Ronald Reagan picture

Remarks at the United States Military Academy in West Point, New York

October 28, 1987

Remarks Before Lunch

I know I'm going to be speaking to you after lunch, but I just wanted to tell you how great it is to be back at West Point. And I have never seen a more impressive and spirited Corps of Cadets; you make me proud. But I know the real reason why all of you are so warm in your greetings, so glad to see me. It has to do with this directive that I have written. [Laughter]

Consistent with past practices that have been established, as Commander in Chief, I have directed the Superintendent to grant amnesty to the Corps of Cadets.

Remarks After Lunch

General, thank you. And Secretary Weinberger and Congressman Gilman and General Palmer, General Gorden, and members of the staff and faculty, and ladies and gentlemen of the United States Military Academy, I want to thank you for all your hospitality, especially since I'm an old Army man myself.

It was back in the thirties that I joined the Army Reserves as a member of the 14th Regiment of the—get ready now—horse cavalry. [Laughter] It's not true that I was at the Battle of the Little Big Horn. [Laughter]

In 1778 George Washington erected a fort high upon a granite point overlooking the Hudson to guard the region of New York in the event of a British attack. And now, for more than 180 years, the United States Military Academy, here at West Point, has in effect extended and carried on that first mission. For here we train the men and women whose duty it is to defend the Republic, the men and women whose profession is watchfulness, whose skill is vigilance, whose calling is to guard the peace, but if need be, to fight and win.

More than 180 years, West Point in this time has established and added luster to a proud story, a story of courage and wisdom, a story of heroism, of sacrifice, and yes, very often the ultimate sacrifice. It is the story of men like Ulysses Grant, the son of a humble tanner in Ohio who went on from West Point to save the American Union. It's the story of Dwight David Eisenhower, a Kansas farm boy who learned the skills at West Point that enabled him to command the mightiest invasion force in history, and of Douglas MacArthur, an acknowledged genius in war who showed himself during the occupation of Japan to be a genius in peace, as well. And if I may, it's the story of men like General Fred Gorden. The only black cadet in his class, today General Gorden has come back to West Point as Commandant, setting an example for you, and indeed for all young Americans, of what hard work and devotion to duty can achieve.

These last two names I mentioned, General Gorden and General MacArthur, call to mind a special moment in the history of this Academy. For it was 25 years ago that General of the Army Douglas MacArthur stood in this spot and addressed the cadets of West Point. And General Gorden, at the time cadet Gorden, was sitting where you are today. It was a moment cadet Gorden would never forget. Just days from graduation, he looked around this mess hall and saw war-hardened officers moved to tears by the power of MacArthur's words:

"The long gray line has never failed us." He said, "Were you to do so, a million ghosts would rise from their white crosses, thundering those magic words: Duty, honor, country." And then he added: "This does not mean that you're warmongers. On the contrary, the soldier above all other people prays for peace, for he must suffer and bear the deepest wounds and scars of war."

General Palmer, ladies and gentlemen of West Point, it is because you, above all other people, pray for peace, but must bear the burden should that peace fail, that I've come here today. For I want to speak about relations between the American Republic and democracy's main competitor, the Soviet Union—relations that are likely to shape the whole course of your careers as professional soldiers. I want in particular to discuss our present efforts for arms reduction, efforts that may soon be yielding historic results.

But first, some essential background-from the beginning, our administration has insisted that this country base its relations with the Soviet Union upon realism, not illusion. Now, this may sound obvious, but when we took office, the historical record needed restatement. So, restate it we did. We told the truth about the massive Soviet buildup. We told the truth about Afghanistan and Poland. We told the truth about economic growth and standards of living-that it is not the democracies that have backward economies, that it is not the Western World in which life expectancy is actually on the decline. We told the truth about the moral distinction between their system and ours.

When our administration took office, we found America's military forces in a state of disrepair. Today the situation is very different. Pay and training for our Armed Forces are up. The Navy has been expanded. Weapons systems of all kinds have been modernized, making full use of the technological revolution. As a result of our efforts, you in the Army will see the fielding of more than 400 new systems. And we've begun work upon a dramatic, new departure, both in military strategy and technology; our Strategic Defense Initiative, which offers the hope of rendering ballistic missiles obsolete and of ensuring deterrence by protecting lives, not threatening them. In brief.. We have replaced weakness with strength.

To turn now from background to specific substance, the agenda of our relations with the Soviet Union has focused upon four critical areas: first, human rights, because freedom is what we stand for as Americans; second, negotiated settlements to regional conflicts; third, expanded exchanges between our peoples; and fourth, arms reduction.

In some areas of this four-part agenda, we have seen progress. Cultural, scientific, and other bilateral exchanges have shown a dramatic increase since my 1985 meeting with Mr. Gorbachev in Geneva. In human rights, too, we've seen some positive developments. Some political prisoners have been released. Emigration figures are up somewhat. And of course, there's talk of reform in the Soviet Union, of some liberalizing changes in Soviet laws, and of economic reforms that could give greater scope to individual initiative.

We harbor no illusions: While changes have taken place in the Soviet system, the one-party system unchecked by democratic institutions remains unchanged. And yet we welcome such changes as have taken place, and we call upon them to make still more. It is in regional conflicts where Soviet performance has been most disturbing. Anyone searching for evidence that the Soviets remain expansionist, indeed imperialist, need look no farther than Nicaragua or Afghanistan.

Our policy in these regional conflicts is straightforward. We will continue to engage the Soviets, seeking to find political solutions to regional conflicts, solutions that eliminate foreign troops and return the fate of nations to their own people. In Nicaragua, we support the peace plan agreed upon by the Central American Presidents last August, insisting upon the establishment of full and genuine democracy in Nicaragua. Moreover, Soviet-bloc and Cuban forces must leave that nation; this is essential to protect our own security.

As for the democratic resistance in Nicaragua, year upon year, for 7 years now, they have fought and sacrificed and endured. It is the resistance—the brave members of the resistance, many of them no more than teenagers—who have kept the Communist Sandinistas from consolidating their power and forced them into the current peace plan. It is the resistance, in short, that has given Nicaragua at least a chance for true freedom. And my friends, I know you agree: We must not abandon these courageous men and women, these soldiers. So, let me promise: Nicaragua will have its freedom. And we will help the resistance carry on its brave fight until freedom is secure.

And this brings me to the final area on our agenda for U.S.-Soviet relations: arms reductions. For here our realism and commitment are close to producing historic results. It was in 1977 that the Soviet Union first deployed the SS-20. The SS-20 was, as you know, a qualitatively new and unprovoked threat against our friends and allies, a triple-warhead nuclear missile capable of striking anywhere in Western Europe and much of Asia mere minutes after being launched. You must remember that NATO had no comparable weapon in its arsenal with which to counter this new force.

By 1979 the Soviets had deployed some 130 INF missiles, with 390 warheads. General Secretary Brezhnev declared that "a balance now exists." In March 1982 they declared a moratorium on the deployment of new INF missiles in Europe. But this was only a cover, and by August of 1982, the number of Soviet INF missiles had climbed to over 300, with more than 900 warheads.

How did the West respond? In 1977 Chancellor Helmut Schmidt of West Germany led the call for the deployment of NATO's own INF missiles to counter this new Soviet threat. And in December 1979 NATO made a two-track decision. First, the United States would negotiate with the Soviets, attempting to persuade them to withdraw the SS-20's. And second, as long as the Soviets refused to do so, the United States would indeed deploy a limited number of its own INF missiles—Pershing II and ground-launched cruise missiles—in Europe.

It's important to stress that the aim of this decision was not in itself the deployment of American missiles. That was only to be the means to an end. In the words of Valery Giscard d'Estaing, President of France at the time of the 1979 NATO decision, he said, "The deployment of Pershing II's in Europe was a tactical exercise whose preferred goal was to compel the Soviet Union to eliminate the SS-20's."

Well, no doubt the Soviets wanted to test NATO resolve. And indeed, the deployment of our INF missiles had to be carried out in the face of sharp political protests and even mass demonstrations. I remember speaking in Bonn in 1982. Thousands of demonstrators chanted and marched. And I couldn't help thinking what irony, for it was to secure the peace they sought and the freedom they were exercising that we were deploying the missiles that they protested.

Yet NATO held firm. And, yes, it was when we showed strength that, if need be, we would ensure the credibility of our deterrent posture by meeting force with force that the Soviets, after first walking out of the negotiations, eventually returned and began to talk seriously about the possibility of withdrawing their own INF missiles.

I'm pleased to say that the agreement we're nearing is based upon the proposal that the United States, in consultation with our allies, first put forward in 1981: the zero-option. The zero-option calls very simply for the elimination of this entire class of U.S. and Soviet INF missiles. According to this agreement, the Soviets will be required to remove four times as many nuclear warheads as will the United States. Moreover, the Soviets will be required to destroy not only their entire force of SS20's and SS-4's but also their shorter range ballistic missiles, the SS-12's and SS-23's. As I said, all these missiles will be eliminated.

How will we know that the Soviets have actually destroyed their missiles? As you know, the Soviets have an extensive record of violating past arms control agreements. So, frankly, we're not going to take their word for it. Any treaty that I agree to must provide for effective verification, including on-site inspection of facilities before and during reductions and short-notice inspections afterwards. All in all, the verification regime we have put forward is the most stringent in the history of arms control negotiations, and I will not settle for anything less.

At the same time that we've been moving forward on INF missiles, we've attached the highest priority to achieving deep reductions in U.S. and Soviet strategic arms. Even Mr. Gorbachev has described strategic weapons as the "root problem" in arms control, and we agree. To that end we've expedited the strategic arms negotiations in Geneva. Much progress has been made in reaching accord on our proposal of cutting strategic arsenals in half. The Soviets must, however, stop holding strategic offensive reductions hostage to measures that would cripple our SDI, particularly since the Soviets are already spending billions of dollars on a strategic defense program of their own.

And this brings me to what happened last week in Moscow. As Secretary Shultz has reported, he had lively, sometimes heated discussions with Foreign Minister Shevardnadze and General Secretary Gorbachev. Well, that was no surprise. The whole range of issues on our agenda was covered. There was important positive movement toward an INF agreement, and there was progress in other areas, as well, not only in arms reductions. As I announced earlier today, Foreign Minister Shevardnadze will come to Washington Friday to meet with me and Secretary Shultz to continue these discussions.

And let me repeat what I've said before. Summits can be useful for leaders and for nations, occasions for frank talk and a bridge to better relations. It would be good for Mr. Gorbachev to see this country for himself. I'm ready to continue and intensify our negotiations, but a summit is not a precondition for progress on the agenda at hand. When the General Secretary is ready to visit the United States, I and the American people will welcome him. Let us remember that we've reached this point only as a solid alliance, an alliance made up of NATO, Congress, and the American people. If we're to continue to see real results and to convince the Soviets to bargain seriously, this cohesion must continue.

Now, some have argued that when the INF missiles have been removed, our commitment to Europe will have been weakened. Yet this is simply untrue. We maintain our firm commitment to the NATO strategy of flexible response, ensuring that the alliance is capable of blocking aggression at any level. In Europe itself, we will retain a large force of many types, including ground-based systems and aircraft and submarines capable of delivering nuclear weapons. And in consultation with our NATO allies, we've agreed that further nuclear reductions can take place only in the context of a substantial improvement in the balance of chemical and conventional forces.

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 its own defense. Well, 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 among equals, indeed, an alliance between continents. In the words of former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, the time has come for our country, quote, "to welcome a European identity in defense, which in the end is bound to spur Atlantic cooperation."

This, then, is the accounting that I've come here to give you. For, ladies and gentlemen of West Point, I believe that from time to time we who are your civilian leaders owe that—an accounting—to you who bear the burden of our decisions. But I've come not only to inform you, I've come to enlist your help.

If we do reach an INF agreement with the Soviets, when its provisions have been fulfilled and the INF missiles destroyed, you will be assuming your posts as platoon leaders and troop commanders. And even then, when I and the members of my administration will already have been some years out of office, your careers will only be beginning. So, I ask you to guard the future of the Republic. Use the courage and steadiness that this Academy is teaching you in dealing with our adversaries. Employ all your skill as soldiers and good will as Americans in preserving and strengthening the emerging relationship with our friends and allies. And always, always remain true to the values for which this Academy and our country stand: Duty, honor, country.

As Commander in Chief these 7 years, I have been struck again and again by the professionalism of our military officers and by the dedication of the soldiers that I have met in the field. But one who impressed me most deeply is a member of the United States Army I never met. His name was Scan Luketina. He was 23 years old. He didn't have the privilege of attending this Academy. He was a sergeant, a soldier like those you will command.

In this month of October, 4 years ago, Scan Luketina fought in the invasion of Grenada. He was wounded, badly wounded. He was evacuated to a hospital in Puerto Rico, where his father, a retired Army officer, joined him. He slipped in and out of a coma. And during a moment when he was conscious, his father asked him, "Scan, was it worth it? .... Yes, Dad," he answered. And then his father asked, "Son, would you do it again?" Sergeant Luketina looked into his father's eyes and said simply, "Hell yes, Dad: Duty, honor, country."

Scan Luketina died for the cause that the Army of this Republic has always served, from the hunger and bloody snow of Valley Forge to the heavy demands of vigilance upon the borders of Germany and Korea. It is the cause of life as God meant life to be lived. It's the cause of human freedom. And so, the proud words sound again today as they did 25 years ago and as they will at this Academy 25 years hence: Duty, honor, and country.

Permit me to say, as well, that I feel something today of what General MacArthur must have felt. Your youth, your optimism-they give me strength. And as I look out upon your young faces, I feel as one who will depart the stage almost before you've made your first entrance. I feel in my heart a great confidence in the future of our country, for I know that you will defend that future. And it's true: The long gray line has never failed us.

Thank you, and God bless you all.

Note: The President first spoke at 11:59 a.m. and then at 12:40 p.m. in Washington Hall. In his remarks after lunch, he referred to Lt. Gen. David Palmer, Superintendent of the Academy. Following his remarks, the President returned to Washington, DC.

Ronald Reagan, Remarks at the United States Military Academy in West Point, New York Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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