Remarks to American Military Personnel and Their Families in Keflavik, Iceland
October 12, 1986
Thank you very much, Ambassador Ruwe, Admiral McVadon, men and women of our Armed Forces, and my fellow Americans. Thank you all. It's good to feel so at home. And I want to apologize for being so late. As you know, General Secretary Gorbachev and I were to have concluded our talks at noon, after more than 7 hours of meetings over the last 2 days. But when the hour for departure arrived, we both felt that further discussions would be valuable. So, I called Nancy and told her I wouldn't be home for dinner. [Laughter] She said she understood; in about 6\1/2\ hours, I'll find out. [Laughter]
Well, the talks we've just concluded were hard and tough, and yet I have to say extremely useful. We spoke about arms control, human rights, and regional conflicts. And of course, Mr. Gorbachev and I were frank about our disagreements. We had to be. In several critical areas, we made more progress than we anticipated when we came to Iceland. We moved toward agreement on drastically reduced numbers of intermediate-range nuclear missiles in both Europe and Asia. We approached agreement on sharply reduced strategic arsenals for both our countries. We made progress in the area of nuclear testing. But there remained, at the end of our talks, one area of disagreement.
While both sides seek reduction in the number of nuclear missiles and warheads threatening the world, the Soviet Union insisted that we sign an agreement that would deny to me and to future Presidents for 10 years the right to develop, test, and deploy a defense against nuclear missiles for the people of the free world. This, we could not and will not do. So, late this afternoon, I made to the General Secretary an entirely new proposal: a 10-year delay in deployment of SDI in exchange for the complete elimination of all ballistic missiles from the respective arsenals of both nations. So long as both the United States and the Soviet Union prove their good faith by destroying nuclear missiles year by year, we would not deploy SDI. The General Secretary said he would consider our offer, but only if we restricted all work on SDI to laboratory research, which would have killed our defensive shield.
We came to Iceland to advance the cause of peace, and though we put on the table the most far-reaching arms control proposal in history, the General Secretary rejected it. However, we made great strides in Iceland in resolving most of our differences, and we're going to continue the effort. But this brings me to my main reason in coming to Keflavik today -- to see you all and express my gratitude, gratitude for a job well done. I hope you all know the importance of your mission here. Iceland has always held a strategic position in the Atlantic, commanding, if you will, the sea between the Old World and the New. Since this is Columbus Day -- I have to be careful of this -- but many of those who believe that the Vikings were the first Europeans to discover the Americas hold that the ancient Norse sailors first heard of North America from an Icelander.
And during World War II, Iceland played a crucial role in the battle for freedom. Early in the war, German U-boats began to exact a devastating toll, including the shipping that supplied the British people with food from the United States. Between March and December 1941 the Germans sank ships, totaling more than a million tons. Churchill watched with growing disquiet as his nation was pushed closer and closer to starvation. In April of 1941 the British established bases on this island for escort groups and aircraft. In July we joined them, with the consent of the Icelandic authorities, with bases of our own. These operations, staged from this very island, proved decisive in the balance of the entire struggle. In Churchill's words: ``The escort groups became ever more efficient and as their power grew, that of the U-boats declined. Europe was saved to continue the struggle for freedom.''
I cite all this history because if Iceland was crucial to the cause of freedom then, it is even more important today. The U.S. and Iceland are joined together as members of NATO. And here you are, thousands of miles from home, closer, indeed, to the Soviet naval bases on the Kola Peninsula than to our own east coast. And in view of those naval bases and other potential threats, you serve as a vanguard for Iceland, the United States, and all the NATO allies. You monitor military air traffic, you track submarines, and you monitor shipping movements in the vital sealanes between the United States, Iceland, and Europe. You perform all these tasks with efficiency and dedication -- in short, with a keen sense of duty. And, ladies and gentlemen of our Armed Forces, on behalf of a grateful Commander in Chief, I salute you!
I can't resist telling you a little story that I've just told the marine guard at the Embassy. The story has to do with saluting. I was a second lieutenant of horse cavalry back in the World War II days. As I told the admiral, I wound up flying a desk for the Army Air Force. And so, I know all the rules about not saluting in civilian clothes and so forth, and when you should or shouldn't. But then when I got this job -- [laughter] -- and I would be approaching Air Force One or Marine One and those marines would come to a salute and I -- knowing that I am in civilian clothes -- I would nod and say hello and think they could drop their hand, and they wouldn't. They just stood there. So, one night over at the Commandant's quarters, Marine Commandant's quarters in Washington, and I was getting a couple of highballs, and I didn't -- [laughter] -- know what to do with them. So, I said to the Commandant -- I said, ``Look, I know all the rules about saluting in civilian clothes and all, but if I am the Commander in Chief, there ought to be a regulation that would permit me to return a salute.'' And I heard some words of wisdom. He said, ``I think if you did, no one would say anything.'' [Laughter]
So, if you see me on television and I'm saluting, you know that I've got authority for it now -- [laughter] -- and I do it happily. But you know there are some people here I can't salute, of course, because they're civilians. But seeing them does bring to mind all the sacrifices that your families make. So, whether your families are here or back home, the next time you see them or write a letter, you tell them for me their President thanks them -- and so does all America. [Applause] It seems to me, we have one more round of applause still to go. The talks that we've concluded could never have been had it not been for the generosity of the people of Iceland. [Applause]
Well, it's time to go now. Nancy's waiting dinner. [Laughter] After all, Congress is still in session, and I have to get back and keep an eye on them. [Laughter] Sometimes they get strange ideas about reducing pay rates for the military. But don't worry, I'll never let them.
Since I'm so far away from them right now -- [laughter] -- I'm going to take a chance and tell you a little story, I think, about them. [Laughter] You know, when I think of them sometimes, and particularly the opposition that wants to do those ridiculous things, I think of those three fellows that came out of a building one day and found they'd locked themselves out of their car. And one of them said, ``Well, somebody get a wire coathanger.'' And he said, "I can straighten it out and use it and get in and flip the handle and open it.'' And the second one said, ``You can't do that. Somebody would see you doing it and think you're stealing the car.'' And the third one said, ``Well, we'd better do something pretty quick, because it's starting to rain and the top's down.'' [Laughter]
But in closing, let me say simply this: You are not here on NATO's frontline, you're not making the sacrifice of leaving home and friends so far behind merely to keep the world from getting worse. You're here to make it better, for you're here in the name of liberty. Yes, the ultimate goal of American foreign policy is not just the prevention of war, but the expansion of freedom -- to see that every nation, every people, every person, some day enjoys the blessings of liberty. All that you do has strengthened world peace, the peace in which the flame of freedom can continue to burn and spread its light throughout the world.
I have to tell you that of all the things that I'm proud of in this job, none match the pride that I have in those of you who are wearing the uniform of your country -- you young men and women. God bless you.
Many years ago, at the beginning of World War II, General George Marshall was asked what was our secret weapon. And he said then, ``Just the best blankety-blank kids in the world.'' Well, I have to tell you, we've still got that secret weapon.
God bless all of you. Thank you very much.
Note: The President spoke at 8:11 p.m. at Keflavik International Airport. In his opening remarks, the President referred to U.S. Ambassador to Iceland Nicholas Ruwe and Rear Adm. Eric A. McVadon, USN, Commander Icelandic Defense Force. Following his remarks, the President returned to Washington, DC.