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Public Papers - 1989 - November

Remarks at the Opening Session of the Universal Postal Union Congress


Thank you, Tony Frank, our distinguished Postmaster General. Thank you all for that warm welcome. Thanks to the chairman of this Congress, Ed Horgan; and the dean, just introduced, Mr. Murthy; the director general, distinguished Mr. A.C. Botto de Barros. And also I want to single out -- but I don't see him up here -- our Ambassador to the United Nations, Tom Pickering, who I know is here someplace. But in any event, it is important he be here -- one of our top officials, and he has my full confidence. And I'm pleased to have been greeted by him outside. I also see some distinguished Members of the United States Congress. And to all of you members of this Congress, welcome to the United States.

It's a pleasure for me to address the Universal Postal Union because it brings to mind so many images from our own past, from our history. From the appointment of our first Postmaster General, Benjamin Franklin, to the trails blazed by the riders of the Pony Express, to the convenience of modern post offices, the story of the Postal Service is tied to the whole story of our country. And the mail itself reflects the American saga. In 1814 Dolley Madison wrote her sister to describe her escape from the burning White House. Alexander Hamilton sent a farewell letter to his wife before his duel with Aaron Burr. And Harry Truman wrote to folks back home about his first night as President of the United States. And I'm sure there are similar letters in the history of every single nation assembled here today.

But only once before in our history has the United States had the honor of hosting a Congress of the UPU: the fifth Congress, which took place in 1897 right here in Washington, DC. At that meeting, 106 delegates from 55 countries gathered in the Renwick Gallery, which stands on Pennsylvania Avenue right across from the White House.

The world has changed much since the last time your Congress met in Washington. The delegates to that fifth Congress had never heard of radio or television, much less computers, airplanes, space shuttles, or satellites, which now seem so commonplace. In 1897 the employees of the U.S. Post Office Department were still sorting out the mail by hand, much as their predecessors had sorted mail in 1775, when Benjamin Franklin was appointed. Today the United States Postal Service has made great strides in the use of automated equipment, some capable of sorting letters at speeds of up to 35,000 pieces an hour.

The postal systems of the world, too, have changed through the advances of technology. From Hammerfest, Norway, on the Arctic Ocean to Alice Springs, Australia, in the Outback, postal administrations have consistently adapted technology to their operations to ensure that the mail always gets through.

Stories abound of amazing deliveries through the mail system. In 1916 a 40,000-ton brick building was mailed across Utah, brick by brick, because it was cheaper than the freight charges. [Laughter] This year 120 live bees were mailed from Hawaii to Virginia. And they were en route when the airplane crashed. The bees survived, and they were delivered in a thick envelope with a note from the Sioux City, Iowa, postmaster explaining the delay. [Laughter] And then, of course, there was the man who once mailed himself from New York to Los Angeles on a 0 bet. However, after the 8-hour flight in a styrofoam crate, he decided to stay out of the mail in the future. [Laughter] While these stories may be out of the ordinary, Americans are proud of the extraordinary job being done by our United States Postal Service and its 800,000 employees.

But I'm also proud of the contribution that the United States has made, and continues to make, to the Universal Postal Union. The first attempt at organizing a worldwide postal union was, in large part, the inspiration of Montgomery Blair, the Postmaster General during the first administration of President Abraham Lincoln. At his invitation, delegates from 15 countries met in Paris in 1863 to propose regulations governing the international mails. Historians describe national postal systems in those days as total chaos: at least 1,200 separate postal rates worldwide. Nations were forced to maintain bilateral agreements with every country just for the exchange of the mail. Postmaster General Blair, along with many others, envisioned a universal system that would consider the entire world as one unified postal territory. Much wisdom, eloquence, and effort were devoted to the creation of the Universal Postal Union. The original foundation was not the work of any one man or any one nation but rather that of many men from many nations. The idea of universal collaboration, bold in design, daring in concept for its day, gained impetus from a world that recognized international obligations and increasing interdependence of all peoples.

Written letters conveyed through the mails, linking the peoples and the nations of this world, often convey many notable enterprises: the advancement of civilization, the expansion of commerce and trade, the promotion of industry and science, and the encouragement of peace and good will. In fact, I understand that here at your World Stamp Expo a new set of Soviet stamps will be issued, two of which portray American astronauts.

The need to communicate by mail across national frontiers, despite the march of time and the advent of telecommunication, has remained constant to this very day. The expansion of the world's postal systems, represented by the 170 nations of the UPU, staggers the imagination. For even our latest technology and instant delivery services cannot do what the postal system alone can do: get the mail through, anywhere on Earth, to any recipient, at a very small cost.

Every week, I receive up to 60,000 letters from every State in the Union and from nearly every country in the world. You can get a lot of free advice in this job. [Laughter] Letters arrive from children to our oldest citizens. In a world of faxes and fiber optics, the mails still represent the most intimate means by which the people of this nation and other nations reveal their thoughts, their hopes, and their dreams -- whether it's a young child, crayon in hand, writing a letter to Santa Claus or a soldier waiting for a special letter from home.

``Letters mingle souls,'' John Donne, the poet, wrote. ``Letters mingle souls.'' So, look at it this way: Yours is a noble profession; for through your efforts, the written word stirs the imagination, improves the human condition, and touches the heart. So, I came over here today to say to you, good luck in your endeavors over the next 5 weeks of this Congress. God bless you all in your work. You are, indeed -- if you look at it this way, you can be, just as this magnificent symphony -- you can be catalysts for peace, too. Thank you all very, very much.

Note: The President spoke at 10:54 a.m. at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

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