Address to the Coral Sea Celebration - Perth

J. Thomas Schieffer
U.S. Ambassador to Australia

May 8, 2004

Tonight, we come together to mark the 62nd anniversary of the Battle of the Coral Sea. Throughout the last week, groups will have gathered across Australia, from Adelaide to Darwin, from Sydney to Perth, to celebrate the moment when our two great democracies came together in the defense of freedom. Australians like to take the opportunity to thank Americans for being here in Australia when the threat was greatest. Americans like to thank Australians for always being there with us in the most dangerous parts of the world.

Throughout the history of the last century and in the beginning of the history of this century when the going has been toughest, when the stakes have been highest, Australians were never hard to find.

Each year we also say a special thanks to those brave souls still with us who bore the brunt of battle in the Coral Sea and throughout that whole terrible war. Each year their numbers grow smaller. Each year our gratitude grows greater.

We know with the passage of time the certainty of their contribution. They made a difference in our lives and the lives of our nations. We must never forget their courage or their conviction or their sacrifice.

In America, the journalist Tom Brokaw has called them "The Greatest Generation." Surely, the same could be said here in Australia.

In depression they were steadfast, in war they were unrelenting, in peace they were unassuming. What better example of citizenship could we cite to our children?

As the Second World War fades further into the mists of memory, we have a tendency to view what happened as if it were inevitable. With hindsight it all seems so simple. The Allies would win. Democracy would triumph. Freedom would flourish.

In May of 1942, it didn't look that way at all. In fact the odds seemed quite long that it would turn out as it did. Europe was controlled by the Nazis?most of Asia by the militarists in Japan. The forces of Darkness were loose in the land and they were in the ascendancy.

Winston Churchill argued that the fate of civilization hung in the balance. "... If we fail" he said, "then the whole world, including the United States, and all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new dark age ..."

The war in truth was a continuation of an argument that had been going on throughout the 1930s and into the 40s. It went something like this - only the discipline of dictatorship or the authoritarian rule of a few could deliver the many from the throes of depression and the unraveling of the social fabric.

Democracy, it was said, was too soft to meet the tough challenges of a modern world. That argument prevailed in the politics of Germany and Italy and Japan. On the seas and battlefields of the world it seemed invincible.

In 1942 only twelve democracies still survived - only twelve. Six of them - the United Kingdom, the United States, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and Ireland traced their roots back to Magna Carta. Of the six, five were under the severest attack and they were losing. Only two democracies - Switzerland and Sweden - survived in Europe and they faced the severest pressure from the Nazis. Four existed in Latin America, but not one had survived in Asia. The light of democracy seemed to grow fainter with every passing month. France had fallen, Pearl Harbor was decimated and when Singapore fell surely it must have felt that the end could be near.

But a glimmer of hope appeared in the waters of the Coral Sea. We all know the story now. We know that it was the first naval engagement in which ships never saw each other. We know that after fierce fighting, both naval armadas broke off without inflicting a decisive blow. We know, now, that it all came out all right. But we didn't know it when we went into battle.

Some have called the Battle of the Coral Sea a draw. Perhaps it would be more accurate to call it the beginning of the end. The Japanese sweep across Asia had been halted. In another month, the decisive blow would be struck at Midway. And a lot of the reason for that was because of the damage inflicted on the Japanese in the Coral Sea. No wonder we celebrate the event.

We know today the consequences of victory. We can only imagine the consequences of defeat. Some argue that the Japanese had no immediate plans to invade Australia. That may be true in the short run but would it have remained so in the long run? At the very least, Japan was prepared to impose a naval blockade on Australia to knock it out of the war and force upon it a dubious peace. So what would have happened if we had lost the Battle of the Coral Sea? What would have happened if the fleet at Midway had been sunk? Can anyone seriously argue that an expansionist Japanese Empire was prepared to tolerate a functioning, free democracy on its doorstep?

Fortunately, those are questions that never had to be answered because we were successful in acting together.

In May 1942, we both stared into the abyss and we both realized that our chances of survival were far greater together than apart. It is a lesson we carry with us to this day.

Today, in the world, more people vote for their governments than ever before?almost one hundred and fifty now as opposed to just those twelve. Democracy is once again in the ascendancy. That didn't just happen. It happened because we?America and Australia?were willing to lend a hand to make it happen. In John F. Kennedy's phrase, we were willing "... to bear the burden of a long twilight struggle year in and year out ..." that liberty and justice might prevail.

We decided long ago that the Common law, a common language and a common set of values gave us more than enough common ground to face some pretty uncommon foes.

Now, liberty and justice are threatened again. The bane of our generation, the scourge of our time - terrorism strikes at the heart of all we hold dear. Those who practice it would give no more pause than the Nazis before plunging us into a new dark age of intolerance, ignorance and hate.

We cannot allow them to be successful. We have come too far, accomplished too much, sacrificed too often to turn back now. The road will be difficult but we must travel it and we must travel it together.

In his last State of the Union message before the United States was plunged into the war, Franklin Roosevelt said that we sought a world in which four freedoms could flourish - the Freedom of Speech, the Freedom of Religion, the Freedom from Want and the Freedom from Fear. Those freedoms are still at issue around the world. What we do in their behalf still matters. We can still make a difference just as The Greatest Generation made a difference.

We must not waiver.

And we must not fail.

On behalf of the President of the United States and the American people, I thank you for your friendship. You are the best of mates.