Thank you. It really is a special privilege to be with you today, and I think so many of those thousands of heroes who are buried here must be smiling on this occasion because when we landed here, it was pouring rain, and I noticed at least the clouds had broken for this ceremony, so something good is happening.
It’s a pleasure to be here with an old friend, [Senator] Arlen Specter. It is correctly said that he has one of the keenest minds in the U.S. Senate, and with that fine intellect also goes great character. Ambassador Foglietta, all of you here, distinguished guests assembled, it’s an honor to be here in Pennsylvania and Philadelphia, a state and a city where the flame of freedom has burned bright since the founding of our country.
Veterans of many battles and places are here today, and it is an honor to be here with you to pay tribute to these citizens for their faithful service and for strengthening America and bearing the torch of liberty. As we have heard, this spot was once a Potters’ field, a final resting place for strangers and poor. It became a burial ground for soldiers of General George Washington’s Army. As I am told, more than 2,500 buried here, almost all of them in unmarked graves. A citizen of Philadelphia, Sally Wister, described in her journal, seeing, quote, "The shocking sight of a cart with five and six coffins in it; large pits are dug, and forty or fifty soldiers’ coffins are put in the same hole."
More than a thousand of those soldiers had been prisoners of war held by the British in the Walnut Street Jail, which at that time faced this square. When those soldiers became prisoners, they were given a choice. At a time when prisoners of war faced a wretched existence that most often came to a fatal end, these prisoners could easily have cast off their captives chains by enlisting in the King’s army. But thousands of American soldiers and sailors chose instead to remain loyal to their country and their cause, which meant choosing for themselves almost certain death. Throughout the War of Independence, more than 8,000 Americans died in captivity, including some 1,300 soldiers who are buried here.
American soldiers endured bitter cold, hunger and defeat, not for themselves alone, but as General Washington observed, "For the fate of the unborn millions," who depended, in Washington’s words, "on the courage and conduct of this Army." They knew in their hearts that they were part of a great effort to bring forth a new nation called America. During a time when the name "American" was used with scorn by our enemies, these young men carried it proudly. To them, being an American stood for something, something for which it was worth risking everything they had.
They’re known only to God, but the soldiers who rest in this place are somehow familiar to us. Their brief lives ended here long ago, but we know something of what was in their hearts. We know something of their hopes and dreams, because we know this: they were Americans. When the war for freedom was finally won, as General Washington said farewell to his army, he remembered the nobility of his American soldiers, and what he called their "unparalleled perseverance." "Their achievement," he said, "was little short of a standing miracle."
The young nation was to be blessed with many miracles, and Philadelphia gave witness to two of the greatest, the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution, the document that established this nation as a nation under law. When delegates to the Constitutional Convention assembled across the street, there must have been times when they would seek solitude, and be drawn to this spot. They knew that their own courage and conduct would determine the fate of millions to come, and, like their brothers in arms before them, they persevered.
Seventy-four years later, as he traveled to our nation’s capitol, to assume the presidency of a deeply torn nation, Abraham Lincoln stopped in Philadelphia. He may himself have stepped on this ground on his way to Independence Hall, where he spoke to those who came to see their new President. Lincoln told them that he often thought about the dangers that the men faced who assembled there and adopted the Declaration of Independence. And he told them, "I have pondered over the toils that were endured by the officers and soldiers of the Army who achieved that independence. I’ve often asked myself," Lincoln said, "what great principle or idea was it that kept this union so long together?" He speculated, it must be "something in that Declaration giving liberty not alone to the people of this country, but hope to the world for all future time." "It was," Lincoln concluded, "that which gave promise that in due time, the weight should be lifted from the shoulders of all men, and that all should have an equal chance."
Indeed, what these men started here, what Lincoln’s generation helped to perfect, would be played out again in the middle of the 20th century. Soldiers from farms and towns across this continent brought back to the villages and cities of Europe, and then to the shores of the Pacific, freedom. They no longer wore tricorns, but steel helmets. They were no longer called Continentals, but GIs. But they endured similar sacrifice and hardship. They took the same risks, and the same fire for freedom burned in their hearts. And they defeated some of the greatest tyrants the world has ever known. They were a new generation to carry the torch of liberty, to do their part to transform the face of the earth.
Douglas MacArthur once wrote of the American soldiers who fought with him, island by island, across the Pacific, "They plod and groan," he said, "sweat and toil. They growl and curse. And at the end, they die, unknown, uncomplaining, with faith in their hearts, and on their lips, a prayer for victory." The American veterans of World War II helped save the West, so that freedom and the democratic values that we cherish could prevail. One veteran of Normandy, recalling the service of his youth, said, "I feel like I’ve played my part in turning this from a century of darkness into a century of light."
Through the centuries, the American soldier has been ready to risk all to fight the darkness that opposed liberty, a darkness that came sometimes in the form of fascism, sometimes in the guise of communism. Each time, history brushed that darkness aside.
Today we see freedom’s latest adversary, in those whose dreams are small, whose world is circumscribed by bigotry and persecution, resentment and oppression, hatred and death. They want to turn back the tide of democracy and use its fruits to destroy freedom, our freedom and the freedom of people throughout the world. Today we call them terrorists, and like the fascists and communists of old, they, too, will end up on the dust heaps of history. [Applause]
History will brush them aside, and Americans will be there to help, because throughout our history, Americans were there to do the right thing, on fire to do the right thing. Americans who fight terrorism are fighting not only for Americans. In Afghanistan, the fruits of their sacrifices have allowed the people of that tortured nation, a nation that has lost a million lives to war in the last decade, to go back to their homes and their schools, so that they, too, can have a chance at what we have here. The Afghan people today are filled with a new hope for the future, because the fire of liberty cannot be extinguished, no matter how brutal the terrorist or the tyrant.
Today we all pray for a peaceful resolution to the threat posed by the Iraqi regime’s chemical and biological and eventual nuclear weapons. We don’t want any more of the magnificent men and women who wear the uniform of this country to have to risk their lives, unless it is absolutely necessary. Our best chance of achieving that peaceful outcome comes through the extraordinary resolution passed last Friday by the United Nations Security Council, a resolution that came about through the bold leadership of President Bush and his outstanding foreign policy team, led by our remarkable Secretary of State Colin Powell. [Applause]
But let us be clear. We would never have succeeded at the United Nations without the willingness of those brave young men and women in uniform to risk their lives for their country. And we will have no chance of getting Saddam Hussein to take this, the seventeenth resolution passed by the United Nations, to get him to take it seriously, but for the resolve of those brave men and women in uniform. So, we pray for them and we thank them, and our hopes for peace rest with them.
As we recall today what it means to be an American for the revolutionary generation, for the greatest generation of World War II, for the great generation of today, when we recall why we are willing to fight for what America means, we should also remember, as did the men who rest here, as did their commander, General Washington, like Abraham Lincoln, like the heroes of Normandy and Iwo Jima, the heroes of Chosin and Khe Sahn, of Mazar-e-Sharif and Anaconda, it isn’t just about us. It’s about America, what America stands for: enduring values, the right of people to govern themselves, to live in safety and security, to enjoy peace and prosperity, to find and worship God in their own way.
As the son of an immigrant, I know how fortunate we are to live in a country guided by the great light of freedom, how blessed we are to live free, free from persecution and fear. I know how fortunate each one of us is to be able to say, "I am an American." [Applause] How fortunate we are to stand here surrounded by the legacy of patriots’ dreams, to know there are those who have been willing to give up their lives and their personal liberties so that we can say, "We are Americans, and we are free."
I have long believed that America’s greatest power, greater even than our vast resources, greater than the beauty we see all around us, greater than our military might, America’s greatest power is what it stands for. And now, as our country faces another hour of great testing, an hour in which liberty, our way of life, is once again in peril, we need to remind ourselves once more who we are, what we stand for, what we are fighting for.
This ground where heroes sleep, quite fittingly now belongs to every American. As we remember them and all our nation’s veterans, as we persevere in our own great duties, let us remember the words from Scripture that are inscribed on the Liberty Bell, "Proclaim Liberty Throughout the Land and to All the Inhabitants Thereof." And let us pray, in the words of General Washington, "That the Lord of all mercies scatter light, and not darkness, upon our paths."
May God bless you. May God bless the defenders of freedom’s light, the men and women who have served our country so faithfully and so well. And may God bless America. Thank you. [Applause]