Secretary [of Transportation, Rodney] Slater, [Commandant of the Coast Guard] Admiral [James] Loy, men and women of the U.S. Coast Guard who are here with us today, and the countless others who are not here today, distinguished guests, including the great historian, Dr. Daniel Boorstin, ladies and gentlemen.
As we gather for this ceremony, our men and women in uniform are serving in every state in this country and in 140 countries around the world. The Army is standing watch on the Korean Peninsula, the Navy is patrolling the Persian Gulf, the Air Force is returning from the most successful air campaign in history, and the Marines are in the Balkans, turning those military gains into everlasting peace.
But day-to-day, perhaps Americans are most familiar with another uniformed service -- the U.S. Coast Guard. Indeed, the Coast Guard conducts its operations in the public eye, often in communities where we visit live, visit or vacation. What Americans tend not to see, however, is that the Coast Guard also plays a critical role in protecting national security, and it is a pleasure to be here today to celebrate and commemorate that role.
The Coast Guard is a service of many missions, but one of the oldest and most enduring is its military mission. From their earliest days patrolling the Atlantic to their recent days in the Adriatic, the men and women of the U.S. Coast Guard have bravely served in almost every major conflict this country has fought: escorting vessels through submarine-infested waters in World War I, fighting enemy ships in Europe and the Pacific in World War II, performing risky port security and shipping patrols in Vietnam, and again in the Persian Gulf during Operation Desert Storm. The men and women of the U.S. Coast Guard are at this very moment enforcing the embargo against Iraq and supporting NATO military and peacekeeping operations in Kosovo.
Today, we add a battle streamer to the great cluster already atop the Coast Guard flag. And in so doing we commemorate what was arguably the most important battle of all, the battle to turn victory in the War for Independence into success in the struggle for nationhood, to turn this sprawling land and young people into a peaceful, unified country.
By design, the Coast Guard’s precursor, the Revenue Cutter Service, was created to help this effort by collecting import taxes for the empty coffers of this new nation. But by default, the Revenue Cutter Service soon found itself with a broader mission.
One of the first actions of the fledgling U.S. Congress had been to disband the Navy, based on the theory that we lived in a world at peace, with no clear and present threat over the horizon. In practice, though, the Revenue Cutter Service filled the void, defending U.S. ships and shoreline from foreign pirates. For a small fleet, this was a very big task. Indeed, piracy would spark our first three wars – with France, the sultans of the Barbary Coast, and Britain. The Revenue Cutter Service valiantly held the line until Congress realized that freedom from the crown did not necessarily mean freedom from threats to the nation, and reconstituted the Navy just in time to fight the War of 1812. In all the years since, the Coast Guard has continued to protect the nation, not just when the call came to sail to distant ports, but every day here on our home shores.
At the turn of the 18th century, the Revenue Cutter Service saw us through a most critical moment, and schooled us in the need for a ready and robust military defense. And though that was 200 years ago, it is a lesson we are learning again and again. So, at the turn of this century, it is entirely appropriate to recognize the Coast Guard for consistently showing America the true meaning of their motto Semper Paratus, Always Ready. I just want to add that we in Defense never consider the Coast Guard to be just on loan to us, and we are grateful for the service you provide, not just in times of war, but every day. Thank you very much.