Remarks at the National Convention of the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Chicago, Illinois

August 24, 1984

Commander and Commander, Governor Thompson, Senator Percy, our Representatives Hyde and Martin, you ladies and gentlemen, I thank you very much for your warm welcome.

I'm delighted to have another chance to speak to the Veterans of Foreign Wars. Last year, I told you that I would fly halfway around the world for the honor of meeting with the VFW. Well, it's not quite that far from Dallas to Chicago -- [laughter] -- but it sure is a great way to wind up a terrific week.

Now, before I say anything else, I want to congratulate all of you for reaching an important milestone -- your 2-million membership goal. You can be proud. For 85 years, the VFW has stood united in support of the values which have made our Republic great, and today you're doing it better than ever.

Four years ago, right here in Chicago, I stood before your convention, and when you think back to 1980, it's hard to forget the mess America was in, hard to forget the foolish talk of a malaise, the unfairness of runaway price increases, 21\1/2\-percent interest rates, weakened defenses, Americans held hostage, and the loss of respect for our nation abroad. It seemed that we woke up every morning wondering what new humiliation our country had suffered overseas, what disappointing economic news lay waiting for us on the front page.

We knew we couldn't continue on that road. We knew we had to change course and get America back on her feet. And we knew that peace and freedom could not be protected without cost and commitment, without perseverance and courage.

One cannot sit in the Oval Office without realizing the awesome responsibility of protecting peace and freedom and preserving human life. The responsibility cannot be met with halfway wishes. It can be met only by a determined effort to pursue and protect peace with all the strength that we can bring to bear.

My deepest commitment is to achieve a stable, enduring peace, not just by being prepared to deter aggression but also by bringing steadiness to American foreign policy, by being prepared to pursue all possible avenues for arms reduction, by ensuring that our economic strength leads the way to greater stability through growth and human progress, and by having the spiritual strength and self-confidence that enables us to reach out to our adversaries.

Well, I think we've come a long way together. In fact, I believe we've closed the books on that dismal chapter of failed policies and self-doubt. May it never return. And our progress wouldn't have been possible without you of the VFW and millions of other concerned Americans.

Gone are the days when we abandoned principle and common sense. Gone are the days when we meekly tolerated obvious threats to our peace and security. Gone are the days when we either sought to achieve overnight grandiose arms control agreements that were bound to fail, or when we set our sights so low that the agreements permitted the numbers and categories of weapons to soar.

We have made a new beginning, a dramatic, far-reaching step toward a much better, safer, and more secure future.

To all of you who have served your country with such courage and distinction, and to all the young men and women who look to their future, I can tell you today from my heart: The United States of America is prepared for peace.

And because we're stronger than before, we can be confident that we're in a position to secure a future of peace, not peace at any price, but a true, meaningful, lasting peace supported by freedom and human dignity.

As I said last night in Dallas, our military serves to protect our freedom and keep the peace. None of the four wars in my lifetime and none of the wars that you have seen came about because we were too strong. History shows that weakness invites tyrants to believe that the price of aggression will be cheap. And while military strength alone is not enough to ensure a more secure world, without military strength, there can be no effective diplomacy, no meaningful negotiations, no real security, no lasting peace.

Our military forces are back on their feet, substantially stronger and better able to protect the peace today than they were 4 years ago. We're still not where we need to be, but we're getting there.

And the payoff is in performance. In Grenada, with less than 72 hours notice, our forces successfully rescued 600 American students, disarmed Cuban and peoples revolutionary armed forces, and restored the chance for democracy to that troubled island.

As one company commander of the Army's 1st Ranger Battalion explained -- now quote: ``The lead assault elements had less than 24 hours between the time we were issued our final combat orders and our departure for Grenada. We fought with the equipment on which we were trained. The equipment worked throughout the operation. New laser rangefinders gave accurate distance to targets, and the night vision devices operated up to standards. And of the 150 Rangers in my company, only 2 had ever seen combat before, yet they all performed like seasoned veterans. What it all adds up to is that our highly motivated soldiers, together with excellent training and reliable weapons, gave us the combat edge.''

Well, come to think of it, I seem to remember that it took critics weeks to decide whether it was a good idea to rescue our students. They should have asked the students, for those students were already home. Incidentally, Nancy and I were pleased to have about 400 of them on the South Lawn at the White House and about 40 of the men who had returned from Grenada, representing all four branches of the service that had been there. And it was wonderful to hear these young people -- and they were all the same age, the students and the military -- but it was wonderful to hear these young students tell us that, yes, they had been prone to kind of look down on the uniform and all, but not anymore.

And we heard stories about how, when they were escorted to the helicopters after they'd lain overnight and for hours under their beds in the dormitories because of the bullets coming through the buildings, and then our Rangers arrived, and when it came time to go to the helicopters, those young fellows in uniform put themselves between the students and where the firing was coming from.

They couldn't keep their hands off of them. They'd throw their arms around, and then they'd come back to us and tell us how wonderful they were. It was a great sight.

Well, that young Army officer said -- and what he said about his own Ranger battalion, about being able to take on combat operations on short notice, get the job done and get it done right, was just as true for our other units. The 22d Marine Amphibious Unit had just embarked at Morehead City, North Carolina, for a normal rotation to the eastern Mediterranean when their orders were changed to Grenada. With no advance warning, with very little time, they put together their operational plans, went ashore, professionally accomplished their mission, and then continued on their way.

Because we were willing to take decisive action, our students today are safe, Grenada is free, and that region of the Caribbean is more peaceful and secure than before. But let no one confuse that situation with an inescapable reality of the modern age. When it comes to our nuclear forces -- I've said it before, and I'll say it again -- a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought. And that's why we've put forward and will continue to pursue one of the most extensive arms control programs in history.

During the months that the START and INF talks were underway, we proposed seven different initiatives, and none of these were offered to the Soviets on a take-it-or-leave-it basis. Indeed, we made a number of adjustments to respond to the stated concerns of the Soviet side, and that's why we've put forward new proposals on reducing the levels of conventional forces in Europe, on a worldwide ban on chemical weapons, on ways to help reduce the possibility of conflict in Europe, and why we're working to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons.

Ours is the pursuit of a stable and enduring peace, but at the same time, it would have been indefensible and immoral to allow the deterrent posture we need to protect the peace to continue deteriorating as it was. Now, some may insist they're just as committed to a strong deterrent even as they would cancel the B - 1 bomber and the Peacekeeper missile. They may deny that a nuclear freeze would preserve today's high, unequal, and unstable levels of nuclear weapons, and they may deny a freeze would reduce any incentive for the Soviets to return to the negotiating table and resume the search for equitable and fair reductions. But that way of thinking only reminds me of what Sam Rayburn, a very wise Democratic Speaker of the House, once said: Any jackass can kick a barn down, but it takes a carpenter to build one. [Laughter]

When I took office, our newest long-range strategic bomber was 19 years old. Early next month, the first B - 1 bomber will roll off the production line. In 1981 our newest strategic submarine was 14 years old. Today three new Trident submarines are at sea; a fourth was delivered in January, 6 weeks ahead of schedule; and seven more are under construction, on schedule and within budget.

When I took office, the debate on modernizing our aging, land-based missiles had gone on for more than a decade. Today we've completed five successful tests of the Peacekeeper, and deployment plans are on schedule. And let me take this opportunity to thank all of you for your much-needed support in our battle for the Peacekeeper. We must make sure that no adversary ever has reason to misjudge our deterrent posture or question our resolve to protect the peace, and we couldn't have gotten this far without your help. I've said before many times; I'll say it again, where you've been of help is, there are many in Washington that you do not need to make them see the light, just make them feel the heat. [Laughter]

Now let me say a word about one of our most important safeguards of peace and freedom, and I'm not talking about bullets or guns, but about heart and spirit. Once again, young Americans wear their uniforms and serve their flag with honor and pride. From the NATO lines to the Demilitarized Zone of Korea and at bases and ports all across America and all over the world, young Americans are carrying on in your footsteps, in the courageous footsteps of those who stood in harm's way so that others might have a chance to find freedom, peace, and happiness. In fact, no improvement in our military readiness has been more dramatic or more important than the improvement in the quality and retention of our service men and women.

You know, the critics kept telling us that the all-volunteer military would never work and, as soon as the economy turned around, we'd be faced with severe enlistment and retention problems. Well, forgive me, but those are the same people who were wrong on inflation. They were wrong on unemployment. They were wrong on interest rates. They were wrong on the recovery. And there they go again. We're now in the 21st month of the best economic recovery since 1949, and last year was the best we've ever had for reenlistment in both the Navy and Air Force and one of the Army's best years for recruiting. And those trends are continuing.

You know, every time I see a young service man or woman I get a lump in my throat thinking of how lucky we are to have them serving our country and protecting our freedom with real honor, courage, and competence.

I believe that we've come too far, struggled too hard, and accomplished too much to turn back now. Once again the world knows that America will stand up for freedom, democracy, and peace with human dignity. And once again America is prepared for peace.

I don't know whether you're aware of this, but in every year from 1975 to 1980, armies, largely supplied by Moscow, or Soviet forces themselves, invaded or seized control of a different country. First, Vietnam, then Angola, followed by Ethiopia and Cambodia -- finally, Afghanistan. Well, since 1981, that pattern has stopped. And in 1983 Grenada was saved. And every once in awhile, it's important to remember that success can also be measured by the disasters which do not happen.

Talking about those people in uniform, as I said last night at the convention -- I quoted what General Marshall had said in World War II when he was asked what was our secret weapon, and he said, ``The best damned kids in the world.'' Well, you aren't kids anymore, but there's another generation who are, and you can say the same thing about them.

I have to tell a little story -- I promised all my people I wouldn't tell this anymore, I've told it so often, but I have to tell it to you. It has to do with Grenada. Not too long ago, the Armed Forces Journal over in the Pentagon came over and delivered me a little plaque, and they had engraved on that plaque some paragraphs from a letter received from a marine lieutenant, flyer of a Cobra, who had been at Grenada and then had gone on to Lebanon. And he wrote back to the Armed Forces Journal, and he said when he was at Grenada, he noticed that every news story contained someplace the line, ``Grenada produces more nutmeg than any other spot on Earth.'' And he decided that appeared so often, that it was a code -- and he had broken the code.

And he said, number one, Grenada produces more nutmeg than any other spot on Earth. Number two, the Soviets and the Cubans are trying to take Grenada. Number three, you can't have eggnog without nutmeg. And number four, you can't have Christmas without eggnog. And he said, number five, the Soviets and the Cubans are trying to steal Christmas. [Laughter] And he said, number six, we stopped them. [Laughter]

We can be confident that history is moving in the direction of self-government and human dignity. To paraphrase Jefferson, men and women are not born with saddles on their backs. Political systems based on a dreadful denial of the human spirit will, in the end, fail.

In our own hemisphere, 26 of 33 Latin American countries today are democracies or are striving to become democracies. Now, this represents 90 percent of the region's population -- up from 50 percent only a decade ago.

We see this yearning for freedom and democracy among the brave people of Eastern Europe, in Afghanistan, in Africa, and elsewhere. The spirit of men and women to breathe free is a mighty force that cannot and will not be denied. Our country is the leader of the free world, and today we're providing that leadership. In my meetings with foreign leaders, they've often told me how good it is to know what the United States stands for once again.

Now, before I close, I want to thank your outgoing commander in chief, Cliff Olson, for all that he's done, and I want to congratulate your incoming commander in chief, Billy Ray Cameron. I will always remember your strong support. It stayed rock solid even when the going was rough, but then you've always been a tower of strength. The VFW has always set high standards, lived up to them, and looked out for America, just as you've always looked out for the veteran.

The VFW and the Ladies Auxiliary didn't become great organizations by accident. You've done it through hard work and outstanding leadership. You've done it by serving our nation's veterans in your communities, volunteering your services to our veterans, fighting the good fight for a strong, safe, and secure America, supporting our POW - MIA efforts, sponsoring youth activities, directing your highly acclaimed drug abuse and safety projects, your Voice of Democracy Scholarship program, and so many other worthwhile projects.

I think of your patriotism, and I just have to wonder: How can anyone not believe that the heart of America is good, that the spirit of America is strong, and that the future of America is great?

I wish all Americans could have stood with me this past June on the windswept cliffs of Pointe du Hoc. I wish all Americans could have felt the faith and belief, the loyalty and love of those brave men of Normandy. You know what I mean -- you're the veterans of foreign wars. You've been there.

But one of the Rangers of 40 years ago, now 63 years old, the day before we arrived, scaled the 100-foot cliff that he had climbed on D-day and did in just 7 minutes, still one of the best damn kids in the world. [Laughter]

You understand that we are what we are because of Normandy and a thousand other lonely battlefields. Words could never express what the patriotism of generation after generation of American heroes means for the very soul of our nation. But you and I do know that we're free because of those who went to Omaha Beach and Guadalcanal, Mig Alley and Pork Chop Hill, Khe Sanh and the Iron Triangle.

I'll never stop working as hard as I can to make sure that our nation keeps its special commitment to those who served, to those who have kept the torch of liberty burning brightly. Because of you, America's best days are still to come, and with faith, freedom, and courage, there's no limit to what America can and will accomplish.

Forgive me, but before I leave, I must share something with you, because you've evoked memories too moving, too important to ignore. When we visited the Normandy beaches this past spring, we were told that the French citizens came up to those veterans of ours who had returned, took them by the hand, and said, with tears in their eyes, ``We were only young at the time, but we will always remember what you did and what it has meant to us.''

When I look at you, when I think of all you've lived and known and learned from your lifetime of service, a lifetime of honor, I can't help wondering, who, more than you, could better understand how precious are the gifts of life and freedom and faith? Who more than you has the courage and the wisdom to help us protect these gifts for our children and for our children's children?

You are wise men of history whose burdens have become our blessings. Your struggles preserved democracy, and today all of us are lifting America into a new springtime of hope. Yes, in my heart I know it is true: America's future must be a future of peace, and together, we'll see to it that it's done.

I know that your convention ended and that you remained here to receive me, and I'm most grateful to you for that. Thank you, and God bless you all.

Note: The President spoke at 1:57 p.m. in the International Ballroom at the Conrad Hilton Hotel. He was introduced by Billy Ray Cameron, incoming VFW commander in chief.