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DoD News Briefing

Presenters: Mount Vernon, Virginia
July 04, 1998

Mrs. Lee, Gen. Ralston, Gen. Reimer, all of the distinguished guests who are here, ladies and gentlemen, good morning and greetings to you all on this beautiful day when we gather to remember and celebrate the founding of our beloved America.

This is a most historic setting. Aside from the White House, Mount Vernon is the most famous house in America. Indeed, I believe these two homes -- the White House and Mount Vernon -- in combination symbolize America itself. The White House reflects the power and sophistication of the United States as a leader in the world. Mount Vernon is a symbol of the spirit of America, an honest simplicity and a quiet beauty of this wonderful country.

Together, these two homes at once embody our vision of America: peaceful, bountiful, simple, noble, and strong. Mount Vernon has seen 222 July 4th anniversaries come and go. Some of the trees on this land are older than is our republic. George Washington affectionately referred to these trees as the "shades of Mount Vernon," remembering the quiet beauty of this place. Those memories must have given him great comfort during his years of service as Commander-in-Chief and later as our President.

One of the most remarkable things about George Washington was his desire to retire from public life and return to Mount Vernon. He could have become " king," our first king. That was the accepted form of government in his day and he certainly enjoyed the esteem of the American people, his fellow citizens, and they certainly would have accepted him in that role. But, instead, he shaped the entire future of this democracy by choosing to return to private life after serving as President. America is a democracy today in large measure by this one man's vision of duty, honor, and country.

While this is the 222nd anniversary celebration of our republic, this July 4th anniversary is unique. It is unique because we also celebrate today the 200th anniversary of a forgotten event in American history. It was 200 years ago today that George Washington was recalled to active duty and re-commissioned as lieutenant general and Commander-in-Chief of the Armies of the United States.

To have stood under the shades of Mount Vernon 200 years ago would have been to stand at a historic moment in American history. We were confronting tensions and our fragile republic was facing a potential invasion by France. President John Adams knew that the nation's small army had fallen into disarray with most of its forces scattered around the western frontier. Neither the army nor the state militias were organized to respond to the grave threat at hand. President Adams turned to George Washington to instill hope in the American people and caution in our would-be adversaries.

On July 4th, 1798, he commissioned the 66-year old former general and President as "Lieutenant General and Commander-in-Chief for the Armies of the United States." And on that day, Washington wrote, "If there be a good cause better known to the government than to its citizens, delay in preparing for it might be dangerous." Over the last 17 months of his life, Washington developed the plans for the rebuilding of the Army to defend this fragile little republic.

Anniversary ceremonies like this would be arid and empty if they only memorialized the past. We observe major anniversaries to recount the lessons of the past in order to guide our plans for the future. Two hundred years ago, Washington was called back to service to prepare America's defenses. Today, the American homeland faces a new and different danger. The threat is not from overt invasion, but from the sinister dangers of chemical, biological and cyber warfare. Chemical and biological weapons are a poor man's atomic bomb. They are easier to build, to hide, and to deliver to their targets. They are especially appealing to small terrorist cells and known individuals who can not challenge American military superiority on the battlefield.

As in Washington's time, America is not yet fully prepared for this new challenge. We too must organize, plan, and act anew. We too must recognize that complacency and delay is dangerous. President Clinton and Secretary of Defense Cohen have made preparing the American homeland against chemical and biological weapons a top priority. The continental United States has not confronted a direct threat to its territory in this century precisely because we have confronted threats before they touched our shores. But this is a new era, where adversaries can bring their fight to our doorstep. National security now must assume a new dimension.

The Department of Defense and the intelligence community must work hand in hand with law enforcement to deal with this far-reaching threat. We are taking steps to improve our knowledge of hostile elements and their plans. We are reorganizing the Defense Department to integrate our approach to counter-proliferation of these terrible new weapons, and we are launching new programs to help local emergency response forces to mitigate the effects of chemical and biological attack.

Gen. Ralston is one of the key leaders in our department's planning for the future threat. Like George Washington, he is working to organize and streamline our organization in the Department to ensure we are efficiently organized to provide homeland defense in this new era. Gen. Reimer has been a visionary leader preparing the army for the future. Like George Washington, he has created path-breaking new approaches to integrating the Army, the Army Reserve, and the National Guard into a total Army approach to defend this country.

Two hundred years ago, America called on its foremost citizen soldier. Today, we are calling on our citizen soldiers in the National Guard and in the Reserves. Homeland defense is in the finest tradition of the National Guard. Well-trained and equipped militias were indispensable in securing the independence we celebrate this weekend. Our Guard and Reserve forces are indispensable components in our plans to secure us from today's threats to the American homeland. Gen. Reimer has been a tireless advocate for an expanded role for the Army Reserve and the National Guard in homeland defense.

America is fortunate to have leaders of this caliber and dedicated men and women who are willing to set aside the comforts of civilian life, put on the uniform of our armed forces, and prepare for all of us a defense against future adversaries. And on this day, we should especially thank those men and women who serve both as citizens and as soldiers: guardsmen and reservists who see a continuing opportunity and responsibility to serve, even as they pursue private, personal careers.

Shortly, we will commemorate this day by planting a new tree, adding to Washington's beloved "shades of Mount Vernon." We place it here as a mark of gratitude to a leader who accepted the burdens of public service to defend our young republic. We also place it here to mark our commitment to ensure future generations will live in peace and security. One hundred years from now we will not be here, but I hope Americans will gather under this tree to celebrate the 300th anniversary of Washington's act of patriotic sacrifice. And I hope they will also say of us that we too met the measure of our day and, by our deeds, we too preserved the safety of this sweet land of liberty.

Thank you all for coming today.