Thank you for inviting me to be here today with the members of the National
Press Club, a group most important to our national security. I say that because
a major point I intend to make in my remarks today is that the single most
critical element of a successful democracy is a strong consensus of support and
agreement for our basic purposes. Policies formed without a clear understanding
of what we hope to achieve will never work. And you help to build that
understanding among our citizens.
Of all the many policies our citizens deserve -- and need -- to understand,
none is so important as those related to our topic today -- the uses of
military power. Deterrence will work only if the Soviets understand our firm
commitment to keeping the peace,... and only from a well-informed public can we
expect to have that national will and commitment.
So today, I want to discuss with you perhaps the most important question
concerning keeping the peace. Under what circumstances, and by what means, does
a great democracy such as ours reach the painful decision that the use of
military force is necessary to protect our interests or to carry out our
National power has many components, some tangible, like economic wealth,
technical pre-eminence. Other components are intangible -- such as moral force,
or strong national will. Military forces, when they are strong and ready and
modern, are a credible -- and tangible -- addition to a nation's power. When
both the intangible national will and those forces are forged into one
instrument, national power becomes effective.
In today's world, the line between peace and war is less clearly drawn than at
any time in our history. When George Washington, in his farewell address,
warned us, as a new democracy, to avoid foreign entanglements, Europe then lay
2-3 months by sea over the horizon. The United States was protected by the
width of the oceans. Now in this nuclear age, we measure time in minutes rather
Aware of the consequences of any misstep, yet convinced of the precious worth
of the freedom we enjoy, we seek to avoid conflict, while maintaining strong
defenses. Our policy has always been to work hard for peace, but to be prepared
if war comes. Yet, so blurred have the lines become between open conflict and
half-hidden hostile acts that we cannot confidently predict where, or when, or
how, or from what direction aggression may arrive. We must be prepared, at any
moment, to meet threats ranging in intensity from isolated terrorist acts, to
guerrilla action, to full-scale military confrontation.
Alexander Hamilton, writing in the Federalist Papers, said that it is
impossible to foresee or define the extent and variety of national exigencies,
or the correspondent extent and variety of the means which may be necessary to
satisfy them. If it was true then, how much more true it is today, when we must
remain ready to consider the means to meet such serious indirect challenges to
the peace as proxy wars and individual terrorist action. And how much more
important is it now, considering the consequences of failing to deter conflict
at the lowest level possible. While the use of military force to defend
territory has never been questioned when a democracy has been attacked and its
very survival threatened, most democracies have rejected the unilateral
aggressive use of force to invade, conquer or subjugate other nations. The
extent to which the use of force is acceptable remains unresolved for
the host of other situations which fall between these extremes of defensive and
aggressive use of force.
We find ourselves, then, face to face with a modern paradox: the most likely
challenge to the peace -- the gray area conflicts -- are precisely the most
difficult challenges to which a democracy must respond. Yet, while the source
and nature of today's challenges are uncertain, our response must be clear and
understandable. Unless we are certain that force is essential, we run the risk
of inadequate national will to apply the resources needed.
Because we face a spectrum of threats -- from covert aggression, terrorism, and
subversion, to overt intimidation, to use of brute force -- choosing the
appropriate level of our response is difficult. Flexible response does not mean
just any response is appropriate. But once a decision to employ some degree of
force has been made, and the purpose clarified, our government must have the
clear mandate to carry out, and continue to carry out, that decision until the
purpose has been achieved. That, too, has been difficult to accomplish.
The issue of which branch of government has authority to define that mandate
and make decisions on using force is now being strongly contended. Beginning in
the 1970s Congress demanded, and assumed, a far more active role in the making
of foreign policy and in the decisionmaking process for the employment of
military forces abroad than had been thought appropriate and practical before.
As a result, the centrality of decision-making authority in the Executive
branch has been compromised by the Legislative branch to an extent that
actively interferes with that process. At the same time, there has not been a
corresponding acceptance of responsibility by Congress for the outcome of
decisions concerning the employment of military forces.
Yet the outcome of decisions on whether -- and when -- and to what degree -- to
use combat forces abroad has never been more important than it is today.
While we do not seek to deter or settle all the world's conflicts, we must
recognize that, as a major power, our responsibilities and interests are now of
such scope that there are few troubled areas we can afford to ignore. So we
must be prepared to deal with a range of possibilities, a spectrum of crises,
from local insurgency to global conflict. We prefer, of course, to limit
any conflict in its early stages, to contain and control it -- but to do that
our military forces must be deployed in a timely manner, and be fully
supported and prepared before they are engaged, because many of those
difficult decisions must be made extremely quickly.
Some on the national scene think they can always avoid making tough decisions.
Some reject entirely the question of whether any force can ever be used abroad.
They want to avoid grappling with a complex issue because, despite clever
rhetoric disguising their purpose, these people are in fact advocating a return
to post-World War I isolationism. While they may maintain in principle that
military force has a role in foreign policy, they are never willing to name the
circumstance or the place where it would apply.
On the other side, some theorists argue that military force can be brought to
bear in any crisis. Some of these proponents of force are eager to advocate its
use even in limited amounts simply because they believe that if there are
American forces of any size present they will somehow solve the
Neither of these two extremes offers us any lasting or satisfactory solutions.
The first -- undue reserve -- would lead us ultimately to withdraw from
international events that require free nations to defend their interests from
the aggressive use of force. We would be abdicating our responsibilities as the
leader of the free world -- responsibilities more or less thrust upon us in the
aftermath of World War II -- a war incidentally that isolationism did nothing
to deter. These are responsibilities we must fulfill unless we desire the
Soviet Union to keep expanding its influence unchecked throughout the world. In
an international system based on mutual interdependence among nations, and
alliances between friends, stark isolationism quickly would lead to a far more
dangerous situation for the United States: we would be without allies and faced
by many hostile or indifferent nations.
The second alternative -- employing our forces almost indiscriminately and as a
regular and customary part of our diplomatic efforts -- would surely plunge us
headlong into the sort of domestic turmoil we experienced during the Vietnam
war, without accomplishing the goal for which we committed our forces. Such
policies might very well tear at the fabric of our society, endangering the
single most critical element of a successful democracy: a strong
consensus of support and agreement for our basic purposes.
Policies formed without a clear understanding of what we hope to achieve would
also earn us the scorn of our troops, who would have an understandable
opposition to being used -- in every sense of the word -- casually and without
intent to support them fully. Ultimately this course would reduce their morale
and their effectiveness for engagements we must win. And if the military
were to distrust its civilian leadership, recruitment would fall off and I fear
an end to the all-volunteer system would be upon us, requiring a return to a
draft, sowing the seeds of riot and discontent that so wracked the country in
We have now restored high morale and pride in the uniform throughout the
services. The all-volunteer system is working spectacularly well. Are we
willing to forfeit what we have fought so hard to regain?
In maintaining our progress in strengthening America's military deterrent, we
face difficult challenges. For we have entered an era where the dividing lines
between peace and war are less clearly drawn, the identity of the foe is much
less clear. In World Wars I and II, we not only knew who our enemies were, but
we shared a clear sense of why the principles espoused by our enemies
Since these two wars threatened our very survival as a free nation and the
survival of our allies, they were total wars, involving every aspect of our
society. All our means of production, all our resources were devoted to
winning. Our policies had the unqualified support of the great majority of our
people. Indeed, World Wars I and II ended with the unconditional surrender of
our enemies.... The only acceptable ending when the alternative was the loss of
But in the aftermath of the Second World War, we encountered a more subtle form
of warfare -- warfare in which, more often than not, the face of the enemy was
masked. Territorial expansionism could be carried out indirectly by proxy
powers, using surrogate forces aided and advised from afar. Some conflicts
occurred under the name of "national liberation," but far more frequently
ideology or religion provided the spark to the tinder.
Our adversaries can also take advantage of our open society, and our freedom of
speech and opinion to use alarming rhetoric and misinformation to divide and
disrupt our unity of purpose. While they would never dare to allow such
freedoms to their own people, they are quick to exploit ours by conducting
simultaneous military and propaganda campaigns to achieve their ends.
They realize that if they can divide our national will at home, it will not be
necessary to defeat our forces abroad. So by presenting issues in bellicose
terms, they aim to intimidate western leaders and citizens, encouraging us to
adopt conciliatory positions to their advantage. Meanwhile they remain
sheltered from the force of public opinion in their countries, because public
opinion there is simply prohibited and does not exist.
Our freedom presents both a challenge and an opportunity. It is true that until
democratic nations have the support of the people, they are inevitably at a
disadvantage in a conflict. But when they do have that support they
cannot be defeated. For democracies have the power to send a compelling message
to friend and foe alike by the vote of their citizens. And the American people
have sent such a signal by re-electing a strong Chief Executive. They know that
President Reagan is willing to accept the responsibility for his actions and is
able to lead us through these complex times by insisting that we regain
both our military and our economic strength.
In today's world where minutes count, such decisive leadership is more
important than ever before. Regardless of whether conflicts are limited, or
threats are ill-defined, we must be capable of quickly determining that
the threats and conflicts either do or do not affect the vital
interests of the United States and our allies. ... And then responding
Those threats may not entail an immediate, direct attack on our territory, and
our response may not necessarily require the immediate or direct defense of our
homeland. But when our vital national interests and those of our allies
are at stake, we cannot ignore our safety, or forsake our allies.
At the same time, recent history has proven that we cannot assume unilaterally
the role of the world's defender. We have learned that there are limits to how
much of our spirit and blood and treasure we can afford to forfeit in meeting
our responsibility to keep peace and freedom. So while we may and should offer
substantial amounts of economic and military assistance to our allies in their
time of need, and help them maintain forces to deter attacks against them --
usually we cannot substitute our troops or our will for theirs.
We should only engage our troops if we must do so as a matter of our
own vital national interest. We cannot assume for other sovereign
nations the responsibility to defend their territory -- without their
strong invitation -- when our freedom is not threatened.
On the other hand, there have been recent cases where the United States has
seen the need to join forces with other nations to try to preserve the peace by
helping with negotiations, and by separating warring parties, and thus enabling
those warring nations to withdraw from hostilities safely. In the Middle East,
which has been torn by conflict for millennia, we have sent our troops in
recent years both to the Sinai and to Lebanon, for just such a peacekeeping
mission. But we did not configure or equip those forces for combat -- they were
armed only for their self-defense. Their mission required them to be -- and to
be recognized as -- peacekeepers. We knew that if conditions deteriorated so
they were in danger, or if because of the actions of the warring nations, their
peace keeping mission could not be realized, then it would be necessary either
to add sufficiently to the number and arms of our troops -- in short to equip
them for combat,... or to withdraw them. And so in Lebanon, when we faced just
such a choice, because the warring nations did not enter into withdrawal or
peace agreements, the President properly withdrew forces equipped only for
In those cases where our national interests require us to commit combat force
we must never let there be doubt of our resolution. When it is necessary for
our troops to be committed to combat, we must commit them, in sufficient
numbers and we must support them, as effectively and resolutely as our
strength permits. When we commit our troops to combat we must do so with the
sole object of winning.
Once it is clear our troops are required, because our vital interests are at
stake, then we must have the firm national resolve to commit every ounce of
strength necessary to win the fight to achieve our objectives. In Grenada we
did just that.
Just as clearly, there are other situations where United States combat forces
should not be used. I believe the postwar period has taught us several
lessons, and from them I have developed six major tests to be applied
when we are weighing the use of U.S. combat forces abroad. Let me now share
them with you:
(1) First, the United States should not commit forces to combat
overseas unless the particular engagement or occasion is deemed vital to our
national interest or that of our allies. That emphatically does not mean that
we should declare beforehand, as we did with Korea in 1950, that a
particular area is outside our strategic perimeter.
(2) Second, if we decide it is necessary to put combat
troops into a given situation, we should do so wholeheartedly, and with the
clear intention of winning. If we are unwilling to commit the forces or
resources necessary to achieve our objectives, we should not commit them at
all. Of course if the particular situation requires only limited force to win
our objectives, then we should not hesitate to commit forces sized accordingly.
When Hitler broke treaties and remilitarized the Rhineland, small combat forces
then could perhaps have prevented the holocaust of World War II.
(3) Third, if we do decide to commit forces to combat overseas,
we should have clearly defined political and military objectives. And we should
know precisely how our forces can accomplish those clearly defined objectives.
And we should have and send the forces needed to do just that. As Clausewitz
wrote, "no one starts a war -- or rather, no one in his senses ought to do so
-- without first being clear in his mind what he intends to achieve by that
war, and how he intends to conduct it."
War may be different today than in Clausewitz's time, but the need for
well-defined objectives and a consistent strategy is still essential. If we
determine that a combat mission has become necessary for our vital national
interests, then we must send forces capable to do the job -- and not assign a
combat mission to a force configured for peacekeeping.
(4) Fourth, the relationship between our objectives and the forces we
have committed -- their size, composition and disposition -- must be
continually reassessed and adjusted if necessary. Conditions and objectives
invariably change during the course of a conflict. When they do change, then so
must our combat requirements. We must continuously keep as a beacon light
before us the basic questions: "is this conflict in our national interest?"
"Does our national interest require us to fight, to use force of arms?" If the
answers are "yes", then we must win. If the answers are "no," then we
should not be in combat.
(5) Fifth, before the U.S. commits combat forces abroad, there must be
some reasonable assurance we will have the support of the American people and
their elected representatives in Congress. This support cannot be achieved
unless we are candid in making clear the threats we face; the support cannot be
sustained without continuing and close consultation. We cannot fight a battle
with the Congress at home while asking our troops to win a war overseas or, as
in the case of Vietnam, in effect asking our troops not to win, but just to be
(6) Finally, the commitment of U.S. forces to combat should be a last
I believe that these tests can be helpful in deciding whether or not we should
commit our troops to combat in the months and years ahead. The point we must
all keep uppermost in our minds is that if we ever decide to commit forces to
combat, we must support those forces to the fullest extent of our
national will for as long as it takes to win. So we must have in mind
objectives that are clearly defined and understood and supported by the widest
possible number of our citizens. And those objectives must be vital to our
survival as a free nation and to the fulfillment of our responsibilities as a
world power. We must also be farsighted enough to sense when immediate and
strong reactions to apparently small events can prevent lion-like responses
that may be required later. We must never forget those isolationists in Europe
who shrugged that "Danzig is not worth a war," and "why should we fight to keep
the Rhineland demilitarized?"
These tests I have just mentioned have been phrased negatively for a purpose --
they are intended to sound a note of caution -- caution that we must observe
prior to committing forces to combat overseas. When we ask our military forces
to risk their very lives in such situations, a note of caution is not only
prudent, it is morally required.
In many situations we may apply these tests and conclude that a combatant role
is not appropriate. Yet no one should interpret what I am saying here today as
an abdication of America's responsibilities -- either to its own citizens or to
its allies. Nor should these remarks be misread as a signal that this country,
or this administration, is unwilling to commit forces to combat overseas.
We have demonstrated in the past that, when our vital interests or those of our
allies are threatened, we are ready to use force, and use it decisively, to
protect those interests. Let no one entertain any illusions -- if our vital
interests are involved, we are prepared to fight. And we are resolved that if
we must fight, we must win.
So, while these tests are drawn from lessons we have learned from the past,
they also can -- and should -- be applied to the future. For example, the
problems confronting us in Central America today are difficult. The possibility
of more extensive Soviet and Soviet-proxy penetration into this hemisphere in
months ahead is something we should recognize. If this happens we will clearly
need more economic and military assistance and training to help those who want
The President will not allow our military forces to creep -- or be drawn
gradually -- into a combat role in Central America or any other place in the
world. And indeed our policy is designed to prevent the need for direct
American involvement. This means we will need sustained Congressional support
to back and give confidence to our friends in the region.
I believe that the tests I have enunciated here today can, if applied
carefully, avoid the danger of this gradualist incremental approach which
almost always means the use of insufficient force. These tests can help us to
avoid being drawn inexorably into an endless morass, where it is not vital to
our national interest to fight.
But policies and principles such as these require decisive leadership in both
the Executive and Legislative branches of government -- and they also require
strong and sustained public support. Most of all, these policies require
national unity of purpose. I believe the United States now possesses the
policies and leadership to gain that public support and unity. And I believe
that the future will show we have the strength of character to protect peace
In summary, we should all remember these are the policies -- indeed the only policies -- that can preserve for ourselves, our friends, and our
posterity, peace with freedom.
I believe we can continue to deter the Soviet Union and other potential
adversaries from pursuing their designs around the world. We can enable
our friends in Central America to defeat aggression and gain the breathing room
to nurture democratic reforms. We can meet the challenge posed by the
unfolding complexity of the 1980's.
We will then be poised to begin the last decade of this century amid a peace
tempered by realism, and secured by firmness and strength. And it will be a
peace that will enable all of us -- ourselves -- at home, and our friends
abroad -- to achieve a quality of life, both spiritually and materially, far
higher than man has even dared to dream.
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uses of military force +
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