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Dallas Council on World Affairs
Remarks as Delivered by Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen, Fairmont Hotel, Dallas, Texas, Tuesday, November 09, 1999

Thank you very much, ladies and gentlemen. At one point I was tempted to grab a microphone and say, "Give me that microphone. I paid for this." But that would smack of plagiarism.

[Former Secretary of State] Larry [Eagleburger], thank you very much. I think. But especially for your service to the nation and for your remarks. I am delighted that you decided to skip a recitation of everything in those four pages, and I'll try to find out who prepared those remarks for you and see to it that we have the Marine Corps take him out. [Laughter.]

Dick and Lynn [Cheney], [Dinner Chairman] Bill Bradford, Allen. I don't know if all of you know this, but Allen Steelman and I went to Congress together back in 1972. We were both selected to join the John F. Kennedy Institute of Politics for a sort of educational course for unsuspecting congressmen back in 1972. There were just four of us -- Allen, myself, Barbara Jordan, and Yvonne Braithwaite Burke. Pat Moynihan was one of our professors at that time, so you can see how times have changed since then. But Janet, and distinguished guests.

This is highly unusual for me to interrupt your meal in this fashion, and I will try to be as brief as possible. I look at the size of this crowd, and I was recalling Winston Churchill when he saw an overflowing crowd, he said, "I'm sure it would have been twice as large had it been the occasion of my hanging." [Laughter.] But I would say by the looks of the size of this crowd, I'm glad you're honoring Dick Cheney and not me this evening if that imports anything about the hanging. [Laughter.]

Whenever I meet a new audience I like to think of the story of Henry Ford who after having made all of his millions in this country wanted to go back to his fatherland in County Cork, Ireland. His reputation for wealth had long preceded his arrival.

So when he finally got off the plane a group of local town officials were there to seek a contribution for the construction of a local hospital. Ford was quite accustomed to being touched in that fashion. He reached in and he pulled out his checkbook and he made a check out for $5,000.

The next day in bold print the local paper said, "Ford contributes $50,000 for the construction of a local hospital." The town officials came rushing to Ford and they said, "We're terribly sorry, Mr. Ford. It's not our fault. It must have been a typographical error and we'll be happy to see to it that a retraction is printed in tomorrow's paper." [Laughter.]

Ford said, "Wait a minute. I think I've got a better idea." And that's really where that phrase came from. He said, "If you give me one wish, I'll give you the balance of $45,000." They said, "That's an offer we can't refuse. Anything you want."

He said "What I want is when the hospital is finally built I'd like to have a plaque with an inscription of my choice." They said, "It's done."

So the hospital is built, it's there today. It has a plaque over the entranceway with a quote taken from the Book of Matthew. It says, "I came unto you as a stranger, and you took me in." [Laughter.]

So I come unto you as a stranger. I hope you'll take me in, but not quite in that fashion.

Also on the flight on the way down, I was thinking of Alistair Cooke, who wrote a book called The Americans. He wrote about the spirit and the soul of this country, and he took his readers on a rather fantastic journey through the heartland and through our history. He noted as he went all the various idiosyncrasies and the particularities of the regions that he went to.

When he came to Texas he said that Texans will try to feed you exotic meals for dinner, rattlesnakes and the like, and then pass them off with the following reassurance: "It tastes like chicken, only more tender." [Laughter.] I have not had a chance to look at the entree which will be served, but I'm sure it's going to be very tender. [Laughter]

Of course thinking of food, I am mindful of Somerset Maugham who had advice for someone like myself. He said, "Before or during a meal, one should [speak] wisely, but not too well. And following a meal, one should speak well, but not too wisely." He offered no advice to someone like myself who has to address an audience who looks very eager to delve into the entree. But fortunately, it's rather easy for me to speak well of the very wise man we're paying tribute to tonight.

The author Norman McLean said that "Poets talk about spots of time, but it's really the fishermen who experience eternity compressed into a moment." The leader to whom we are paying tribute this evening occupied a brilliant spot of time in our national life, but like the legendary fisherman that he is, he also seemed to experience an eternity compressed into his historic tenure as Secretary of Defense.

I think as Allen has pointed out, it may be one of those unique twists of time that we gather on this very evening that we celebrate the accomplishments of Dick Cheney. But ten years ago, that rather dramatic change took place when a drab piece of architecture came tumbling down over in East Germany. And it was ten years ago tonight that the Cold War ended, and it was not with an armistice, but actually with an unraveling.

That Berlin Wall was hacked and it was bulldozed down by the very people it was designed to keep apart. And I don't know about you, but those images that we're seeing repeated over and over on CNN and various media this evening, they are forever burned in the tissue of our memories: the joy and the satisfaction and the disbelief, even, of people from East and West when that Wall came tumbling down; the fact that there were young people dancing on top of the graffiti-covered wall; and the pieces that are now being sold as a piece of history.

Ten years ago tonight we witnessed that fault line between east and west reduced to rubble and with it the strategic and the geopolitical assumptions that had defined an entire generation. It was a dramatic punctuation to the end of the Cold War. It also was a dramatic tribute, I think, to leaders such as Dick Cheney -- people who held firm and who held fast during that long, twilight struggle.

Dick went to Wisconsin to school, he was born in a little log cabin in Wyoming not far from his friend Al Simpson, and then he was plucked out of academia -- he had actually planned to be an academician -- but he was plucked out of academia, put into the middle of the maelstrom of politics in Washington. And he rose in a rather dizzying ascent to become the last Secretary of Defense of the Cold War and the first to reshape and to redefine the strategic assumptions of our time.

Think about how his career was bracketed. At the time when he first took office the Soviet Union then had more nuclear weapons pointed at the United States than in any other time in our history. We had the forces of NATO and the Warsaw Pact staring across at each other at the Fulda Gap. When he left office four years later, the Soviet Union had disintegrated, the Warsaw Pact had scattered under those hurricane winds of change, and amidst all that rubble and the concrete, the barbed wire, were the fledgling democracies eager to build bonds with the West.

I think all of you understand, as we do, that following any kind of a war -- including the Cold War -- there is tremendous pressure on people to take advantage and have a peace dividend. There has been so much tension built up over time that there's a rush to declare a peace dividend. Which means it takes the form of cutting our military personnel, cutting our budgets, and cutting our investment.

But in the swing of history I will tell you that during the '80s we experienced some of the largest peacetime military budgets in history, and then during the '90s we experienced some of the most significant peacetime cuts in our military budgets. I know that Secretary Eagleburger suffers from what most State Department employees and certainly Secretaries of States suffer from, and that's budget envy when we talk about the defense budget. [Laughter.]

[Unidentified voice]: That's for sure.

Secretary Cohen: That's for sure.

But let me say that Dick Cheney remained faithful to a constant through all of this. He said, and I repeat this tonight, "There will not be peace and security in the world without American leadership, and there cannot be American leadership unless you have American military capability."

And he said something else, which has stayed with me. He said that, "I hope that our successors," meaning me and others, "years hence will be able to look back at the decisions that we make now with the same sense of satisfaction that I look back and take comfort on the decisions made 10 and 15 years ago."

I would like to say on behalf of our Defense Department, that we look back at the decisions that he and others, but he especially, made during those difficult times and say that we take great comfort, Dick, in what you did. We are the beneficiaries of the kinds of decisions that you made then. I hope the same might be said of our tenure in office, that we can do the same for the future Secretaries of Defense and future generations as you have done for us. I just want to take this occasion to thank you. [Applause.]

And Larry was quite correct. If you think about the shorthand of history, Dick was known for many things in terms of what he was able to accomplish in the Department. But in particular, he is known for Desert Shield and Desert Storm, how he was able to manage the transfer and just the mechanics of putting half a million American soldiers over in Saudi Arabia; to help manage that coalition of some 36 countries that held together during that time; to help persuade the Israelis not to react with any kind of action on their part when they had SCUD missiles raining down on their heads. All of that was part of the legacy that Dick was able to achieve, and I think that it's important tonight that we salute you, Dick, and pay tribute to your great leadership.

Because you have not eaten yet, and because I do not want to inflict cruel and unusual punishment on you, I'd like to try to summarize just a couple of things that we are doing today that I hope will be of benefit to the future members of other Administrations, future Secretaries of Defense.

I look forward to becoming a private citizen, not serving on any basketball team or any kind of combination in the White House. But I will say that I give President Bill Clinton a great deal of credit for being willing to reach across the aisle to me, to say I'm willing to put a Republican in a Democratic Administration because I want to build a bipartisan consensus for a strong national security on Capital Hill and the country.

He could have put any prominent Democrat in that position. The fact that he asked me to do this I think is a great credit to him. And I will tell you, it's been the greatest experience of my life. Of all the things that I've done, nothing has measured up to this, nothing will ever measure up to being able to represent the finest military in the world.

Think about how far we've come since those dark times back in the '70s when people were not regaling our military, not paying tribute to them. Today the U.S. military is the most respected institution in America. Today our U.S. military is the most envied military in the world. So we have come a long way under the kind of leadership that you have seen under Dick Cheney and Larry Eagleberger and [Former Secretary of State] Jim Baker and President Bush. All of that was important to turning the tide of public opinion, and we are the remarkable beneficiaries today.

So I try to carry on the three basic things that Dick Cheney was doing as Secretary of Defense. We have something of a mantra, our strategy -- shape, respond, prepare.

We are shaping world events in ways that are advantageous to us. That's why we have 100,000 soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines who are forward deployed throughout the Asia Pacific region. That's why we have 100,000 still in Europe. It's why we have 26,000 in the Gulf.

When we are out there, when every other nation takes a look at the caliber and the capability and the professionalism and the patriotism of the men and women who are serving us. They say, there is a country whose side I want to be on. The same message goes to potential adversaries. They take a look at our capabilities and say that is a country I don't want to contend with. So we are shaping world events in ways that are advantageous to us.

We are also responding to every kind of contingency, from humanitarian missions; to search and seizure type of missions; to peacekeeping missions in Bosnia, and here Texas plays a key role. Units from the 1st Cavalry Division out of Fort Hood are now returning to Texas and will soon be replaced by the Texas National Guard. For the first time the Guard will be sent to Bosnia as a replacement in that fashion, in a leadership role. You can take a great deal of pride in the caliber and the capability of our military.

So people come first. We are maintaining the quality of the personnel who are serving us, and that is a tough job today in the environment that you all are creating by being so prosperous and having such a strong economy. We are having trouble recruiting from the same pool that you're looking to. But we still are managing. It is a big challenge, but people are number one. Number two is readiness. Third, of course, is the investment in the future.

But perhaps the most important thing that Dick Cheney did -- and something that we intend to continue -- is represented by that globe that you have on the table. On the table you see you have a world vision, something that Dick Cheney said even under these circumstances, all the pressures that we have, we are not going to slip back into the comforting and false notion that somehow we can return to a continental cocoon and simply watch events unfold on CNN. Dick was committed to making sure that we remain engaged in world affairs.

That is the reason that you're here tonight, to celebrate the Dallas Council on World Affairs, to be engaged in international affairs.

So I'd like to conclude with a quote this evening. "It's a solemn moment for American democracy. The United States stands at the pinnacle of world power. And as you look around, you must feel a sense of duty done. But with this primacy and this power, it's also joined in awe-inspiring accountability to the future. Opportunity is here now, clear and shining."

That probably could have been written in the Dallas Morning News. In fact it came from Winston Churchill's 1946 speech warning us about the Iron Curtain that was about to descend.

But I think the words that were spoken then are even more applicable today, if you think about how the world has changed. And when Vaclav Havel came to the United States Congress to address a joint session, he said that the world is changing, things are changing so rapidly he had little time to be astonished.

We've had some astonishing changes take place in just a decade. But because of the endurance of Western democracies, because of the fundamental optimism of the American spirit, and because of the energy and enthusiasm of sure and certain leaders, we have remained at the pinnacle of power. We have an opportunity to shape world events in ways that are favorable to us. It is an awe-inspiring accountability that we have, the responsibility to put in place the foundation for peace for the next century.

That was a great commitment that Dick Cheney made, it's a great commitment that I intend to carry on. And this can only be carried on with the great commitment on the part of those of you who are here this evening.

So let me conclude -- as Lady Godiva said, "I am nearing my 'clothes" -- by thanking all of you for the commitment you have made to the Council, thank all of you for being here this evening, and especially for paying tribute to Dick, and also to Lynn. We should not let that go unnoticed. That was really a dynamic duo of two public servants in education and defense -- both of which are indispensable for us maintaining our primacy of power. So thank you all very much. [Applause.]