William J. Clinton
42nd President (1993-2001)
Veterans Day Address
Arlington National Cemetery
November 11, 1999
THE PRESIDENT: Thank you very much, Secretary
West, for your eloquent remarks and your leadership and your many
years of devotion to our country. Commander Smart, thank you for
your leadership this year. Chaplain Cook, Lee Thornton, thank you
for always being here for our veterans.|
The leaders of our veterans' organizations, members of Congress
here; Deputy Secretary Gober and members of the Cabinet; General
Ross and members of the Joint Chiefs; General Davis and other Medal
of Honor recipients. To the former POWs, the families of those still
missing in action; to our veterans and their families.
Let me begin by offering a special word of appreciation to the Army
Band and Chorus for their magnificent music today and for making us
feel so important. (Applause.) And I want to say a special welcome
today to a person you may have read about in the morning papers --
Captain Earl Fox is the Senior Medical Officer at the Coast Guard
Personnel Command here in Washington. He also happens to be the last
World War II veteran still on active military duty. (Applause.)
Now, next week he will retire at the tender young age of 80. I think
he has earned his retirement. But, Captain, on behalf of a grateful
nation, we say thank you for your service. Thank you. (Applause.)
My fellow Americans, as we all know, we celebrate Veterans Day on
the anniversary of the Armistice ending World War I, on the 11th
hour of the 11th day of the 11th month. Eighty years ago today,
President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed this a day of solemn pride in
the heroism of those who died in the country's service.
For two full minutes in the middle of that day, all traffic in
business across our nation stopped, as Americans took time to
remember family and friends who fought and those who never came home
from the war to end all wars. I don't believe those men and women
who were our forebears could ever have imagined that so many other
times in this century young Americans would be asked again and again
to fight and die for freedom in foreign lands.
When the 20th century began, the headstones that stand in silent
formation on these beautiful hills covered fewer than 200 acres.
Today, at century's end, they cover more than 600 acres. Hundreds of
millions of people in the United States and around the world sleep
in peace because more than a million Americans rest in peace. Here,
and in graves, marked and unmarked, all across the world. Today we
come again to say owe them a debt we can never repay.
In a way, the young men and women who have died in defense of our
country gave up not only the life they were living, but also the
life they would have lived -- their chance to be parents; their
chance to grow old with their grandchildren. Too often when we speak
of sacrifice, we speak in generalities about the larger sweep of
history, and the sum total of our nation's experience. But it is
very important to remember that every single veteran's life we honor
today was just that -- a life -- just like yours and mine. A life
with family and friends, and love and hopes and dreams, and ups and
downs; a life that should have been able to play its full course.
Fifty-seven years ago this week, the eyes of America were focused on
a small, sweltering island in the South Pacific. Pearl Harbor had
been bombed the year before, and Japanese forces in the Pacific were
capturing one island after another. The task of stopping them fell
to a group of young Marines in an operation called Project
Watchtower, in a place called Guadalcanal.
The battle was expected to last six weeks. It took six months. The
jungle was so thick soldiers could hardly walk; fighting so fierce
and rations so thin that the average Marine lost 25 pounds. Every
night shells fell from the sky and enemy soldiers charged up the
hills. The only weapons Marines had to defend themselves were
Springfield rifles left over from World War I. But with the strength
forged in factories and fields back home, they turned back wave
after wave of hand-to-hand fighting, until, at last, the Navy was
able to help the Marines turn the tide in the naval battle that
began 57 years ago tomorrow.
That turned the tide of battle in the whole Pacific, and with it,
the tide of American history. On that small island, in the Battle of
Guadalcanal, Americans proved that our nation would never again be
an island, but, rather allied with freedom and peace-loving people
everywhere, as the greatest force for peace and freedom the world
has ever known.
In the days and years that have followed, men and women, forged from
the same mettle, in every branch of our military have built on those
sacrifices and stood for the cause of freedom, from World War II to
Korea to Vietnam to Kuwait City to Kosovo.
On the beach at Guadalcanal is a monument to those who fought on the
island. In the hills that surround us, some of the 1,500 Marines and
sailors who lost their lives in that battle are laid to rest. They
are some of the greatest of the greatest generation.
One of those who served at Guadalcanal was a 19-year-old Marine
lieutenant named John Chafee. He went on to fight in Okinawa, to
lead troops in Korea, to serve as governor of Rhode Island and
Secretary of the Navy, and then, for more than 20 years, as a United
States senator. He helped write the law that keeps our air clean.
His fights for health care helped millions of veterans live better
lives. Yet he was so humble that when he received a distinguished
award from the Marine Corps Foundation last year, he hardly spoke
about his wartime service.
Two weeks ago, this remarkable man passed away at the age of 77. At
his funeral, Hillary and I spent time with his five children and his
12 grandchildren. And I was proud to announce on that day that the
Navy will be naming one of its most modern and capable destroyers
after John Chafee. (Applause.)
Now, that was the measure of one man's life who fought in
Guadalcanal and survived. Today, in our imaginations, we must try to
imagine the measure of all the lives that might have been, had they
not been laid down in service to our nation. What about the more
than 1 million men and women who have given their lives so that we
could be free? What would have been the measure of their lives? What
else would they have accomplished for their families and their
country, if only they had had the chance?
Of course, we don't have any of those answers. But because we have
the question, we clearly have a responsibility to stand in the
breach for them. We are not just the beneficiaries of their bravery.
We are the stewards of their sacrifice. Thanks to their valor,
today, for the very first time in all of human history, more than
half of the nations of the world live under governments of their own
choosing. Our prosperity and power are greater than they have ever
been. It is, therefore, our solemn obligation to preserve the peace
and to make the most of this moment for our children and the
children of the world, so that those who sacrificed so much to bring
us to this moment will be redeemed in the lives they could have
lived by the lives that we do live.
How shall we do this? It means at least that we must continue to be
the world's leading force for peace and freedom, against terrorism
and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. It means we
must keep the commitment I have had since the moment I took the oath
of office, that our men and women in uniform will remain the
best-trained, best-equipped, best-prepared in the world.
In Kosovo, we had zero combat fatalities, and only two planes shot
down, though our pilots took heavy enemy fire every single day and
put their lives repeatedly at greater risks to avoid hitting
civilians on the ground. That is a tribute to the professionalism we
see every day from our military forces all around the world.
Last month I was proud to sign a bill that will keep us moving in
that direction, with the start of the first sustained increase in
military spending in a decade and the biggest pay increase for our
troops in a generation. (Applause.)
It means we must also do more to be faithful to our veterans when
their service is over. President Theodore Roosevelt once said,
anyone good enough to shed his blood for his country is good enough
to be given a square deal afterward.
Over the past seven years we have opened more than 600 veterans'
out-patient clinics across America. This year we expect to treat
400,000 more veterans than last year, including more disabled
veterans than ever before. We will continue to make sure that all
veterans receive the care they deserve. And we must continue to make
a special effort to end something that must be intolerable to all of
us -- the tragedy of homeless veterans.
I want to commend the reigning Miss America, Heather Renee French,
who is with us today, along with her family, her father -- a
disabled Vietnam veteran -- her mother, her brother, and her sister,
for all the work she is doing in her position finally to bring
proper national attention to the plight of homeless veterans. We
thank you for what you're doing. Thank you. (Applause.) We must not
rest until we have done everything we possibly can to bring them
back into the society they so willingly defended.
And we must bear in mind the special sacrifice of the more than
140,000 veterans who were held in prison camps or interned during
this century. I want to commend the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund
for completing a project they launched a year ago today to create a
special curriculum on the Vietnam War, and send a copy to every
single high school across America. Part of that curriculum focuses
on the men and women who never came home. We must not forget them.
I am very proud to announce today that we have successfully
recovered the remains of three more United States servicemen lost
during the Korean War. They're coming home tonight. (Applause.) But
we must not waver in our common efforts to make the fullest possible
accounting for all our MIAs, for all their families to have their
questions answered. (Applause.)
Finally, fulfilling our responsibility to lead for peace and
freedom, and to be faithful not only to our service personnel, but
our veterans, requires us to do more than prepare people to fight
wars and take care of them when they come home. We must work with
greater determination to prevent wars. Every American who gave his
or her life for our country was, in one way or another, a victim of
a peace that faltered, of diplomacy that failed, of the absence of
adequate preventive strength. We know that if diplomacy is not
backed by real and credible threats of force, it can be empty, and
even dangerous. But if we don't use diplomacy first, then our
military will become our only line of defense.
Of course, it also costs money to help struggling young democracies
to stand on their feet as friends and partners of the United States,
as we've tried to do from Poland to Russia to Nigeria to Indonesia.
It costs money to make sure nuclear weapons in the former Soviet
Union are secure; for the terrorists and leaders who wish us harm do
not acquire the means to kill on a more massive scale. It costs
money to support the peacemakers in places like the Middle East and
the Balkans and Africa, so that regional conflicts do not explode
But all of you know, better than most, that freedom is not free. And
all of you know, far better than most, that the costliest peace is
far cheaper than the cheapest war. (Applause.)
I am pleased to report to you today that the Democrats and
Republicans in Congress are working together on a strong compromise
that will allow us to meet some of our most urgent needs in foreign
affairs, to prevent wars. We're not finished yet, but there is a
bipartisan center like that which has carried America for 50 years
at this hopeful moment now at work in the Congress. I am grateful
for it, and our children will be safer for it.
In less than two months, we'll be able to say the conflict and
bloodshed that took so many American lives came from another
century. So we gather today for the last time in this century to
dedicate ourselves to being good stewards of the sacrifice of the
veterans of our country. (Applause.)
As we look ahead to the large challenges and the grand opportunities
of the new century and a new millennium, when our country has more
prosperity than ever before, and for the first time in my lifetime
has the ability to meet those challenges and to dream dreams and
live them because we are unthreatened by serious crises at home and
security threats abroad, let us resolve to honor those veterans, to
redeem their sacrifice, to be stewards of the lives they never got
to live by doing all we can to see that the horrors of the 20th
century's wars are not visited upon 21st century Americans. That is
the true way to honor the people we come here today to thank God
Thank you very much, and God bless America. (Applause.)
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