Jimmy Carter photo

Remarks at a White House Reception for Vietnam Veterans Week, 1979

May 30, 1979

MR. CONWAY. Mr. President, the Postmaster General and I would like you to accept on behalf of all Vietnam veterans this special Vietnam veterans stamp that will be issued on Armistice Day this year.

In the Postal Service, we like to think of stamps as minibillboards which tell the world what we Americans think is important. And although only a small gesture, this stamp is our way of honoring and thanking all the Vietnam veterans who answered their Nation's call to duty.

[At this point, the President and James V. P. Conway, Deputy Postmaster General, unveiled the design of the new U.S. postage stamp.]

THE PRESIDENT. You have honored me and my family, and you have honored this President's house by coming here this afternoon.

In March I signed a proclamation for Vietnam era veterans week. In that proclamation, I pointed out that the Vietnam war was the longest and most expensive in the history of our country. It resulted in the most costly gifts of human life and the greatest degree of human suffering. In addition, the war itself, the circumstances of it, were highly divisive in our country, perhaps more so than any other war except the War Between the States, more than 100 years ago.

Our Nation has a noble history, a history of patriotism and sacrifice, a history of courage in time of crisis. There is hardly a family here which has not experienced the suffering and the dedication of one's self in war. The first member of my family who moved to Georgia fought in the Revolution. My great-grandparents fought in the War Between the States. My father was a lieutenant in the First World War. I served in the Navy during the Second War and the Korean war. My oldest son volunteered to go to Vietnam and went there for a long time.

In almost every instance, our Nation has treated the participants and the veterans of war with honor and respect and appreciation and a sense of brotherhood and sharing. But as a father, and as the Governor of a State, as a candidate for President, I saw very clearly that the Vietnam war was different. There were no chamber of commerce proclamations, no bands that played martial music to welcome back most of the veterans of that war.

Although all service people have been heroic—as I said many times during the long campaign for President—veterans of Vietnam had to demonstrate an extra measure of heroism. It's easier to offer one's life, if necessary, for a country when you have assured knowledge that the people at home support you and appreciate what you are doing and share with you the commitment of our Nation. But to offer one's life in the most horrible possible circumstances, the most dangerous circumstances, with the realization that people back home do not give you that support, their prayers, their deep appreciation, and a sense of sharing, requires an extra measure of patriotism and sacrifice. As you well know, much more vividly than do I, that was the situation during the Vietnam war.

Many people opposed the war. That's a basic right in our country. But the unfortunate part of that opposition has been that many have seen our returning veterans, both during and since the war was concluded, as an unfortunate or embarrassing reminder of the divisiveness of the war itself. This has created additional hardship on those who are willing to serve.

In addition, there were special circumstances during those recent war years that were unprecedented to a remarkable degree. Those who were conscripted to go to Vietnam were those who were most unfortunate, who were deprived of political influence, who could not afford to be a student in college, who were relatively inarticulate, and who were disadvantaged to begin with. They were joined, obviously, by the extremely heroic volunteers who went to join them.

Most of those who have returned have almost miraculously been able to assimilate themselves back into civilian life and to further service of our country, even when the psychological or physical scars of war were still apparent. But those statistics which show that remarkable degree of success are no comfort to those who have not been able to overcome the psychic or physical damages of the war.

This factor has also been exacerbated or aggravated by the fact that those who went, being disadvantaged educationally or economically, still had those family problems when they returned. And our Nation has not done enough to respect and to honor and to recognize and to reward the special heroism that I have tried to describe in such fumbling ways.

There is obviously a need for better opportunities for education, for training, for housing, for jobs. When I was elected President, I searched for ways to demonstrate vividly that our Government would change its attitude of neglect toward the Vietnam veterans. And the most significant action that I could take was to choose someone to head the Veterans Administration in whom I had the utmost confidence, who was strong, able, heroic, dedicated, and would be an effective spokesman to the Nation for those who served in the Vietnam war.

Three key aides in my administration are here on the stage with me—Max Cleland, our director; Dennis Wyant, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Labor, responsible for job programs; and Bill Lawson, who serves on my own White House staff.

There are slowly moving items of legislation before the Congress, and I hope that they can be expedited. We need to extend the time limit for GI rights for job training. We need substantially to expand the readjustment counseling service-obviously too long neglected.

Max Cleland reminds me that he testified for this legislation 10 years ago—is that right, Max?—and the special programs for vocational rehabilitation for those who are disabled. There are other actions, of course, which the Congress can take, and I urge the expeditious conclusion of these efforts. But perhaps more importantly for the future, even than these specific important pieces of legislation, is what might well be initiated this week.

I think the Nation is ready to change its heart and its mind and its attitude toward those whom you, assembled here, represent, and to recognize finally and with enthusiasm and concern, appreciation, and with love, the wisdom and the experience and the insight into the consciousness of America which you represent and the honor and valor and devotion and sacrifice and commitment that you have demonstrated during a time of crisis and of personal danger.

AUDIENCE MEMBER. What about Agent Orange victims, President Carter?

THE PRESIDENT. What about what?

Q. Twice as many men are dying here in the States as died in the war. Agent Orange contains dioxin, the most toxic substance known to mankind. Dow Chemical Company lied to this country, lied to the Government when it said it wasn't toxic.

THE PRESIDENT. I understand.

Q. Now thousands of our men are dying, President Carter. Max Cleland is implementing programs, but they're not sufficient enough.

THE PRESIDENT. I'll help Max with that, with the herbicide, you mean?

Q. Epidemiological studies done on the Vietnam veterans.

THE PRESIDENT. Max and I both agree.

Q. Thank you.

THE PRESIDENT. Let me say two things in conclusion. One is that your voice in my administration and in my consciousness and heart is Max Cleland. You could not possibly have a better representative than he. And secondly, that your contribution still is tremendously important in the consciousness of our Nation, because all of us agree that the best way to commemorate what you have accomplished in Vietnam is to build a world permanently at peace.

Is Philip Caputo here? Where? Do you mind if I read a quotation from your book?

MR. CAPUTO. No, sir.

THE PRESIDENT. Fine. [Laughter]

I don't think I could close with a more appropriate remark than an excerpt from Philip Caputo's book, "A Rumor of War." Writing on the death of a friend and a classmate named Walter Levy, and I quote, "You were a part of us and a part of us died with you, the small part that was still young, that had not yet grown cynical, grown bitter and old with death. Your courage was an example to us, and whatever the rights or wrongs of the war, nothing can diminish the rightness of what you tried to do. Yours was the greater love. You died for the man you tried to save, and you died pro patria. As I write this 11 years after your death, the country for which you died wishes to forget the war in which you died. Its very name is a curse. There are no monuments to its heroes, for memorials are reminders and they would make it harder for your country to sink into the amnesia for which it longs. It wishes to forget, and it has forgotten, but there are a few of us who do remember, because of the small things that made us love you, your gestures, the words you spoke, and the way you looked. We loved you for what you were, and what you stood for."

And I would like to say, as President, on behalf of 220 million people of our country, we love you for what you were and what you stood for; and we love you for what you are and what you stand for.
Thank you very much.

Two things—I'm not in a hurry, and I would like to do—-



Q. I think that I do feel honored being here today. But I think there is a dishonor if we let this week just go by without trying to implement programs that realistically deal with a lot of the problems that the Vietnam combat veterans still suffer from.

You can say that most Vietnam era veterans have readjusted. But I would like to see a study done on the combat veterans, because those are the ones who are still having problems; those are the ones who are still coming into my office week after week after week at Swords to Plowshares in San Francisco.

And there are really no realistic programs to deal with their problems. So, I think if you want to honor me as a Vietnam-disabled combat veteran, that you also have to implement realistic programs. And I think you have it going on the right track to do that. And I think that Max has. But I think there needs to be more, because I want to come home again. And unless I can come home again, there has to be programs to let me come home again.

THE PRESIDENT. What's your name?

Thank you very much, Jack. Jack McCloskey? Thank you.

I was going to say that you're welcome to look at this. It's your home, and I'm not in any hurry. I would like to stand just outside the door and shake hands with those of you who would like to meet the President personally. It would be an honor for me. And you've honored us by being here.

Thank you.

Note: The President spoke at 2:32 p.m. in the East Room at the White House.

Jimmy Carter, Remarks at a White House Reception for Vietnam Veterans Week, 1979 Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/249685

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