United States Department of Veterans Affairs

Veterans Day Remarks

Remarks by General Colin L. Powell, U.S. Army,
Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff
Veterans Day National Ceremony
Arlington National Cemetery
Arlington, Virginia
November 11, 1989


GENERAL POWELL: Secretary Derwinski, General Hilbert, National Commander Carter, National President Handy, distinguished representatives of the government, fellow veterans.

It is a privilege for me to represent President Bush in honoring a very special group of Americans today -- America’s veterans. I can think of no place I, as a soldier, and as an American citizen, and as a fellow veteran would rather be today than at this ceremony. And there is no more appropriate place to celebrate veterans day than here in Arlington National Cemetery in the silent, honored presence of those veterans who gave their last measure of devotion to their nation.

Their sacrifice in the name of peace and freedom have made this nation what it is today. By their sacrifice, they give us our strength, our vibrancy. We the living must ensure that their sacrifice was not in vain.

When I spoke with President Bush earlier this week, I told him how honored I was that he had given me the opportunity to speak to you this day in the company of these American heroes. For you too are heroes, you men and women in this audience and your comrades around the country and the world who set aside other pursuits and answered the call to serve your nation.

The nation owes a great debt to its veterans, whose service to the nation spans every decade, every year, every day of our country's existence.Through untold courage and sacrifice, America’s veterans have secured the liberty which the founding fathers sought to establish here in the new world. Whenever and wherever the nation has called -- in times of darkness and danger as well as in times of peace and prosperity -- America's veterans have been there. Veterans have proudly carried the torch of liberty for all to see.

Through the centuries, America has been a symbol to the world -- a symbol of a higher ideal. Millions of people around the globe still look to America for the hope and promise of something better. And, just as this nation has depended on its veterans in the past to fulfill that hope and secure that sacred promise, we shall surely depend on them as we move into the challenging but bright future which awaits us.

It is both fitting and proper that we meet here at Arlington National Cemetery. This hallowed ground was dedicated in 1864 at the height of one of America’s most costly wars. Private William Christman of Company G, 67th Pennsylvania Infantry was the first veteran to be buried here.

Since that time, Arlington has become the final resting place for so many of America’s veterans who have been willing to risk all so that others might continue to live in freedom.

Men like Sergeant James H. Harris, who was born not 50 miles from here in Saint Mary’s County, Maryland. His exploits at the Battle of New Market Heights in 1864, as a member of the 38th U.S. Colored Troops, earned him a Medal of Honor and a permanent place on the Roll of Heroes of the union he fought to defend.

And Sergeant Fred Myers, a native-born German, who found a new home in the United States and moved westward with the 6th Cavalry. On New Years Day, 1891, at White River, South Dakota, Sergeant Myers earned the highest award for bravery his adopted nation could give one of its citizens. It is fitting that we remember the exploits of this immigrant American here today.

Arlington is also the final resting place for John H. Pruitt, Corporal, United States Marine Corps. Corporal Pruitt is one of a very select few who was awarded both the Army and the Navy Medal of Honor for his heroic deeds on Blanc Mont Ridge in France in 1918.

Also here is Lieutenant Commander Samuel G. Fuqua, United States Navy, who, as the senior officer left alive aboard the sinking battleship Arizona on 7 December 1941, rose up in the face of incredible suffering, inspiring his men to live and fight back.

Second Lieutenant Sherrod Skinner, Jr., U.S. Marines, is another of our American heroes whom we remember today. Lieutenant Skinner's selfless act of bravery on a nameless, wind swept hill in Korea in October 1952, cost him his life, but saved the lives of several of his fellow Marines.

Captain Merlyn H. Dethlefsen, United States Air Force, should also be in our minds today. His exploits over North Vietnam on 10 March 1967 earned him the Medal of Honor and a final resting place here at Arlington.

These are the names and stories of but a few of America’s veterans who have served their nation in war and peace and have been laid to rest in this place of honor. They all loved their country -- and what it stood for -- more than life itself. For their selfless patriotism, we the living owe a great debt of gratitude.

Beyond this place, in the military cemetery above the Normandy beaches, in the Punchbowl in Hawaii, on the island of Corregidor, and in thousands of churchyards across this great land of ours lie at peace many more veterans who died for their country in the uniform of the armed forces.

And on many another forgotten field across the face of this earth, lie thousands of other American veterans whose names are known but to God. Their names may not be known to us, but their sacrifices will never be forgotten. Never.

There is a special group of veterans which deserves recognition today and every day. I am speaking of those veterans who have fought for America in southeast Asia and elsewhere and who are still listed as missing in action. We, the veterans who returned -- and indeed all American citizens -- have an obligation to account for these missing comrades in arms. We owe this to their families and we owe it to future generations of Americans, but most of all, we owe it to our missing buddies.

These missing American veterans did not swerve from their duty to fight for freedom. We must not either. I can assure you that I will not rest, that President Bush will not rest, that this nation will not rest until we have obtained the fullest possible accounting for our missing in action. This is more than a promise -- it is a solemn oath.

These, then, are some of the American veterans whom we have come to honor today. They represent the millions of American men and women who have served the republic over the past two hundred years. Fortunately, this country has been blessed with citizens who have taken their civic responsibility seriously and have taken up arms and marched to the sound of the guns whenever and wherever the rights of man have been threatened.

These citizen-soldiers were not seeking personal gain or even fame. Their country called and they answered. Theirs was a simple, patriotic response. They recognized their civic duty and acted accordingly.

Those who survived, and are represented here today, returned home convinced that they had done something worthwhile, something to make this world a better place to live. they served in the cause of freedom for all mankind. And for them, that was reward enough.

These veterans came home to continue to serve their country in peacetime. In war, they did their best to defend liberty. In peace, they sought to build a better world. Their quest was made even more meaningful by what they had experienced in the heat of battle. Freedom -- to those who have fought for it -- is a word with a very special meaning. This love for freedom -- not just for ourselves, but for our friends and allies as well -- this unquenchable thirst for peace and freedom lies deep within the heart and soul of Americans, and it is what makes us unique among the people of the world.

John F. Kennedy once said that "a nation reveals itself not only by the men it produces, but also by the men it honors, the men it remembers."

The tradition of setting a day aside to remember the veterans of America dates back to the First World War. That war was a costly and bitter one. America alone lost 116,000 of its citizens at sea, in the trenches, and in the skies over Europe. Finally, on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918, the guns went silent. An armistice was declared and the "war to end all wars" was over.

In the years since President Woodrow Wilson made the 11th of November a national day of remembrance, the scope of our observance has changed, from a day set aside to remember the dead from one war, to a day in which American veterans from all wars, as well as those who served in times of peace, could be honored.

There are now over 27 million living veterans and 57 million family members and survivors of those veterans. Almost one in every three Americans is either a veteran or a member of a veteran's family.

Gathered here with us today are some of the over 100,000 living American veterans of the First World War, who were there at the first armistice day. They represent the 4.7 million of their comrades in arms who carried the torch of liberty "over there." They are hosting, perhaps for the last time, this Veterans Day ceremony.

These men and women interrupted schooling, jobs, and family responsibilities to do their patriotic duty. They were thrown head first into the horrors of twentieth century warfare, observing first hand the terrible holocaust of battle.

The sacrifices which these, our oldest veterans willingly made for their country contributed to what America is today and to what the world is becoming.

The universal cry for freedom we are seeing in the world today is in no small part due to the example they set on those distant battlefields in 1917 and 1918. These courageous veterans showed the whole world that Americans were prepared to leave the safety of our continent to defend the ideals of peace, freedom, and democracy for those threatened by aggression.

But the contributions of these veterans did not end when the armistice was signed and they took off their khaki uniforms. They returned to their homes in the United States and helped to build this nation into the greatest the world has ever known.

I believe General Blackjack Pershing summed up the continuing role that veterans play in peacetime quite well when, on the 12th day of November 1918 -- the first day of peace the world had seen in over four years -- he told the doughboys in France:

"Your deeds will live forever on the most glorious pages of American history. There remains now a harder task which will test your soldierly qualities to the utmost. Succeed in this and little note will be taken and few praises will be sung; fail, and the light of your glorious achievements of the past will sadly be dimmed."

For the way in which these World War I veterans fulfilled their historical destiny, we owe a special debt of gratitude. Though with each passing day, the shadow of their generation grows longer, they still serve their nation proudly.

I would ask those present who are veterans of World War I to please stand. Ladies and gentlemen, please join me in recognizing this special group of American veterans. (applaud)

Whether this nation is at war or at peace, the vital role of our veterans cannot be overlooked. Peace itself demands continuing effort and renewed commitment by all of those who served and are still serving.

But, for us, military strength is not an end in itself. We certainly do not glory in war. Instead, we believe that it is the strength we show as a nation which prevents war and has made possible the unprecedented changes which are unfolding in the world virtually every day. We veterans know better than most that the continued strength of America’s military is essential to maintaining the peace.

We are entering a period of historic transition. There is cause for great hope and optimism. We reel at the daily changes we see and are hopeful that the changes will lead to a fundamental and permanent transformation of the system which has ruled the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe and has threatened world peace for the last forty years.

There is one basic explanation for all of these changes – the Soviet system has failed. The Soviet leaders know that their system is bankrupt and is not providing for its citizens. Their communist ideology is on its deathbed. Their economy is shattered, unable to fulfill even the most basic needs of their people. They know they must change.

There are elemental forces at work in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe which are forcing these developments. The entire system has been based on an ideology which could not answer today's questions and an economic system which did not respond to the needs and expectations of the people. These are the forces which created the need for a Soviet leader like President Gorbachev, a leader who could dare to break the chains of the past and seek new answers.

The states of Eastern Europe have come to the same conclusion. The will of the people -- the undeniable yearning of the people for increased political and economic freedom – is being heard.

In Hungary and Poland, the will of the people is breaking through forty years of oppression and misery. And what are we to make of East Germany, where millions of people have taken to the streets to demand democratic reform? Where, in just the past 24 hours, we have seen that chilling symbol of the cold war, the Berlin Wall, become irrelevant. The wall has failed, as will all barriers that attempt to constrain the human spirit.

These historical developments prove that our system works. In this country and in the other western democracies, we have proven that free people can live and work together to guarantee basic human rights. The free world's system of values -- freedom, human rights, democratic government of and by the people, free-market economies, and the rule of law -- these are the underpinnings of our success.
We, however, haven't just discovered these inalienable rights. Americans were born with glasnost and perestroika as their birthrights. The difference is that we have been blessed with a nation of people who have been willing to defend their birthright.

This nation is what it is today because of the efforts and sacrifices of its veterans. It has been the contributions of America’s citizen-soldiers which have convinced potential adversaries throughout history that we are serious about our responsibility to defend our nation and its system of values.

The celebration of Veterans Day is a vivid reminder of the price which has been paid for the liberty we enjoy. It is also an appropriate time to reflect on the burden we all share in ensuring our children, and their children, enjoy that same liberty.
We hope that the next generation won't have to come to Arlington to remember its veterans. But history tells us to be wary. We must be prepared to take advantage of the opportunities being offered, but, for the sake of future generations of Americans, we must act responsibly.

We will need to remain strong. We will need to keep our military defenses up. We must never forget that it is the strength of our arms that has brought us to this point, and it is the strength of our arms that will continue to insure the peace.

Our citizen-soldiers are even now standing guard over our liberty on the frontiers of freedom throughout the world. They must remain strong, trained, ready, and proud.

It is vital that we pass this message on to the next generation of Americans. The break in the dark clouds of tyranny which have hung over the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe for so long is reason for hope. But it is not a sign that we have won and can slacken our determination.

Our sons and daughters must understand that the veterans we remember and honor today are the embodiment of the spirit which has guided our nation for over two hundred years. This spirit has and will continue to keep America free.

Today we have the opportunity to renew our citizenship in this great nation called the United States of America. As we remember and honor the 214,000 American veterans buried here at Arlington and the 27 million living American veterans and their families, so too can we rededicate ourselves to the values for which they served. Their devotion to the ideals of peace and freedom should inspire us, just as we must inspire the next generation of Americans.

In the name of President George Bush, I offer the thanks of a grateful nation to all veterans. And to their families, a special word of thanks for the support they have provided during the good times as well as the bad. They too, have served their country well.

Let us all go from this place with our heads held high, our spirits lifted, and with pride in our hearts for what we have done to preserve the land of the free and the home of the brave.

Ladies and gentlemen, a salute to all of America’s veterans. (salute)

Thank you very much.