President George H. W. Bush
National WWII Memorial Dedication
Service of Celebration and Thanksgiving
May 29, 2004
Let me start by saluting Bob Dole, and everyone who served so selflessly and ably on the various committees, for seeing this amazing project through – and in so doing helping our Nation honor its solemn obligation never to forget. I bring similar greetings from President Ford, himself a World War II veteran, who regrets he was unable to be here today – and who asked me to extend his warmest wishes to his fellow veterans.
It is altogether fitting and proper that we gather this weekend and in this place to memorialize the people, places, and events that forever changed the course of history and turned back a rising tide of tyranny – when the fate of the free world hung in the balance.
The passage of time makes it easy to forget that the 1930s and 1940s were decades of great danger and uncertainty in our world. Led by fanatics, the armies we faced routinely and systematically killed without remorse – seeking to destroy the institutions and freedoms we have always held so dear. Such was their brutal, thoroughly evil nature that in hindsight their actions almost seem surreal – as if they occurred in another lifetime. Yet you need look no further than to the death camps at Auschwitz and Treblinka, or to the massacre at Nanjing, to understand the true depths of their depravity.
Defeating them would prove to be a difficult and deadly enterprise.
Winston Churchill often remarked to General Eisenhower that "we must take care that the tide does not run red with the blood of American and British youth, or the beaches be choked with their bodies." In the end, the price of victory was indeed high – as Churchill feared – but today we also know that the price of defeat surely would have been far greater.
All that stood between the Axis Powers and their evil objectives was an ill-prepared, somewhat disparate alliance of free peoples – nations that were generally slow to anger, and perhaps even reluctant to fight at first, but who, once provoked, were unrelenting in their mission to see justice prevail.
Such was the case when history beckoned some six decades ago, and thrust the next generation of American heroes into the crucible of war. These were average men and women who lived in extraordinary times. No matter their role – on the home front, or on the front lines – they were united. No matter the danger or hardship, they responded with exceptional bravery.
Indeed, 60 years ago this very week, in what history will surely mark as one of the great achievements of mankind, two million sons from 15 countries jumped into flak-filled skies and a blood-soaked surf, and met death on an even plane, and on a horrible day filled with destruction helped save the world.
Meanwhile, half-way around the world, the same scene of selfless sacrifice played out on the volcanic beaches of Iwo Jima, and Guadalcanal, and Tarawa as our Navy – having recovered from the devastation of Pearl Harbor – was well on its way to defeating the forces of Imperialism in Asia.
Tom Brokaw, in his wonderful book, called the World War II veterans the "greatest generation." I respectfully disagree. The men and women who make up our all-volunteer forces fighting today in Iraq, in Afghanistan, and serving with honor and integrity in countless other locations around the world are every bit as great as any generation that preceded them. The comforts of modern society have not lessened the burdens that they have freely borne, just as their families have not been spared the constant pain of separation.
To each of them, no less a debt of gratitude is owed.
An inherent part of our birthright as Americans is a sacred duty to defend freedom. Today, we as Americans – now facing this new enemy in international terror – can take solace that despite the dangers we still face in our world, a new band of brothers has stepped forward and answered this timeless, noble call. This new generation loves America just as much as the patriots who fought in World War II, Vietnam, Korea, Desert Storm – and everywhere in between.
During World War II, Eleanor Roosevelt reportedly kept a prayer at her bedside that read: "Help me to remember somewhere out there a man died for me today. As long as there be war, I must ask and answer 'Am I worth dying for?"
Tonight when you go to sleep – and say your prayers of gratitude for those who served so many years ago in World War II – remember, too, that at that moment there is a young man or woman half-way around the world, sitting alone in the dark, waiting to go out on patrol. They may be tired, and even a little scared – but everyday they put on that uniform, and they lay their lives on the line for each of us, to keep us free and safe. They not only make us proud: despite the uncertainty of the times in which we find ourselves, they also inspire us, and give us confidence in our future.
And so while it is proper that we pause to look back, and reflect on the past heroism of one generation of Americans – and while we celebrate the long-overdue dedication of a National World War II Memorial – let us also not be afraid to look forward with renewed faith, hope, and courage that America's best days are yet to be.