July 20, 1984
Ladies and gentlemen, distinguished guests, welcome. We are here today to recognize and honor a small, but very special group of Americans: our former prisoners of war and those who are still missing.
Four times in this century we have been forced, painfully and reluctantly, to send our men and women to fight in wars on foreign shores. Some of them made the supreme sacrifice of their lives. Some others made sacrifices in many ways equally grave -- they were imprisoned by the enemy.
Their incarceration often included beatings and torture, starvation, and all forms of emotional and psychological abuse. It also entailed the terrible loneliness of living through lost years, of seeing the days tick away without friends, without loved ones, without family and community.
What has sustained such men and women in their isolation is a question I think all of us have asked ourselves many times. What kept them going when faith waned, as it must have, and questions began to haunt and doubts began to accumulate. We hear the stories of the returned prisoners of World War II and Korea and Vietnam, and we marvel at how they kept going.
I recall that when many of our prisoners returned from Vietnam 11 years ago, a number of them said there were three things that helped them survive captivity and return with honor: faith in God, faith in their fellow prisoners, and faith in their country. By faith; they didn't mean only love -- though they demonstrated that in abundance. They meant a heartfelt belief that they would not be abandoned, that we at home would move mountains to return them safely to us after the war.
Our prisoners of war have been and are the bravest of the brave. They kept a trusting heart, they retained their spirit and their will, and they kept the faith. They trusted us, and that trust did us great honor.
Among us here today are some American prisoners of war. May I say that you are, as the great always are, more than the sum total of yourselves. You're a testament to the strength and the character of the American people. You are a symbol of our spirit. You're an expression of American trust. Your heroism is as old as war itself, as old as names like Andersonville and Los Banos and Camp 5 and the Hanoi Hilton.
Most of those places are gone now or empty, but the silence left in their place surely echoes with the quiet, unheard valor of those who suffered there and clung to the belief that their government and their loved ones would be semper fi -- "always faithful.'' We honor you, and that honor is unending.
There are others to whom we must be semper fi: those who are still missing -- the men who went across the sea, who never returned and whose fate is unknown.
Along with us today are some of the relatives and friends of those still missing -- from Korea and Vietnam. They, too, have shown more than their share of heroism, holding the standard for those who went away and are not yet returned to us, insisting that the world remember and respond, asking all of us to help them in their great effort, never giving up or abandoning hope.
Our administration inherited the challenge of accounting for the missing in January of 1981, two decades after the first man was placed on the missing list in Vietnam and almost three decades after the armistice in Korea. There'd been many obstacles and excuses in that time as to why progress could not be made. We found 3 years ago that the greatest obstacle that we could face and would continue to face was the passage of time.
Despite the daunting specter of 31 years since the end of the Korean war, we have pressed the Government of North Korea for an accounting. We will continue to do so. But I want you to know that we've received some valuable information from some dedicated veterans of that war on possible grave locations of some of their fellow soldiers, and we're acting on this information. If it is confirmed, we will return their remains to their homes and to their loved ones.
We're in regular dialog with the Government of Laos. And through reciprocal actions, that government seems to have gained a greater understanding of the importance to us of the POW - MIA issue. We in return have gained a greater understanding of their feelings and problems. This process has led us to discussions of joint crash site searches.
And in this regard, I want to pass on some good news to you. Late last night, we were informed by the Government of Laos of official agreement in principle to excavation of a U.S. crashsite. We're working out the details now. We welcome this cooperative gesture.
In Vietnam, the Government turned over the remains of several more U.S. servicemen 3 days ago. The Vietnamese also offered to resume technical-level meetings in August, and we appreciate these actions. We look forward to an acceleration of the process, an acceleration that was pledged to our delegation that traveled to Hanoi in February.
Ann Griffiths [Executive director of the National League of Families of American Prisoners and Missing in Southeast Asia] helped to arrange those negotiations. And, Ann, we appreciate your help and all that you've given to this process.
It's important to note that 30 years ago today, July 20th, 1954, the Geneva accords were signed. It was hoped that the truce agreement would bring peace to the Vietnamese people. Instead, they have been at war ever since. And those wars have caused untold human suffering. Today, Vietnam continues to fight in Kampuchea and on its northern border. Nearly 10 years after the end of hostilities, the United States and the Government of Vietnam still have major differences.
But we're encouraged that Vietnam has agreed in principle that our two countries should cooperate on the POW - MIA issue as a separate humanitarian effort. Peaceful cooperation, negotiations with its neighbors in Kampuchea, and resolution of the POW - MIA issue provide the key for ending Vietnam's isolation. Normal relations with the international community can bring an end to the long suffering of the people of Vietnam. And I believe it to be in Vietnam's own interest to choose this path. It's a decision that we would truly welcome.
I'm mindful that I stand here before the families of many of the missing. I'm mindful that you gave your sons and husbands and fathers into the care of our government when they left to fight for our nation. You knew they might die in battle. But you had, and will always have, every right to expect that your government will not abandon those who failed to return.
In this, you, too, showed trust, and I tell you again, your trust will not be in vain. For many years, you stood alone in your quest for answers. Well, today you're not alone. And I tell you from my heart, you will never be alone again.
Across the Nation this week, hundreds of ceremonies are taking place in an outpouring of concern and understanding and solidarity. Balloons are being released across the country; a prayer ministry is ongoing; and the small black and white flag you see over this house flies proudly. All of this is good and fitting.
In January of last year, I said to you that we must fulfill our obligations as a matter of highest national priority. Much has happened since then to give us some hope of progress. It's agonizingly slow for you and for us. But we must not lose faith in each other because of lack of action from the other side.
Two months ago I received the remains of the unknown serviceman of Vietnam. And I said to all the Nation -- and most especially to all of you -- that we write no last chapters; we close no books; we put away no final memories until your questions are answered. Your husbands, fathers, and sons and brothers did their duty by this Nation, and this Nation will do its duty by them. Today we stand together.
And soon we will look up and see, as a symbol of our longing, a missing-man flyover. And today I pledge -- and we will not rest until that formation is complete.
May God bless you always.
Note: The President spoke at 10:01 a.m. on the South Lawn of the White House.
In his closing comments, the President referred to the upcoming overflight of the Navy's Blue Angels.