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Toasts at a Dinner Honoring Returned Prisoners of War

May 24, 1973

It is always the custom at the dinner at the White House to have a toast to the honored guest. The difficulty tonight is that there are so many honored guests that we would be drinking all night and into the middle of the day. Somebody said, "What is wrong with that?"

But tonight, as I was thinking of a toast to propose, before doing so, I would like all of us to join, I think, in a round of applause for the marvelous White House staff and all of these service organizations that have put this dinner on tonight.

And now to come to the moment of the toast, I think you would be interested to know the advice I got from some of the senior officers when I asked them how the toasts should be proposed. And to a man, each one of them said, "Do not propose it to us. We have been toasted, and we appreciate the great welcome we have received." And most of them referred to the missing in action, to those who have been killed in action, to those who have served in Vietnam, to those who are serving today all over the world, to those who wear the uniform of the United States proudly, as they have worn it so proudly.

Of course, I could go on and on about the men that these strong men and stouthearted men would like for us to recognize. I think there is one group, and I will not propose the toast to them tonight, because I have another group that I think deserves that accolade, but one group that I would like to mention particularly.

The most difficult decision that I have made since being President was on December 18 of last year. And there were many occasions in that 10-day period after the decision was made when I wondered whether anyone in this country really supported it. But I can tell you this: After having met each one of our honored guests this evening, after having talked to them, I think that all of us would like to join in a round of applause for the brave men that took those B-52's in and did the job, because as all of you know, if they hadn't done it, you wouldn't be here tonight.

And now I do come to the moment, and I propose the toast. It is traditional on occasion to propose the toast to a lady rather than to a man, and on this occasion I think of the First Lady and of many first ladies. Of course, traditionally the wife of the President is the First Lady of this country.

I can tell you, as I look back over those months and years that we have met with the wives and mothers of those of you who were prisoners of war, they were and are the bravest, most magnificent women I have ever met in my life.

And now, if they will give me my official toasting glass, I will propose the toast.

If all of the gentlemen will please rise-tonight, as President of the United States, I designate every one of the women here, the wives, the mothers, and others who are guests of our POW's, as First Ladies.

Gentlemen, to the First Ladies of America--the First Ladies.

Now, to respond to the toast, we will call on the ranking officer, and as I recall, he was a colonel the last time I met him, so we will call him a colonel at the moment, but before he gets through, he will be a lot higher than that. Colonel Flynn. [At this point Brig. Gen. John P. Flynn, USAF, responded to the President's toast. The President then resumed speaking.]

Thank you very much. As a matter of fact, when Colonel Flynn was speaking, I heard that he had already made brigadier general.

I also thought, after his very generous remarks, that I should respond appropriately, and so, Brigadier General Flynn, I want you to know that with the authority vested in me as Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces, for the balance of this evening you are a full general of the Army.

And now, ladies and gentlemen, we come to the real reason that it was essential to bring you back and bring this war to a conclusion before the end of this year. The reason is that I made a promise to Bob Hope.

Bob Hope told me, when he was in the White House a few months ago--this was before we knew you were going to return--that he had spent the last 20 Christmases outside of the United States, and the last 12 of them in Vietnam, and he said, "Mr. President, next Christmas I would like to spend Christmas with [Mrs.] Dolores [Hope] at home."

Bob, you are recognized.

Note: The President spoke at 10:30 p.m. on the South Lawn at the White House.

On May 22 and 24, 1973, the White House released fact sheets on the dinner for the POW's.

Brigadier General Flynn responded to the President's toast as follows:

Mr. President, Mrs. Nixon, Mr. Vice President, Mrs. Agnew, distinguished guests, fellow returnees and your lovely ladies:

I know that I have some sympathy from the returnees, being sandwiched in between the President of the United States and Bob Hope.

But, sir, in a more serious vein, I would like to express our appreciation for being here. We have often said that we were privileged to serve our country under difficult circumstances. This evening, sir, we would like to state that we are privileged indeed to be here as your guests. We regret only that our comrades could not return with us.

Sir, I would like to state for all of us that we never lost faith in your integrity or your courage or the courage of our people in the country or of our services.

I would like to state, too, that we do not consider ourselves a unique group of men. Rather, we are a random selection of fate. We consider we are representative of what our services produce today, but more importantly, our services are drawn from a civilian community and we are proud to be citizens of the United States.

Mr. President, concerning your decision on December 18, I would like to assure you, sir, that we knew you were in a very lonely position. The decision was contested, but I would like to also report to you that when we heard heavy bombs impacting in Hanoi, we started to go and pack our bags, because we knew we were going home, and we were going home with honor.

Now, sir, in recognition of your fortitude, and your perseverance under fire, the returnees would like to present to you a token of our esteem to you, sir.

[At this point, a plaque was presented to the President. Brigadier General Flynn then resumed speaking.]

And finally, Mr. President and ladies and gentlemen, we would like to demonstrate a custom which was derived in Hanoi when we had achieved communal living, that deals with the toasts. This is the toast which was given in each of the rooms within the Hanoi prison.

Mr. Vice,1 would you propose a toast, please.

CAPT. HOWARD E. RUTLEDGE, USN. I propose a toast to our most courageous Commander in Chief, the President of the United States.

1 In a servicewide tradition, the lowest ranking officer present at a dining-in or mess night was usually designated its vice president, "Mr. Vice," and was called upon at some time to propose a toast.

Richard Nixon, Toasts at a Dinner Honoring Returned Prisoners of War Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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