Remarks to Members of the American Legion Auxiliary's Girls Nation

July 18, 1986

It's wonderful to be here today. And I want to thank all of you for coming by, and a special hello to director Corky Bradshaw. Congratulations to your newly elected president, Cherie Harder, and vice president, Katherine Mooney. It does my heart good to see all of these smiling faces of yours out here, but it's especially good to know that you're in Washington this week to study and participate in the democratic process.

You know, part of a President's job is to prepare our nation for the future, for the years and even the decades ahead. And lately I've been making a point of speaking to those to whom our future belongs, young Americans like yourselves. This spring I spoke to a group of high school students here in the Rose Garden. The weather was a little more comfortable than this. And then last month I went up to Glassboro, New Jersey, to speak at a high school commencement. And both times I shared thoughts similar to those I'd like to discuss with you today: my hopes for world peace and freedom, my conviction that Americans of your generation have every reason to look to our country's future with confidence and self-assurance. The challenges America must face in the world, the challenges that you must face as you become America's leaders, are twofold. I'm confident you'll achieve both of them. The first is expanding the boundaries of democracy and freedom by curbing, in the face of totalitarian expansion, that urge on the part of some governments to seek domination of even more territory and peoples. And the second is new to my generation but something you've already lived with all your lives: the threat of nuclear war. So, as I said some years ago in an address to the British Parliament, we have before us these two tasks: promoting the cause of freedom and keeping the peace by avoiding the kind of war that could obliterate civilization itself. In both efforts, diplomacy, of course, is important. And that's why in our arms control negotiations we've been pressing for real reductions in strategic nuclear weapons.

But something else is also important. Call it readiness; call it deterrence; call it the common sense that knows we must use all our resources, including our creative and technological genius, to remain strong and free. You may remember from your history books how, back in the 1930's when the threat of World War II was growing, statesmen like Winston Churchill called for rebuilding the defenses of democratic nations and for research that would develop new defenses. We know today that some of these inventions, like radar, did, in the end, enable the democracies to help defend themselves. Yet history might well have been different if only the democracies had developed these defenses earlier and, by making technological breakthroughs, established the kind of deterrence that could have prevented a world war. I know there's a lot of debate today about defense budgets and about whether we should be maintaining our strength. There had been four wars in my lifetime. Not one of them started because this country was too strong. Mainly, they started because others thought we wouldn't defend our rights or our freedom.

We don't intend to make the same mistake, and this means performing research to develop new options. Today if a foreign country were to launch a nuclear attack on America, a President would be forced to respond in kind. But the research program we've begun could produce the means to destroy the incoming nuclear weapons before they reached our country and without launching a counterattack of our own, thereby saving millions of lives in our own nation and in other nations.

In other words, our research could produce a system that would destroy missiles instead of people. We call it the Strategic Defense Initiative -- or as you see it all the time referred to as SDI. Washington's just crazy about giving everything initials. This initiative would have the further benefit that it would limit the possible destruction done by accidental war or war caused by the act of a single terrorist or madman. And in foreign relations, SDI has already proven a boon. Indeed, the very fact that we're pushing forward with SDI has helped speed up the arms reduction process. SDI is not a bargaining chip in this process, but its existence may have helped to persuade the Soviet Union that constantly adding to their arsenal of offensive nuclear weapons will no longer give them a corresponding military advantage. In simple language, our SDI research will help take the profit out of the Soviet buildup in offensive arms. The Strategic Defense Initiative represents, in short, an instrument of hope -- hope that we can build a better world; and hope that you young Americans need never know the horror of war; hope that, in peace, we can expand human freedom until it encircles the globe.

This hope of human freedom is something we Americans thought about a lot over the Fourth of July. And I suspect that you're learning this week what I mentioned in New York Harbor: Here in America, we have inherited a precious legacy -- the freedom to govern ourselves. And let me just take a moment here to speak on a special project that deserves all of our support. The most powerful tool that you and I have with which to preserve our liberties and shape our own futures is our right to vote. Yet, tragically, in every election, millions of Americans fail to exercise this special privilege. And worse, of those not voting, the highest percentage is among our young people, ages 18 to 24. We ought to think very hard about the number of countries in the world who have fought for that privilege and how today 85 -- 90 percent of their people turn out in an election. And here, where we have fought and so many have given their lives for that right to vote, almost half our people regularly just don't bother to go and vote.

And that's why I would like to take a moment now to thank the men and women who, through another national, nonpartisan project, one called Vote America, are working in their own communities to encourage more citizens, especially our youth, to register and to vote. And in keeping with the same spirit of participation and commitment that has restored the Statue of Liberty, I want to ask each of you to take part in this national effort by urging your friends and family to vote in this -- because this is an election year -- and every election. And through our votes, each of us can make a mark on this great nation of ours. After all, America's freedom, in fact our very future, depends on America's voters. Maybe you've heard your folks speak of a onetime entertainer, kind of a cowboy philosopher at the same time that he was a great entertainer, Will Rogers. And Will Rogers once observed -- he said: ``You know, the people you send to public office are no better and no worse than anyone else. But they're all better than the people that don't vote at all.'' He made a lot of sense in his way.

Furthering democracy really is at the heart of what America's all about -- the conviction that we as a people can never truly rest until every man, woman, and child on Earth knows the blessings of liberty. Ray Charles -- you've heard him, the great, blind singer, pianist -- he explains -- well, you've heard him, I know. He loves to sing, ``America the Beautiful.'' And this explains his feelings about our country this way -- he said: ``You've got people who would give up their lives trying to get here. I know of no place in the world where people do that. I don't know of any country in the world that's as glorious as ours. When you match America against anyplace, it is still the heaven of the world, by far.'' So, in practicing democracy, please always bear in mind the blessing that is America; just as, I assure you, those of us who are older bear in mind our own blessing in having young people such as yourselves, young people who love their country and are committed to the cause of freedom.

One other thing, many people made great sacrifices so that all of us could live in freedom. And no group sacrificed more dramatically than the members of the American Legion and the Legion Auxiliary. It's a funny thing: Some people don't know how to stop giving; they just keep going on. And that's why Girls Nation and Boys Nation, which will be here next week, and all the other great things the American Legion does exist today. So, when you get back home, do me a favor: Tell the Legionnaires and their ladies the Gipper was asking about them and said thanks.

And I think it's high time I let you get in out of this hot sun. And thank you all for being here and for what you're doing. God bless you all. Thank you.

Note: The President spoke at 1:03 p.m. in the Rose Garden at the White House.