On the last Memorial Day of the century, he asked for a commitment "to another hundred years of our liberty, our prosperity, our optimism and our common humanity."
Mr. Clinton made the NATO campaign against ethnic cleansing in Kosovo the central theme of his holiday address at Arlington National Cemetery. It's a message similar to one Clinton delivered to an audience of veterans in Washington earlier this month -- that America ignores racist brutality in Europe at its peril.
Kosovo, he said, "is a very small province in a small country. But it is a big test of what we believe in - our commitment to leave to our children a world where people are not uprooted and ravaged and slaughtered en masse because of their race, their ethnicity or their religion."
From the amphitheater in the heart of the cemetery, Mr. Clinton acknowledged public ambivalence about America's leading role in securing the province for its ethnic Albanian population driven out by Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's forces.
"I know that many Americans believe that this is not our fight," he said.
"But remember why many of the people are laying in these graves out here because of what happened in Europe, and because of what was allowed to go on too long before people intervened. What we are doing today will save lives, including American lives, in the future and it will give our children a better, safer world to live in."
Before his remarks, Mr. Clinton, assisted by a uniformed military aide, placed a wreath of red, white and blue flowers at the Tomb of the Unknowns. He slid his hand down the length of blue ribbon before pausing in silence, his head bowed.
"Our entire history is written in this ground," he later observed of the 200 rolling, green acres crowded by some 250,000 small white stones marking the graves of veterans from every conflict, from the American Revolution through the Persian Gulf War and Somalia. Among those buried at Arlington are President Kennedy; Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes; presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan; polar explorer Richard Byrd; joe Louis, the boxer; Gen. John J. Pershing, the World War I commander; Samuel Dashiell Hammett, the detective novelist who created Sam Spade.
"Again and again, America has been tested in the 20th century, coming through it all down to the present day with even greater blessings of liberty and prosperity," Mr. Clinton said.
"Thanks to our brave men and women in uniform, our nation has never been more secure."
The president is due to address the Kosovo conflict again on Wednesday, when he delivers a commencement speech at the United States Air Force Academy, and in a private meeting at he White House Thursday with his military advisory panel, the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Earlier, Mr. Clinton said he enjoyed the five-day vacation, and didn't miss the scrutiny of the Washington press corps. He said he took delight in feeding pine cones to eight black rhinos, who ate them ``for roughage.''
The Clintons capped their five-day vacation Sunday by participating in an annual retreat by the Progressive Foundation, a branch of the Democratic Leadership Council. This year's topic was "The Politics of the Third Way," a term moderate Democrats have coined for Mr. Clinton's blend of restrained economic policies and liberal social agenda.
The foundation said the retreat, which was closed to the press, focused on the challenges the third way faces "in this country and worldwide," defining the philosophy as the embodiment of "equal opportunity for all, special privilege for none."