, there'd never be another war.

Well, I should also mention that part of our meetings will focus on the U.S.-Soviet Maritime Search and Rescue Agreement that has just been concluded. Other maritime issues we're currently discussing include the issue of fisheries and plans for dealing with emergency pollution spills. So, yes, the Coast Guard's concerns are the Moscow agenda.

It's been a great honor to be here with all of you. And you can be sure that when I'm in Moscow I'll think of all of you here today. You represent the best of America and carry in your hearts the values that are the source of our liberty and our spiritual strength. This is reflected in the path of the service that you've chosen. We're a nation of free men and women, who use our Godgiven liberty to serve our country because we love her and all that she represents. It's our earnest prayer to serve America in peace. It is our solemn commitment to defend her in time of war.

I believe that America is standing before the brightest future the world has ever known, and that future is yours. And properly so, because you've chosen to wear the uniform of your country and risk all that you have and all that you are in her defense. I wish not only to congratulate you on your graduation, but as your Commander in Chief, I salute you! Thank you, and God bless you all.

Note: The President spoke at 1:11 p.m. at Nitchem Field. In his opening remarks, he referred to Rear Adm. Richard Cueroni, Superintendent; James H. Burnley IV, Secretary of Transportation; Adm. Paul A. Yost, Commandant; and Senators Christopher J. Dodd and Lowell P. Weicker, Jr., of Connecticut. Prior to his remarks, the President visited the USCG "Vigorous" for briefings and demonstrations of procedures used for the interdiction of vessels. Following his remarks, the President returned to Washington, DC.

Ronald Reagan, Remarks at the United States Coast Guard Academy Commencement Ceremony in New London, Connecticut Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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