Remarks prepared for Delivery Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen American Legion Convention Orlando, Fla September 4, 1997
Secretary Cohen: Commander Frank, thank you very much for that introduction. I can look out into the darkness and can't see many of you, but I wanted to express my deep and sincere appreciation for your comments and also for your service this past year and well beyond that in the past. You are truly a hero of the American people, and I wanted to express the Department of Defense's congratulations and appreciation to you.
Yesterday, you paid tribute to Senator Bob Dole, and you also had the benefit of hearing from Speaker Newt Gingrich. You also heard from Sgt. Major Shalikashvili, and in view of that distinguished company, of course, I feel like the traditional Missouri mule who is entered into the Kentucky Derby. Nobody expected him to win, but they all knew he would benefit from the association, and I hope to benefit from the association of being with you here today.
I also would like to express my personal appreciation to Bill Rogers, also to Tony Jordan, who I understand is running for something, and to the entire Maine delegation. And I'd like to say here today that without the support of the American Legion, the delegates who are here from Maine today, I could not possibly have served for 24 years on Capitol Hill. It was through the strong and loyal support of the American Legion in the State of Maine that I was able to win so many elections and to speak on behalf of the veterans and our military in the halls of Congress. I want to thank you personally here today.
Whenever I speak to a new audience, I like to talk about the story of Henry Ford, who after having made all of his millions in this country, decided he wanted to go back to his fatherland in County Cork, Ireland. And, of course, his reputation for wealth had long preceded his arrival.
When he finally stepped off the plane there were a group of local town officials who were waiting for him. They wanted a contribution for the construction of a local hospital and, of course, he was quite accustomed to being touched in that fashion, and he pulled out his checkbook. He made a check out for $5,000.
The next day, in bold print in the local paper, it said "Ford Contributes $50,000 for the Construction of Local Hospital," and the town officials were terribly embarrassed. They came rushing to Mr. Ford. They said, Mr. Ford, we are really sorry. This was not our fault. It must have been a typographical error, and we will be happy to see to it that a retraction is printed in tomorrow's paper. And he said, Wait a minute. I think I've got a better idea. If you give me one wish, I'll give you the balance of $45,000.
It was one of those offers they really couldn't refuse. He pulled out his checkbook, he wrote out a check for $45,000. He said, "The only thing I want is for you to allow me to pick an inscription that will be over that building when it is finally completed, from the source of my choice." So he gave them the check, the hospital was built, it is there today, and it has a plaque over the entranceway with a quote taken from the Book of Matthew; and it says: "I came unto you as a stranger, and you took me in."
Now, I would like you to take me in, but not in that fashion; but I want to talk about a different type of taking in today, and that is the taking in of new members into NATO. This summer, the United States and the NATO allies took a very historic step of inviting three former Communist countries in eastern Europe to join NATO -- Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic -- all of which are now thriving democracies.
But before they can join NATO, the United States Senate and all of the NATO parliaments have to vote to ratify their membership. And this is a very serious and a momentous decision for our country because ultimately it means committing our most precious resources, the lives of our men and women, to defend these new nations in Europe. We are already witnessing this great debate taking place in the halls of Congress, in the newspapers, over the airwaves, in the living rooms, indeed, in the halls such as this.
And so I come to you because when the American Legion stands for NATO and supports NATO enlargement, as it did yesterday by its strong and overwhelming vote, it carries great moral, and I would say political weight, because when the American Legion speaks, I can assure you, those in Congress listen. Because you more than any other Americans know that NATO enlargement is in the national security interests of the United States. And that knowledge is born of personal experience and the central lesson of this century: America cannot be at peace if Europe is at war; and to prevent war in Europe, America must stay engaged on the continent. And as veterans, you know the cost of isolation, because you've paid the greatest price for having to preserve the freedom of others.
Our veterans of the First World War witnessed how even the vast Atlantic Ocean couldn't protect us from being drawn into the fiery hatreds of the Old World. And those veterans went over singing, "We won't be back until it's over, over there." But too many failed to make it back when the fighting stopped on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, which we mark as Veterans Day. And from muddy trenches that served as graves for too many, the "lost generation" gave us the chance to build a safer world for the next generation. But to our lasting regret, 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.
We were not struck, if I can paraphrase a poet, by the sudden illumination that we had the experience, but we missed the meaning. Our World War II veterans paid for this missed meaning and missed opportunity, and they witnessed how Hitler had stoked the embers of hate until they ignited into the deadliest war in human history. Sons returned to the very same terrain that their fathers had died defending, and they plunged into the crashing surf, braved the hail of hot steel to free an entire continent.
There was a reporter for Stars and Stripes who was there, and he wrote the following words. "There have been only a handful of days since the beginning of time in which the direction the world was taking has been changefor the better in one 24-hour period by an act of man. June 6, 1944 was one of them. 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, "Oh by the way," is today's Andy Rooney of "60 Minutes" fame.
That generation won the Second World War, and gave us a second chance to build a safer world, and as President Truman told the American Legion Convention here in Florida 49 years ago, "Our purpose from the end of the war to the present has never changed. It's been to create a political and economic framework in which lasting peace can be constructed." Truman, of course, was talking about the Marshall Plan. It was the plan to help the people of Europe rebuild their economies and societies on the foundations of democracy and peace. It was also a strategy to silence once and for all the voices of the twisted and the mad by building a new Europe that was healed and whole and free.
Western Europe embraced the Marshall Plan, and they built strong democracies and economies and a strong alliance that we call NATO. But the other half of Europe was denied the Marshall Plan when Joseph Stalin slammed down the Iron Curtain on the fingers of America's helping hand. But, 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 sober challenge. The opportunity to complete George Marshall's vision and the challenge to secure a lasting peace in Europe to ensure that Americans never again have to fight and die on European battlefields. And we owe this to the veterans of World War II, to the veterans of the Cold War, who earned us yet another chance to build a safer Europe for the next generation. And building that safer Europe and a more secure America really is at the heart of this entire debate about NATO enlargement.
There are a number of people who question whether making NATO larger is going to make NATO weaker and therefore weaken America. I would argue to the contrary: A larger NATO means a wider allegiance to our values. And those of you who have served shoulder to shoulder with our allies in the world wars know the power of military alliances in defeating a common enemy. Those of you who served during the 50 winters of the Cold War have seen the power of alliances to deter aggression. It was the creation of NATO in 1949 that halted Soviet designs on western Europe. It was the enlargement of NATO, with Greece and Turkey, in 1952, the enlargement with West Germany in 1955, the enlargement with Spain in 1982 -- that helped to strengthen the wall of democracy. And thanks to NATO, no American blood has been shed fighting another war in Europe for more than 50 years.
So enlarging NATO with Poland and Hungary and the Czech Republic is going to carry that promise into the next century. And the same reasons that were used and argued for enlarging NATO with West Germany 42 years ago, I think they apply completely today as well. Wisconsin Senator Alexander Wiley said, "Once more the heart of the West is reaching out. The German people will return to the place where they rightfully belong, to the place of equality and partnership with the western world. They share our ideals. They have made the greatest recovery in Europe. They are vital and vigorous and dynamic people. We need them, and they need us."
The Poles, the Hungarians, the Czechs, are vital, vigorous and dynamic people. They share our ideals. They are making a remarkable recovery from decades of domination, and now they want to return to their rightful place as equal partners in the European family of free nations. We need them, and they need us.
You are going to hear a number of arguments that would reject enlargement, that these countries really aren't ready to bear the burdens of membership. Let me tell you, I recently visited many of those countries, and I want to assure you that the Poles, the Hungarians, and the Czechs want to be contributors -- not simply consumers -- of security; and they are ready to share the costs and responsibilities of NATO membership. In fact, they are already contributing to the security of Europe by modernizing their militaries to operate with NATO, by serving with our soldiers in Bosnia to quell the worst conflict in Europe since World War II, by helping to make a success of the Partnership for Peace Program that we have which, like NATO, can thank you, the American Legion, for its strong support.
These nations are building stable democracies with free societies and free markets and modern militaries that are serving under civilian leadership. And history demonstrates that stability and security attract investment, and investment generates prosperity, and prosperity strengthens stability of security and democracy. And so it's a virtuous cycle that is changing this face of Europe and much of the world, and enlarging NATO simply expands this virtuous cycle.
I've also heard it argued that by enlarging NATO, we are going to be creating new lines of division in Europe. But I think those who make this claim fail to appreciate the new dynamic that's underway in Europe that is rapidly erasing these old lines and avoiding these new divisions. Over the past few years, the mere prospect of having NATO membership has unleashed a powerful impetus for peace on that continent.
Old rivals have settled their historic disputes, and they have struck these new accords and arrangements. Poland and Lithuania, Poland and Ukraine, Hungary and Romania, Italy and Slovenia, Germany and the Czech Republic -- all of them, they all healed border disputes and other kinds of controversies that in the past have erupted into war and resulted in American troops being sent to Europe to fight and die. More than that, these old rivals are sealing these new ties by working together in the conference rooms and the training fields of the Partnership for Peace Program.
In June, I traveled to the PFP Center at NATO Headquarters, and there I met with NATO's Supreme Allied Commander, General George Joulwan, who recently retired, and also with General Shevstov, the Russian general. And General Joulwan was presenting him with a medal. It was a unique experience because the medal happened to be dipped into a large glass of vodka, and General Shevstov had to drink the vodka before he could get the medal. And the ceremony started at 8 o'clock in the morning, and he got through it very well. But I must say, it was a truly memorable experience for me to see this very proud and decorated Russian general standing side by side with our SACEUR, and they were toasting each other and embracing each other in the cause of peace.
In July, I traveled to Ukraine, where I saw what was once the Soviet Union's largest military training field in Europe, and I saw the forces of the United States, Ukraine, and a number of other NATO countries and former Soviet Bloc countries.
And what were they doing? They were exercising together. Soldiers who had once trained to fight one another, to kill one another, were training together in the name of peace. And it was an inspiring sight that came just a few days after NATO had signed an historic charter with the Ukraine and replacing a dividing line that once partitioned Europe with a new partnership that now unites Europe.
There are some who insist that enlarging NATO is going to create new tensions and divisions in Russia and jeopardize Russia's move to democracy and its cooperation with the West. But let me say that we should not permit those fears to overwhelm the facts. In numerous actions, large and small, NATO and Russia are erasing these old divisions and dividing lines every day. Russian and American peacekeepers are erasing these dividing lines when they patrol side by side in Bosnia.
I was in Bosnia back in February, and I sat down and had lunch with all of our American forces, and a Russian soldier came up to me and gave me his hat as a gesture of peace, saying how proud he was to be serving side by side with his American counterparts. I never would have believed this. After having spent 24 years, nearly a quarter of a century, on Capitol Hill, I never would have thought that the day would come when we would have Russian and American soldiers standing side by side in the cause of peace.
The U.S. and Russian Air Forces are erasing these dividing lines when they make their authorized observation flights over each other's territory, as we've recently begun to do. We are acting decisively to erase these dividing lines when we signed the historic Founding Act this spring that launched a new era of comity and cooperation.
Finally, those who oppose NATO enlargement claim it is going to cost too much. This argument ignores the fact that alliances save money because they promote cooperation, interoperability, and they reduce redundancy. Simply put, it costs America less to defend our interests in Europe if Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic are in alliance with us, just as it costs them less to defend their interests by joining hands in the alliance itself. And we estimate that the cost to the United States each year over the next decade will be less than one-tenth of one percent of our defense budget. The costs of enlarging NATO are meager when weighed against the cost of rejection, which will be measured not just in dollars, but potentially in lives if we fail to expand this circle of security and risk setting the stage for future European instability or aggression.
So, in the final analysis, we can't afford not to enlarge because it would squander an opportunity that comes only once in a generation. We can listen to the voices of the 1920's that led America to retreat from Europe and allowed the seeds of war to take root. Or we can heed the voices of George Marshall and his colleagues, our World War II veterans and the succeeding post-war generations that rejected isolationism and have reaped the fruits of peace and freedom.
Marshall once said that the cost of war is "spread before us, written neatly in the ledger, whose volumes are grave stones." Well, today, there are more than 70,000 such volumes written across Europe, the grave stones of Americans who rest where they fell liberating a continent. And so their sacrifice echoes down to us through the decades from the hillsides in Florence, from the sloping green in Luxembourg, from the dignified rows on a cliff overlooking the Normandy shore. They did not serve, and they did not sacrifice, they did not die for us so that we could walk away from the lands that they freed. And so it's their voices that we have to heed. In the words of the English poet, Lawrence Binyon: "They shall not grow old as we are left to grow old. Ages shall not weary them, nor years condemn. At the going down of the sun or in the morning we shall remember them."
But we have to do more than simply remember them; we have to complete their work. And there is no greater way to honor them than by doing what the American Legion has done, and that is to go on record in favor of enlarging this circle of security. The American Legion serves as a living memorial to your fallen comrades, and their voices echo through you. When you speak out in support of preserving the peace by enlarging the alliance, the Legion and each one of you personally can play a critical role by carrying this message back to your communities, your local Legion halls, your places of work, the churches, the synagogues, your local news media. Together I believe we can raise the lamplight of history so that we don't stumble on the footpath to the future.
I'd like to offer just a final word to all of you who are here. I've spoken about the veterans of World War II and the contribution to liberating Europe from the Nazi war machine. The World War I and World War II veterans, those of Korea, Vietnam, Beirut, Grenada, Panama, Somalia, and Bosnia, I want to thank you for who you are, for what you have given, for what we have received, and for what we owe. General Shalikashvili told you that we have the finest fighting force in the world today, and we do. We are the envy of the world, but if we are going to maintain that greatness, then we have to continue to recruit and to retain the very best and the brightest in our society, and we have to care for them when they leave the service.
It's not the weapons that we have, the most powerful weapons in the world, the most sophisticated weapons in the world; it's not the weapons that make us a superpower. It's not the satellites. It's not the computers. It's not that total technological edge that we have that gives us the dominance of the battlefield that makes us the world's superpower. It's the people who are willing to give life and limb for the benefit of all that makes us the most powerful and the most envied nation on earth. And so we are all familiar with the axiom that if we take care of those who serve us, those who serve us will take care of us.
Let me conclude with a quote from Churchill. George Jessel said: "If you don't strike oil within three minutes, stop boring." There is another quote: "A speech is like a love affair. Anyone can start one, but it takes considerable expertise to end it." And so I would like to end mine with the words of someone else. And it was a meeting that Winston Churchill had with one of our most distinguished journalists, by the name of Stewart Alsop, and they were spending the day together and indulging in libations that Winston Churchill was so famous for in consuming. They had dinner one evening, and they had several bottles of wine, and then a toast of champagne.
And then Churchill finally turned to Alsop and said, "America, America, a great and strong country. Like a horse pulling the rest of the world up out of the Slough of Despond." And then he looked very directly and coldly into Alsop's eyes, and he said, "But will it stay the course?"
Fifty years later, we can answer his question. America has stayed the course because that's our history. America will stay the course because that's our destiny, and it's our destiny by virtue of the fact that we have men and women, such as you, the American Legion, who have continued to support the American ideals and, indeed, continued to support the men and women who have prepared to risk life and limb for the benefit of all American citizens.
So let me thank you once again, and let me reassure you, we, indeed, intend to stay the course. Thank you.