On this cold autumn day, in this hallowed place of honor, we gather to convey our Nation’s gratitude for those who risked their lives for the land, the people, and the ideals they loved. At the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918, the guns fell silent and the First World War drew to an end. Ever since, Americans have set aside November 11th to honor our veterans whose footsteps set the pace of freedom’s march.
From our fiery birth in 1776 to freedom’s latest triumphs in the Persian Gulf, America’s veterans have always answered the call and given their all whenever tyrants and despots imperiled freedom and democracy. They called World War I “the war to end all wars,” but that was not to be. The Earth was engulfed a second time and Americans of my generation rose up again to defend their homeland and liberate two continents. Fifty years later the memorial to World War II veterans is all around us, an America strong and proud, her proud example lighting the way to liberty.
And yet even with that war’s end, freedom’s work was not complete. First in Korea and then in Vietnam, two more generations of Americans responded with determination and vigor. And today, on this Veterans Day, we owe a special debt to the men and women of Desert Storm. They went proudly, willingly, on a mission of high principle and noble purpose to defeat aggression and defend freedom. They freed a captive nation and set America free by renewing our faith in ourselves.
And in this victory America rallied behind those who served in Desert Storm, and in a wonderful way, they rallied behind those who so proudly served in Vietnam. It was long overdue, and it was good for the Nation’s soul. America holds a special place in history. As we preserved and strengthened our own democracy, we’ve sought to extend the blessings of liberty throughout the world. The ideals on which this great Nation was founded have taken root in new and fertile lands.
In the Western Hemisphere, 98 percent of the people now live in democracies. In Africa, people line up to vote as one-man states collapse. Europeans, East and West, unite in ways never thought possible. Age-old enemies of the Middle East finally sit face to face to seek an end to their bitter strife. The Soviet Union strives to throw off the dead hand of communism. And the time is coming when those last few totalitarian states will fade into historical oblivion.
The United States will always be a force for peace in the world. But the peace we seek is a real peace. The triumph of freedom, and prosperity, not merely the absence of war. We can never know which war will be the last. But we take as our hope the prophecy of Isaiah, that “nations shall not lift sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.” And yes, we hope, we pray, that as the years progress, the face of war will recede into our distant memory. But the memory of our veterans and their sacrifice will never fade.
President Coolidge said long ago, “The nation which forgets its defenders will itself be forgotten.” We will not forget. America will not forget. We will not forget those who died. We will not forget those who do the hard work of freedom every day. And we will never forget the POW’s and the MIA’s yet to be accounted for.
A year from now, 100 years from now, citizens will come here on November 11th to remember. And yet we cannot confine our obligation to a single day. We must always remember the importance of preparedness and the high cost of liberty.
For more than 50 years, 24 hours a day, a lone sentinel has kept a silent vigil aside the Tomb of the Unknowns. And recently, one of the outstanding men who guard the tomb was asked what is it like here at night, alone, in the quiet of this place. And he said he felt a kinship to the men resting here; that this was where he wanted to be, here to honor his comrades and all they represent. “Sometimes,” this young PFC said, “The rain streaks in your eyes or your fingers go numb from cold, but then I think about what they suffered through. And after that my duty doesn’t seem hard at all.”
There’s a poem the honor guards learn that says it all. “You are guarding the world’s most precious gifts. You, you alone, are the symbol of 250 million people who wish to show their gratitude. And you will march through the rain, the snow, and the heat to prove it.”
To the men and women of our Armed Forces and to all our veterans, know that you have your country’s gratitude on Veterans Day and every day of the year. And may God Bless America and the veterans who keep her free.
— President George H.W. Bush
Remarks at Arlington National Cemetery on Nov. 11, 1991