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DoD News Briefing: Deputy Secretary Hamre

Presenter: Deputy Secretary Hamre
November 21, 1997

Deputy Secretary Hamre: Thank you very much, Senator Sessions for your very gracious introduction. Senator Heffland, it's so good to see you again. I had a chance to work in Congress when Senator Heflin was there. We miss you. Congressman Bachus, thank you very much. I enjoyed talking with you before we started today.

I am delighted to have a chance to be here. Last night when I was meeting with Secretary Cohen, we were meeting in the National Military Command Center and frankly, had to decide if I was going to be able to come. You know that we have events unfolding in the Persian Gulf region that forced the Secretary to cancel his plans to leave tomorrow and I asked him, I said, "Do you want me to stay?" He said, "Oh, no. No, you have to go."

I was talking with Hugh Shelton and he said, "You have to do this for yourself. Going down to Birmingham is going to restore your confidence. You've got to go." And I'm glad I came.

It's very refreshing and invigorating to frankly see all of you here today.

I know from my conversations today that Birmingham is the heartbeat here in the South, and it certainly is kind of the wellspring of true patriotic values that, frankly, built this country. Too often, it's missing elsewhere in this country.

It was known as the arsenal of the South but not just for producing steel. It was for producing people of strong will who were willing to pick up arms and defend this country, and we're forever grateful for that.

I also am honored to have a chance to share this dias today with two individuals who distinguished themselves in feats in uniform, and who really render honor to this country by their service. Of course I'm talking about Bill Lawley and Lee Meis. Bill received his Medal of Honor after World War II for flying his damaged B-17 and his crew to safety despite the terrible wounds that he suffered and the continuing attack by the enemy. Lee received his Medal of Honor after the Korean War for almost single-handedly defending a strategic outpost from a brutal and continuous enemy attack, and then led the counter-attack, I understand, and drove off the enemy. Their names are enshrined in the Hall of Heroes just down from my office, and it inspires me to have a chance to see you and to be with you.

Would you all join with me in rendering our thanks and appreciation.

(Applause)

I would like to begin by sharing with you a story. It's a true story. It goes back to 1989. You will recall that in the late '80s the old Warsaw Pact was starting to crumble, break around the edges. I remember very distinctly in 1989 when all of a sudden the government of Hungary said they no longer were going to stop East Germans who came to Hungary from emigrating to the West. Do you recall this? It seemed like almost overnight the West German Embassy in Hungary just filed up with 800 East Germans who wanted to get out. It was a little bit of a crisis. Over a few days, the West German government decided that they would rent a train and bring everyone out from the Embassy in Budapest.

I remember this was being broadcast. I was watching CNN -- sometimes I wonder why we have a CIA when we have CNN. (Laughter) They seem to be all over? They were following this train of refugees as it was moving across the border. It finally arrived at the train station at Frankfurt.

There was a CNN reporter who was interviewing people coming off the train, and he cornered a young German couple that must have been in their late 20s -- the lady was carrying an infant, probably a year and a half -- and asking what I thought were a lot of pretty dumb questions. Aren't you tired? Aren't you hungry? Aren't you worried? That kind of stuff? And then said, is there anything you would like to say? The young German man paused and he said, "Yes. There is something I would like to say." He spoke in a lovely broken English, but a lovely English. He said, "I would like to thank America for keeping a place in the world that is free." That pretty much summed it up.

We spent 50 long years in Europe keeping a place that was free, and there were probably lots of people who asked themselves why are we doing this? Why are we spending all this money? Why are we putting an Army in Europe after the war was over? Why are we doing all of that? It was to keep a place in the world that was free.

In some ways, it was an awful lot easier to understand our role back then, wasn't it? There was that Iron Curtain that cut through Europe. How many of you ever saw it? Will you ever forget it? It was easier back then.

Now we're looking at a much harder thing. It's much harder in this new world to look at what is the role of the United States in keeping alive freedom. America is at peace -- kind of a relative peace, as it were. It's an uneasy peace. We face lots of new dangers, regional aggression, terrorism, the frightening spread of biological and chemical weapons that could be used even in this country against our own citizens. Just look at the headlines.

These last 24 hours have been very tense, frankly, in the Middle East. We're dealing with a country that's perfectly prepared and has on six previous occasions used chemical weapons. We're looking at a North Korea that continues to threaten to unleash an incredible firestorm all over Seoul. We're looking at the continuing problems in Bosnia, Serbia, which could easily ignite and create another war in Europe.

There are remarkable challenges that we face and it isn't as easy, as simple to understand as it used to be when there was that Iron Curtain that cut through Europe.

A scholar named Donald Kagan in a recent book called the "Origins of War", he wrote, "The persistent and repeated error through the ages has been the failure to understand that the preservation of peace requires active effort, planning, the expenditure of resources, and sacrifice -- just as does war."

President Clinton and Secretary Cohen are determined that the United States will not fail, ever, to be ready if we have to go to war, but that we also must seize every opportunity to preserve peace.

Today I want to speak with you about one of the most important things that we can do to preserve peace, and I'm talking really about the changing security situation in Europe and what Senator Sessions is going to confront next spring, and that's going to be to consider ratifying a change to the treaty in NATO to bring three new countries into NATO.

The United States has devoted far too much blood and our treasure in two world wars and a cold war to walk away now from securing a peace in Europe. The key to preventing war in Europe in the 21st Century is to spread democracy, stability, and prosperity throughout all of Eastern and Central Europe, all the way to Russia. And the key to that is by enlarging NATO and inviting new members into the North Atlantic Treaty Alliance.

Last summer President Clinton and his 15 NATO counterparts took the historic step of inviting three former communist countries -- Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia -- to join NATO in 1999. But before this can happen, it must be approved by all of the citizens of all 16 NATO countries through their elected legislatures, including the United States Senate. Senator Sessions and I were talking about this earlier this morning.

This is an enormously important decision for America to make, and it's one where frankly, we need to have a full and rich debate about its significance.

Fifty years ago when George Marshall proposed the Marshall Plan to help rebuild Europe after World War II, he went around the country to explain the importance of rebuilding Europe, and as a result, "The Marshall Plan --" in Harry Truman's words "-- was more than the creation of statesmen. It comes from the minds and the hearts of people."

NATO enlargement must also come from the minds and the hearts of the American people.

As President Clinton said, because NATO enlargement is not without cost and without risk, it is appropriate to have a full and open national discussion. So as the Senate prepares to consider NATO enlargement, it is crucial that all Americans join in this debate, and I'm here today more than anything to ask you to join in that debate. We especially need to hear the voice of veterans. It is your voice that must be heard.

We must remind America how the fiery hatreds of Europe drew us into World War I. Too many of our men failed to live long enough to see the 11th hour of the 11th day, the 11th month. We honor them today.

We all must remind Americans how this lost generation served and sacrificed to give America a chance to build a safer Europe for this generation -- frankly, the generation I'm looking at. We must warn them now that when the guns of November fell silent, America ignored the embers of hatred that still smoldered in Europe, and we missed the opportunity to prevent another war.

To those who would now say we no longer need to be involved in the security of Europe, let's look at the price that our veterans paid in World War II, as Hitler stoked the embers of hate into the deadliest war in human history. Tell those who would oppose it now how the sons returned to the very same terrain that their fathers fought and died to set free, as they plunged into the crashing surf of Normandy.

A reporter from Stars and Stripes was there, and filed this searing dispatch. "There have only been a few handful of days since the beginning of time in which the direction the world was taking had been changed for the better in one 24 hour period by an act of man. June 6, 1944 was one of those days. What the Americans, the British, and the Canadians were trying to do was to get back an entire continent that had been taken from its rightful owners, whose citizens had been taken captive. It was one of the most monumentally unselfish things that one group of people ever did for another."

That D-Day observer was Andy Rooney who is now on 60 Minutes.

We cannot turn our backs on European security today. The generation that won the 2nd World War gave us a second chance to secure a safer world.

The Marshall Plan offered an American hand of help and hope to lift Europe out of the slew of despair and to snuff the embers of war forever. Western Europe embraced the Marshall Plan and built strong democracies, strong economies, and a strong alliance called NATO.

But the other half of Europe was denied the Marshall Plan when Joseph Stalin slammed down the Iron Curtain on America's helping hand. Still, America did not turn its back. Through the long winter of the Cold War we stood again with the free people of Europe and today, having emerged victorious from that long, twilight struggle, we have an historic opportunity and a very, very sober challenge.

We must complete George Marshall's vision for a Europe that is healed, whole, and free to ensure that Americans never again have to fight and die on European soil.

The key is for NATO to reach out across those old, Cold War divisions, to nurture the new democracies in Eastern and Central Europe that have emerged from the iron grip of Soviet domination. And when these countries are willing, ready, and able to join the Western Alliance, to invite them to join NATO. That is what NATO has done.

Today, when you visit the old capitals, the former Warsaw Pact countries, you can see a new spring emerging -- a spring of liberty and prosperity and national security. The lines of commerce and communication are finally criss-crossing across the old Cold War fault lines and knitting the nations closer together. Former NATO enemies are seizing every opportunity to meet, engage, and exercise their militaries with NATO, and three of these nations are now ready to join the Alliance.

This is a major step, and as we contemplate expanding NATO we must have a national debate.

Some will argue that making NATO larger is going to make NATO weaker, and therefore will ultimately weaken American security. I believe just the reverse is true. A larger NATO reflects a wider consensus and allegiance to the very values that are the foundation of American democracy. Veterans of our European wars know the power of military alliances in deterring and defeating a common enemy. It was the creation of NATO in 1949 that halted Soviet designs over Western Europe. It was the enlargement of NATO when we brought in Greece, Turkey, Germany and Spain that helped to strengthen that wall of democracy. And thanks to NATO, no American blood has been shed fighting another European war for the last 50 years.

There has not been a comparable time of peace in Europe since the end of the Holy Roman Empire because NATO has been there.

(Applause)

So enlarging NATO with Poland and Hungary and the Czech Republic is going to carry that promise into the next century.

Some will argue that these countries aren't ready to bear the burdens of membership. In the last few months our national security leaders have visited Secretary Cohen, visited just this fall. He came back convinced that the Poles, the Hungarians and the Czechs fully intend to carry their responsibilities and to contribute to the Alliance, not just hide within it.

Some argue that by enlarging NATO we are going to be creating new lines of division in Europe, but in fact NATO is at the center of a new dynamic in Europe that is rapidly erasing these old lines and bridging over old divisions. The mere prospect of joining NATO has unleashed a powerful impetus of peace on that continent. Old rivals are settling historic disputes as never before. Poland and Lithuania; Poland and Ukraine; Hungary and Romania; Italy and Slovenia; Germany and the Czech Republic -- all have settled border disputes in the last two years just because of the expansion of NATO.

More than that, these old rivals are sealing these new ties by working together in conference rooms and in training fields under the auspices of NATO.

Some argue that enlarging NATO is going to create new tensions and divisions in Russia and jeopardize Russia's move to democracy. But in numerous ways, small and large, NATO and Russia are forging new links to overcome those old divisions. NATO and Russian air forces are now making authorized observation flights over each other's territory. Last spring NATO and Russia signed the Founding Act, which gives Russia a voice -- not a vote, not a veto, but a voice -- in NATO deliberations. And for the past two years Russian and American troops have been serving together in Bosnia, side by side, patrolling, bringing some calm to that terribly scarred land.

Finally, there are some that claim NATO enlargement will cost too much. I don't want to mislead you. It will cost something. It is not free. We will accommodate it within the budgets that we're given. But alliances, actually, in the long run will save money. As we build peace throughout Europe the tensions there in American security will be strengthened. Simply put, it costs America less to defend our interests in Europe if Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic are in alliance with us.

The cost of enlarging NATO, frankly, is meager when weighed against the cost of potential instability and aggression in Europe were peace to fail.

George Marshall knew the cost of war in Europe. He said, "It is spread before us, written neatly in the ledger whose volumes are gravestones." Well, today there are more than 70,000 such volumes written across Europe. The gravestones of Americans who rest where they fell, liberating a continent. So their sacrifice echoes down to us through the decades from the hillsides in Florence, from the sloping green in Luxembourg, from the dignified rose on a cliff overlooking the Normandy shores. They did not serve and they did not sacrifice, they did not die so that we could walk away from the land that they freed. It is their voice that we have to heed, and the voice of every veterans of every conflict that has ever fought.

You know it better -- you and they and all of us know it is better to pay the price of readiness and freedom than to suffer the cost of war.

John Kennedy once said, "A nation reveals itself not only by the individuals it produces, but by those it honors, those it remembers."

Here today on behalf of every man and woman who serves in the Department of Defense, I want to say to all of you -- to you, Birmingham, thank you. Thank you for remembering. Far too many Americans observe Veterans Day in shopping malls. Far too many of our school kids think of Veterans Day as a holiday. Far too few cities pause to remember and to thank the men and women, their sons and daughters, the quiet heroes of freedom. But not Birmingham. Not glorious Birmingham.

So your Department of Defense -- and I get to be their spokesman today -- say thank you.

I want to thank all of the citizens of Birmingham for hosting this remarkable event for over 50 years to remind everyone here and to remind all Americans of what it is to be free. And I want to thank all of our veterans for keeping our nation safe and our citizens secure.

God bless our veterans. God bless you, Birmingham. God bless the United States of America.

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