Ronald Reagan's 1986 Remarks at a Memorial Day Ceremony

President Reagan delivered the speech at Arlington National Cemetery after placing a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Source: Heritage Foundation and The American Presidencey Project.

Today is the day we put aside to remember fallen heroes and to pray that no heroes will ever have to die for us again. It’s a day of thanks for the valor of others, a day to remember the splendor of America and those of her children who rest in this cemetery and others. It’s a day to be with the family and remember.

I was thinking this morning that across the country children and their parents will be going to the town parade and the young ones will sit on the sidewalks and wave their flags as the band goes by. Later, maybe, they’ll have a cookout or a day at the beach. And that’s good, because today is a day to be with the family and to remember.

Arlington, this place of so many memories, is a fitting place for some remembering. So many wonderful men and women rest here, men and women who led colorful, vivid, and passionate lives. There are the greats of the military: Bull Halsey and the Admirals Leahy, father and son; Black Jack Pershing; and the GI’s general, Omar Bradley. Great men all, military men. But there are others here known for other things.

Here in Arlington rests a sharecropper’s son who became a hero to a lonely people. Joe Louis came from nowhere, but he knew how to fight. And he galvanized a nation in the days after Pearl Harbor when he put on the uniform of his country and said, “I know we’ll win because we’re on God’s side.” Audie Murphy is here, Audie Murphy of the wild, wild courage. For what else would you call it when a man bounds to the top of a disabled tank, stops an enemy advance, saves lives, and rallies his men, and all of it single-handedly. When he radioed for artillery support and was asked how close the enemy was to his position, he said, “Wait a minute and I’ll let you speak to them.” [Laughter]

Michael Smith is here, and Dick Scobee, both of the space shuttle Challenger. Their courage wasn’t wild, but thoughtful, the mature and measured courage of career professionals who took prudent risks for great reward—in their case, to advance the sum total of knowledge in the world. They’re only the latest to rest here; they join other great explorers with names like Grissom and Chaffee.

Oliver Wendell Holmes is here, the great jurist and fighter for the right. A poet searching for an image of true majesty could not rest until he seized on “Holmes dissenting in a sordid age.” Young Holmes served in the Civil War. He might have been thinking of the crosses and stars of Arlington when he wrote: “At the grave of a hero we end, not with sorrow at the inevitable loss, but with the contagion of his courage; and with a kind of desperate joy we go back to the fight.”

All of these men were different, but they shared this in common: They loved America very much. There was nothing they wouldn’t do for her. And they loved with the sureness of the young. It’s hard not to think of the young in a place like this, for it’s the young who do the fighting and dying when a peace fails and a war begins. Not far from here is the statue of the three servicemen—the three fighting boys of Vietnam. It, too, has majesty and more. Perhaps you’ve seen it—three rough boys walking together, looking ahead with a steady gaze. There’s something wounded about them, a kind of resigned toughness. But there’s an unexpected tenderness, too. At first you don’t really notice, but then you see it. The three are touching each other, as if they’re supporting each other, helping each other on.

I know that many veterans of Vietnam will gather today, some of them perhaps by the wall. And they’re still helping each other on. They were quite a group, the boys of Vietnam—boys who fought a terrible and vicious war without enough support from home, boys who were dodging bullets while we debated the efficacy of the battle. It was often our poor who fought in that war; it was the unpampered boys of the working class who picked up the rifles and went on the march. They learned not to rely on us; they learned to rely on each other. And they were special in another way: They chose to be faithful. They chose to reject the fashionable skepticism of their time. They chose to believe and answer the call of duty. They had the wild, wild courage of youth. They seized certainty from the heart of an ambivalent age; they stood for something.

And we owe them something, those boys. We owe them first a promise: That just as they did not forget their missing comrades, neither, ever, will we. And there are other promises. We must always remember that peace is a fragile thing that needs constant vigilance. We owe them a promise to look at the world with a steady gaze and, perhaps, a resigned toughness, knowing that we have adversaries in the world and challenges and the only way to meet them and maintain the peace is by staying strong.

That, of course, is the lesson of this century, a lesson learned in the Sudetenland, in Poland, in Hungary, in Czechoslovakia, in Cambodia. If we really care about peace, we must stay strong. If we really care about peace, we must, through our strength, demonstrate our unwillingness to accept an ending of the peace. We must be strong enough to create peace where it does not exist and strong enough to protect it where it does. That’s the lesson of this century and, I think, of this day. And that’s all I wanted to say. The rest of my contribution is to leave this great place to its peace, a peace it has earned.

Thank all of you, and God bless you, and have a day full of memories.

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JD Miller's picture

If I have my history right, the United States has not formally declared war since World War II. It seems the last formal declaration of war took place nearly 70 years ago on June 5, 1942 when Bulgaria, Hungry, and Romania were added as opponents in our war with Japan, Germany, and Italy.
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Numerous military engagements have been authorized by congress since that time however. Whether or not you call those activities wars, police actions, skirmishes, or national security ventures people have died for our country.
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Though there has never been a formal declaration of war in my lifetime, many have given their lives over the past 70 years and many gave their lives long before that. We are here today to remember and to honor those who are no longer with us because they fought for the cause of a free nation under God.
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Today we honor them. That word “Honor” is quite significant. It means to value, to respect, to hold in high regard. It means to exalt, esteem, dignify and to pay tribute to. I pray that we do all those things today as we gather to remember those who no longer live among us, but are definitely worthy of tribute because they died for us.
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Willingly giving your life for another person is an act of great humility. Pride would say that you are too important to die and that someone else must die for you instead, but humility says that the lives of others are so significant that you are willing to sacrifice your own life.
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Proverbs 22:4 says, “By humility and the fear of the LORD are riches, and honour, and life.” We looked at honor as a verb as we spoke of the action of bestowing honor on those who gave their lives, but this verse from the scripture shows honor as a noun- a thing- that is possessed by those who are humble and fear the Lord.
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As we consider the definition of honor as a noun, we come up with words like personal integrity, dignity, reputation, mark of distinction, great privilege, & high position. Though those we are honoring today no longer possess life in this world, they do possess dignity, reputation, mark of distinction, great privilege, and a high position in our estimation as we bestow honor upon them.
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As we consider those who gave their lives for others, I cannot help but reflect upon one who was slain and is definitely worthy of honor-in fact the greatest honor of all.
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Revelation 5:11-12 says, "And I beheld, and I heard the voice of many angels round about the throne and the beasts and the elders: and the number of them was ten thousand times ten thousand, and thousands of thousands; Saying with a loud voice, Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power, and riches, and wisdom, and strength, and honour, and glory, and blessing."
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Jesus Christ is God and He gave his life for others and is definitely worthy of honor above all others, but His Holy Bible reminds us that others are worthy of honor as well.
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Romans 13:7 states, "Render therefore to all their dues: tribute to whom tribute is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honour to whom honour."
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Today let us honor our fallen soldiers with a respect and a value for their dignity and service as we bestow upon them a mark of distinction for their humble sacrifice- as we give them the honor that is due them- the honor they deserve.

Shaynus's picture

I have the privilege of having been the IT guy for several of Reagan's speechwriters. They have been gracious to me, and invited me to dinner at their homes and such. The one thing about Reagan's speeches that has interested me is they say the humor was all his, and the vast majority of the eloquent turns of phrases were also his.

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