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Public Papers - 1989 - June

Remarks Announcing the Proposed Constitutional Amendment on Desecration of the Flag


Senator Dole, thank you, sir, and Senator Dixon, appreciate your coming all this way to join us on such short notice. To Congressmen Michel and Montgomery, my sincere thanks, and all the Members of the Senate and House that are here, Secretary of Defense and other distinguished civilians, the Defense Department, and of course I salute the members of the Joint Chiefs who have joined us here. I might say I'm delighted to see Admiral Crowe back from his very successful visit to the Soviet Union -- welcome back to the U.S. of A., Bill. And also our fellow citizens, citizens of this, the freest, most generous nation on God's Earth -- thank you for joining us.

And we stand today before a symbol of hope and of triumph. All across America -- above farmhouses and statehouses, schools and courts and capitols -- our flag is borne on the breeze of freedom. And it reminds Americans how much they've been given and how much they have to give. Our flag represents freedom and the unity of our nation. And our flag flies in peace, thanks to the sacrifices of so many Americans.

A woman in Florida recently shared with me a letter written by her cousin, a young soldier named Wayne Thomas. On December 16, 1966, he wrote: ``Every time we go out on patrol, it gets a little scarier. The only thing that gives us a sense of security is when we walk back into camp and our flag is still flying high.'' She told me that Wayne stepped on a landmine 11 days later and was killed. He was 18 years old. He understood this banner of freedom and ultimately gave his life for the flag to give others the freedom that it represents.

You know, she also pointed out to me, parenthetically, that she was a registered Democrat. And to me that simply states that patriotism is not a partisan issue; it's not a political issue. Our purpose today transcends politics and partisanship.

And we feel in our hearts, and we know from our experience, that the surest way to preserve liberty is to protect the spirit that sustains it. And this flag sustains that spirit, and it's one of our most powerful ideas. And like all powerful ideas, if it is not defended, it is defamed. To the touch, this flag is merely fabric. But to the heart, the flag represents and reflects the fabric of our nation -- our dreams, our destiny, our very fiber as a people.

And when we consider the importance of the colors to this nation, we do not question the right of men to speak freely. For it is this very symbol, with its stripes and stars, that has guaranteed and nurtured those precious rights -- for those who've championed the cause of civil rights here at home, to those who fought for democracy abroad.

Free speech is a right that is dear and close to all. It is in defense of that right, and the others enshrined in our Constitution, that so many have sacrificed. But before we accept dishonor to our flag, we must ask ourselves how many have died following the order to ``Save the Colors!'' We must ask how many have fought for the ideals it represents. And we must honor those who have been handed the folded flag from the casket at Arlington.

If the debate here is about liberty, then we cannot turn our backs on those who fought to win it for us. We can't forget the importance of the flag to the ideals of liberty and honor and freedom. To burn the flag, to dishonor it, is simply wrong.

And today we remember one of the most vivid images of our flag -- the one you see behind me -- Joe Rosenthal's stunning photograph immortalized in bronze. As you view this memorial, think of its flag and of these men and of how they honor the living and the dead. Remember their heroism and their sacrifice, giving of themselves and others of their lives, fighting bravely, daring greatly, so that freedom could survive.

The Battle of Iwo Jima wrote one of the greatest chapters in the story of America. And even now, it humbles us, inspires us, reminds us of how Henry Ward Beecher said, ``A thoughtful mind, when it sees a nation's flag, sees not the flag only but the nation itself.''

The Nation itself was ennobled by the Battle of Iwo Jima. It was fought in early 1945, fought on 8 square miles of sand, caves, and volcanic rubble. And it cost our Armed Forces almost 7,000 killed and more than 19,000 wounded -- almost a third of the landing force. But like Tarawa and Guadalcanal and the Philippines before, it had to be won. For victory at Iwo would be yet another step towards bringing that ghastly war to a close.

These marines wrote a profile in courage, enduring a torrent of shells, pushing their way up that extinct volcano. And they stormed Mount Suribachi. And when they reached the top, the five men behind me raised a piece of pipe upright, and from one end flew a flag. And in the most famous image of World War II, a photograph was taken of these men and that flag. And what that flag embodies is too sacred to be abused.

As Justice Stevens stated so eloquently in his dissenting opinion in the recent Supreme Court case: ``The ideas of liberty and equality have been an irresistible force in motivating leaders like Patrick Henry, Susan B. Anthony, Abraham Lincoln; schoolteachers like Nathan Hale and Booker T. Washington; the Philippine Scouts who fought at Bataan; and the soldiers who scaled the bluff at Omaha Beach. If those ideas are worth fighting for -- and our history demonstrates that they are -- it cannot be true,'' he says, ``that the flag that uniquely symbolizes their power is not itself worthy of protection from unnecessary desecration.'' The Justice is right.

And today I am grateful to the leaders here and the leaders of the Congress with us in this audience who have proposed a constitutional amendment to protect the flag. Its language is stark, and it's simple and to the point: ``The Congress and the States shall have power to prohibit the physical desecration of the flag of the United States.'' Simple and to the point, this amendment preserves the widest conceivable range of options for free expression. It applies only to the flag, the unique symbol of our nation.

Senator Dole, Senator Dixon, Congressmen Michel and Montgomery, I know that you have already taken the lead, but please take the lead, working with others here today, in moving this bill forward. With the help of you Members of the Senate and House here today, and with the help of the many more of your colleagues who couldn't be with us today, I am confident that we will succeed. I've seen predictions that this will take a long time; it need not. It is simple, to the point, direct; and it addresses itself to only one thing: Our flag will not be desecrated.

Let me close with a letter from a man named Augusto Moreno. Born in Argentina, now a naturalized citizen, he likes to say that he's more proud to be an American than most of those born in this country. I'm not sure he's right about that, but that's what he likes to say, anyway. He's very serious when he states: ``I am proud to say that my blood is represented on our flag. I was wounded while fighting for democracy with the United State Marine Corps in Vietnam. I am now a disabled veteran. I am sure that there is not one day that goes by without you seeing the faces of those who were not so fortunate to return as you and I.'' And he says: ``We must continue our struggle to protect the flag now, as when we were in uniform -- if not for us, then for those fallen veterans. We've been entrusted by those who have fought for freedom before us to protect our flag. I cannot allow anyone to desecrate the only symbol of freedom in the world.'' And he ends saying, ``Sir, I realize that you're a Navy veteran, but Semper Fi anyway.'' [Laughter] Those darn marines, I'll tell you.

Well, Mr. Moreno, you have our word on it: For the sake of the fallen, for the men behind the guns, for every American, we will defend the flag of the United States of America.

Thank you. God bless this flag, and God bless the United States of America.

Note: The President spoke at 9:23 a.m. in front of the Iwo Jima Memorial in Arlington, VA. In his remarks, he referred to Secretary of Defense Richard B. Cheney and Adm. William J. Crowe, Jr., USN, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

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