Ambassador Robert C. O’Brien
Remarks at POW 50th Anniversary Gala
May 24, 2023
Senator Carper, Governor and Mrs. Wilson, Ambassador Al Thani, General Officers, Trisha Nixon Cox, Melanie Eisenhower and other members of the Nixon family, our distinguished guests, the former POWs, ladies and gentlemen,
I cannot begin to tell you how honored I am to be here with you tonight.
In April of 1962, at the start of a White House dinner honoring Nobel Prize winners, President Kennedy said: “I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.”
Tonight, I know that we have here in the East Room of the Nixon Library, the most extraordinary collection of human honor, courage, patriotism, and heroism that has ever been gathered together anywhere.
Fifty years ago, on May 24 of 1973, you were at the White House. Ten years ago, on the 40th anniversary, you commemorated that night here at the Library.
50 years have now passed since you were brought home.
Your ranks have thinned. But your honor is undiminished, and your love of your country and your devotion to your duty still inspires us.
You kept faith with America, and President Nixon, and the Nixon family kept faith with you.
In my years as the Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs, I was personally involved in bringing more than twenty-five Americans home. During the President Trump’s term, his team brought back 55 captives from around the world.
That experience gave me an appreciation for the determination, skill, patience and persistence, that President Nixon and Dr. Kissinger devoted to bringing you home.
They had to deal with an intransigent and inhumane enemy. Their efforts were undermined by naïve and unhelpful interventions by peace activists and celebrities.
On December 18, 1972, the President made what he called the most difficult decision of the war. He sent the B-52s to North Vietnam. Because of that courageous decision, you came home four months later.
For all the years of your captivity, you men….the prisoners of war….and the missing in action….were always foremost on the President’s mind.
He wrote in his memoirs: “…each POW was an individual to me, and obtaining their release became a burning cause.”
He named his close friend and chief military aide General Don Hughes as White House liaison, and why he directed Henry Kissinger to be in weekly contact with the remarkable and heroic leaders of the National League of POW/MIA Families.
From January 20th 1969…..the day he was inaugurated….until March 29th 1973.…the day the last of you was released and safe, President Nixon was focused on bringing you home with the dignity.
His efforts were the most difficult and most successful hostage negotiation in American history.
Sadly, basic knowledge of our shared American history, including the stories of your heroism and return, are not being adequately taught in our schools.
Last year, the Annenberg Public Policy Center conducted a Civics Knowledge Survey. It found that 37% of the respondents couldn’t name any of the rights guaranteed by the First Amendment. Less than one in four could name freedom of religion. Only 26% were able to name the three branches of government.
Describing the results of the study, the Center’s Director warned: “We are unlikely to cherish, protect, and exercise rights if we don’t know that we have them.”
Our children and grandchildren are not learning the principles and values that sustained you through the long days and nights of your captivity in that far away land.
The Nixon Foundation is working to change this unacceptable situation.
Tonight, I am pleased to announce a $40 million American Civics Campaign — to revive the teaching and understanding of civics in our nation.
The American Civics Campaign will ensure that the Nixon Library remains an active center for study of America’s heritage and role in the world.
Contributions to the Campaign will fund:
- The construction of a hands-on education center that uses simulations to teach about our Constitution and the extraordinary system of government our Founders gave us.
- The construction of a magnificent special exhibitions hall that will be a destination for visitors from all around the world.
- We will build a presidential transportation pavilion to permanently house and display our Marine One —- the helicopter that flew Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, and Ford.
The hall will also display the President’s armored Lincoln Continental limousine
I am happy to tell you that we already have $26.1 million in pledges toward of our $40 million goal.
The Government of Qatar is providing half of the Campaign’s entire target with a $20 million gift.
Qatar’s generosity commemorates the 50th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between the United States and Qatar.
This year, President Biden designated Qatar as a “Major Non-NATO Ally” of the United States. This 2023 step shows President Nixon’s foresight regarding our Gulf ally all the way back in 1972.
The Nixon Foundation will name the special exhibition hall for the State of Qatar in recognition of the strong diplomatic relationship between our nations.
The State of Qatar and His Highness, the Emir, are represented this evening by His Excellency Sheikh Meshal bin Hamad Al Thani; Qatar’s Ambassador to the United States.
Meshal is not just a colleague, he is a friend. Of note tonight, I can disclose that Ambassador Al Thani was personally involved in the events that lead to the release this year of American hostage, Jeff Woodke. Jeff was a long-held hostage in Mali. Thank you, Meshal.
We also sincerely appreciate Barbara and Alex Bowie, long time supporters of the Library, for their pledge of $3 million that will go to the construction of the Transportation Pavilion.
Over the past several years, Ling and Charlie Zhang have been very generous donors to the Foundation, including support for this evening’s event.
On Monday, Charlie, who is a member of our Board and a good friend, informed Jim Byron and me that he and Ling would make a further contribution of $2 million to fund construction of the Transportation Pavilion.
One of the perks of being National Security Advisor was the opportunity to meet extraordinary Americans. Two of them are here tonight – Sarah and Ross Perot.
When we needed an underwriter for the special exhibition that would tell your story, we turned to the Perots. They made a substantial contribution that will allow the POW exhib to remain on display at the Nixon Library through the end of this year.
The Perot family also knows something about rescuing Americans abroad. If you have not read it already, get a copy of “On Wings of Eagles” by Ken Follett, and you’ll begin to understand the Perot family.
To our former POWs, Richard Nixon said you were courageous in action and even more courageous in captivity. His diary shows how inspired, moved and humbled he was by your heroism.
The President was overwhelmed by the plaque you presented him — inscribed to “Our leader – our comrade, Richard the Lion-Hearted.” He treasured that gift.
As we bring this fiftieth anniversary dinner to a close, let me share a passage from President Nixon’s memoirs:
“The show did not end until after midnight and the dancing went on until after two o’clock, but Pat and I went upstairs around 12:30. I kissed her goodnight and then went to the Lincoln Sitting Room.
As I sat before the fire, listening to the sounds of music and laughter coming up from downstairs, I felt that this was one of the greatest nights of my life.
There were no words then, and there are really none now, that could describe the joy and satisfaction that I felt at the thought that I had played a role in bringing these men back home, and that they, who were so completely courageous and admirable, genuinely seemed to consider the decisions I had made about the war to have been courageous and admirable ones.”
May God Bless you. I invite all our guests this evening to join together in singing, “God Bless America.”
Thank you and good night.