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National D-Day Museum Opening, Award Presentation to Dr. Steven Ambrose
Remarks as Delivered by Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen, National D-Day Museum, New Orleans, Louisiana, Monday, June 05, 2000

Thank you very much Dr. [Nick] Mueller [Chairman; National D-Day Museum]. Governor [Mike] Foster, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen, Janet [Cohen]. I would like to pause for just a moment and thank all of the people who were identified as being here from the NATO countries, the allies, the ambassadors and the ministers of defense and all the representatives who are here representing the NATO countries. [Applause.]

From Gold and Omaha down through the decades to the Gulf and Allied Force, you have been with us and you are with us today. You are here. In terms of your presence, you represent that commitment and I want to thank you for the courage you have had over the years in building this alliance and keeping the world free. So thank you for being here. [Applause.]

Secondly, I want to thank our Medal of Honor recipients. Please, stand up. [Applause.] I think it was Emerson who said that a hero is no braver than an ordinary man, it's just that he's braver five minutes longer. You've been braver throughout your lives and we are truly indebted for all that you represent, for all of the men and women who have served us. Thank you for the extraordinary deeds you've performed on behalf of all of us. [Applause.]

Well, Dwight Eisenhower launched the greatest amphibious invasion in history with a simple command. He said, "Okay, let's go." The reason I know about that fact from Operation Overlord is due to one man. It came from the pen of Steven Ambrose. Virtually everything I know about the Second World War came from his hand. So in the Eisenhower spirit, I'll be brief.

I was sitting here with my wife Janet, and we were looking up at the Higgins boat and she said, "Just think about it. Think about those 30 or 32 men who were in that boat heading to that beach on that fateful day, and consider what they must have been thinking about. What was going on in their hearts? Were they thinking about their wives and children, their parents? What were they thinking of at that particular moment?"

They were scared, they were sick, but they were going forward to meet their fate and destiny. It's all really summed up in that symbol, virtually the first thing you see when you walk through that door. That's the reason we're really here.

As I was sitting thinking about what I might say to you, I pulled out a coin that I carry in my pocket. It has an inscription from Joshua Chamberlain, a great hero of mine who hails from the great state of Maine and who fought during the Civil War. He wrote something that resonates with me, at least tonight, especially. He said, "In great deeds, something abides. On great fields, something stays. Forms change and bodies disappear, but spirits linger to consecrate ground for the vision place of souls."

That statement could be made about Stephen Ambrose and Dr. Mueller and all who are here this evening who see this as a vision place for souls. It encompasses what Steven Spielberg has captured in his art.

Janet and I had the great privilege of paying tribute to him last year for Private Ryan. They say that the end of all art is the spinal shiver. He gave us more than a spinal shiver. He allowed us to look through a cruel, unblinking lens into the horror and into the carnage of war and he challenged all of us to think about how we have to struggle to maintain that semblance of human dignity in the face of all that confusion and chaos. He captured that magnificently. I was proud to have an opportunity to pay tribute to him because he did something that was fundamentally important to all of us. He reminded us of how lucky we are, how blessed we are. [Applause.]

I will say that he raised some existential questions. He raised the existential questions about whether we are really worthy of what all of you, and those who have succeeded you, have sacrificed on our behalf. Who are we? Why are we here? What's the price of freedom? Are we willing to pay for it? Those are the questions that were all raised during that movie, but he captured the essence of all that had gone before.

So I'm proud to be here tonight with him and Tom Hanks. Thank you for the great job that you have done, for what you have captured. [Applause.] You are Mr. Every Man. We can look at you and into your eyes, your face, and we see all that is human, all that is courageous, all that is fearful, all that is good about the human spirit. So we appreciate all the work that you have given to us and to art over the years, Tom. [Applause.]

I was thinking how I might close this evening and Janet called to mind the words of Abigail Adams. She said, remember the ladies. And I'm looking at some of the ladies who are standing in those high heels, so I'm going to conclude.

But one of the more important books that I have read in recent years was written by Alistair Cooke. It was a book called America. He wrote it during the celebration of our bicentennial. In it he had a chapter which inevitably compared us to Rome. He said that, we are like Rome. We're pursuing democracy, we're pursuing our ambitions. But he said that we suffered from an over-confidence about ourselves, because liberty was the luxury of self-discipline. Liberty was the luxury of self-discipline. And it's those nations who have failed to impose discipline upon themselves that have had it imposed by others.

Then he said that, "America is a country in which I see the most persistent idealism and the blandest of cynicism." The most persistent idealism and the blandest of cynicism. "And the race is on between its vitality and its decadence." Then he paraphrased Ben Franklin and he said we have a great country and we can keep it, but only if we care to keep it. I came here tonight, ladies and gentlemen, to say to you that we have a great country and we have cared to keep it. You have cared to keep it.

And another man that I wanted to pay tribute to this evening who has cared to keep it is Steven Ambrose. Steven, it has been my privilege to work with you when you launched, along with Dr. Mueller and your wife, an assault rivaling that of D-Day itself in my office, second only to when Tom Hanks talked about the veterans who were coming here today in that massive invasion of New Orleans. But you came and you vigorously promoted my attendance here and our support for this event and for this museum. I just want everyone here to know that Steven Ambrose has done more for this country to memorialize what we have achieved, what we mean to the world, what our obligation is to the future, than perhaps anyone else that I am familiar with. [Applause.]

Through his books, through his public appearances -- including his appearance at our annual Pentagon Pops that we have each year as a tribute to our armed forces, when we take so much pride in how much they give to our country and ask so little -- to the film that he helped to create, and now through this museum, he has brought their history to life.

So tonight it's our turn to officially honor his life's work by awarding him our highest civilian honor, the Department of Defense's Medal for Distinguished Public Service. [Applause.]