May 15, 1998 | Lecture on National Security and Defense
This lecture was held at The Heritage Foundation on April 24, 1998.
It is a pleasure to be here with The Heritage Foundation and with so many conservative heroes from around America. Let me begin by congratulating Thaddeus Lott.1 I could have listened to him speak all day about our children and our responsibility to do a better job in educating them.
When I was at the Department of Education under Bill Bennett, we had a survey done, and we discovered that if you give children homework, their grades go up. If they actually do the homework themselves instead of subcontracting it to their parents, the grades go up even more.
Now, you might wonder why we had to spend money discovering what an average guy walking down the streets of Chicago could have told us. The reason is that the educational blob in Washington--the same blob that Thaddeus has hit his head up against time and time again--needed to rediscover the obvious. So we had to spend money to find what all people with any common sense knew already.
While Thaddeus was speaking, I couldn't help but think that if I wanted something to make me jump out of bed in the weeks and months ahead, it would be this thought: What about Thaddeus Lott as Secretary of Education? Now there is an exciting thought.
We all are conservatives, of course, and we all are committed to the cause. But I don't think any of us wake up every day and have as our first thought: What can we do to make the world safe for conservatism? I do think, however, that we get up in the morning thinking: How can we make America a better place? How can we ensure that it is going to be that shining city upon a hill that the Founding Fathers risked everything for and that Ronald Reagan continually reminded us of?
So I'd like to ask you a question: How is America doing? How do we feel about ourselves? It's 1998; we are 20 months away from the beginning of a new century. Where are we? Are things going well, or are things going poorly? For my answer to that question, I find myself borrowing from the famous line that Charles Dickens used to begin A Tale of Two Cities: "It is the best of times and it is the worst of times." That seems to me a perfect description of America in 1998.
Now, it is pretty easy to see why it is the best of times. This has been an incredible century for the United States. It is being called the American Century, and that is not an exaggeration. We led the Free World in defeating Nazism. We continued to lead the Free World, making the sacrifices of money and blood to win the Cold War.
That, we all know, was essentially a moral struggle. Ronald Reagan knew to the depth of his bones that it was, at the end of the day, a moral struggle between two diametrically opposed viewpoints of what the world would be like; of how governments would treat men; of what rights men had to live freely. American liberalism had quite a different view.
I'll never forget when Jimmy Carter went to the University of Notre Dame and gave a speech in which he apologized for America's inordinate fear of communism. A few years later, Ronald Reagan went to Notre Dame and said that the Soviet Union was the focus of evil in the modern world. What a contrast between two worldviews. Jimmy Carter went to Moscow and planted a big, fat, wet kiss on Leonid Brezhnev's cheek. Ronald Reagan went to Berlin and said: "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall."
Many of you probably know that President Reagan had to put that line back in his speech four different times. A draft of the speech was routinely circulated around the government for review. The bureaucrats would get their hands on it--the "nervous Nellies," the people at the State Department. When the draft came back to the Oval Office, Reagan would look through it.
Remember, this was the President who wasn't supposed to know anything about details. Well, he knew enough about details to notice the line wasn't there. So he'd put a little caret there and, in his distinctive handwriting, he would write: "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall." The speech would go back out, and when it came back--lo and behold--that line was gone again! President Reagan just kept putting it back in.
This century will be known as the American Century not just because we won the Cold War, however; not just because of battlefield victories; and not just because Ronald Reagan understood that this was essentially a moral conflict. There is also the triumph of democratic capitalism, the fact that our system has produced more jobs for more people than any system in the world. That has made it the American century. Our technology is second to none. We see success after success in our medical system, our space program, and in so many other fields.
And yet, if you are like me, I suspect there is still something troubling you. In fact, there is something troubling most of the American people. With all these successes, with the victory in the Cold War, the polls show that about one-half of the country thinks we're headed in the wrong direction.
Not that things aren't going well for most Americans: Maybe their IBM stock has gone up, their Keogh plan looks better, their retirement is going to be a little fatter than it was going to be otherwise. Their job is doing well; maybe they're making some overtime. But that's not enough; that's not the only way you define a great nation. And this is troubling the American people. That is why many people think this is the worst of times.
People around America open up their newspapers every day and read the same stories you and I read. They read a story out of Arkansas about a couple of little American boys who went into a forest for target practice--on the kids that they were just sitting with in class the day before.
George Will remarked that he didn't think those boys could have shot puppies like that. One reason is that they don't see puppies getting shot all day long. But the average American kid between the ages of 7 and 17 will see 17,000 murders on television in the course of his life. We read this story and we are moved by it. We read that the nine-year-old boy could be heard in his cell that night saying over and over again, "Mommy, Mommy." Yet, a few hours before, he was out shooting his classmates.
A good American girl from suburban New Jersey went to the senior dance, excused herself, went to the ladies room, gave birth, threw her baby in the trash can, cleaned herself up, and returned to the dance where she and her boyfriend requested their favorite song so they could have the last dance of the evening.
You sit there and you wonder how a nice suburban girl in New Jersey learned that she could treat her own flesh and blood like it was a Styrofoam cup? What was the poisoned air she breathed that taught her that that was okay?
Just a couple of days ago, there was a big truck accident during rush hour on I-395, near Washington, D.C. A woman was lying, critically injured, in one of the lanes on this very busy highway. What did people do? Did anyone stop? No, they went around the woman, up onto the shoulder of the road. After a few minutes of this, during which the woman barely escaped being hit again, an Army major came along, got out of his car, and stood next to the woman to protect her until help could arrive.
What did the drivers do now? They made obscene gestures and shook their fists at this man because he was slowing them down even more. This led The Washington Post, which tends on its editorial pages to have a hard time noticing a moral issue, to see in this incident evidence of a moral crisis in America. The Post editorialized that maybe the people talking about this moral crisis have got something here.
It is pretty remarkable when even the Post understands that allowing somebody to lie defenseless in the road has a moral component to it. And I would like to suggest to you this afternoon that that is exactly what we have done with America's defense. In our moral failure to defend America from missile attack, we have allowed American families to be as defenseless as that woman lying on I-395 at the mercy of the cars going by, as defenseless as that baby tossed into the trash can, as defenseless as those children shot in Arkansas.
Back in 1979, Ronald Reagan went to the headquarters of the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) in Colorado Springs. He wanted to brief himself on issues that he knew would come up in the presidential campaign.
His conversation with the head of NORAD went something like this: "Now walk me through this. What exactly will you guys do if the warning system here ever tells you that an ICBM is headed toward the United States?" The commander looked at Reagan and replied, "Well, I'll get on the phone to the mayor of the city it's headed to and I'll tell him he's got fifteen minutes to get out of town."
And this guy shrugged and said, "Well, uhh, Mr. Reagan, we don't have any way to bring an ICBM down. If an enemy fires that missile at the United States, and it is technologically a sound missile, and its guidance system is correct, it will land on its target."
So Ronald Reagan, who was already passionately committed to the idea that he needed to liberate Eastern Europe if he ever became President, now became passionately committed to another idea: that he would do something to end this morally bankrupt policy that left our families and our communities naked to the whims of our enemies. And so, as we all know, Ronald Reagan came up with the Strategic Defense Initiative. And SDI, along with Ronald Reagan's moral challenge to the Soviet Union, not only ended the Cold War, it brought the Soviet Union down.
Now, what did American liberalism do? You've got to give them credit. They lost their worldview on the Cold War. They watched Ronald Reagan triumph. They watched the Soviet Union unravel. So they used the victory in the Cold War to help lull America back to sleep on the need for a missile defense system. As a result, SDI has been put back on the back burner. We know we won't get any action on it from the President, and we've gotten precious little action from the Congress of the United States.
But the conservative voices, crying in the wilderness in recent years, have never slackened and have worked heroically to awaken public opinion about the need for missile defense. The Heritage Foundation has been one that has taken the lead. So, too, has the Center for Security Policy. It was Frank Gaffney who first talked to me about the implications of America's lack of missile defenses and what we face today from Islamic militants who have been warning in recent weeks that the United States and its allies must be taken out in any way possible.
The evidence is overwhelming that the threats to American lives and the lives of our friends are anything but remote. They are recent and they are real, whether in the basement of the World Trade Center, in the driveway of the Central Intelligence Agency, or from a ballistic missile that could be fired by one of our enemies or terrorists against the United States.
The major obstacle that stands in the way of our deploying an effective missile defense system is the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, which was signed in 1972 with the now-defunct Soviet Union. In my view, the treaty ought to be declared null and void. It was made with an entity that no longer exists, and it now handcuffs us from defending the people and the families of the United States.
Those who reflexively defend the ABM Treaty know that if Americans ever understand what is going on, they will be outraged. So our opponents try to convince the American people that the technology to do anything about this problem doesn't exist, or that it is so costly that we can't afford to do it. Both of those assertions are lies. The truth is that there has been major progress in this area. The technology is there.
Right now, as we meet in the heartland of America, a thousand miles from any ocean, our Navy is on remote assignment around the world very close to the kind of threats that I am talking about. Our ships on the high seas enjoy a high level of protection from cruise missiles, bombers, and other offensive weapons because of something called the Aegis system.
The technology from that Aegis system can be used to accomplish our goal of defending American families. In fact, a blue ribbon panel assembled by The Heritage Foundation concluded that virtually all of the necessary infrastructure for a robust global missile defense has already been developed and could be deployed at a cost of several billion dollars.
It seems to me that this is not only a defense imperative; this is a moral imperative. Our movement, and the politicians who claim to speak for our movement, must find the courage to go to the American people, explain it to them, and count on their common sense to know what we ought to do. I intend to do everything I can to make that happen.
Over the years I have been associated with a number of domestic moral issues: the sanctity of human life, the defense of the American family. Of course, I will continue to work on those issues. But the main reason I came here at Heritage's invitation was to tell you that in the months ahead I will do everything I can to arouse the pro-family and pro-life movement around America to see this as a pro-family and a pro-life issue.
Yes, we want to save one and a half million babies a year, but we also have a moral imperative to make sure that we don't wake up some morning to find that the most horrible catastrophe imaginable has taken place: that a missile has fallen on a defenseless American city.
If that day ever comes, my friends, the American people will demand to know who was responsible for neglecting America's defenses and allowing that tragedy to occur. This is a fight worth fighting; this is a fight worth expending our political capital on; and I will do everything I can to work with you to make sure that we do the moral thing on this issue.
Let me close by reminding you of something that I know you don't need any reminder about. As we meet here this afternoon in Chicago, there is a man in California who is in the twilight of his years. He has forgotten a lot of things because of the ravages of disease.
For those of us who are Republicans, we must never forget what he taught the party of Lincoln about its obligations to the American Experiment, about who we are and what the purposes of our liberty are.
And so I ask you to rededicate yourself to the idea that we are Ronald Reagan's heirs and that we must be committed to making sure that in every battle our final goal is that America--not just this year, but ten years and 50 years and 100 years from now--will still be seen by the world as that shining city on a hill.