SECRETARY POMPEO: It’s an honor to be here. Good morning to everyone. It was about 30 years ago – I was a little younger, a little skinner, a little less grey – and I was a young lieutenant. My tank was Bravo 21. My gunner was a young man named Specialist 4 Sayed. He best in the platoon. We were training, we were preparing for – to fight the East Germans and the Russians during the Cold War, and we had just finished a training run at Grafenwoehr. We had fired 205mm Sabot rounds from our M1A1 main battle tank. For those of you who are tankers— how many tankers we got out here? (Cheers.)
Yeah. So the smell of cordite filled the turret; it was awesome. And that jet engine, the turbine engine of that tank, was whirring as we traveled down the range. And we had just hit two moving targets at a distance of a little more than a mile, and my gunner in the M1 tank sits right down on the front right beneath where the tank commander was, and he turned around with this big old smile and said, “Lieutenant, America is awesome.” (Laughter.)
When I walked in here this morning and could see all of you and could get a feel for the room, I must say that it reminded me of that moment. It reminded me of the joy – Specialist 4 Sayed’s joy, and mine. So thank you all. Thank you all for what you do for America each and every day.
I want to thank too some very special people – Commander-in-Chief B.J. Lawrence for inviting me to speak. It truly is a privilege to be here with you today. It’s been more than five decades since a sitting secretary of state addressed your convention, and I think it’s about damn time. (Applause and cheers.)
I also want to recognize VFW Auxiliary National President Sandi Kriebel and congratulate VFW National Commander Doc Schmitz and Auxiliary National President Peggy Haake.
It’s truly an honor to stand here and speak in front of so many patriots and to speak to your organization in particular. I know this organization. I represented south central Kansas; I’ve been in a lot of VFW halls. Since 1899, you all have served our veterans and each other. And nobody orders you to devote your time to this. You all do this because it’s honorable. You do it because you have true servants’ hearts, and I thank you for that.
It’s great too, I just came up after a Naval Academy grad. I wasn’t going to do the Army jokes, but now I feel compelled to do one. (Laughter.) More seriously, your service and the service of generations before you have helped make America the great and glorious place that it is. Americans have always looked out for one another. It’s what we do. Our first veterans knew the stakes of the battle for independence – for them, for their children, for us.
They knew, folks like General then President George Washington. They knew service mattered. He carried himself not as an imperious king, but as a humble servant.
A few decades later, a Frenchman – a fellow named Tocqueville – he marveled, he watched. He watched as he saw America perform voluntary service to each other. He said, quote, “to found seminaries, to build inns, to raise churches, to distribute books, to send missionaries” and “to create hospitals, prisons, schools.” You all know this stuff.
President Lincoln too, when he was writing about service, said that, quote, “I freely acknowledge myself the servant of the people according to the bond of service – the United States Constitution; and that, as such, I am responsible for them.” He was talking about the people and the duty to serve.
Today we still love to volunteer for greater causes. Your organization is proof of this. I’ve seen it. So are Rotary Clubs, with its “Service Above Self” motto, Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, Habitat for Humanity. So are the countless churches and synagogues and mosques that do good works in our communities. Thousands of other groups too.
And you all know this: Danger does not deter our men and women from serving in uniform. (Applause.)
I was reminded of that on the very first day that I was sworn in as a member of Congress. I was sworn in, it was the – not the first time in my life. It was after my time in service in the Army – I was sworn in 24 hours earlier to defend the Constitution. And I got a note that said that there had been a young man killed in action whose family was in Wichita, Kansas.
I made a call that day. It was one of my first acts as a member of Congress. I spoke with the father of Staff Sergeant Eric Nettleton. He’s a hero of mine. I spoke to his father, who was that day a hurting man. And I was a brand new member of Congress. He knew that his son’s death meant something. It meant something to his fellow Americans. And so while I was thanking him and his family for their commitment to America, it’s a wonderful family, and their son’s service, Staff Sergeant Nettleton’s father said something to me. He said something that sticks with me to this very day. He said, “Mike, just don’t let the bad guys win.”
Eric Nettleton gave all. He gave the ultimate service for his fellow Americans. As Secretary of State, my mission every day is to make sure we never let the bad guys win. (Applause.)
So I was once a soldier. Now I lead a diplomatic team. We protect the great fruits of others’ service. And I want to talk to you today about how President Trump and our administration is doing just that, but a little history I think is in order to talk about.
Look, I know this. I know that diplomacy is our first and best tool for protecting American interests. It’s how – when diplomacy is done well, it saves lives. It really matters. I tell my team that every day. It’s how we build alliances with our friends and allies around the world. It’s how we get American companies in the door so that they can grow their businesses in other countries, so that we can create jobs for your kids and for mine. It’s how we keep our enemies’ finger off the trigger, keeping troops out of harm’s way.
But when we do it wrong, when it’s practiced poorly, diplomacy creates problems for our country, serious problems. We live in dangerous times. No one knows that better than the men and women in this room. Some of that is because our leaders made foreign policy decisions that didn’t serve Americans well or put Americans first. We struck deals that enriched rivals like the Islamic Republic of Iran. And when competitors like China broke some fundamentally basic mutual-agreed-upon trade rules, we simply played nice. And when Russia violated important treaties, we sent them letters and just begged them to stop. And when rogue nations like North Korea had launched missiles and had tested nuclear weapons systems, we did too little.
We abandoned our friends too, not just in North Asia and the Middle East but friends in Europe, in the Arctic, in Southeast Asia, and indeed, where I just came from, South America. And perhaps saddest of all, we let the doctrines of global elites dictate our engagement. Instead, instead of using the American creed, the one that you all fought for in places like Kasserine Pass and in Kumsong and in Khe Sanh and in Kirkuk and in Kandahar, those are the values that America must rest upon.
When we get this diplomacy wrong, it’s selfish. It preferences the will of others over that of Americans and it affords politicians easy accolades without doing the hard work to secure real achievements. And we’ve learned the hard way that short-sighted diplomacy, bad decisions, have long-term consequences. And when we make those bad decisions, it doesn’t do honor to your service, because, in fact, it helps the bad guys win.
But as those of you in uniform can appreciate, this isn’t about politics, and that staring at these problems or complaining about them – well, it doesn’t solve them. And it’s on our administration; it’s on our administration every day to do something about these challenges. If we don’t, we’re derelict in our own service to you and to America.
And when I meet with President Trump – I spoke to him just a couple hours back – he said to send his regards to you, tell you that he loves you and values you, and regrets that he couldn’t be here today himself. When I meet with President Trump, the outcomes he wants are always very clear. I never have any doubt about commander’s intent. (Laughter.) And not only that, he expects me to deliver. He expects the State Department team to deliver for him.
I start by trying to be true to men like Washington and men like Hamilton and all of our brilliant founders. I strive to stay true to their principles as the first idea and central defining idea – a right to life, to liberty, to the pursuit of happiness, that are contained in the Declaration of Independence, are our central guideposts. These are our constitutional rights, and President Trump is fearless in protecting our freedoms and in asserting our sovereignty. He, every day, wants to make sure that the bad buys don’t win.
Too, President Trump is unafraid. He is unafraid to try new diplomatic tactics where the old ones were simply not getting the outcomes that America needs and deserves. You’ve seen this. You’ve seen this on North Korea, where we came into office and found that appeasement wasn’t working, and neither did neglect. So we’re maintaining pressure on the North Korean regime while keeping an outstretched hand for diplomacy. I’ve now had the chance to meet with Chairman Kim on multiple occasions. Indeed, I think I’ve spent more time with Chairman Kim than any other American, now surpassing Dennis Rodman. (Laughter and applause.) This is an important step towards achieving America’s ultimate objective, the denuclearization of North Korea and the safety of countries in the region and all around the world.
And on the Islamic Republic of Iran, the nuclear deal, it only made the regime more aggressive. We’ve re-engaged with allies to exert pressure on that regime. All we ask of them is all America ever asks. We just want them to behave like a normal nation. And today, as part of that maximum pressure campaign, I’m announcing that the United States is imposing sanctions on the Chinese entity Zhuhai Zhenrong and its chief executive, Youmin Li. They violated U.S. law by accepting crude oil. We’ve said all along that any sanction will indeed be enforced. We can’t tolerate more money going to the ayatollah, putting American soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines, and putting their life at risk. It’s too important. (Applause.)
On Venezuela. On Venezuela, our patience only emboldened Maduro and his Cuban masters. We’ve led a 55-nation coalition to support the Venezuelan people in their quest for democracy, for freedom, and for prosperity. And on the subject of Cuba, we’ve reversed President Obama’s appeasement of the brutal Castro regime. (Applause.)
Now, it’s important to note – this is sometimes misconstrued by some in the media – “America first” does not mean America alone. Indeed, other nations are rolling up their sleeves to work alongside of us.
We’re restoring friendships that were neglected for a long, long time, from Eastern Europe, to our partners in the Gulf, to the Pacific Islands.
And of course, our relationship with Israel is unequaled. It’s a democracy. It stands for the same things that we do here in America. That relationship is stronger than it’s ever been, and we’re very proud of that. (Applause.)
Another way that we seek every day in this administration to honor your service is to put America first economically. President Trump understands this in his gut: Economic security drives national security.
We can’t support a military or a robust global diplomatic presence without prosperity. It’s how we pay for deterrence. It’s how we achieve peace.
Now, those are just a few reasons why we insist on free and fair trade with rule-breakers like China. There are many others. It’s also why we tackle tough trade disputes with friendly partners like India. And it’s why we explain to nations like Hungary that companies that are tied to the Chinese Communist Party should not build out their 5G networks.
We explain why America’s economic model is the best. It’s the best to secure prosperity not just for us, but for every citizen across the entire globe.
And speaking of explaining, I’m honoring your service today too by telling the world one simple truth: The U.S. military is a force for good everywhere and always. (Applause.)
You take this for granted, but not everyone accepts that proposition. So I say it everywhere I travel whether they like it or not.
You fought for things that deserve to be defended. You fought for your children. You fought for your homes. You fought for your neighbors and your friends and your family.
You fought for our unalienable rights.
You fought to keep our people and other people free.
You fought so that this truly exceptional place that we call America might endure, and we will never apologize for that, not ever. (Applause.)
Last, but certainly not least, we take care of our own – both the living and the fallen.
President Trump’s Singapore summit with Chairman Kim produced the single largest return of remains from North Korea in history: 55 boxes filled with honor and with sacrifice. (Applause.)
I remember sitting in the room negotiating with my counterpart. He’s a former senior North Korean general, and I remember talking to him. And I think he was perplexed that we put this as the first among the items we wanted to talk about. Every one of you understands why we put that first and why we’ll continue to work on this. And we will not stop working on this until every one of our fallen heroes and their remains have been returned to the United States of America. (Applause.)
I’m immensely proud too that we’ve gotten dozens of Americans who were held hostage overseas back, back to their families, back to America, and we did so without paying a single penny in ransom. (Applause.) In just about two and a half years, that’s more than any other administration in modern history.
I’ve had a chance to be part of that too. As CIA Director, I vividly recall coordinating the rescue of an American woman and her family who were being held by terrorists in Pakistan.
And then too, I had the glory of flying back from North Korea, flying back and bringing home three Americans who had been held there wrongfully. It was quite an amazing thing. It was 2:30 in morning. We arrived in Washington, D.C. President Trump and Melania and all the senior leaders were there from America, and the TVs – although it was 2:30 in the morning, every eye was riveted. It’s how much we care as Americans about getting our compatriots home. It’s how much President Trump and the administration cares about bringing these same people home. (Applause.)
I have many tasks, but every day I work to bring back Americans that are wrongly held in places like Iran, and in Syria, and in Mali, and in Venezuela, and all over the globe.
I want to mention, too, there’s a threat that some of you know about. There are rogue courts, international courts, that have threatened to bring American soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines to dock, to bring them to justice. This is wrong. This administration has moved heaven and earth to prevent them from wrongfully prosecuting anyone in this room or anyone other who has served in the United States armed forces. (Applause.)
It wasn’t too terribly long ago, and I had an incredible opportunity to land in darkness. It was a desert. I was flown in on a helicopter. We were miles from the nearest light. I was then serving as America’s chief spy, the director of the CIA, and I needed to get out to see this elite team – it was a small team of about a half a dozen folks. I wanted to thank them for the work that they were doing, work that is truly remarkable.
And this half-dozen or so team members, they were nearly all veterans of the United States Armed Forces, and this mission required exactly the kind of excellence and experience that service in the military provides.
So I climbed down out of the helicopter and I was met by an electrical engineer, a physicist, and four guys who told me, sir, we just get stuff done. (Laughter.) And while I cannot tell you precisely their mission, I can tell you what I was thinking when I got back on that helicopter.
I was thinking exactly what SP4 Sayed was thinking some 30 years earlier. I was thinking that America is awesome. (Applause.)
No other country could pull off that mission and no other country would accept such risk for such a noble purpose and no other country has men and women willing to do what those men and women were doing that night.
And as I wrap up here today, I hope you all get the sense that I take the mission as America’s most senior diplomat very seriously. Because of that, I can use your help too.
My wife Susan and I talk a lot about how America has changed in these last few decades. One way is one that you know, that we have fewer and fewer families – fewer and fewer families who have veterans that are part of their family. That’s not a good thing. We need veterans in the life of every American. We need them both to serve others and to be an example of service itself.
There was a fellow named Edmund Burke, and he stated that we all have our own little platoon – our families, our neighbors, our co-workers, and so on.
He said to love that “little platoon we belong to in society” is the “first link.” It’s the “first link…by which we proceed towards a love to our country and to mankind.”
So I know you all love America. Continue to serve. Continue to serve your little platoon, and do it in the way you see fit. Continue your active work here with the VFW.
Mentor a young person who really needs someone to look up to. Tell them your stories.
Run some errands for an elderly neighbor and spend a little time visiting with them too. They’d love to hear about your service.
Help your family members who may be struggling with demons or from addiction.
As many of you do, continue to care for our brothers and sisters who are struggling with PTSD.
As veterans you know this, and as active members of the VFW you have taken it to heart, your fidelity to the call of service was proven long ago. If you keep serving, each of you will be a force multiplier for freedom inside of our country and outside of it.
And as you perform that service, know that you aren’t alone. My team and I will be doing our part right alongside you.
We will not let the bad guys win. (Applause.)
I want to thank each of you VFW members, family members of those who have served.
May God bless each of you.
May God bless each and every veteran.
And may God bless the United States of America.
Thank you. (Applause.)