Remarks at the Annual Meeting of the National League of

 

POW/MIA Families

 

July 29, 1988

 

George Brooks, Ann Griffiths, and members of the board, and family members: For me there's no group more special than the National League of Families, and I'm glad to be here to speak to you at your annual meeting. You are a remarkable group that has bonded together into an extended family that is both effective and compassionate. Some of your beloved family members are missing. We want to know their fate, and we yearn for them to come home. And we will continue to work for their return.

 

It's a wound that does not close with the passing of time. In 1961 the first American was listed as missing in action in Vietnam. After Operation Homecoming in 1973, there remained over 2,500 Americans unaccounted for, and your anguish since that time has been immense. And for long years the Government did far too little to learn the facts, to convey the truth, and to try to bring our men home.

 

But the National League of Families changed that. You pulled together. You spoke with a unified and unflagging voice. And you were heard. When we began together, there was an unresponsive bureaucracy without clear direction. There are now over 100 people in Defense, State, and the intelligence agencies working full-time to find your loved ones and bring you answers. That's a change that we made together, and that's how it must stay until your questions are answered. You stood alone far too long. That must never happen again.

 

Your cause has aroused a nation. Your responsible leadership has resisted simplistic solutions, sought facts, and moved this issue forward. For this you deserve great credit. And I particularly want to recognize your dedicated board chairman, George Brooks, and your hard-working and very talented executive director, Ann Griffiths.

 

The devotion of each family member and your long-term commitment have sent a message that has become embedded in the consciousness of our country. A bipartisan group in Congress now supports our efforts. The POW - MIA flag flies over State capitals, over veterans' posts, in parades in every city and town across America. And each year now it flies over the White House as well. The international community speaks directly about the Americans still missing in action. And, yes, we can find encouragement in the knowledge that through these efforts over 100 of you have received answers.

 

A decade ago we were told that after so much time had passed there was little chance any remains could be recovered. And there have always been those rushing to say that it was time to forget. Well, to those in a hurry to forget, your love for your fathers, brothers, husbands, and sons stands in the way. Those who want to close the door on the true history of the Vietnam war, to escape accountability and leave important questions unanswered -- they would close the book on those Americans still missing. Well, this is more than a betrayal of the men. It's more than a breach of faith with their families and their loved ones. It's a denial of the truth. And to them I say: America cannot move forward by leaving her missing sons behind.

 

For you, the families of MIA's and POW's unaccounted for, the Vietnam war is not over and will not end. For you, the only way we can ``give peace a chance'' is to give you the truth, the fullest possible accounting of the fate of your loved ones. Who can still question that America's youth fought a noble battle for freedom? And how can we not keep faith with those who served that cause? If there are living Americans being held against their will, we must bring them home. I implore the Governments concerned to respond to our previous proposals. Should there be anyone remaining voluntarily, their family deserves to know. And every American who has perished deserves to rest on United States soil. And until our questions are fully answered, we will assume that some of our countrymen are alive.

 

There are two things that your country must do for you. First, it must obtain the fullest possible accounting. And second, it must draw the true lessons of Vietnam so that we are a wiser, stronger, and prouder nation, and the ordeal under which you suffer can be prevented from ever happening again.

 

Well, thanks to your work, and as part of your legacy, future generations of American servicemen will be assured that they will never be forgotten by their countrymen. And one of the most moving things is all the children from POW - MIA families who have chosen to wear their country's uniform. When I was Governor of California, at a meeting with what was the forerunner of your organization, I was standing and meeting with these people. And I felt a tug at my pantleg, and I looked down. A 3-year-old boy just looked up and said, ``Will you bring my daddy home?'' Two months ago, that boy, that brave young man, Todd Hanson, graduated from the United States Naval Academy. And the children of George Shine, a member of your board and himself a retired Air Force Colonel -- one son killed in action in Vietnam, another still missing, and today two others, a son and a daughter, are on active duty with our Armed Forces. You cannot describe a greater love of country than that.

 

Well, as you gather for your 19th annual meeting, the Vietnamese Government has once again raised our hopes for a breakthrough. I welcome their pledge to my special emissary, General Vessey, to accelerate their work on those cases that he has discussed with them. We look forward to its fulfillment. We've witnessed promises made in the past by Vietnam that were not carried out, but we're following this offer up aggressively. I would also like to thank those charitable organizations that have been supporting the efforts of George [John] Vessey.

 

The Governments of Indochina know that resolution of this issue is critical to any future relationship, that we will not tire of this quest, and that the longer this wound persists, the more likely that it will be permanent. And we will not weaken in our resolve to resist attempts to use this humanitarian issue for political gain.

 

Normalization of relations with Hanoi can come only in the context of a political settlement in Cambodia. Vietnam has recently stated its intention to withdraw its forces from Cambodia, and we would welcome a genuine settlement. If they're serious, then it's time to move rapidly to resolve the POW - MIA issue, for the deep pain that this issue brings to the American people will turn against Hanoi if it lingers past a Cambodian settement. It's in the interests of Hanoi to position itself for a new era and to help bring this to pass.

 

With the Lao Government, our joint search activities have been marked by a sincere effort to provide answers. We hope this can be sustained and expanded, for many unanswered questions remain. The Government in Phnom Penh has announced that they're holding the remains of Americans, but have yet to agree to our proposals to receive them. Well, I call upon them today to do so.

 

During the remainder of our administration these efforts will continue on a priority basis. We must call upon the next administration to do the same. In preparation for transition, I'm directing a comprehensive study on the POW - MIA issue, detailing our efforts, accomplishments, and what remains to be done. We must achieve the fullest possible accounting. The study will be given to you, the families, the Congress, and the American people.

 

When I was Governor of California, a number of families gave me their POW - MIA bracelets. I brought those bracelets with me when I came to Washington, and they're in the study adjoining the Oval Office. They represent an unbreakable bond of trust between you and your country; forged with your courage, your tears, your prayers, and your pain; forged in the hearth of your steadfastness and resolve. Whoever may occupy this office, it is a bond that cannot be broken. We've walked a long road together, and we'll continue to walk together. My concern for this issue began long before I took this office, and it will continue after I leave. I've previously noted Calvin Coolidge's remark that ``The nation which forgets its defenders will be itself forgotten.'' But thanks to your efforts, I know that America will never forget. And I believe that each of your families, and with them this nation, shall one day be healed.

 

I have mentioned some of the experiences back when I was Governor, and it was the period then when the POW's, who had known long years of imprisonment, were finally released and came home. And I appealed to Washington to let us at least meet and entertain and welcome home those whose home was California. Well, some 250 on 4 different occasions were in our home for dinner, and we heard their stories, and the evening went on, hearing the stories. And you just couldn't believe it.

 

Two men met in front of us in our living room, heard each other's names, and threw their arms around each other. They were the best and closest of friends. They knew every detail of each other's family. They were seeing each other face-to-face for the first time in their lives. All that friendship in those terrible days of imprisonment had been built on their tapping in the code, the prisoner's code, on the walls. They had never seen each other until they met in our living room.

 

There was story after story of that kind that revealed the heroism of those Americans. It was so inspiring. And they told the stories without bitterness, just as you would relate any adventure. And I think maybe this is where Nancy and I fell in love with all of them and with all of those who remain, yet to return to their homeland.

 

You are all in my prayers. And I thank you, and God bless you all.

 

Note: The President spoke at 11:17 a.m. in the Grand Ballroom at the J.W. Marriott Hotel.