6. Address by President Nixon1

Good evening:

Four years and two months ago, when I first came into this office as President, by far the most difficult problem confronting the Nation was the seemingly endless war in Vietnam. Five hundred and fifty thousand Americans were in Vietnam. As many as 300 a week were being killed in action. Hundreds were held as prisoners of war in North Vietnam. No progress was being made at the peace negotiations.

I immediately initiated a program to end the war and win an honorable peace.

Eleven times over the past 4 years I have reported to the Nation from this room on the progress we have made toward that goal. Tonight, the day we have all worked and prayed for has finally come.

For the first time in 12 years, no American military forces are in Vietnam. All of our American POW’s are on their way home. The 17 million people of South Vietnam have the right to choose their own government without outside interference, and because of our program of Vietnamization, they have the strength to defend that right. We have prevented the imposition of a Communist government by force on South Vietnam.

There are still some problem areas. The provisions of the agreement requiring an accounting for all missing in action in Indochina, the provisions with regard to Laos and Cambodia, the provisions prohibiting infiltration from North Vietnam into South Vietnam have not been complied with. We have and will continue to comply with the agreement. We shall insist that North Vietnam comply with the agreement. And the leaders of North Vietnam should have no doubt as to the consequences if they fail to comply with the agreement.

But despite these difficulties, we can be proud tonight of the fact that we have achieved our goal of obtaining an agreement which provides peace with honor in Vietnam.

On this day, let us honor those who made this achievement possible: those who sacrificed their lives, those who were disabled, those who made every one of us proud to be an American as they returned from years of Communist imprisonment, and every one of the 2½ million Americans who served honorably in our Nation’s longest war. [Page 18] Never have men served with greater devotion abroad with less apparent support at home.

Let us provide these men with the veterans benefits and the job opportunities they have earned. Let us honor them with the respect they deserve. And I say again tonight, let us not dishonor those who served their country by granting amnesty to those who deserted America.

Tonight I want to express the appreciation of the Nation to others who helped make this day possible. I refer to you, the great majority of Americans listening to me tonight, who, despite an unprecedented barrage of criticism from a small but vocal minority, stood firm for peace with honor. I know it was not easy for you to do so.

We have been through some difficult times together. I recall the time in November 1969 when hundreds of thousands of demonstrators marched on the White House, the time in April 1970 when I found it necessary to order attacks on Communist bases in Cambodia, the time in May 1972 when I ordered the mining of Haiphong and airstrikes on military targets in North Vietnam in order to stop a massive Communist offensive in South Vietnam, and then—and this was perhaps the hardest decision I have made as President—on December 18, 1972, when our hopes for peace were so high and when the North Vietnamese stonewalled us at the conference table, I found it necessary to order more airstrikes on military targets in North Vietnam in order to break the deadlock.

On each of these occasions, the voices of opposition we heard in Washington were so loud they at times seemed to be the majority. But across America, the overwhelming majority stood firm against those who advocated peace at any price—even if the price would have been defeat and humiliation for the United States.

Because you stood firm—stood firm for doing what was right—[Air Force Lt.] Colonel [George G.]2 McKnight was able to say for his fellow POW’s, when he returned home a few days ago, “Thank you for bringing us home on our feet instead of on our knees.”

[Omitted here is discussion of domestic budgetary issues.]

As we end America’s longest war, let us resolve that we shall not lose the peace. During the past year we have made great progress toward our goal of a generation of peace for America and the world. The war in Vietnam has been ended. After 20 years of hostility and confrontation, we have opened a constructive new relationship with the People’s Republic of China where one-fourth of all the people in the world live. We negotiated last year with the Soviet Union a number of [Page 19] important agreements, including an agreement which takes a major step in limiting nuclear arms.

Now there are some who say that in view of all this progress toward peace, why not cut our defense budget?

Well, let’s look at the facts. Our defense budget today takes the lowest percentage of our gross national product that it has in 20 years. There is nothing I would like better than to be able to reduce it further. But we must never forget that we would not have made the progress toward lasting peace that we have made in this past year unless we had had the military strength that commanded respect.

This year we have begun new negotiations with the Soviet Union for further limitations on nuclear arms. And we shall be participating later in the year in negotiations for mutual reduction of forces in Europe.

If prior to these negotiations we in the United States unilaterally reduce our defense budget, or reduce our forces in Europe, any chance for successful negotiations for mutual reduction of forces or limitation of arms will be destroyed.

There is one unbreakable rule of international diplomacy. You can’t get something in a negotiation unless you have something to give. If we cut our defenses before negotiations begin, any incentive for other nations to cut theirs will go right out the window.

If the United States reduces its defenses and others do not, it will increase the danger of war. It is only a mutual reduction of forces which will reduce the danger of war. And that is why we must maintain our strength until we get agreements under which other nations will join us in reducing the burden of armaments.

What is at stake is whether the United States shall become the second strongest nation in the world. If that day ever comes, the chance for building a new structure of peace in the world would be irreparably damaged, and free nations everywhere would be living in mortal danger.

A strong United States is not a threat to peace. It is the free world’s indispensable guardian of peace and freedom.

I ask for your support tonight, for keeping the strength—the strength which enabled us to make such great progress toward world peace in the past year and which is indispensable as we continue our bold new initiatives for peace in the years ahead.

As we consider some of our problems tonight, let us never forget how fortunate we are to live in America at this time in our history. We have ended the longest and most difficult war in our history in a way that maintains the trust of our allies and the respect of our adversaries. We are the strongest and most prosperous nation in the world. Because [Page 20] of our strength, America has the magnificent opportunity to play the leading role of bringing down the walls of hostility which divide the people of the world, in reducing the burden of armaments in the world, of building a structure of lasting peace in the world. And because of our wealth, we have the means to move forward at home on exciting new programs—programs for progress which will provide better environment, education, housing, and health care for all Americans and which will enable us to be more generous to the poor, the elderly, the disabled, and the disadvantaged than any nation in the history of the world.

These are goals worthy of a great people. Let us, therefore, put aside those honest differences about war which have divided us and dedicate ourselves to meet the great challenges of peace which can unite us. As we do, let us not overlook a third element, an element more important even than military might or economic power, because it is essential for greatness in a nation.

The pages of history are strewn with the wreckage of nations which fell by the wayside at the height of their strength and wealth because their people became weak, soft, and self-indulgent and lost the character and the spirit which had led to their greatness.

As I speak to you tonight, I am confident that will not happen to America. And my confidence has been increased by the fact that a war which cost America so much in lives and money and division at home has, as it ended, provided an opportunity for millions of Americans to see again the character and the spirit which made America a great nation.

A few days ago in this room, I talked to a man who had spent almost 8 years in a Communist prison camp in North Vietnam.3 For over 4 years he was in solitary confinement. In that 4-year period he never saw and never talked to another human being except his Communist captors. He lived on two meals a day, usually just a piece of bread, a bowl of soup. All he was given to read was Communist propaganda. All he could listen to was the Communist propaganda on radio.

I asked him how he was able to survive it and come home, standing tall and proud, saluting the American flag. He paused a long time before he answered. And then he said, “It is difficult for me to answer. I am not very good at words. All I can say is that it was faith—faith in God and faith in my country.”

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If men who suffered so much for America can have such faith, let us who have received so much from America renew our faith—our faith in God, our faith in our country, and our faith in ourselves.

If we meet the great challenges of peace that lie ahead with this kind of faith, then one day it will be written: This was America’s finest hour.

Thank you and good evening.

  1. Source: Public Papers: Nixon, 1973, pp. 234–238. The President spoke at 9:01 p.m. from the White House Oval Office. His address was broadcast live on nationwide radio and television networks.
  2. Brackets are in the original.
  3. The President was referring to Col. Robinson Risner, USAF, with whom he met on March 12, 1973. On the same day, the President also met with former prisoner of war Capt. Jeremiah A. Denton, Jr., USN. [Footnote is in the original.]