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Office of the Vice President

For Immediate Release November 11, 1999

It is an honor to be here today, to talk about the sacrifice of our veterans -- and how America can remain not only the strongest military power in the 21st Century, but also the strongest force for peace in the world.

In a way, this is really a homecoming for me. I was honored to wear my country's uniform during the Vietnam War. That's why my commitment to America's veterans has always been more than a policy position. It is a personal and moral standard to bear.

I am humbled by the heroes in this room:

Heroes like Gene Peterson, a tank commander who landed at Normandy, fought his way across France and broke through the German forces at the Battle of the Bulge.

Heroes like Floyd Pilcher, who fought against Rommel in North Africa. He was cut off from his unit -- and scavenged for food and water eight days -- then was captured and survived years of deprivation in a German POW camp.

I know -- as so many of you do -- what it's like to leave home for a war zone. I don't claim that my military experience matches in any way what others here have been through, or that my skills as a soldier rival those now standing guard on the DMZ in Korea or patrolling the streets of Kosovo. But I can and do understand what many others feel in their hearts as they leave their families to defend their country.

And Tipper understands what it means to be a young Army wife living on a private's pay in a house trailer on the outskirts of an unfamiliar Army post -- where helicopters sometimes blew her laundry off the clothes line. She remembers what it was like to say goodbye to her husband on our first Christmas together, as I headed off to Vietnam. Those experiences have given me very strong beliefs about what America owes its military families.

We owe our soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines a decent salary, decent living conditions, decent health care and a secure retirement. We owe a debt to those whose service is done. And let's be clear: we don't give our veterans anything. You have earned it -- with sweat, courage, blood, and sacrifice. You've risked everything to keep America free.

I have always fought for the needs of all veterans. I'm proud that we're fighting so hard to protect the Medicare and Social Security benefits upon which so many veterans depend. I'm proud that we won the largest military pay increase in 15 years. I'm proud that we came together, across party lines, to achieve a $1.7 billion increase to improve health care and long-term care through the VA system.

Of course, nothing we do for our veterans will matter if we don't back them up while they're on the front lines.

That's why I have always, always stood for a strong America -- from my unwavering dedication to a strong military, to my vote in favor of the Gulf War in 1991 -- to strike back against the evil regime of Saddam Hussein.

But as I look at some of you in this room here who have paid a heavy price, I recall the words of General MacArthur, who said: "the soldier above all other people prays for peace, for he must suffer and bear the deepest wounds and scars of war."

In my years in the House and in the Senate, one of the issues I worked hardest on was arms control -- reducing the danger of nuclear war.

I still remember speaking at a Girls' State convention in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, back in 1980. I asked the delegates whether they expected to see nuclear war in their lifetimes. Most of them -- 90 percent -- raised their hands. I was really surprised. Then I asked: how many believed we could stop it if we tried? Only a handful raised their hands. I was shocked. Since that moment, I've worked hard, throughout my career, to try to change that.

The change we need requires more than just a strong defense. It also requires American engagement with the world -- and it requires American leadership.

We have been rebuilding a consensus in our country for a strong national defense policy. But we also need a strong national consensus on the other great pillar of American foreign policy: waging peace through serious and sustained diplomacy.

Diplomacy, together with military might, is how we are fighting the spread of nuclear weapons around the world. It is how we are bringing international terrorists to justice. It is how we are breaking up deadly drug cartels and crime syndicates around the world.

It is also how we are spreading democracy, freedom, and free markets around the world -- to build a world that is stable and strong enough not just to protect our borders, but also to fight hunger, disease, and illiteracy; to protect the global environment; and to unlock the potential of people everywhere, whose lives will increasingly intersect and have an effect on our lives.

History teaches us that an ounce of prevention is worth a mighty arsenal of cure.

It's no accident that when the World War II veterans came home -- after the worst war the world had ever seen -- they gave their full support to President Truman, General Marshall, and Senator Vandenberg in waging the most aggressive campaign of diplomacy and statesmanship the world had ever seen. A bipartisan commitment to diplomacy -- from NATO, to the United Nations, to our close engagement with all freedom-loving nations -- was essential to winning the Cold War. It took almost fifty years, but we won. Now, just as we had the wisdom to emphasize diplomacy in wake of World War II, we must have wisdom and determination to emphasize diplomacy in the wake of the Cold War.

But unfortunately, more and more each year, engagement abroad means a political struggle here at home. When Congress risks our vote at the United Nations by refusing to pay our dues; when our best chance of achieving a nuclear test ban is sacrificed on the altar of partisan politics; when even the free and fair trade agreements that deepen the ties among nations become political footballs, we threaten our very stability and security.

That is why I make you this pledge today: I will fight to maintain American leadership in the world. And I will fight against those who would wall us off from our own security and prosperity.

I believe there are six central steps we must take:

  1. Our next President must resubmit the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, and demand its ratification by the Senate.
  2. It is time for America to pay its U.N. dues in full. At a time when many still try to score political points by attacking our commitment to the United Nations, let's realize: if we lose our seat at the table, we will be shut out of a crucial forum for defending our interests in the world -- and for sharing the security burden with our allies.
  3. We need a firm commitment to foreign affairs in our budget. Right now, foreign affairs adds up to just one penny for every dollar in our federal budget. Yet even in a time of prosperity, this Congress has tried to cut security at our embassies; cut efforts to fight nuclear smuggling; cut funding for counter-terrorism; cut funds for countries in the midst of democratic transitions; cut funds for dismantling nuclear weapons in the former Soviet Union; and cut funds for peacekeeping. These programs are not charity, but national security. They must be enhanced, not reduced.
  4. We must redouble our commitment to fighting terrorism through diplomacy and international cooperation. American diplomacy has already led to the arrest of suspects involved in the World Trade Center bombing and the terrorist bombing of Pan Am Flight 103. In a world where crime is global, making sure we can conduct foreign affairs abroad is crucial to fighting terrorism here at home.
  5. We must engage Russia and China, not pretend we can turn our backs on them. The greatest threat to America is not the strength of Russia and China, but their weakness. That is why we must work to integrate them into the world economy; help them build free-market economies; and encourage their efforts toward reform. We cannot always choose who we negotiate with; our negotiating partners are often not all that we hope them to be -- but since we engaged with Russia, more than 1,500 Russian nuclear warheads have been deactivated, and U.S. and Russian weapons are no longer targeted at one another. That is a handsome dividend.
  6. When diplomacy fails, as it sometimes does, we need to be sure that our men and women in uniform have all that they need to deter, and, if necessary reverse aggression. It is still a very dangerous world - and a strong military has to be the cornerstone of our security. We need to make every reasonable investment necessary to make sure that we can recruit and retain America's top talent for our armed forces. And we need to make sure they have the world's best training and technology -- to get the job done safely.

American diplomacy is a crucial foundation of our freedom and security. It is also our most important means for spreading our values -- of freedom, democracy, and human dignity. We have to recognize that America has a unique mission in the world: to show that freedom unlocks a higher fraction of the human potential than any other way of organizing human society. And to show that with freedom, diversity can be a blessing, not a curse.

Today, our men and women in uniform stand guard on the frontiers of freedom. And so, to you, to those who came before you, and to those who will carry on after you, America owes this promise: If our servicemen and women should be called on to risk their lives for the sake of our freedom and ideals, they will do so with the best training and technology the world's richest country can put at their service -- and then only after every diplomatic effort to achieve our objectives has been tried and failed.

We owe you that commitment. America is today the land of the free, because you have helped make it the home of the brave. Thank you for your courage, service, and sacrifice.

May God bless you all, and may God bless America.

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