8. Address by Ronald Reagan1

[Omitted here are Reagan’s introductory remarks and the portion of his address dealing with the Veterans Administration.]

These are matters of great concern to your great organization. Let us turn now to a matter which vitally concerns our nation — “PEACE”.

It has always struck me as odd that you who have known at firsthand the ugliness and agony of war are so often blamed for war by those who parade for peace.

The truth is exactly the reverse. Having known war, you are in the forefront of those who know that peace is not obtained or preserved by wishing and weakness. You have consistently urged maintenance of a defense capability that provides a margin of safety for America. Today, that margin is disappearing.

But because of your support for military preparedness, there are those who equate that with being militant and desirous of war. The great American humorist, Will Rogers, had an answer for those who believed that strength invited war. He said, “I’ve never seen anyone insult Jack Dempsey.”

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About 10 days ago, our new Secretary of State addressed a gathering on the West Coast.2 He took me to task about American military strength. Indeed, he denounced the Republican Party for pledging to restore that margin of safety which the Carter Administration had allowed to evaporate. Actually, I’ve called for whatever it takes to be strong enough that no other nation will dare violate the peace. This is what we mean by superiority—nothing more, nothing less. The American people expect that the nation will remain secure; they have a right to security and we have an obligation to provide it. But Mr. Muskie was downright angry. He charged that such a policy would lead to an all-out arms race. Well, I have a message for him—one which he ignored for years as a Senator3 when he consistently voted against a strong national defense—we’re already in an arms race, but only the Soviets are racing. They are outspending us in the military field by 50 percent and more than double, sometimes triple, on their strategic forces.

One wonders why the Carter Administration fails to see any threatening pattern in the Soviet presence, by way of Cuban proxies, in so much of Africa, which is the source of minerals absolutely essential to the industrialized democracies of Japan, Western Europe, and the U.S. We are self-sufficient in only 5 of the 27 minerals important to us industrially and strategically, and so the security of our resource life line is essential.

Then there is the Soviet Cuban and East German presence in Ethiopia, South Yemen, and now the invasion and subjugation of Afghanistan. This last step moves them within striking distance of the oil-rich Arabian Gulf. And is it just coincidence that Cuban and Soviet-trained terrorists are bringing civil war to Central American countries in close proximity to the rich oil fields of Venezuela and Mexico? All over the world, we can see that in the face of declining American power, the Soviets and their friends are advancing. Yet the Carter Administration seems totally oblivious.

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Clearly, world peace must be our number one priority. It is the first task of statecraft to preserve peace so that brave men need not die in battle. But it must not be peace at any price; it must not be a peace of humiliation and gradual surrender. Nor can it be the kind of peace imposed on Czechoslovakia by Soviet tanks just 12 years ago this month.4 And certainly it isn’t the peace that came to Southeast Asia after the Paris Peace accords were signed.5

Peace must be such that freedom can flourish and justice prevail. Tens of thousands of boat people have shown us there is no freedom in the so-called peace in Vietnam. The hill people of Laos know poison gas, not justice, and in Cambodia there is only the peace of the grave for at least one-third of the population slaughtered by the Communists.

For too long, we have lived with the “Vietnam Syndrome.” Much of that syndrome has been created by the North Vietnamese aggressors who now threaten the peaceful people of Thailand. Over and over they told us for nearly 10 years that we were the aggressors bent on imperialistic conquests. They had a plan. It was to win in the field of propaganda here in America what they could not win on the field of battle in Vietnam. As the years dragged on, we were told that peace would come if we would simply stop interfering and go home.

It is time we recognized that ours was, in truth, a noble cause. A small country newly free from colonial rule sought our help in establishing self-rule and the means of self-defense against a totalitarian neighbor bent on conquest. We dishonor the memory of 50,000 young Americans who died in that cause when we give way to feelings of guilt as if we were doing something shameful, and we have been shabby in our treatment of those who returned. They fought as well and as bravely as any Americans have ever fought in any war. They deserve our gratitude, our respect and our continuing concern.

There is a lesson for all of us in Vietnam. If we are forced to fight, we must have the means and the determination to prevail or we will not have what it takes to secure the peace. And while we are at it, let us tell those who fought in that war that we will never again ask young men to fight and possibly die in a war our government is afraid to let them win.

Shouldn’t it be obvious to even the staunchest believer in unilateral disarmament as the sure road to peace that peace was never more [Page 23] certain than in the years following W.W. II when we had a margin of safety in our military power which was so unmistakable that others would not dare to challenge us?

The Korean tragedy was really not an exception to what I am saying, but a clear example of it. North Korea’s attack on South Korea followed an injudicious statement from Washington that our sphere of interest in the Pacific and that our defense perimeter did not include Korea.6 Unfortunately, Korea also became our first “no win war,” a portent of much that has happened since. But reflect for a moment how in those days the U.S. led free nations in other parts of the world to join together in recovering from the ravages of war. Our will and our capacity to preserve the peace were unchallenged. There was no question about our credibility and our welcome throughout the world. Our erstwhile enemies became close friends and allies, and we protected the peace from Berlin to Cuba.

When John F. Kennedy demanded the withdrawal of Soviet missiles from Cuba and the tension mounted in 1962, it was Nikita Khrushchev who backed down, and there was no war.7 It was because our strategic superiority over the Soviets was so decisive, by about a margin of 8 to 1.

But, then, in the face of such evidence that the cause of peace is best served by strength not bluster, an odd thing happened. Those responsible for our defense policy ignored the fact that some evidence of aggressive intent on the part of the Soviets was surely indicated by the placement of missiles in Cuba. We failed to heed the Soviet declaration that they would make sure they never had to back down again. No one could possibly misinterpret that declaration. It was an announcement of the Soviet intention to begin a military buildup, one which continues to this day.

Our policymakers, however, decided the Soviet Union would not attempt to catch us and that, for some reason, they would permanently accept second place as their proper position. Sometime later, in 1965, Secretary of Defense McNamara stated unequivocally that the Soviets were not attempting to compete with the U.S. on strategic Forces and were resigned to inferiority.

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Fifteen years have passed since that exercise in self-delusion. At that time we led the Soviet Union in about 40 strategic military categories. Today, they lead us in all but 6 or 8 and may well surpass us in those if present trends continue.

Soviet leaders talk arrogantly of a so-called “correlation of forces” that has moved in their favor, opening up opportunities for them to extend their influence. The response from the administration in Washington has been one of weakness, inconsistency, vacillation and bluff. A Soviet combat brigade is discovered in Cuba; the Carter Administration declares its presence 90 miles off our shore as “unacceptable”.8 The brigade is still there. Soviet troops mass on the border of Afghanistan. The President issues a stern warning against any move by those troops to cross the border. They cross the border, execute the puppet President they themselves installed in 1978,9 and carry out a savage attack on the people of Afghanistan. Our credibility in the world slumps further. The President proclaims we’ll protect the Middle East by force of arms and 2 weeks later admits we don’t have the force.

Is it only Jimmy Carter’s lack of coherent policy that is the source of our difficulty? Is it his vacillation and his indecision? Or is there another, more frightening possibility—the possibility that this administration is being very consistent, that it is still guided by that same old doctrine that we have nothing to fear from the Soviets—if we just don’t provoke them.

Well, W.W. II came about without provocation. It came because nations were weak, not strong, in the face of aggression. Those same lessons of the past surely apply today. Firmness based on a strong defense capability is not provocative. But weakness can be provocative simply because it is tempting to a nation whose imperialist ambitions are virtually unlimited.

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We find ourselves increasingly in a position of dangerous isolation. Our allies are losing confidence in us, and our adversaries no longer respect us.

There is an alternative path for America which offers a more realistic hope for peace, one which takes us on the course of restoring that vital margin of safety. For thirty years since the end of World War II, our strategy has been to preserve peace through strength. It is steadiness and the vision of men like Dwight Eisenhower that we have to thank for policies that made America strong and credible.

The last Republican defense budget, proposed by President Ford, would have maintained the margin.10

But the Carter Administration came to power on a promise of slashing America’s defenses. It has made good on its promise.

Our program to restore the margin of safety must be prudent and measured. We must take a stand against terrorism in the world and combat it with firmness, for it is a most cowardly and savage violation of peace. We must regain that margin of safety I spoke of both in conventional arms and the deployment of troops. And we must allow no weakness in our strategic deterrent.

We do not stand alone in the world. We have Allies who are with us, who look to America to provide leadership and to remain strong. But they are confused by the lack of a coherent, principled, policy from the Carter Administration. And they must be consulted, not excluded from, matters which directly affect their own interest and security.

When we ignore our friends, when we do not lead, we weaken the unity and strength that binds our alliances. We must now reverse this dangerous trend and restore the confidence and cohesion of the alliance system on which our security ultimately rests.

There is something else. We must remember our heritage, who we are and what we are, and how this nation, this island of freedom, came into being. And we must make it unmistakably plain to all the world that we have no intention of compromising our principles, our beliefs or our freedom. Our reward will be world peace; there is no other way to have it.

For more than a decade, we have sought a detente. The word means relaxation. We don’t talk about a detente with our allies; there is no tension there that needs relaxing. We seek to relax tensions where there are tensions—with potential enemies. And if those potential enemies are [Page 26] well armed and have shown a willingness to use armed force to gain their ends (for ends that are different from ours) then relaxing tensions is a delicate and dangerous but necessary business.

Detente has meaning only if both sides take positive actions to relax the tension. When one side relaxes while the other carries out the greatest military buildup in the history of mankind, the cause of peace has not been advanced.

Arms control negotiation can often help to improve stability but not when the negotiations are one-sided. And they obviously have been one-sided and will continue to be so if we lack steadiness and determination in keeping up our defenses.

I think continued negotiation with the Soviet Union is essential. We need never be afraid to negotiate as long as we remain true to our goals—the preservation of peace and freedom—and don’t seek agreement just for the sake of having an agreement. It is important, also, that the Soviets know we are going about the business of restoring our margin of safety pending an agreement by both sides to limit various kinds of weapons.

I have repeatedly stated that I would be willing to negotiate an honest, verifiable reduction in nuclear weapons by both our countries to the point that neither of us represented a threat to the other. I cannot, however, agree to any treaty, including the SALT II treaty, which, in effect, legitimizes the continuation of a one-sided nuclear arms buildup.11

We have an example in recent history of our ability to negotiate properly by keeping our objective clearly in mind until an agreement is reached. Back in the mid ’50’s, at the very height of the “cold war”, Allied and Soviet military forces were still occupying Austria in a situation that was virtually a confrontation. We negotiated the Austrian State Treaty calling for the removal of all the occupying forces, Allied and Soviet.12 If we had negotiated in the manner we’ve seen these last few years, Austria would still be a divided country.

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The American people must be given a better understanding of the challenge to our security and of the need for effort and, yes, sacrifice to turn the situation around.

Our government must stop pretending that it has a choice between promoting the general welfare and providing for the common defense. Today they are one and the same.

Let our people be aware of the several objectives of Soviet strategy in this decade and the threat they represent to continued world peace. An attempt will be made to divide the NATO alliance and to separate, one at a time, our Allies and friends from the United States. Those efforts are clearly underway. Another objective I’ve already mentioned is an expansion of Soviet influence in the area of the Arabian Gulf and South Asia. Not much attention has been given to another move, and that is the attempt to encircle and neutralize the People’s Republic of China. Much closer to home is Soviet-inspired trouble in the Caribbean. Subversion and Cuban-trained guerrilla bands are targeted on Jamaica, Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala. Leftist regimes have already taken over in Nicaragua and Grenada.13

A central concern of the Kremlin will always be the Soviet ability to handle a direct confrontation with our military forces. In a recent address, Paul Nitze said; “The Kremlin leaders do not want war; they want the world.”14 For that reason, they have put much of their military effort into strategic nuclear programs. Here the balance has been moving against us and will continue to do so if we follow the course set by this administration.

The Soviets want peace and victory. We must understand this and what it means to us. They seek a superiority in military strength that, in the event of a confrontation, would leave us with an unacceptable choice between submission or conflict. Submission would give us peace alright—the peace of a Czechoslovakia or an Afghanistan. But if we have the will and the determination to restore the margin of safety which this Administration seems bent on losing, we can have real peace because we will never be faced with an ultimatum from anyone.

Indeed, the men in the Kremlin could in the face of such determination decide that true arms limitation makes sense.

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Our best hope of persuading them to live in peace is to convince them they cannot win at war.

For a nation such as ours, arms are important only to prevent others from conquering us or our allies. We are not a belligerent people. Our purpose is not to prepare for war or wish harm to others. When we had great strength in the years following W.W. II, we used that strength not for territorial gain but to defend others.

Our foreign policy should be to show by example the greatness of our system and the strength of American ideals. The truth is we would like nothing better than to see the Russian people living in freedom and dignity instead of being trapped in a backwash of history as they are. The greatest fallacy of the Lenin-Marxist philosophy is that it is the “wave of the future.” Everything about it is primitive: compulsion in place of free initiative; coercion in place of law; militarism in place of trade; and empire-building in place of self-determination; and luxury for a chosen few at the expense of the many. We have seen nothing like it since the Age of Feudalism.

When people have had a free choice, where have they chosen Communism? What other sytem in the world has to build walls to keep its people in”?

Recently academician Andrei Sakharov, one of Russia’s great scientists and presently under house arrest, smuggled a statement out of the Soviet Union. It turned up in the New York Times Magazine of June 8, where Sakharov wrote: “I consider the United States the historically determined leader of the movement toward a pluralist and free society, vital to mankind.”15

He is right. We have strayed off course many times and we have been careless with the machinery of freedom bequeathed to us by the Founding Fathers, but, somehow, it has managed to survive our frailties. One of those Founding Fathers spoke the truth when he said “God intended America to be free.”

We have been a refuge for the persecuted and down-trodden from every corner of the world for 200 years. Today some of us are concerned by the latest influx of refugees, the boat people from Southeast Asia and from Cuba—all fleeing from the inhumanity of Communism. We worry about our capacity to care for them. I believe we must make a concerted effort to help them, and that others in the world should share in the responsibility.

But let’s do a better job of exporting Americanism. Let’s meet our responsibility to keep the peace at the same time we maintain without [Page 29] compromise our pinciples and ideals. Let’s help the world eliminate the conditions which cause citizens to become refugees.

I belive it is our pre-ordained destiny to show all mankind that they, too, can be free without having to leave their native shore.

  1. Source: Reagan Library, White House Office of Speechwriting, Research Office, 1980 Campaign File, Campaign and Pre-Presidential Speeches, 1979–1981, 0/8/18/1980 VFW Convention, Chicago, IL. Reagan addressed the annual convention of the Veterans of Foreign Wars at McCormack Place at the beginning of a 4-day, three-state campaign tour; see F. Richard Ciccone, “Reagan vows strong U.S.: VFW speech here opens campaign,” Chicago Tribune, August 19, 1980, pp. 1, 8. For additional information concerning the address, see Howell Raines, “Reagan Calls Arms Race Essential To Avoid a ‘Surrender’ or ‘Defeat’,” New York Times, pp. A1, D17, and Lou Cannon, “Reagan: ‘Peace Through Strength’,” Washington Post, pp. A1, A4; both August 19, 1980.
  2. Reference is to Edmund Muskie, who became Secretary of State in May after Vance resigned following the abortive attempt to rescue the American hostages in Tehran. On August 7, Muskie delivered an address in Los Angeles before the United Steelworkers of America, asserting: “The world is an unruly place. The headlines will always reflect new crises and new challenges. But I’m tired of hearing the fear merchants who overstate the dangers and undersell America for their own political profit. Let’s listen to the facts and not their fears.” (Department of State Bulletin, September 1980, pp. A–C) The address is also printed in Foreign Relations, 1977–1980, vol. I, Foundations of Foreign Policy, Document 153. At a news conference following his remarks, Muskie stated “that his job was nonpolitical, even though he had told the steelworkers, ‘I am the first political Secretary of State in a long time, and I intend to play that job’.” (Bernard Gwertzman, “Muskie, in Departure From Practice, Assails Republican Criticism,” New York Times, August 8, 1980, pp. A1, A16) Excerpts from Muskie’s news conference are printed in Department of State Bulletin, September 1980, pp. D–F. While in Los Angeles on August 7, the Secretary also addressed the G.I. Forum. The text of the address is ibid., pp. 14–16.
  3. Muskie served in the Senate from January 3, 1959, until May 7, 1980, when he resigned his seat to serve as Secretary of State.
  4. Soviet and other Warsaw Pact troops invaded Czechoslovakia the night of August 20–21, 1968. See Foreign Relations, 1964–1968, vol. XVII, Eastern Europe, Documents 80 and 81.
  5. On January 27, 1973, in Paris, Secretary of State William Rogers signed the Agreement on Ending the War and Restoring Peace in Vietnam, commonly referred to as the Paris Peace Accords. The text and accompanying protocols are printed in Department of State Bulletin, February 12, 1973, pp. 169–188. For additional information, see Foreign Relations, 1969–1976, vol. IX, Vietnam, October 1972–January 1973, Document 340.
  6. On June 25, 1950, North Korean soldiers crossed the 38th parallel and attacked South Korean forces. Reagan’s remark concerning the “injudicious statement” is presumably a reference to Acheson’s January 12, 1950, address before the National Press Club in Washington, during which he sketched out the parameters of the U.S. “defense perimeter” in the Pacific. See Walter H. Waggoner, “Four Areas Listed ‘Attaching’ Manchuria, Inner, Outer Mongolia and Sinkiang Cited,” New York Times, January 13, 1950, pp. 1–2. See also Foreign Relations, 1950, vol. VII, Korea, Document 3.
  7. For documentation on the October 1962 crisis, see Foreign Relations, 1961–1963, vol. XI, Cuban Missile Crisis and Aftermath.
  8. On August 31, 1979, the Department of State issued a statement that the United States had “recently confirmed the presence in Cuba of what appears to be a Soviet combat unit. This is the first time we have been able to confirm the presence of a Soviet ground forces unit on the island.” (Department of State Bulletin, October 1979, p. 63) On September 7, Carter spoke to reporters about the Soviet combat brigade, indicating: “The purpose of this combat unit is not yet clear. However, the Secretary of State spoke for me and for our Nation on Wednesday [September 5] when he said that we consider the presence of a Soviet combat brigade in Cuba to be a very serious matter and that this status quo is not acceptable.” (Public Papers: Carter, 1979, Book II, p. 1602) On October 1, Carter delivered an address to the nation concerning the troop presence. The text of the address is ibid., pp. 1802–1806. It is also printed in Foreign Relations, 1977–1980, vol. I, Foundations of Foreign Policy, Document 129. For additional information regarding U.S.-Soviet discussions, including oral and written exchanges about the brigade, see Foreign Relations, 1977–1980, vol. VI, Soviet Union, Documents 219, 221224, and 226228.
  9. It is unclear whether Reagan is referring to Nur Muhammad Taraki, who served as President of Afghanistan from April 30, 1978, until he was assassinated on September 14, 1979, or Hafizullah Amin, who served as President from September 14 until he was assassinated on December 27, following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan (see footnote 3, Document 4).
  10. Reference is to the fiscal year 1977 defense budget. Ford submitted his overall budget, including the defense figures, to Congress on January 21, 1976. The text of the budget message, which is included in a report entitled, “The Budget of the United States Government, Fiscal Year 1977,” is printed in Public Papers: Ford, 19761977, Book I, pp. 46–50.
  11. Carter and Brezhnev signed the Treaty Between the United States of America and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics on the Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms and the Protocol to the Treaty during meetings held in Vienna June 15–18, 1979. The memoranda of conversation from the Vienna summit are printed in Foreign Relations, 1977–1980, vol. VI, Soviet Union, Documents 199201, 203, 204, 206, and 207. For the text of the treaty, see Department of State Bulletin, July 1979, pp. 23–47. The text of the treaty and protocol are also printed in Foreign Relations, 1969–1976, vol. XXXIII, SALT II, 1972–1980, Documents 241 and 242.
  12. On May 15, 1955, representatives of the governments of the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, the United States, and France signed the Austrian State Treaty, which granted Austria independence and arranged for the withdrawal of all occupation forces. For information about the Vienna Ambassadorial Conference and the State Treaty, see Foreign Relations, 1955–1957, vol. V, Austrian State Treaty; Summit and Foreign Ministers Meetings, 1955, Documents 4276.
  13. References are to the July 1979 resignation of Nicaraguan President Anastasio Somoza Debayle and the March 1979 New Jewel Movement coup, which removed the Prime Minister of Grenada, Eric Gairy, and established a People’s Revolutionary Government headed by Maurice Bishop, who became prime minister.
  14. The address is not identified. However, Nitze included this statement in an article entitled “Strategy in the Decade of the 1980s.” (Foreign Affairs, vol. 59, number 1, Fall 1980)
  15. Sakharov: A Letter From Exile,” New York Times Magazine, June 8, 1980, pp. 31–33, 72, 74, 76, 78, 50, 106–107, 109–111. The letter is dated May 4, 1980.