Remarks at the Annual Convention of the Veterans of Foreign Wars in New Orleans, Louisiana

August 15, 1983

Thank you for that warm greeting and that applause, and since that applause is coming from veterans, I have to ask: Is it for how I'm doing my job, or how I'm doing on the late late show in ``Hellcats of the Navy?'' [Laughter]

Whenever I meet with the members of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, I remember what the poet Yeats said: ``Think where man's glory most begins and ends and say my glory was I had such friends.'' It's great to be among you once again. As you know, someone in my shop originally turned down this invitation without my knowledge. Now it seems there were some logistic problems about flying from the tip of Baja, Mexico, to Louisiana, and then back to California this afternoon. Well, let me say -- and I want them to keep their ears open and hear this -- I would fly halfway around the world for the honor of meeting with the Veterans of Foreign Wars.

I haven't forgotten your support in 1980 and all you've done since. And as a demonstration of our common goals, after my remarks today I'm going to sit down here in front of this audience and sign the Emergency Veterans' Job Training Act of 1983.

Three years ago this week, I stood before your convention and said nothing would mean more to me as President than to live up to your trust. I've tried to maintain the faith that our men and women in uniform must have in their Commander in Chief. The greatest privilege of this office has been to lead those who wear America's uniform.

And while Ann Griffiths\1\ (FOOTNOTE) is sitting here, let me just say: We are determined to account for every serviceman who wore America's uniform in Southeast Asia. This administration will not forget their sacrifice, and we will not rest until their families can rest.

(FOOTNOTE) \1\Executive director of the National League of Families of American Prisoners and Missing in Southeast Asia.

Three years ago when I spoke to you, I pledged that peace -- a peace in which freedom could flourish and justice could prevail -- would be our highest priority. I also spoke of the need to provide a stronger defense for the American people. At the time, those were words of hope. Today, those words are the national security policy of this country.

I'd like to report to you on the progress we've made in these areas, because there is no more appropriate forum for such a report. No organization has devoted more energy to America's well-being and security than the VFW. Your uniforms may be in mothballs, but your readiness to assist your country is spit and polished.

In 1980 the people made it clear they wanted a new direction in foreign affairs. Yet, changing America's foreign policy is a little like towing an iceberg. You can only pick up speed as the frozen attitudes and mistakes of the past melt away.

We began by letting the world know what we stood for once again. Winston Churchill said of his service in World War II, the nation ``had the lion's heart. I had the luck to give the roar.'' Well, America is the lion's heart of democracy. We have an obligation to give that democracy a voice, even an occasional roar.

For too long our nation had been moot to the injustices of totalitarianism. So we began speaking out against chemical warfare; inflicted on the people of Afghanistan and Southeast Asia, against broken treaties, against the denial of human liberties. We began speaking out for freedom and democracy and the values that all of us share in our hearts.

Now some critics said that this was a return to the rhetoric of the past. Well, if that's the case, then Sakharov and Solzhenitsyn and all those who've suffered to speak the truth are my compatriots, and I'm honored to be counted among them. This nation cannot simply ignore the suffering of oppressed peoples and remain true to our basic strengths and principles. We cannot follow a foreign policy based on the self-delusion that problems would not exist if we did not mention them. We cannot abdicate our obligation to speak out for those who cannot speak for themselves.

And, you know, it's amazing. In my meetings with foreign leaders and their ministers, they've told me how good it is to know what the United States stands for once again. They may not always agree with us, but they respect us. And there's a growing recognition abroad that America once again will stand up for her democratic ideals. Our country is the leader of the free world, and today it is providing that leadership.

But our responsibilities are not only moral, they're practical. One of our most crucial national security objectives was to turn America's economic decline around. Yes, that's a national security objective, and it remains a key one. A country that is weak internally cannot meet its obligations externally.

I'm pleased to report we're economically stronger today than we were at your last convention. We have a growth strategy for America. We called it economic recovery; some who didn't think it would work dubbed it Reaganomics Well, inflation is down from double digits to 2.6 percent for the last 12 months, the lowest rate in 16 years. The prime interest rate was 21\1/2\ percent when we took office; it's about half that now. Taxes have been reduced, and with our indexing reform inflation will never again push families into higher and higher tax brackets. We don't need tax increases; we need spending restraint. And as I've said a few times lately, I know our program is working, because they're not calling it Reaganomics any more. [Laughter]

Basic industries like housing, construction, and autos are getting back to business. In fact, Lee Iacocca\2\ (FOOTNOTE) has even paid back that billion-dollar loan 7 years early.

(FOOTNOTE) \2\Chairman of Chrysler Corp.

Unemployment is still too high, but it's heading down. Last month's drop was the biggest in 23 years. More Americans are on the job than at any time in the U.S. history. Economists can argue about the semantics -- strong recovery, steady recovery, robust recovery -- but what matters most is that Americans have regained confidence in the economy, and we're going to make sure they keep that confidence.

Another of our objectives has been to restore America's defense strength. I don't need to educate this audience on how strength keeps peace, but it can be explained in one word -- deterrence. When I spoke to you last, the United States had planes that couldn't fly, ships that couldn't leave port, and military personnel who couldn't wait to get into civilian clothes.

Well today, America's military is back on its feet and prouder than ever. We're acquiring and keeping very good people. Today, more of our new recruits are high school graduates than ever before in the history of our military. Retention is also way up. So far this year, 70 percent of those we hoped to retain have reenlisted. In 1980 the figure was only 55 percent.

Yes, the hard-hit economy accounted for a portion of these increases, but the economy didn't raise the dignity and morale of our service men and women or restore their pride in military service. I've heard it from generals and I've heard it from privates that morale, discipline, and unit cohesion have all improved dramatically. Once again, it's an honor to wear the uniform, and our service men and women know it. And I hope that makes you as proud as it does me.

New equipment is now entering the inventory, training is way up, maintenance backlogs are being reduced, and combat readiness rates have surged. We've made real progress. And I'm delighted to report it's across the board. America is safer and more secure today than 3 years ago.

There's something I want to get off my chest, and it deals with the headlines about the Pentagon paying $100 for a 4 cent diode or $900 for a plastic cap. Now what is missing or buried in all these stories about waste is that this administration is the one that found these abuses, the abuses that have been going on for years.

It was Cap Weinberger's people -- Defense Department auditors and inspectors -- who ordered the audits in the first place and conducted the investigations. We're the ones who formed a special unit to prosecute Department of Defense fraud cases. And in just an 18-month period, the Department has obtained 650 convictions. And this doesn't count the number of settlements that have been made.

Our task is to sustain our defense effort. Some would have us slow down just when we're about to achieve what our security requires. Remember the 1970's, when there were those who argued that we should forgo a wide range of modern weapons systems -- airplanes, missiles, a variety of equipment -- because there was something better on the drawing boards for the future? Well, look where that got us. It got us where we were 3 years ago. You can't protect America and her people with drawing boards.

But look out, some people are still talking about drawingboards. They would have us forget the MX missile and wait for a small, mobile missile which wouldn't be operational until the 1990's. That small missile will provide better long-term stability and deterrence. I'm for it, and we need it. But drawingboards for tomorrow won't give the Soviets incentive to negotiate reductions in nuclear arms today. So, I'm asking you, give us your strong support as we approach the next round of the MX this autumn, and together we'll help keep America secure and free.

Another of our goals has been to strengthen our Western alliances economically and militarily. We've significantly improved our economic relations with the industrial democracies. And I'm certain the recent Williamsburg summit will become known as the recovery summit. At Williamsburg we established a unified strategy for pursuing our common economic interests [from combatting]\3\ (FOOTNOTE) protectionism to fighting inflation, and we agreed on security concerns, as well. We agreed to cut the flow of military-relevant technology to those who would use it against us and reduce dependence on any one energy source. We agreed to end the practice of giving subsidized interest rates to the Soviet Union. The minimum loan rate is now set 4 full percentage points higher than it was before. And at home, we're working to bring interest rates down. But we've pushed them up for the Soviets.

(FOOTNOTE) \3\From the advance text of the President's remarks.

By the way, did you hear that the Communists now have a million-dollar lottery for their people? The winners get a dollar a year for a million years. [Laughter]

You know, there's a story I'd like to tell you. I've became a collector of stories that the Russians are telling among themselves which reveal a great cynicism about their system. And this one has to do with a commissar, they're telling, who went out to a collective farm, grabbed the first worker there that he saw, and he asked him about life on the farm and all. And the fellow said, ``It's wonderful, comrade.'' ``Well,'' he said, ``any complaints?'' ``Oh, no, sir; no complaints at all.'' ``What about the crops?'' ``Oh, the crops? Never been better.'' ``The potatoes?'' ``Commissar, comrade, if we piled all the potatoes up in one pile they would reach the foot of God.'' And the commissar said, ``Just a minute. This is the Soviet Union; there is no God.'' And he said, ``That's all right; there are no potatoes.'' [Laughter]

Our Western military alliances are stronger than they've been in years. In Europe, despite pressure and propaganda, NATO has stood firm in pursuing the dual objectives of arms reduction and deterrence. NATO today is more confident in its ability to preserve its strength and promote the peace. We in the industrial democracies have forged a clear sense of purpose for our economic and military safety. We still have disagreements, but for the first time in a long time we have unity on where we're going, and I call that real progress.

Of course, another of our objectives is arms control. We've launched the most sweeping proposals for arms control since nuclear weapons became a threat. In our search for peace, we have more negotiations currently under way with the Soviets than any administration in history.

At the strategic arms reduction talks in Geneva, we've proposed deep cuts as well as extensive confidence-building measures to reduce the possibility of any accidental misunderstandings. In contrast to previous agreements which simply dealt in ceilings, the Soviet Union now, for the first time, is willing to talk about actual reductions. The same hard work is proceeding on intermediate-range nuclear forces in Geneva. And in Vienna, the Soviets have shown some movement on the verification needed to reduce conventional forces.

However, we must recognize that the search for real arms reductions involves complex, time-consuming negotiations. This is the occupational hazard of diplomats, and especially those who deal with the Soviet Union. But if I can assure you, we'll keep chipping away and inching along. We're deeply committed to arms reductions. As we remain firm in our objectives, we'll be flexible in our approach. And with the support of the VFW and the support of the Congress, we'll achieve what we all want -- a reduction in nuclear weapons.

Our next objective concerns the United States responsibility as peacemaker. This commitment currently is most visible in Central America. In spite of the discouraging hype and hoopla that you often hear, quiet, solid progress is being made in Central America. Bob Currieo recently returned from a trip there, and I believe he's reported to you on that trip. I know he's referred to news accounts, saying he thinks we're all getting a distorted view of what's actually taking place.

Well, Bob is absolutely right. You wouldn't know from some of the coverage that the greatest portion of our aid to Central America is humanitarian and economic. You wouldn't know that democracy is taking root there. And I don't blame the media alone, because in many cases they're just reporting the disinformation and demagoguery that they hear coming from people who put politics ahead of national interests.

The countries of Central America are working hard to develop and defend their democracies. I'm sure you recall the March '82 Constituent Assembly elections in El Salvador. Eighty percent of those eligible to vote took part in the elections, despite incredible intimidation and threats from the guerrillas. In neighboring Honduras, an elected government took office last year. Costa Rica, of course, already is the democratic jewel of Central America.

We support democracy, reform, and human freedom. We support economic development. We support negotiations. We support any avenue that will give the people of that region a more free and prosperous future.

``The problem in Central America is not the United States or United States policy.'' Now you see, there I go again borrowing from your national commander, because that's what Bob said. We're doing everything we can to build peace and prosperity. Our Caribbean Basin Initiative is designed to help the nations there help themselves through trade and private investment. The Soviet and Cuban Caribbean Basin initiative, on the other hand, is to brutally impose Communist rule and deny individual freedom. Do you have any doubt which initiative the people in Central America would choose?

Because of this aggression, we also support a security shield for the area. The security shield is very much like a program that's springing up all over the United States -- the Neighborhood Watch. The Neighborhood Watch is where neighbors keep an eye on each other's homes so outside troublemakers and bullies will think twice. Well, our policy in Central America is like a neighborhood watch. But this watch doesn't protect someone's silverware; it protects something more valuable -- freedom.

Our policy is to help people toward a better life -- to help them toward liberty, to help them reverse centuries of inequities, to help them toward peace. And let me say with all the conviction I can muster, America would not be America if we abandoned the struggling neighbors here in our own hemisphere.

Elsewhere in the world, we also search for peace. The tragic conflict in the Middle East has one bright spot: Peace between Israel and Egypt was finally concluded in April of 1982, thanks to the American diplomacy that went to work in the Camp David talks. Today our peacekeeping forces in the Sinai, along with those of our allies, are rarely mentioned because they're doing their job in keeping this once volatile area quiet. Unfortunately, the same is not yet so for Lebanon. But whatever progress toward peace we've made in that country is largely due to our marines, who along with peace-keeping troops from France and Italy are striving to give Lebanon a chance to pull itself together. Our diplomats continue to search for agreement among bitter, divided opponents. Yes, America has an active national security program, and it's working.

May I just interject here that there have been some charges made that we're building weapons and spending money on defense, but we don't have any plan, so we're just building weapons like you'd go in and shop for something off the counter and say, ``Let's buy that or buy that.'' That isn't true. We have carefully worked out a strategy that is based on what we think are all the possible contingencies that could affect our national security, and then our military planning and our weapons purchases are based on that strategy.

But to secure the peace and prosperity we all seek, we cannot sit back and hope that somehow it'll just happen. We can't be apologetic when we're acting in our own and the free world's interests. We must pursue our goals with strong leadership and a clear sense of direction.

Let me explain by way of a true story what guides this administration in its conduct of foreign affairs. Most of you fought in the Second World War or Korea or Vietnam. You fought in places like Anzio and Pork Chop Hill and Danang. A thousand painful stories emerge from war. One tale of British POW's who built a Japanese railway in Thailand was made famous as ``The Bridge on the River Kwai.''

Well, there really is a River Kwai. Near its banks is a cemetery, the final resting place for those who died building that bridge and that railway. Many of the grave markers are inscribed with nothing more than a name and a service number. Yet now and then there's a small monument, built by a mother or father or a widow who trekked half way around the world searching for a marker with a very special service number. On one of these monuments, erected by a woman named Irene, are the following words: ``To the world, you were only one; but to me you were all the world.''

My fellow citizens, my friends, let us always remember when we speak of America's security, [we speak of the sacrifice]\4\ (FOOTNOTE) of individuals. When we speak of freedom, we speak of the freedom of individuals. I feel a sacred trust to America's soldiers and citizens alike. I feel a sacred trust to protect their lives and their liberty.

(FOOTNOTE) \4\From the advance text of the President's remarks.

Our nation also has a sacred trust -- to defend and develop democracy. And as long as this administration is responsible for the Nation's foreign policy, we will protect the freedom of our own citizens and we will pursue liberty for all people.

Now, before I thank you for inviting me here, I'm going over and I'm going to sit down at this table that you've probably wondered about. And I'm going to hope that this microphone is turned on.

This bill which I am about to sign, the Emergency Veterans' Job Training Act of 1983, will provide targeted job training for unemployed veterans of the Korean and Vietnam conflicts. The legislation is above and beyond the partisan jobs bill that I signed earlier this year and other administration programs to promote opportunities for our veterans. This bill provides incentives to employers to train veterans by defraying part of the costs of training. But this is not just a training program. The employer who participates must employ the veteran on a permanent basis after the training is completed.

As I said earlier, the Nation has a special commitment to those who've served in the military. And that commitment includes not only our continuing respect but practical assistance, as well. This program will aid veterans at the same time it aids the many small businesses that will participate.

You've already heard one speech by me, so I won't give you another. But a couple of days ago I was at Fort Bliss in El Paso. As I drove through the base on the way into town, the road was lined with service men and women and their families. I felt a great pride in them and in what they're sacrificing for America. And I feel the same way about the veterans that we're about to help today. They did their best for us, now we must do our best for them.

Now you can see that they're guaranteeing I'm going to sign this. [Laughter]

[At this point, the President signed into law H.R. 2355, the Emergency Veterans' Job Training Act of 1983, which is Public Law 98 - 77.]

God bless all of you. Thank you very much for letting me be here, and God bless America.

Note: The President spoke at 9:55 a.m. in the South Hall of the Rivergate Exhibition and Convention Center. He was introduced by James Currieo, national commander of the VFW.

Following his remarks, the President met at the center with VFW leaders and then with Louisiana Republican leaders. He then left New Orleans and went to Rancho del Cielo, his ranch near Santa Barbara, Calif.