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Public Papers - 1989 - July

Remarks on Signing the National POW/MIA Recognition Day Proclamation

1989-07-28

Well, thank you, George and Ann. And wasn't that music magnificent -- add to the occasion? And let me say to all of you that it's an honor to be back with the National League of Families. Earlier I was reflecting on the magnitude of what you've endured through so many years of uncertainty. And despite your burdens, you brought about a change in our nation that will never be reversed. Your organization provides us all with a stirring example of how citizens working together can help craft sound policy.

And as you know, Barbara and I returned from central and Eastern Europe just 2 weeks ago. And in the faces of the brave workers of Gdansk and the hopeful students of Budapest, I saw a truth that cannot be denied: The democratic ideal is winning the hearts of people all around the world. And it is this ideal that we honor when we fly the flag, and it is for this ideal that so many Americans were ready when their country called.

Today, we see the symbol of this commitment, the League's POW/MIA flag, on permanent display in the rotunda of our nation's Capitol. It stands in a position of tremendous honor, and it will not come down until we have the fullest possible accounting of your missing loved ones. Your flag can be seen across this land, over statehouses and fire stations and schools and military installations and stadiums, even on ships at sea -- a stirring reminder that America's sons are still missing.

The ideals for which your loved ones fought may finally be coming to pass, the failure of totalitarian and repressive Communist regimes. The evidence is clear through recent events in China, the Soviet Union, and Cambodia -- where Vietnam appears to finally be withdrawing its troops. Some of our finest young men and women were lost during the many long years of the Vietnam war. And the divisions that resulted from our involvement there shook our country to its very core. But as tragic as the loss of a loved one is, even more difficult to endure is the uncertainty which, for you, has extended over so many years. And now we are coming to a time when the divisions of the Vietnam war are healing. We've let go of some of the bitterness of the past, but with this reconciliation comes a temptation to forget those who served. And yet we will not forget, and we will never break ranks.

My friend and predecessor, Ronald Reagan, had a personal commitment to determine the fates of your missing loved ones. And because of his commitment and your perseverance, the policies of this organization are now the policies of the United States Government. When I sought this office -- when I sought the Presidency -- I renewed President Reagan's pledge that we would write no last chapters, we would close no books, we would put away no final memories until your questions about missing and possible prisoners of war have been answered.

And it is as your President that I repeat this pledge today. Let me simply state the policy of this new administration. The fullest possible accounting remains a matter of highest national priority. We will do everything that a government can to recover the missing and, if we discover proof of captivity, we will take action to bring our men home. And so long as you must live without knowing the fate of your loved ones, the United States will insist, in the name of humanity, that the governments of Indochina give the fullest possible accounting.

Frustration on this sensitive issue is totally understandable, and I hear those who say more must be done. And if more can be done, then it will be. And understand this: I don't counsel a timid patience, I counsel a bold persistence. And our persistence is showing some results -- I should say your persistence. Since the Government embraced the goals of this organization, many more of you have found answers. Each answer has been another sad truth to learn. But every POW/MIA relative that I meet tells me that truth is preferable to the greater agony, that of not knowing. The task of learning more is daunting, but we can count on some powerful allies.

First are the national veterans organizations, those who have stood side by side with us through these long years. And it was these veteran groups, supporting you, which protested government indifference to the POW/MIA issue in earlier years, and their contribution has been indispensable. Other partners in our quest are the men and women in government who are dedicating their careers to learning the truth about our POW's and MIA's. These public servants are not uninspired bureaucrats just going through the motions. They have a deep and they have an abiding commitment to their task. This is a commitment shared by people in the military services, in the Defense Intelligence Agency, in Embassies throughout the world, and among those American pilots who bring our fallen soldiers out of Hanoi to at long last come home.

You also have many friends in both parties in Congress. I especially want to commend Bob Dole and John McCain and Steve Solarz and Bob Lagomarsino and Ben Gilman, for showing the governments of Indochina the strength of bipartisan congressional commitment to find answers. To keep this issue at the forefront, they have again passed resolutions establishing National POW/MIA Recognition Day this year on September 15th.

I just must mention how invaluable the guidance of Ann Mills Griffiths has been through the years. Her knowledge and determination are an inspiration, and her participation in the interagency group provides critical insights. And so we will, Ann, continue to look to you for advice and leadership and thank you for all you've done.

And let me just say, finally, I pledge to do all I can. In just a few minutes, I will sign this proclamation calling upon all Americans to honor their missing countrymen and those who served as POW's by participating in ceremonies across our nation. But this is just a beginning.

In Southeast Asia, there are Americans who are unaccounted for. And as I said in my Inaugural Address, in part: ``Assistance can be shown here and will be long remembered. Good will begets good will.'' And we appreciate Vietnam's increased responsiveness to that appeal. An unprecedented level of joint operations has already brought significant progress, but despite our increased activities, many questions remain. And once again, I call on Hanoi to swiftly dispel the shadow of doubt, to shed light on the fate of your loved ones. I call on Hanoi to remove the last vestige of armed conflict between us.

We look forward to normalizing our relations with Vietnam once a comprehensive settlement has been achieved in Cambodia. And that settlement must include genuine power sharing with the non-Communist Cambodians led by Prince Sihanouk, and an internationally verified troop withdrawal. But Hanoi must clearly understand that as a practical matter the pace and scope of this process will be directly affected by the seriousness of their cooperation on the POW/MIA and other humanitarian issues.

In Laos, so many questions remain and so few answers have been received. In light of the difficulties involved, their agreement earlier this year to a year-round program of cooperation is, indeed, encouraging. And you can be certain that we are seeking to expand this agreement in every possible way. And we also welcome the Lao Government's agreement to work bilaterally with us on combating the international scourge of narcotics. Implementing this agreement will be critically important to our improved bilateral relationship, which has, indeed, expanded steadily since 1982. We look to the future in our relations with Laos, recognizing the importance of steps they are taking toward opening their society and developing their economy for the good of the Lao people.

To the families of those missing in Cambodia, I must tell you that our efforts to gain Phnom Penh's humanitarian cooperation on resolving the fates of your missing loved ones have thus far been unsuccessful. And despite their public claims to be holding remains of some Americans, officials there have been deaf to our appeals. And I have just asked our Secretary of State, Jim Baker, to raise this issue during the international conference in Cambodia beginning this weekend. I call on Phnom Penh to act responsibly, humanely, and to return these remains. And failure to do so will surely hinder their efforts to gain international respect and support.

The policies pursued during the past 8 years have shown some success. Incomplete? Yes. But progress is being made because our government is giving it high priority. And as we proceed, we will continue to search for ways to improve the process. We will continue to assemble the best resources, technology and, most of all, qualified people to interview refugees and evaluate the intelligence information and negotiate with foreign governments.

It is with that last mission in mind that I reappointed a man of the highest integrity and qualifications, General Jack Vessey, as my special POW/MIA emissary to Hanoi. I know that he was here with you this morning, and senior officials from the Departments of State and Defense and the National Security Council will follow me here. And I have charged them all, all of them, to do their utmost. They know and share my deep commitment to your missing loved ones and to you.

The principal responsibility for the POW/MIA issue rests with the Department of Defense. And for that reason, we are fortunate to have a very talented public servant as our Secretary of Defense, Dick Cheney. His years in Congress and his knowledge of intelligence matters give him a rare understanding of, and a deep appreciation for, your concern.

In closing, I want you to know that in my frequent travels to cities and towns across America I see many heartfelt demonstrations of support for our cause. Americans know that across our land, every Thanksgiving, there are families that still set an empty chair at the table. We know that faded photographs and school mementos are still being lovingly kept in scrapbooks. And questions remain -- and will remain until answered.

And now the mothers, fathers, wives, children and friends of another great power share the same kind of grief, share with you lingering doubts about missing loved ones. That this power, the Soviet Union, backed the North Vietnamese; and the United States backed the Afghan freedom fighters -- there's an irony there. But there is no room in the American heart for a mean-spirited and petty indifference -- far from it.

I am pleased to note that Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev recently made a humanitarian appeal for our help in obtaining the fullest possible accounting for Soviet citizens still prisoner and missing in Afghanistan. And let me answer him today: We will do everything we can, everything that we possibly can. And in return, we confidently expect that the Soviets will do all they can do to encourage more serious and timely cooperation from their allies. Working together, we can resolve the anguish of many families in two lands. And we can do something more: we can build a new spirit of peace.

In Ecclesiastes, it is written that there is a time for war, a time for peace, and a time to heal. We will never forget those who served our country. And when we receive final answers about their fate, then this will truly be a time for healing. Thank you, God bless you, and God bless the United States of America. Thank you very much. And now I'm honored to sign this proclamation.

Note: The President spoke at 3:25 p.m. in the Grand Ballroom at the J.W. Marriott Hotel, at the annual meeting of the National League of POW/MIA Families. In his opening remarks, he referred to league members George Brooks and Ann Griffiths. The proclamation is listed in Appendix E at the end of this volume.

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