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Public Papers - 1991

Remarks to World War II Veterans and Families in Honolulu, Hawaii


Mrs. Rickert, thank you for that wonderful tale of how it was at Hospital Point. Thank you for that warm and generous introduction. And now I have a favor to ask of you. I hope you and everyone else will take a deep breath for me too, please. [Laughter] You didn't need it, but I might; this is a very emotional day.

I would like to salute the members of my Cabinet that are here today, particularly Dick Cheney, our able Secretary of Defense who's done so much for the military, so much in terms of leadership for our Nation. I want to salute General Powell, the Chairman of our Joint Chiefs of Staff, and again take this opportunity on this historic day to thank him for his leadership, his inspirational leadership, for all the men and women that serve in the Armed Forces. I want to thank the commander in chief of the Pacific Fleet, Admiral Larson. And I especially want to single out all the fellow veterans here, particularly those who are the survivors, the survivors of this historic day.

I expect if we went around the room, all of us would remember. I remember exactly when I first heard the news about Pearl Harbor. I was 17 years old, walking across the green at school. And my thoughts in those days didn't turn to world events, but mainly to simpler things, more mundane things, like making the basketball team or entering college. And that walk across the campus marked an end of innocence for me.

When Americans heard the news, they froze in shock. But just as quickly we came together. Like all American kids back then, I was swept up in it. I decided that very day to go into the Navy to become a Navy pilot. And so on my 18th birthday, June 12th, 1942, I was sworn into the Navy as a seaman second class.

And I was shocked, I was shocked at my first sight of Pearl Harbor several months later, April of '44. We came into port on the CVL - 30, on the carrier San Jacinto. Nearby, the Utah was still on her side; parts of the Arizona still stood silent in the water. Everywhere the skeletons of ships reached out as if to demand remembrance and warn us of our own mortality.

Over 2,000 men died in a matter of minutes on this site, a half a century ago. Many more died that same day as Japanese forces assaulted the Philippines and Guam and Wake Island, Midway, Malaya, Thailand, Singapore, Hong Kong. On that day of infamy, Pearl Harbor propelled each of us into a titanic contest for mankind's future. It galvanized the American spirit as never, ever before into a single-minded resolve that could produce only one thing: victory.

Churchill knew it as soon as he heard the news. He'd faced the Nazi conquest of Europe, the blitz of London, the terror of the U-boats. But when America was attacked, he declared there was ``no more doubt about the end.'' He knew then that the American spirit would not fail the cause of freedom. The enemy mistook our diversity, our Nation's diversity, for weakness. But Pearl Harbor became a rallying cry for men and women from all walks of life, all colors and creeds. And in the end, this unity of purpose made us invincible in war and now makes us secure in peace.

The next day, President Roosevelt proclaimed the singular American objective: ``With confidence in our Armed Forces, with the unbounding determination of our people, we will gain the inevitable triumph, so help us, God.'' It was the steadfastness of the American people that would ``win the war'' and ``win the peace that follows.''

We triumphed in both, despite the fact that the American people did not want to be drawn into the conflict; ``the unsought war,'' it's been called. Ironically, isolationists gathered together at what was known in those days as an ``American First'' rally in Pittsburgh at precisely the moment the first Americans met early, violent deaths right here at Pearl Harbor. The isolationists failed to see that the seeds of Pearl Harbor were sown back in 1919, when a victorious America decided that in the absence of a threatening enemy abroad, we should turn all of our energies inward. That notion of isolationism flew escort for the very bombers that attacked our men 50 years ago.

Again, in 1945, some called for America's return to isolationism, as if abandoning world leadership was the prerequisite for dealing with pressing matters back home. And they were rudely awakened by the brutal reality of the Iron Curtain, the Soviet blockade of Berlin, and the Communist invasion of South Korea.

And now we stand triumphant, for the third time this century, this time in the wake of the cold war. As in 1919 and 1945, we face no enemy menacing our security. And yet we stand here today on the site of a tragedy spawned by isolationism. And we must learn, and this time avoid, the dangers of today's isolationism and its economic accomplice, protectionism. To do otherwise, to believe that turning our backs on the world would improve our lot here at home, is to ignore the tragic lessons of the 20th century.

The fact is, this country has enjoyed its most lasting growth and security when we rejected isolationism, both political and economic, in favor of engagement and leadership. We're a Pacific nation. And next month in Asia, I'll discuss with our Pacific friends and allies their responsibility to share with us the challenges and burdens of leadership in the post-cold war world.

The time has come for America's trading partners, in Europe, Asia, and around the world, to resolve that economic isolationism is wrong. To the leaders of Japan in particular, I say: This solemn occasion should reinforce our determination to join together in a future energized by free markets and free people. And so I'll continue to speak out against the voices of isolationism and protectionism, both at home and abroad.

Fifty years ago, we paid a heavy price for complacency and overconfidence. That too is a lesson we shall never forget. To those who have defended our country, from the shores of Guadalcanal to the hills of Korea, from the jungles of Vietnam to the sands of Kuwait, I say this: We will always remember; we will always be prepared, prepared to take on aggression, prepared to step forward in reconciliation, and prepared to secure the peace.

In remembering, it is important to come to grips with the past. No nation can fully understand itself or find its place in the world if it does not look with clear eyes at all the glories and disgraces, too, of the past. We in the United States acknowledge such an injustice in our own history: The internment of Americans of Japanese ancestry was a great injustice, and it will never be repeated.

Today, all Americans should acknowledge Japan's Prime Minister Miyazawa's national statement of deep remorse concerning the attack on Pearl Harbor. It was a thoughtful, it was a difficult expression much appreciated by the people of the United States of America.

The values we hold dear as a Nation -- equality of opportunity, freedom of religion and speech and assembly, free and vigorous elections -- are now revered by many nations. Our greatest victory in World War II took place not on the field of battle, but in nations we once counted as foes. The ideals of democracy and liberty have triumphed in a world once threatened with conquest by tyranny and despotism.

Today as we celebrate the world's evolution toward freedom, we commemorate democracy's fallen heroes, the defenders of freedom as well as the victims of dictatorship who never saw the light of liberty. Earlier this year, when former adversaries joined us in the stand against aggression in the Persian Gulf, we affirmed the values cherished by the heroes of the Harbor.

The friends I lost, that all of us lost, upheld a great and noble cause. Because of their sacrifice, the world now lives in greater freedom and peace than ever before. It is right that all of us are here today. And it is right that we go on from here.

As you know, I just paid my respects at the Arizona, where it all began. And behind us stands the Missouri, where it came to an end. But the Missouri was also a beginning. Soon after that, Emperor Hirohito went to call on General MacArthur, who later noted that the Emperor ``played a major role in the spiritual regeneration of Japan.'' Their meeting made history, and a hopeful future for a democratic Japan began to take shape.

I thought of that meeting with MacArthur when I attended the Emperor's funeral in 1989. I thought of it this morning, too, at the National Cemetery of the Pacific and then at the Arizona Memorial.

As you look back on life and retrace the steps that made you the person you are, you pick out the turning points, the defining moments. Over the years, Pearl Harbor still defines a part of who I am. To every veteran here, and indeed to all Americans, Pearl Harbor defines a part of who you are.

Recently a letter arrived from the son of a Pearl Harbor survivor, a Navy man named Bill Leu, who is with us here today. His son writes from his home, now in Tokyo, saying: ``A half century ago, my father's thoughts were on surviving the attack and winning the war. He could not have envisioned a future where his son would study and work in Japan. But he recognizes that the world has changed, that America's challenges are different. My father's attitude represents that of the United States: Do your duty, and raise the next generation to do its.''

I can understand Bill's feelings. I wondered how I'd feel being with you, the veterans of Pearl Harbor, the survivors, on this very special day. And I wondered if I would feel that intense hatred that all of us felt for the enemy 50 years ago. As I thought back to that day of infamy and the loss of friends, I wondered: What will my reaction be when I go back to Pearl Harbor? What will their reaction be, the other old veterans, especially those who survived that terrible day right here?

Well, let me tell you how I feel. I have no rancor in my heart towards Germany or Japan, none at all. And I hope, in spite of the loss, that you have none in yours. This is no time for recrimination.

World War II is over. It is history. We won. We crushed totalitarianism. And when that was done, we helped our enemies give birth to democracies. We reached out, both in Europe and in Asia. We made our enemies our friends, and we healed their wounds. And in the process, we lifted ourselves up.

The lessons of the war itself will live on, and well they should: Preparedness; strength; decency and honor; courage; sacrifice; the willingness to fight, even die, for one's country -- America, the land of the free and the brave.

No, just speaking for one guy, I have no rancor in my heart. I can still see the faces of the fallen comrades, and I'll bet you can see the faces of your fallen comrades too, or family members. But don't you think they're saying, ``Fifty years have passed; our country is the undisputed leader of the free world, and we are at peace.''? Don't you think each one is saying, ``I did not die in vain.''?

May God bless each of you who sacrificed and served. And may God grant His loving protection to this, the greatest country on the face of the Earth, the United States of America.

Thank you all, and God bless you. Thank you very much.

Note: The President spoke at 9:20 a.m. from Kilo 8 Pier in Honolulu, Hawaii. He was introduced by Lenore Rickert, retired U.S. Navy nurse and a survivor of the Pearl Harbor attack.

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