THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
REMARKS BY THE PRESIDENT AT PRESENTATION OF MEDAL OF FREEDOM TO SECRETARY OF DEFENSE WILLIAM PERRY
Fort Myer, Virginia
10:40 A.M. EST
THE PRESIDENT: Thank you very much. General Shalikashvili, Mrs. Shalikashvili, distinguished leaders of United States Armed Forces, members of Congress, service members in our Armed Forces assembled here today; to the friends of Secretary and Mrs. Perry, and to Bill and Lee and your children and your grandchildren, your other family members who are here today: Let me say that for Hillary and me, this is a bittersweet day; a great privilege for us to be here to honor Bill and Lee, a great regret that our nation will be losing, as all nations must and we, too, must from time to time, one of the ablest people who ever served the United States in any position. We come to honor Bill Perry, the leader, the statesman, and the friend of America's Armed Forces.
Once he was asked if he had ever aspired to a career in government service, and he replied, "No, I was a math major." Fortunately, for the rest of us, he set aside his love of mathematics and engineering to serve in demanding levels of government where the clarity and precision of his training and insight and ability were highly valued and sorely needed.
He did so with remarkable distinction, accomplishment and integrity. And I agree with Shali, when the history of our time is written, Bill Perry may well be recorded as the most productive, effective, Secretary of Defense the United States ever had.
His association with our military dates to his service as an enlisted man at the end of World War II; then as an Army reserve officer. At Stanford he helped to educate and sharpen some of our nation's great young minds. As a businessman, he created jobs and prosperity for his home state of California. As Under Secretary of Defense in the late 1970s, it was his vision and drive and leadership that brought from the drawing board to deployment in record time many of the advanced technologies that were vital to our nation's victory in Operation Desert Storm. Bill Perry was one of the great and, indeed, unsung heroes of the Gulf War.
But we gather today, first and foremost, to honor and thank Bill and Lee for their last three years leading the Defense Department. This was a difficult job, but the perfect one for Bill Perry. He completed the post-Cold War drawdown of our Armed Forces while increasing their readiness capabilities and technological edge, something no one thought could be done. The simple fact is that this is one of the great managerial achievements in our country's history. Today, our troops are the best trained, the best equipped, the best prepared fighting force in the world. And they have proven that again and again on Bill Perry's watch, from Haiti to Bosnia to the Persian Gulf.
Bill Perry downsized without downgrading morale. He always valued and honored the service of people who do the hard work of ensuring our security. And as the Vice President well knows, he brought reinventing government right into the E Wing of the Pentagon with common sense acquisition and financial reform. He never let the crisis of the moment deter him from meeting the long-term challenges and seizing the long-term opportunities to build a more secure future for the United States.
He led our successful efforts to dismantle and de-target thousands of Russian nuclear warheads once aimed at American cities, and to eliminate nuclear warheads from Kazakhstan, Ukraine, and Belarus. The Cooperative Threat Reduction program he managed has helped keep nuclear materials from falling into the hands of rogue states and terrorists. He helped to build a new security architecture in Europe through NATO's Partnership for Peace program. He reinvigorated our security ties with Japan and established new security relationships with Russia, China, and our neighbors in Latin America.
The Department of Defense is the largest and most complex organization in our nation's government. He ran it hands on. This method would be demanding enough at any federal agency, but when your headquarters is the Pentagon and your staff numbers 3 million, what Bill calls management by walking around is all the more remarkable. But as has been said today by others who know well, it is his affinity for and his commitment to our nation's troops, the men and women who serve at home, abroad and at sea, and who are sent into harm's way at a moment's notice, which I most admire.
In many of our private meetings together over the last three years, Bill Perry would always -- always -- bring up the welfare, the morale, the interests, and the future of our men and women in uniform who are enlisted personnel and their families. Secretary Perry's many trips abroad -- and as the most traveled Defense Secretary in the history of the United States, there were many trips -- were as much about checking in with our troops and their families, and checking on their quality of life as they were about meeting with defense ministers and military leaders in other lands.
As a former private, his heart never left the members of the enlisted corps. As a former lieutenant, he understood the leadership demands we place upon our junior officers. But above all, he understood that whether enlisted or officer, military service is the ultimate expression of patriotism by those who choose to wear our uniform.
I will miss Bill Perry for many things: for his thoughtful temperament and manner; for speaking with the mathematician's unadorned clarity, a rarity in Washington. Teddy Roosevelt said that those of us in positions of authority should speak softly and carry a big stick. Bill Perry spoke softly and carried the biggest stick in the world, with great care and a great effect. His quiet confidence was always an incredible comfort to me. There were qualities which our allies relied upon, and as long as he was Secretary of Defense I never went to bed a single night worried about the security of the United States or the welfare of our men and women in uniform.
His practice of bipartisanship earned Bill Perry the trust and respect of the Congress and the American people, as well as credibility abroad as an American who could speak for the entire country. Many of you know that Secretary Perry's personal hero is his predecessor, General George Marshall. During the crisis days of World War II, Marshall lived right here at Ft. Myer, and then went on to become a great Secretary of State and the third Secretary of Defense. While Bill Perry is just one of just 16 to follow him in that difficult job, I believe he is the successor George Marshall would be most proud of.
The measure of a great Defense Secretary is whether he leaves our defense -- military stronger and our nation safer than on the day he took office. It is, and we are.
And so it is my great privilege as President, as Commander in Chief, and as a grateful American citizen, to present William J. Perry with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian award.
Commander, publish the order.
(The Medal of Freedom citation is read.)
SECRETARY PERRY: "I shall be telling this with a sigh somewhere ages and ages hence. Two roads diverged in the wood, and I, I took the one less traveled by. And that has made all of the difference."
Four years ago, America faced a choice, a choice between two roads that diverged. One road led to isolation and apathy, the other road to engagement and action. This century has taught us that the road of isolation and apathy leads to instability and war. President Clinton chose the road of engagement and action. He strove to bridge the Cold War chasms, to reduce its nuclear legacy, to reach out to former adversaries, to prevent the conditions for conflict and to create the conditions for peace. And that, as Robert Frost has said, had made all the difference.
It has made all the difference in Europe, where by establishing the Partnership for Peace we have replaced an Iron Curtain which divided the nations of Europe with a circle of security which brings them together. It has made all the difference in our own hemisphere, where all nations save one have chosen democracy, and by establishing the Defense Ministerial of Americas we have forged new links of trust and cooperation.
It has made all the difference in the Asia Pacific, where by establishing a framework agreement we froze the North Korean nuclear program and prevented a nuclear arms race, and where by strengthening the security agreement with Japan, we have ensured America's security presence -- the oxygen that fuels the region's prosperity.
Choosing the right road has made all the difference around the world. By executing the Nunn-Lugar program, we have dismantled 4,000 nuclear weapons that once targeted America's cities. Today, the threat of nuclear holocaust no longer hangs like a dark cloud over the heads of our children.
Four years ago, the Department of Defense faced a choice. One road was well-traveled and easy to follow, but it would allowed our forces to atrophy as we completed the post-Cold War drawdown. The other road was less traveled by, twisting and bumpy with hard choices -- hard choices to ensure that we had strong capable military forces ready to respond in a world of new dangers.
Twice before in this century when faced with that same choice, we chose the well-traveled road of neglect and we paid the price -- in Korea with Task Force Smith, and after Vietnam with a hollow army. This time we chose the road less-traveled by, the road of readiness. We established training as our highest priority, training designed to make the scrimmage tougher than the game. We established the iron logic that quality of life for our forces meant quality people in our forces. We reformed our acquisition system to give our quality people the most effective technology -- technology that enables them to dominate the battlefield; to win quickly, decisively, and with minimum losses. And that has made all the difference.
It made all the difference wherever we sent our forces to prevent, deter, or defeat aggression: In Haiti, where we restored democracy. In the Arabian Gulf, where we contained a brutal dictator. In the Korean Peninsula, where we stood firm with an ally. In Bosnia, where we have stopped the killing and brought to a war-ravaged people the blessings of peace. The readiness road ensured the success of each of these missions. Readiness made all the difference.
Four years ago I faced a personal choice between a well-traveled road to a quieter life centered around family and friends, and a less-traveled road that led to turmoil, tension, and tough decisions. But it also led to an opportunity to serve our nation, to support the troops I cared for, and to achieve the dreams I cherished.
I thought long and hard upon that choice and took counsel from sage friends. I questioned my wisdom, my patience and my ability to endure. But the courage to take that test came from the advice of a tough Sergeant Major: "Take care of the troops," he said, "and they will take care of you."
I have followed that advice, and that for me has made all the difference. It made all the difference every time I advised President Clinton on when and how to use military force. It made all the difference when I negotiated with ministerial colleagues, when I met with presidents and kings. It made all the difference when I decided on force levels, mission goals and rules of engagement every time we put our troops in harm's way. It made all the difference when I met with soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines, in distant lands, on domestic bases, on training fields, ships at sea and cargo planes or fighter jets. It made all the difference when I shared Thanksgiving meals with them in Haiti, in Macedonia, in Bosnia.
That advice -- "Take care of the troops, and they will take care of you" -- has made all the difference as I learned from my mistakes, as I took pride in my achievements.
Today, I say farewell to the President, who honored me by asking me to serve as Secretary. I say farewell to my colleagues in the administration who worked with me to achieve common goals. I say farewell to my friends in the media, and in the Congress, and to the wonderful friends I have made in the embassies.
And I say farewell to our military leaders who have served our country so brilliantly. They have prepared our forces for war, but they are dedicated to peace. Elie Wiesel has said, "Peace is not God's gift to mankind. Peace is our gift to each other." And for the last four years peace is the gift the we have given the American public.
But the hardest farewell to say is to the troops who have served me and whom I have served. Words cannot adequately describe my pride in you. So my farewell to you is a simple benediction: May the Lord bless you and keep you. May the Lord cause His face to shine upon you and give you peace.
Thank you. (Applause.)
END 11:00 A.M. EST