The American Legion Magazine
October 2000
Alan W. Dowd

IN ADDITION TO being a Navy veteran, trailblazer in South Carolina politics, survivor of a double-lung transplant and kidney transplant, 30-year veteran of Congress and chairman of the powerful House Armed Services Committee, Floyd Spence may have the distinction of serving one of the briefest terms as Post Commander in Legion history. "I was elected and then they found out I was in the state legislature, so they had to un-elect me," Spence recalls with his trademark Southern wit.

That occurred in the mid-1950s because of a narrowly interpreted South Carolina law. Since then, the longtime public servant hasn't had many political setbacks, serving in South Carolina's upper and lower houses as both a Democrat and a Republican, winning a seat in the U.S. House, and ascending to key leadership positions on the Armed Services and Veterans' Affairs Committees.

His work on those committees has garnered Spence the title "The Veterans' Friend in Congress." In tribute to his decades of service to the nation's military, Spence's colleagues named the Defense Authorization bill for fiscal 2001, "The Floyd D. Spence National Defense Authorization Act." Associate Editor Alan Dowd interviewed Spence as the bill with the congressman's name on it overwhelmingly passed in the House and was sent to the Senate.

The American Legion Magazine: What is the most pressing national-security challenge facing our country today?

Floyd Spence: Gosh, we've got so many of them. We have been reducing the size of our force and cutting back on the defense budget for 16 straight years.

We're to the point now that we've reduced the force 35 to 45 percent. We've got three people doing the work of five in the military.

We're wearing out people and equipment with all these deployments around the world. We've deteriorated our force to the extent that we would have a difficult time fighting off the security threats to our country. Plus, we still don't have a national missile defense and there are nations with intercontinental ballistic missiles and nuclear warheads pointing at us.

Q: How important is developing and deploying a national missile defense?

A: It's critical. It's very important. I've heard people say, "We can't afford to build a national missile defense." I say we can't afford not to. Even an accidental launch could have terrible consequences.

Just a few years ago, Norway launched a weather rocket, and Russia's military sensors mistook the launch for a ballistic-missile attack from one of our submarines. They were within minutes of launching an attack on us in retaliation for something we didn't do. We're that close to a real nuclear holocaust.

Q: The Russian government has warned that it will withdraw from all existing arms-reduction treaties if the United States deploys a missile defense. How should President Clinton and his successor respond to these threats?

A: Well, we might want to stop this trend of arms-reduction. Not long ago in a meeting here in Washington, Russian officials shook their fingers in our face and told us they still have a nuclear arsenal that is being improved all the time. They threatened us. We didn't win the Cold War by giving in to threats like that. We shouldn't worry about an arms race. That's really what won the Cold War - Reagan's buildup brought down the Soviet Union.

Q: You have mentioned that China and America appear to be on a collision course. Is there anything that can be done to avert a new Cold War or even open hostilities between the United States and China?

A: I'm not good at predicting things. But I do believe if we have another large-scale war in the future, it's going to be with China. That's what the Chinese government is saying. They are preparing to fight us and to use the military secrets they have stolen from us. I don't know how we can change the government in China, other than just doing as Reagan did and outspending them in an arms race.

We've sent mixed signals too long on Taiwan. We promised to help the people of Taiwan when they fled communism. And we should fulfill that commitment. Again, we need a national missile defense so that China can't intimidate us from coming to Taiwan's aid.

Q: You have been working on the fiscal 2001 National Defense Authorization Act (HR 4205) for months. Could you discuss some of the highlights of the bill?

A: What we've been able to do is amazing. After 16 straight years of declining defense budgets, the president came forth with a slight increase. While we've been able to add $50 billion over the last six years to his defense budget proposals, we haven't been able to stop the decline in overall defense spending. As a nation, we've dug a hole for ourselves in defense. We added $4.5 billion to the president's request this year, and he's opposed to that.

But with this addition, we've been able to improve the quality of life of our military and veterans. We've got a 3.7-percent increase in pay. We have also increased the housing allowance for military families. We set up a subsistence payment of up to $500 per month to relieve the problem of military families being forced to use food stamps.

We are also increasing military construction programs by $400 million. That's very important. This is all in addition to what was proposed by the president. He didn't ask for any of these things.

Q: How does the bill respond to the priorities of veterans?

A: We have made Medicare subvention permanent in this bill. Retirees have been fighting for this a long time. Along with that, we've restored pharmacy access for all Medicare-eligible retirees.

We're still working on implementing a veterans' health-care program that is more similar to the Federal Employees' Health Benefits Program [which offers more choices to participants]. And now we've got a roadmap for trying to phase that in.

Q: A new president will be sworn in next January. What should be his top national-security priority?

A: He has to help us deploy a national missile defense. President Clinton has hampered us every step of the way on this issue. He's vetoed our bills and thrown roadblocks into our way every time we've made some movement on national missile defense. The new president is going to have to turn that around by helping us rather than hindering us in that respect.

We also have to build up the rest of the military - all the way across the board - to meet the threats that are facing us today. For instance, we're supposed to be able to fight two major theater wars simultaneously. We've cut back so much that I doubt we could fight one war like the Persian Gulf War. We certainly couldn't do it with the same degree of efficiency. That means the risk is high to our military people.

Q: Chairman Spence, you've been in public service for at least 45 years, serving your country, your state and your community. What do you view as your single greatest accomplishment in the public sector?

A: It's difficult to convince the rest of Congress and the American people of these military needs when the president says, "We're in great shape." But this year's Defense Authorization bill did that; it's probably the best thing I've done as a public servant.