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Public Papers - 1992 - May

Remarks at the United States Naval Academy Commencement Ceremony in Annapolis, Maryland

1992-05-27

Thank you, Mr. Secretary, and thank all of you. Thank you, Larry Garrett. Please be seated. And may I salute our great CNO, Admiral Kelso, who's with us today, and our Superintendent, Admiral Lynch, the several Members of the United States Congress that are here today. I want to single out the Navy band, thank the Academy band; and Captain Bill Hines, the Senior Chaplain; and Midshipmen First Class Joe Lienert and Melissa Miceli for leading us in the national anthem. Officers, members of the faculty, friends, parents, the brigade, and of course, the class of 1992. As I said that, the sun came out. [Laughter] Now, thank you for this warm welcome. Let me add a special salute to an honorary classmate of the class of '92, Midshipman Rob Boehning, a model of courage to his classmates.

Now, the real reason I came here today: I just wanted to salute the class that finally captured the Army mules. And to show you that I took Larry Garrett's remarks to heart, I will now tell you my favorite Billy Graham story about the guy, the graduation speaker, goes on and on and on. A guy sitting over here picks up the gavel, heaves it at him, misses, hits a woman in the front row. And she said, ``Hit me again. I can still hear him.'' [Laughter] Look what you're in for. [Laughter] No, they're double-spaced.

As President, I've made it my mission to preserve three legacies of concern to all Americans. I spoke a few days ago at Southern Methodist University about the new economic realities, about the promising job opportunities that we're going to have in the next century. At Notre Dame, my focus was the family because the first lessons in faith and character are learned at home. But today I want to speak about the great mission you've taken up as your own: preserving freedom, keeping the peace.

You take up your watch at a watershed moment, as old orders give way to new. Just think of the changes, the remarkable changes that have taken place since you first came to Annapolis 4 years ago, for plebe summer way back in 1988. That was a different era, another world, literally. Europe was a continent divided, East from West. From Central America to the Horn of Africa to Afghanistan and Southeast Asia, the U.S. faced Soviet expansionism. Today, all that has changed. Today, the ``dominoes'' fall in democracy's direction. Today, the Wall, the Warsaw Pact, the Soviet empire, even the Soviet Union itself, all are gone, swept away by the most powerful idea known to man: the undeniable desire of every individual to be free.

We must recognize these events for what they were: a vindication of our ideals, a testament to faith, but also a victory for the men and women who fought for freedom. Because this triumph didn't just happen. Imperial communism didn't just fall. It was pushed.

Your generation will be the first to enjoy the fruits of that victory. Today, the threat of a lightning strike across the fields of Europe has vanished with the Warsaw Pact. The threat of nuclear war is more distant than at any time in the past four decades. As Commander in Chief, I think back often to the day I did what so many of my predecessors must have longed to do, to give the order for many of our nuclear forces to stand down from alert. Last week in Lisbon, we reached agreement with four of the new nations of the old Soviet empire, Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Byelarus, to make good on the great promise of the START Treaty that we signed just a year ago.

The end of the cold war, it means new opportunities for global prosperity. Free market reform is now sweeping away the dead hand of state socialism. Capitalism is recognized the world over as the engine of prosperity and social progress. And nations are reorganizing themselves to unleash the limitless potential of the individual.

Governments can help foster free enterprise, or they can put obstacles in its path. There is no question what course we must take. The United States will remain a forceful advocate for free trade. But the promise of new prosperity must not blind us to the new challenges of new economic realities. Nations that lack the confidence to compete will be tempted to seek refuge behind the walls of protectionism. We must fight the protectionist impulse here at home, and we must work with our partners for trade that is free, fair, and open.

Beyond this economic challenge, we must see clearly the dangers that remain. And yes, since the day you came to Annapolis, we have made great gains for freedom. But we have not yet entered an era of perpetual peace.

Some see the great triumph I mentioned a moment ago not simply as cause for celebration but as proof that America's work in the world is finished, is done. The fact is, never in the long history of man has the world been a benign place. It will take hard efforts to make and keep it a better place, and there is no substitute in this effort for America's strength and sense of purpose. When other nations look to the United States, they see a nation that combines economic and military might with a moral force that's born of its founding ideals.

Even in our new world, as old threats recede, new ones emerge. With the end of the East-West standoff, ideology has given way to ethnicity as a key factor for conflict. Ancient hatreds, ethnic rivalries frozen in time, threaten to revive themselves and to re-ignite. We see it now in the war-ravaged Balkans, in tensions within and among some of the new nations of the old Soviet empire. For all the overwhelmingly hopeful aspects of the new nationalism we see in the world, for all the proud history and heritage we see reclaimed, for all the captive nations now free, we must guard against those who would turn the noble impulse of nationalism to negative ends.

We will face new challenges in the realm of diplomacy. Where in the past we've relied almost entirely on established, formal alliances, the future may require us to turn more often to coalitions built to respond to the needs of the moment. Where in the past, international organizations like the U.N., the United Nations, had been paralyzed by cold war conflict, we will see a future where they can now be a force for peace. Where in the past, many times the heaviest burdens of leadership fell to our Nation, we will now see more efforts made to seek consensus and concerted action.

The United States will never rely on other nations to defend its interests, but we can and will seek to act in concert with the community of nations to defend common interests and ideals. We saw a glimpse of that future in the Persian Gulf. Such a world puts a premium on nations certain of their interests, faithful to their ideals, and on leaders ready to act.

We will face new challenges that take us beyond containment to a key role in helping forge a democratic peace. In the weeks ahead, Congress will be considering what we call the ``FREEDOM Support Act,'' to promote democratic reform in Russia and the other Commonwealth States. For all the pressure to focus our energies on needs here at home, and for all that we must do and will do to open new opportunities to every American here at home, we cannot fail in this critical mission.

When we think of the world you and your children will inherit, no single factor will shape their future more than this: whether the lands of the old Soviet empire move forward into democracy or slide back into anarchy or authoritarianism. The outcome of this great transition will affect everything from the amount of resources Government must devote to defense instead of domestic needs to a future for our children free from fear.

And yes, the aid that I have requested from the Congress is significant, but it is also a tiny fraction of the trillion that this Nation spent to wage and win the cold war. We owe it to those who began the task as well as those who will come up afterward to finish the great work that we have begun.

But if we hope to remain free and at peace in the world, a world that still holds dangers, we must maintain defenses adequate to the task. This defense rests on four key elements.

First, we must maintain a strong strategic deterrent. And yes, our nuclear forces can and will be smaller in the future. But even in the aftermath of the cold war, Russia retains its nuclear arsenal. We learned in Desert Storm about the progress that Iraq had made toward building nuclear weapons of its own. We must heed the lessons learned in the Gulf war, when a single Scud missile took the lives of more Americans than any other combat action in that war. We cannot count on deterrence to stop a madman with missiles. We must deploy a defense against ballistic missile attack.

Second, security means forward deployment. From the 40 years of cold war to the 40 days of Desert Storm, forward deployed forces have contributed to the world's stability and helped America keep danger far from its shores. Even in our new world, with the tremendous political transformation we've worked to bring about, the fundamental facts of geopolitics don't change. Forward deployed forces -- I'm talking about ground forces, and I am talking the United States Navy -- will keep America safe in the century ahead as they have in the century now coming to a close.

Third, the nature of the challenges we are likely to face will put a premium on rapid response. We live in a day when clear and present dangers are few, when new threats can emerge with little or no warning. Throughout history, our ability to project power has helped us keep the peace, and if need be, to win the war. And this I pledge as Commander in Chief: America's forces will continue to be the best trained, the best equipped, and most battle-ready forces anywhere in the entire world. We owe it to the generations coming up.

Fourth, even as we reduce our Armed Forces, we must retain the capability to reconstitute sufficient forces to meet the future threats that we may face. As we make significant cuts in our defense procurement, we've got to keep in mind that production lines for planes and tanks and ships cannot be turned on and off like water from a faucet. We've got to keep our technological edge, keep our R D focused on the next generation of weapons that you'll need to succeed.

In conclusion, I just want to turn now to a final challenge, one that begins with a hard-won truth that shines through this century's great conflicts: America is safest at home when we stand as a force for stability in the world. In many respects, reaffirming this truth in our new world may be the greatest challenge of all because the history of this century reveals in the American character a desire to see in every hard-won victory a sign that America's work in the world is done. Such an urge is not unusual in democracies. It's a trait found in nations more interested in the quiet joys of home than in the glories of conquest abroad. But it can be devastating in a world that still holds dangers for our interests and ideals.

Winston Churchill made this point the theme of the last volume in his epic history of World War II. He called it, ``How the great democracies triumphed and so were able to resume the follies which had so nearly cost them their life.'' Once more, our challenge is to avoid the folly that Churchill warned of, to remain engaged in the world as a force for peace. We will do it with your help, through the leadership you provide. Today, John Paul Jones would say, ``The measure of a ship is not its guns but its courageous men and women.'' Your courage, your integrity, your ability to lead, these are the qualities on which our Nation's security depends.

More than once this century, America has proved its mettle. More than once, we've come late to conflict and turned back mortal threats to freedom. But as a Nation, we have yet to prove that we can lead when there is no enemy on the doorstep. We have proved and proved again we can win the war. Now we must wage the peace.

Once again, to this wonderful graduating class, I wish you well. I wish you Godspeed. And thank you all for this warm welcome. May I thank the families that have labored in sweat to provide this wonderful day for these wonderful midshipmen, now to be ensigns or lieutenants. Welcome, congratulations to the class of 1992. And may God bless the United States of America, the freest, greatest country on the face of the Earth. Thank you very much.

Note: The President spoke at 10:45 a.m. at the Navy/Marine Corps Memorial Stadium. In his remarks, he referred to Lawrence Garrett III, Secretary of the Navy; Rear Admiral Thomas C. Lynch, Superintendent of the U.S. Naval Academy; and Midshipman 1st Class Robert Boehning, an honorary graduate.

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