Foreign Secretary speaks at Ronald Reagan Centennial Banquet

Foreign Secretary William Hague marked the Ronald Reagan Centennial at the Guildhall, London on 4 July.

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government
The Rt Hon William Hague

Good evening My Lords, Ladies and Gentleman, Ambassador, Congressmen, parliamentary colleagues and distinguished guests;

It is a great honour to mark the Centennial of President Reagan’s birth in your company and in this fine setting.

It reminds me of another very fine occasion; the recent wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. The American Ambassador and his wife both came along, and afterwards I hosted them with the Ambassadors of most of the rest of the world at a reception at Lancaster House. I can tell you that never has a Royal Wedding been so enjoyed by so many ardent Republics. All the Americans present have of course achieved their revenge by gathering hundreds of us Brits to join the Independence Day celebrations this evening.

Of all the invitations I have received as Foreign Secretary, Nancy Reagan’s letter asking me to speak tonight is the one I have accepted with the greatest pleasure.

It was here in this very hall, in the summer of 1945, that General Eisenhower was presented with the sword of Wellington for his part in the liberation of Europe, that great triumph of Allied might and will.

Praised for his prowess, General Eisenhower said:

“Had I possessed the military skill of Marlborough, the wisdom of Solomon and the understanding of Lincoln, I still would have been helpless without the loyalty, vision and generosity of thousands upon thousands of British and Americans”.

That is true for all of us holding office in Britain and America today. Our ties are so strong because they derive from the unbreakable friendship between our people.

Now as then we share in each other’s sacrifices and take pride in each other’s achievements.

Condoleezza Rica has spoken powerfully of all that President Reagan accomplished in foreign policy.

His unflinching faith in democracy has been vindicated by the success of the democracies of Eastern Europe, many of whom are now our trusted allies in Europe and in NATO.

His bold conviction that the Berlin Wall could and should come down and that the Soviet Union would collapse under the weight of its own contradictions was not only utterly borne out by events but did much to help shape them.

His legacy in Eastern Europe stands as proof for the whole world that conflict division and fear can be overcome; that walls can be torn down and the bitterest of enemies reconciled, and that where dictatorship reigned democracy can not only take root but also flourish.

Ronald Reagan did not pay lip service to these ideals - he believed them with his whole heart.

His passionate conviction and force of character live on in his many timeless speeches, letters and stories.

I am particularly fond of a story he used to tell when he was first running for President in 1968, about a candidate for city council who was campaigning in a local park.

He went up to the first voter he saw sitting on a bench, who asked him what he would do if elected about a flock of geese that roamed the park. The candidate replied that he would ensure that they were preserved unharmed. “You’ve lost my vote”, the man said. “I can’t stand these geese and the mess and noise they make”.

The candidate moved to another bench and was asked the same question. Determined not to make the same mistake he replied “I would get rid of these darned geese straight away”. The voter was outraged. “You’ve lost my vote”, he said. “These geese are a national treasure, and I come here especially every day to look at them”.

On moved the candidate, and the very next voter he met asked him the inevitable question about the geese.

This time the candidate put his arm around the voter’s shoulders and replied: “Brother, on the question of geese, I’m with you.”

Occasionally in my work I have reason to recall another Reagan story, which is what he said when harried by his staff to get out on the campaign trail at some ungodly hour in the morning.

“Governor”, his Chief of Staff said to him “you better get used to it. When you’re President, that fellow from the National Security Council will be there to brief you at seven thirty every morning’”.

After a pause Reagan said “Well, he’s going to have a helluva long wait”.

But of all the speeches he gave there are two in particular which stand out in my recollection.
The first was his unforgettable response to the Challenger space shuttle disaster which I am sure many of you will remember as I do.

Faced with this national calamity he did not seek to minimise what had happened or to look for someone to blame.

He spoke words of comfort to the school children of America, those most enthralled by the wonders of space and most vulnerable to the fear, doubt and incomprehension caused by this great loss.

And he spoke to America’s adversaries too. “We don’t hide our space program”, he said. “We don’t keep secrets and cover things up. We do it all up front and in public. That’s the way freedom is, and we wouldn’t change it for a minute”.

With one speech he turned America’s pain into strength, and tragedy into renewed hope for the future.

The second Reagan speech that I believe will live on for generations were his words on the beaches of Normandy on the Anniversary of D-Day. His diary records that he fought back tears as he spoke. Among his listeners were some of the Rangers who had stormed the cliffs of France in the face of intense enemy fire 40 years before, when the future of Britain and of Europe hung in the balance.

The President said “behind me is a memorial that symbolizes the Ranger daggers that were thrust into the top of these cliffs. And before me are the men who put them there. These are the boys of Pointe du Hoc. These are the men who took the cliffs. These are the champions who helped free a continent. And these are the heroes who helped end a war”.

He conjured up the countless individual acts of heroism that contributed to victory, and the astonishing courage each Ranger summoned to face the batteries of guns raining down destruction upon them, addressing those who had survived and recalling those who perished beside them:

“You were young the day you took these cliffs; some of you were hardly more than boys, with the deepest joys of life before you. Yet you risked everything here. Why, why did you do it? What impelled you to put aside the instinct for self-preservation and risk your lives to take these cliffs? What inspired all the men of the armies that met here? We look at you, and somehow we know the answer….it was the deep knowledge - and pray God we have not lost it - that there is a profound moral difference between the use of force for liberation and the use of force for conquest”.

Today, with undiminished power, his words exhort us to strive always to use our strength for noble purposes, to hope for a more peaceful world, and to be confident in the enduring power of our values.

Just as we saw in Eastern Europe during Ronald Reagan’s time, so we see now in the Arab world in our time, that aspirations for dignity, human rights and political and economic freedom are indeed universal and irrepressible.

As Ronald Reagan said “no arsenal or no weapon in the arsenals of the world is so formidable as the will and courage of free men and women.”

This should chill the spine of every authoritarian ruler as he goes to bed tonight.

The obstacles to democracy are even greater in the Middle East and North Africa than they were in Eastern Europe, but that should not deter us or the people of the region.

If greater freedom takes hold in the Middle East and North Africa it will not only be to the immense benefit of the people of the Arab world, but it will reverberate in every corner of the world where human rights are still denied.

That is why our government has called for this generation to offer a new hand of friendship to the people of the countries on the southern borders of Europe, just as the EU and NATO allies did in the East in the 1990s with such lasting success. We must give them painstaking support to build democratic institutions, and offer the genuine prospect of closer association with our countries.

But we must also remember that the staunch defence of human rights and democracy is needed not only in the Middle East, but in many other parts of the world where freedom has been in retreat in recent years:

In Burma, still walled in by its own invisible iron curtain.

In North Korea, whose people endure some of the worst abuses of human rights anywhere in the world.

In Belarus, Europe’s last dictatorship, where the wave of change that surged across the continent after the collapse of the Berlin Wall came to a crashing halt, and whose people we must never forget.

So in this year of President Reagan’s centenary, we must maintain the unwavering commitment to freedom that he showed, standing against oppression wherever it occurs. This is indeed a cause worthy of the Special Relationship.

As we look to the future we should be fired by optimism as well as resolve.

Today Britain and America are the largest investors in each other’s economies, each other’s top partners in science, research and higher education and our companies provide employment for a million people in each other countries, while millions of our families and our citizens live, love, work and study on the other side of the Atlantic.
As Foreign Secretary I witness every day, sometimes every hour, that the Special Relationship is indispensable to the security of both our countries.

Our Armed Forces fight alongside each other; our Intelligence Services work intimately together to tackle some of the greatest dangers we face today and above all our values remain deeply entwined.

There is no doubt that the world is a much better place for this close and powerful connection.

Thirty years after Ronald Reagan forged such a great partnership with Margaret Thatcher, tonight we celebrate it; in the future we will always remember it; permanently, we will be inspired by it; and you can be sure that we in the British Government will remain utterly committed to the depth, breadth and strength of our alliance with the United States of America.

Updates to this page

Published 5 July 2011