Radio Address to the Nation on the Defense Budget

January 17, 1987

My fellow Americans:

Today I'd like to begin with an expression of gratitude to all who sent get-well cards and letters after my brief hospital stay 9 days ago. Of course, some of my favorites came from young people. Eight-year-old Colin MacDonald, of Holbrook, New York, told me that he liked my speeches -- except when they preempted his favorite TV shows. And second-grader Jennifer Carl, of Canton, Ohio, was kind enough to draw a picture of me in bed, Nancy standing at my side, serving me a bowl of -- well, of purple soup. Nancy wants the recipe. Jennifer, it's true that my doctors insist I stay home and take it easy for the next several weeks -- which I will -- but I want you to know that I'm out of bed, feeling fine, and looking forward to getting back on a full schedule. Jennifer, Colin, and to all of you, Nancy and I extend our heartfelt thanks.

But to get down to business: This week I met our arms negotiating team, headed by Max Kampelman, before they returned to Geneva to begin a new round of talks with the Soviets. We discovered that all of us shared a sense of anticipation; a feeling that after Reykjavik, where Mr. Gorbachev and I found new areas of agreement, the prospects for genuine arms reductions were better than at any time in years. And we agreed that underlying these hopes for progress toward a lasting world peace -- underlying, indeed, the Soviets' return to the bargaining table -- was the knowledge that, at last, the United States could once again deal with the Soviet Union from a position of strength.

Think back just 6 years: Our Navy had dwindled from more than 1,000 ships to less than 500. Many of our planes couldn't fly for lack of spare parts. And our men and women in uniform were seeing their pay in real terms shrink while pay in the private sector rose. Well, I believed on first taking office, as I do today, that the defense of this Republic is not just one of the duties of the Federal Government, it is the first duty. So, with bipartisan congressional support, we took action at once on the rebuilding of our nation's defenses. Since 1980 we've increased the number of Army divisions from 16 to 18. We've reactivated 4 battleships and purchased 124 new ships for the Navy, including 2 new aircraft carriers and 21 high-technology Aegis-class cruisers and destroyers. We've purchased over 2,500 new tactical fighter aircraft. And just as important, we've more than doubled our vital stocks of spare parts and munitions, stocks that were dangerously low in 1981. Pay and benefits for our Armed Forces has increased substantially. And perhaps most heartening, the proportion of recruits holding high school diplomas has risen from less than 70 percent in 1980 to more than 90 percent today.

At the same time we've been spending the needed funds, we've found important new ways to spend that money better. The Defense Department, for example, has greatly expanded competitive bidding and is this year submitting to Congress the first-ever 2-year defense budget to replace the old, inefficient, year-by-year process. Add to these the changes contained in last year's Goldwater-Nichols legislation, and those set in place at the recommendation of the Packard commission, and you have perhaps the most dramatic defense reforms since the formation of the Department of Defense itself. All of this is having a profound effect. Morale in our Armed Forces has soared. All the world has taken note that the United States has reasserted its role on behalf of freedom. And in the past 6 years, not 1 inch of territory has fallen to Communist aggression; while one nation, Grenada, has been set free.

Now Congress and our administration have the opportunity to continue the vital work of rebuilding our defenses, already so well begun. But I must tell you that we cannot take continued progress for granted. In 1985 and '86 Congress cut the defense budget sharply. Needless to say, we hope that won't happen again. But with up-down, up-down funding, it does look as though some want to turn the Congress' defense budget into a kind of crazy roller coaster. Yet this up-down funding is inefficient and costly, taking money out of the taxpayers pockets. And there could be no thrill in going downhill very fast when what would be going down would be our ability to defend itself. So, I appeal to Congress: In the days ahead, let's work together to provide 2-year defense funding that is both adequate and steady. And I appeal to you, the American people: Join me in letting Congress know that nothing matters more than our freedom and peace. And therefore, the new strength America has achieved in recent years must not be undermined, but built upon.

Until next week, thanks for listening, and God bless you.

Note: The President spoke at 12:06 p.m. from Camp David, MD.