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50th Anniversary of the Chairmanship of the Joint Chiefs of Staff
Remarks as Delivered by Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen , Fort Myer, Virginia , Monday, August 09, 1999

General [Hugh] Shelton [Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff], thank you very much for your very gracious words and for your truly extraordinary leadership that you have provided over the past two years. I know it gives your many predecessors who are gathered here today great comfort to know that you are following in their footsteps. For all that you have done and all that you will do, let me express on behalf of all of us at the Pentagon and all the men and women in the military, thank you for a job extraordinarily well done. [Applause.]

President Clinton, honored guests, Janet [Cohen], ladies and gentlemen. I always find it something of a challenge to deliver a speech on such a spectacular summer day. The honored guests would like a speech that is somewhat sentimental. The leaders of the Department would prefer a speech that is somewhat substantive. And virtually everyone here would prefer a speech that is, well, somewhat short. [Laughter.] I will try to balance my responsibilities appropriately.

To have stood on these grounds fifty summers ago would have been to hear the roar of the greatest war in history still echoing in our ears. Science had split the atom. An iron curtain had split Europe. Ideology had split the world. And so America summoned the strength to defend democracy once more: saving Berlin with an amazing "bridge in the sky;" joining with our European friends to form a new alliance called NATO; and empowering a Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to guide our newly unified services through the turbulent times ahead.

America found such a leader in General Omar Bradley and in every Chairman since. Leaders of conviction who carry on their shoulders our greatest hopes, the preservation of calm and the preparation for crisis. Leaders of compassion who carry in their hearts our greatest treasure, our men and women in uniform. And, as General Shelton has said, leaders of vision who carry in their minds' eye the challenges and changes necessary to confront the future.

That legacy, those virtues and values, were the foundation upon which we built when Congress sought to strengthen the hand of the highest military officer in the land. And so guided by the vision of General David Jones, who joins us today, and the wisdom of Senator Goldwater and Congressman Nichols, Congress gave the Chairman the stature and support befitting the demands of that office. And I must say, as Secretary I now have the distinct pleasure of being the recipient of the changes that I and others in a small way helped to fashion.

This position and this person is the great hinge upon which two of this nation’s most sacred principles swing and survive: A military that understands and abides by the will of the citizens it is sworn to serve, and a citizenry that understands and appreciates the insights and sacrifices of its military. Indeed, whether these two worlds recede from or reinforce one another rests in no small measure on this leader, and on what General Bradley called "the most important element in the business of defense, the human relationship."

I must say, it has been my invaluable friendship and relationship with Generals Shali and Shelton that has illuminated for me why this great hinge has remained so sturdy and so strong. It is because, as President Kennedy said, these are "more than military men." It is because every Chairman must be part soldier, part statesman and part symbol.

In the Chairman America has a soldier, veterans tempered by battle who know that security cannot be preserved without sacrifice. And whether meeting in my office or with the President in the Oval Office, when we seek the advice of the Chairman, we seek – and without exception we receive – the hard truth from a hardened warrior.

In the Chairman America has a statesman, a visionary who helps lead our nation with clarity of purpose and confidence in action, a sage whose insights help us answer the greatest questions any nation can ask. How shall we prepare for whatever fate or fortune sends our way? How shall we defend our lives and liberties when that moment comes?

Finally, in the Chairman we also have a symbol. Indeed, to look at these inspiring Americans -- Moorer, Jones, Vessey, Crowe, Powell, Shali, Shelton -- is to look at the very embodiment of all we embrace as a people and aspire to as a nation. Generals, Admirals, I would ask that you stand so that your nation may salute you. [Applause.]

Of course, no Chairman succeeds alone, and so today we also shine a light on the lives of those who have served alongside them. The eminent Vice Chairmen – such as General Joe Ralston, one of the most gifted officers to serve this nation – and the Chiefs who devote their lives to the well-being of our military men and women; the exceptional staffs who support them; the inspiring families who sacrifice with them. The golden achievements of these past fifty years are in so many ways your achievements as well, and so today we also pay tribute to these dedicated Americans who are the backbone of this noble institution.

In one of his final speeches as Chairman, General Bradley addressed an audience somewhat similar to the one today and he spoke words that ring down the decades. He said: "More than a hundred of our key defense leaders are gathered here today, and we must make every man and women in the services, and this includes every wife and child, feel that we are fighting for them every minute. To win and keep their loyalty, this is our greatest task."

Ladies and gentlemen, this is the solemn pledge that has been taken by every Chairman since that August day fifty summers ago, that is the enduring commitment that we reaffirm with this celebration today, and that is the task to which we must dedicate ourselves always anew.

It is now my honor to welcome a leader who knows well the invaluable counsel of the Chairman. Indeed, not since President Eisenhower has a single Commander-in-Chief been served so well by so many Chairmen. He has worked with Generals Powell, Shali and Shelton. And whether it was in Haiti or Bosnia, Iraq or Kosovo, these Chairmen have helped this President lead America with the greatest skill and greatest caring for our men and women in uniform.

Ladies and gentlemen, let me also say that during the past three years I have witnessed how this President has acted in moments of great challenge to our interests, to our ideals and to our humanity. Standing in the eye of the storm, he has never wavered, he has never complained, and he has never yielded, not to the critics and not to the cynics. He had faith that our mission would prevail because of the power of our military, to be sure, but equally important, because of the power of our cause.

Ladies and gentlemen, it has been my privilege to serve with President Clinton during the past two and a half years. It is now my privilege to introduce to you the Commander-in-Chief, President Bill Clinton. [Applause.]