United States Department of Veterans Affairs

Veterans Day Remarks

Remarks by President Jimmy Carter
Veterans Day National Ceremony
Arlington National Cemetery
Arlington, Virginia
November 11, 1978


PRESIDENT CARTER: My good friend and fellow veteran, Max Cleland, distinguished officials of the Government of the United States, representatives of patriotic organizations, particularly those who are dedicated to the memory of men and women who have offered their lives for the freedoms which we all cherish:

I'm very grateful to be here today as President to honor all those who have served our Nation in war. It is appropriate that on this 60th anniversary of the armistice that ended World War I, the Congress has restored Veterans Day to November 11. I might add that as Governor of Georgia, helped and abetted and encouraged and advised by Max Cleland, who was a Georgia State Senator, our State never changed. We always recognized November 11, and we never changed the date at all.

I'm also proud that the veterans of World War I are sponsoring this observance. My father was a veteran of World War I. He was a first lieutenant in the Army. And that particular war has played a special place in my life, because, as a young man, I saw the devastating aftereffects of that war -- injuries lingering on, delayed death because of gas and other poisons. I wished that World War I might truly have been the war than ended all wars, that November 11, 1918, could have remained Armistice Day for all times, and that no more Americans, no more people anywhere on Earth might ever again have been called upon to offer their lives in combat.

Those who then proclaimed the great goal of a permanently peaceful world were later dismissed as foolish dreamers because their dream did not come true. Today we know that peace is more than an impractical ideal promoted only by dreamers. It is a practical and an urgent necessity in a world grown too small and too vulnerable to contain the hatred and destruction that war can unleash. It was a good dream in 1918, even if it did not come true, and it is important that we study the reasons those noble efforts failed and were followed by conflicts even more terrible than World War I.

We must never forget the consequences of failure to create a world in which peace can become a personal and permanent blessing for all mankind.

Historian Bruce Catton, who wrote about the War Between the States, said of the cost of war, of the death of young soldiers in cold tents and steaming swamps, of the grief of "a woman on a farm in Indiana or Mississippi, learning that the child who had run barefooted across the meadows in spring, has now gone under the turf in some place whose name she had never heard before."

When we come to honor those who died, we must remember, too, those who were bereaved by the loss of those we knew and loved.

On this day, we also thank those who returned with the memory of war's desolation, some with physical pain which they will always bear. They, perhaps more than others, are determined to build a wiser world.

It's fitting that we praise especially here today no famous men. We come instead to honor those who fought and died without recognition, their names and deeds known only to those who were their fallen comrades, and of course, known to God. So much that is good in this Nation depends on the unknown actions of humble men and women who understand the importance of duty, done without public recognition or the blare of trumpets. The strength of our Nation lies in our willingness to do what we must, each of us each day, wherever may lie our particular duty.

These unknown soldiers best symbolize such acts of quiet courage by ordinary people whose reward is that their Nation and their freedoms remain secure for future generations. They may not have succeeded in achieving the permanent peace they sought. But that does not make their contribution less valuable. They each preserve the dream so that another generation could try again and for our own generation to have a time of respite from war in which to seek a peace that might at last endure.

As President, I try to remember the lessons of history. Our first President knew the terrible responsibility of leading a ragged army of civilians, or enduring the hardships of battle and of nature and of helplessly watching his own men die of wounds and exposure in order to create our free Nation. He warned us bluntly-and I quote George Washington -- To be prepared for war is one of the most effectual means of preserving peace."

I will, as President, make our own preparations so thoroughly that no enemy will ever wish or dare to test us.

I seek to do everything in my power to make peace for ourselves and to help other nations make peace. We Americans cannot hope to have the assurance of permanent peace even when wars are distant from us. In a world where missiles can circle the Earth in a matter of a few minutes, time and space no longer protect us. We must be ever vigilant and ever prepared. But our only true hope for survival and for the survival of liberty and human opportunity is to create a world in which no person or no nation need be so desperate as to risk the devastation and destruction of war.

We are fortunate that no Americans are dying in battle anywhere in the world today. But if we forget why those who are buried here died, then will their sacrifice have lost its meaning. Then, if we forget, they will have paid too high a price.

If we are to honor our dead, whether from World War I, World War II, Korea, Vietnam, or the earlier wars that established our freedom and independence as a nation, we must honor their dream of a world where men and nations live in freedom and settle their inevitable differences peaceably, justly, and without resorting to violence or force.

I pray each day that we can at last secure the dream for which so many Americans have died, that no more of our children or grandchildren need ever lie here beside these unknown soldiers in nameless graves because we could not hold onto the blessings they gave us and realize the dreams they died to leave us.

[At this point, a plaque honoring Vietnam era veterans was unveiled.]

I'd like to say in closing that there is no unknown soldier from the war in Vietnam who is to be buried at Arlington. But in a sense, all who served in Vietnam were unknown soldiers, because their service to our country has not been adequately realized. They were no less brave because our Nation was divided about that war. They were not welcomed back as other heroes have been, but often ignored as though their presence among us was an awkward reminder of the anguish that accompanied that war at home.

Vietnam veterans knew the same pain when a bullet struck its mark, the same doss when they returned home without a leg or an arm or were unable to see the land or the familiar faces they had known. They were no different from veterans of other wars, except that more of them did not understand why they suffered and more of them were further wounded by the attitude of those who stayed behind. Too often, instead of appreciation and support, they have been criticized and rebuffed because they answered the call of duty. Often our Nation's response to their heroism hurt more than their wounds.

So, it is fitting for all those who served in Vietnam be especially honored here at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldiers, because we can never fully realize what it has cost them to answer their Nation's call. We have paid a bitter price not asked of the veterans of any other war in history, and we owe them a special debt.

We have sought to remedy this in the last 2 years. This plaque is not the final tribute our Nation will pay to those who served in Vietnam, but the Congress and I and Max Cleland and others were determined that this plaque be placed here today as an important symbolic act of appreciation to them. The four figures on the plaque represent the men and women in all five services -- Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force, and Coast Guard -- who participated in the war on land, sea, and air. The plaque states, and I quote:

"The people of the United States of America pay tribute to those members of its Armed Forces who served honorably in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam conflict."

I think it has been especially fitting for Max Cleland, the Administrator of the Veterans Administration, to join me in unveiling this plaque. He personifies the dedication and sacrifice of those who served in Vietnam, and their determination to rebuild their own lives and to build a world in which such sacrifices will never be demanded again.