Remarks at a Meeting of the National League of Families of American Prisoners and Missing in Southeast Asia

January 28, 1983

George Brooks, Ann Griffiths, members of the board, and the family members, and Members of Congress:

I think most of you know that during the course of any given day, we meet with an assortment of groups who represent a cross section of interests and causes. None of those meetings are routine, but I must tell you that this meeting today is more than special.

The anguish you've suffered -- the families of brave men of listed prisoners of war or missing in action -- the misery and anguish is unspeakable, something the rest of us can really never know even in a partial measure. Twelve years ago, I said something to a group of you in California that I believe is even more true today: If they could be here today, millions of Americans, from every corner of this land, who have only a glimmer of your pain, would say to you, ``We want with all our hearts to share your burden.''

And what a burden you've had to bear. You watched as we disengaged from Vietnam, and many of our prisoners of war returned for an emotional homecoming. You've seen task forces and committees hold hearings and issue reports that attempted to foreclose hope. But as the tragic flow of refugees from Indochina began a few years ago, those columns of humanity who had suffered hunger and thirst and disease and piracy brought with them firsthand, ``live sighting'' reports of American prisoners held captive after 1973. As this information was investigated, respected figures in the intelligence community reached personal conclusions that these reports were credible, even though the circumstances of the sightings prevented confirmation.

But with these refugees and the news they brought, another tragedy was unfolding here at home. You, the families of our missing men, were trying to be heard, and yet you were sometimes unfairly and cruelly branded as emotionally distraught groups that ignored reality and simply hoped against hope.

Government and public attention began to wane. And instead of being a full partner with your government in attempts to learn the fates of loved ones, you were confronted with legal rulings that presumed the loved ones were dead. You found yourselves quite literally on the outside, driven in some cases to demonstrate for attention in front of the White House gates.

Well, today I want you to know that your vigil is over. Your government is attentive, and intelligence assets of the United States are fully focused on this issue. Furthermore, I pledge to you, we will take decisive action on any live sighting report that can be confirmed.

We're also working to achieve the accounting of our missing men. I'm sure you understand that some of these approaches must be done quietly. As Judge [Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs William P.] Clark told you yesterday, despite the differences between our governments, we have followed up encouraging Lao response to the recent visit by the league's delegation. We are fully prepared to take additional, concrete steps with the Lao Government to improve relations. I pledge to you that the progress on the POW-MIA issue will be the principle measure of their sincerity. I wish to recognize publicly their positive steps to date and call upon them to continue with us in this humanitarian effort to end the years of uncertainty that you have endured.

I also called on the government in Hanoi to honor their pledges to the American people on the POW-MIA issue -- not for me, not for our government, but for our missing men and those of you who did nothing to deserve the terrible emotional ordeal that you've endured.

Now, these steps are an indication of how things are changing for the better, and how the work of those of you in the National League of Families has helped bring about this change. You are the ones who have forged a partnership to realize our common quest: the return of all POWs, the fullest possible accounting for the still missing, and the repatriation of the remains of those who died serving our nation. The myth that this effort is partisan or needlessly raises your hopes has now been dashed.

The government bureaucracy now understands that these goals are the highest national priority, and there is strong, bipartisan support in the Congress. Those Americans who attempted to discharge government responsibilities through private efforts should now understand that the full resources of our government are now committed to these goals.

Today is a time for remembering many -- the private donors, the Congressmen, and the government employees -- all those who are dedicated to organizing and supporting a variety of projects to achieve our goals. Because of the very nature of the work, they must shun publicity. But I want them to know that their quiet and responsible efforts represent the highest patriotic, humanitarian values. I urge them to continue on with their work, regardless of the obstacles and frustrations, for the return home of only one of our men will be a personal reward of far greater value than any words spoken here today.

But beyond all this, I've mentioned that there are, of course, those of you here today. Today, this is a room of heroes who kept a vigil of unprecedented faith and devotion. Through all the years of heartbreak and mistrust, you have been the ones who have cared. You are the ones who asked for justice -- for deeds, not words.

The membership of the National League of Families, past and present board members, and your national office staff deserve the gratitude and accolades of this nation. And I think I should mention other individuals who share our goals, such as Fred Travalena, a returned POW, Captain Jerry Coffee, who have also given without regard to personal gain.

So all of us can be gratified that progress is being made, but never satisfied. We need greater public awareness from the American people. So, I ask each American who hears or reads of this to find a way to help. No matter how small each individual effort may seem, it is needed.

I ask, too, that you continue to provide us with positive suggestions through your Washington office. We welcome and solicit your help and cooperation, as well as the criticism when you feel we deserve it. It's possible there will be differences from time to time on tactics and strategy, but I repeat: We are heartfelt allies and friends. Our goals are the same.

The Government is large. It's possible sometimes you'll hear voices that will sound contradictory or insensitive, but we're doing what we can to eliminate that. So, please, don't let it shake our larger faith. Only if we're united, only if we have faith in each other can we finally hope to end the tragic ordeal that you've endured with such steadfast and wondrous courage.

I know I've spoken before and told of when the POWs did return immediately after the agreement. Nancy and I were fortunate enough -- I was Governor, then, in Sacramento -- to have several hundred of them, not all at once, of course -- couldn't get them in -- but in groups, in our home. One who is here at this table this morning was one of those. We heard such stories. We saw then such courage. And one night, afterward, I said to Nancy, ``Where did we find such men?'' And the answer came almost as quickly as I'd asked it. We found them where we've always found them -- on the farms, in the shops, in the offices, on the streets, in towns and cities in America, and farms. They're just the product of the greatest, freest system man has ever known.

Speaking for Nancy and myself, you and they will be in our prayers. God bless you all.

Note: The President spoke at 9:49 a.m. at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Crystal City, Va. The special meeting of the league marked the 10th anniversary of the Paris peace accords.