At Reagan Gala, Secretary Cites Importance of U.S. Military Power

WASHINGTON, May 25, 2011 — At a gala here to cel­e­brate what would have been Ronald Reagan’s 100th birth­day, Defense Sec­re­tary Robert M. Gates quot­ed the 40th pres­i­dent on the impor­tance of sus­tain­ing U.S. mil­i­tary pow­er.
“As Pres­i­dent Rea­gan once observed,” Gates told an audi­ence of more than 500, “ ‘of the four wars in my life­time, none came about because the Unit­ed States was too strong.’ ”

The Ronald Rea­gan Cen­ten­ni­al Gala is part of the two-year-long cel­e­bra­tion to com­mem­o­rate the cen­ten­ni­al of Ronald Rea­gan, who was born in Feb­ru­ary 1911.

In the audi­ence was British Defense Sec­re­tary Liam Fox, along with mem­bers of Con­gress and the diplo­mat­ic corps and oth­ers who served Reagan’s pres­i­den­cy.

Fox brought a mes­sage from for­mer Prime Min­is­ter Mar­garet Thatch­er, who said she was “with the audi­ence tonight in spir­it on the momen­tous occa­sion of this won­der­ful man” and great pres­i­dent.

Fox called Rea­gan and Thatch­er “giants of his­to­ry at a time when his­to­ry need­ed giants.”

Also at the gala, Lech Wale­sa — the first freely elect­ed pres­i­dent of Poland, a trade-union orga­niz­er and a human-rights activist – who received the Ronald Rea­gan Cen­ten­ni­al Free­dom Award. Wale­sa co-found­ed Sol­i­dar­i­ty, the Sovi­et bloc’s first inde­pen­dent trade union, and received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1983. “It’s alto­geth­er fit­ting that the theme of these cen­ten­ni­al cel­e­bra­tions is ‘Inspired Free­dom, Changed the World.’ ” Gates said.

“And while Pres­i­dent Reagan’s domes­tic ini­tia­tives fun­da­men­tal­ly changed the pol­i­tics and gov­ern­ment of this coun­try,” he added, “as defense sec­re­tary for at least a few more weeks, I’d like to focus my remarks tonight on how he brought that slo­gan to life abroad.”

In the decade before Rea­gan took office, Gates said, there had been a bloody takeover in Viet­nam and mil­lions of deaths across South­east Asia, “stagfla­tion,” two ener­gy crises and the Sovi­et inva­sion of Afghanistan.

There was rev­o­lu­tion in Iran, an embassy tak­en hostage and a failed res­cue mis­sion, he added. Also at the time, tens of thou­sands of Cuban sol­diers were in Ango­la and Ethiopia, Nicaragua was fast mov­ing into Cuba’s orbit and Cuban-sup­port­ed insur­gen­cies were in El Sal­vador and else­where in the region.

“Some of you here today remem­ber what it was like to work in nation­al secu­ri­ty dur­ing that time, or any time dur­ing the Cold War -– always car­ry­ing a heavy bur­den, always fac­ing an exis­ten­tial threat, not just to our coun­try, but to the entire world.”

Rea­gan, near­ly alone, Gates said, had the bedrock con­vic­tion that the Sovi­et sys­tem was “rot­ting from with­in” and could be brought down.

“He spoke blunt truths about the Sovi­et sys­tem and Sovi­et behav­ior. Remem­ber the ‘Evil Empire’ speech in 1983? It drove Moscow nuts. No one spoke these truths with more cred­i­bil­i­ty or more elo­quence,” the sec­re­tary said.

The Rea­gan administration’s actions, overt and covert, gave hope to dis­si­dents and mil­lions of oth­ers trapped behind the Iron Cur­tain and let the world know that “Amer­i­ca was back,” said said Gates, who holds a doc­tor­ate in Russ­ian and Sovi­et his­to­ry from George­town Uni­ver­si­ty.

After the Gene­va Sum­mit in 1985, Rea­gan and the new Sovi­et leader, Mikhail Gor­bachev, “between them set in motion devel­op­ments that would ulti­mate­ly lead to the remark­able turn of events,” Gates said — “the fall of the Berlin Wall, the reuni­fi­ca­tion of Ger­many, the dis­so­lu­tion of the Sovi­et Union, and the lib­er­a­tion of hun­dreds of mil­lions of peo­ple behind the Iron Cur­tain.”

Reagan’s state­craft con­sist­ed of diplo­mat­ic, eco­nom­ic and mil­i­tary pres­sure com­bined with a will­ing­ness to par­lay with his Sovi­et coun­ter­part, Gates said. Today, he added, it’s a dif­fer­ent world, but still a dan­ger­ous place.

“In many ways, geopol­i­tics are much more com­plex than when two nuclear super­pow­ers taunt­ed and test­ed each oth­er,” Gates said. “But communism’s demise holds lessons for us even now.”

Along with the impor­tance of sus­tain­ing mil­i­tary pow­er, the lessons include the endur­ing val­ue and broad appeal of free­dom and “the idea that free men and women of dif­fer­ent cul­tures and coun­tries can, for all the squab­bling inher­ent in democ­ra­cy, come togeth­er to … make the tough deci­sions to deter aggres­sion and pre­serve their lib­er­ty,” Gates said.

After a decade of war, weari­ness with con­flict is under­stand­able, he said, but a stand must always be tak­en against those who seek to dom­i­nate and intim­i­date oth­ers through vio­lence.

“We saw this on 9/11. We see it today in Afghanistan, where more per­se­ver­ance, more sac­ri­fice and more patience will be required to pre­vent the ter­ror­ists who attacked us from doing so again –- though cut­ting off the head of the al-Qai­da snake was def­i­nite­ly a big step in the right direc­tion,” the sec­re­tary said to enthu­si­as­tic applause.

“We see it any­where nations, move­ments or strong­men are tempt­ed to believe that the Unit­ed States of Amer­i­ca does not have the will or the means to stand by our friends, to meet our com­mit­ments and to defend our way of life,” he added.

No one can pre­dict the future or what impact today’s deci­sions will have over the next decades, he said, but his­to­ry makes cer­tain things clear.

“When Amer­i­ca is will­ing to lead the way; when we live up to our respon­si­bil­i­ties and stand with our allies, even in trou­bling times; when we pre­pare for threats … on … and beyond the hori­zon; and when we make the nec­es­sary sac­ri­fices and take the nec­es­sary risks to defend our val­ues and our inter­ests,” Gates said, “then great things are pos­si­ble and even prob­a­ble for our coun­try and the world.”

U.S. Depart­ment of Defense
Office of the Assis­tant Sec­re­tary of Defense (Pub­lic Affairs)

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