Thank you, distinguished faculty
, families and friends, and thank you, Corps of Cadets of the Virginia Military Institute
Class of 2001. Your invitation to give this
is a great honor for someone who graduated fifth from the bottom in the United States Naval Academy
Class of 1958
. To stand here, at this venerated
institution, before this distinguished assembly, to commend young men and women who are far more accomplished than I was at your age has reaffirmed my life-long faith that in America anything is possible
If my old company officer at the Academy were here, whose affection for midshipmen was sorely tested by my less than exemplary behavior, I fear he would decline to hold VMI in the high esteem that I do.
Nevertheless, I want to join in the chorus of congratulations for the Class of 2001. Gentlemen and . . . ladies, I salute you. You have succeeded in a demanding course of instruction, in a college that not only instills military discipline, but has taught you the essence of leadership and the virtues of good character, and, most importantly, has imparted to you that sense of honor that is the pride of those who serve America’s interests and ideals, and ransom their lives to its safekeeping. As you take your leave of this place make its lessons your lifetime
companions, and you’ll be a credit not only to your alma mater, to your families and to yourself, but to the good
and great nation that is your safest shelter, and, I hope, your worthy cause.
This school can claim a great many distinguished alumni, none greater than the admirable patriot, General of the
Army George Marshall, whose long, selfless service to our country was of inestimable value to Americans in the
greatest, most consequential moments of our recent past. As VMI celebrates the centennial anniversary of
General Marshall’s commencement from VMI, it is appropriate that you take pride from your association with his
good name and satisfaction in knowing that his character and service have been a part of your education.
I wish more Americans were instructed in the life of George Marshall. I wish every school taught a course in the lives of our greatest citizens, in which George Marshall would merit special attention, and not just our colleges and universities, but our high schools and grade schools. Patriotism is a thing best taught by example, and the lives of our greatest patriots should be our best teachers.
In America our rights come before our duties, as well they should. We are a free people, and among our freedoms is the liberty to care or not care for our birthright. But you know, as well I, that those who claim their liberty but not their duty to the civilization that ensures it live a half-life, having indulged their vanity and self-interest at the cost of their self-respect. The richest man or woman, the most successful and celebrated of our citizens possess nothing of any real value if their lives have no greater object than themselves. They may be masters of their fate, but what a poor destiny it is that claims no higher cause than wealth and fame.
My father’s generation fought the Depression and the Second World War. Members of my generation fought the Cold War and in the struggle for a more perfect union, a more just society. Those worthy causes gave our lives meaning. They gave even the most obscure names historical importance. They offered a form of immortality. Even when the names of the men and women who served in them are forgotten, the world will still remember what they did.
I am privileged to have held a public trust since I graduated from the Naval Academy forty-three years ago. I
have never lived a single day, in good times and bad, that I wasn’t grateful for the privilege. This country and her
causes are a blessing to mankind, and they honor all who work to make America a better place, and America’s
example a greater influence on human history.
For all the terrible problems that still afflict humanity, the 21st Century would have dawned on a much less hopeful
world absent America’s place in it. Until the end of time, will there ever be a nation such as ours? I cannot
imagine that another nation’s history will ever so profoundly affect the progress of the human race. That is not boastful chauvinism, friends, but a profession of faith in the American creed, and in the men and women, the
patriots like George Marshall, who understood what history expected of our country, and saw to it that we
exceeded even the loftiest aspirations of our founders.
Twelve years ago, in the first days of the last days of the Soviet empire, a young Czech student stood before a million of his countrymen, while two hundred thousand Soviet troops occupied his country, and, trembling with emotion, read a manifesto that declared a new day for the peoples of Eastern Europe. But he began that new day with borrowed words when he proclaimed:
We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable right, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
We are not a perfect nation, a perfect union. Prosperity and power may delude us into thinking we have achieved
that distinction, but inequities and challenges unforeseen a mere generation ago command every good citizen’s
concern and labor. But what we have achieved in our brief history is irrefutable proof that a nation conceived in an idea, in liberty, will prove stronger and more enduring than any nation ordered to exalt the few at the expense of the many or made from a common race or culture or to preserve traditions that have no greater attribute other than longevity.
As blessed as we are, as empowered by liberty as we are, no nation complacent in its greatness can long sustain
it. We are an unfinished nation. And we are not a people of half-measures. We must take our place in the
enterprise of renewal, giving our counsel, our labor, and our passion in our time to the enduring task of national greatness. Prove again, as those who came before you proved, that a people free to act in their own interests
will perceive their interests in an enlightened way, will live as one nation, in a kinship of ideals, and make of their power and wealth a civilization for the ages, a civilization in which all people share in the promise of freedom.
Should we only claim our rights and leave to others our duty to the nation that protects them, whatever we gain
for ourselves will be of little value. It will build no monuments to virtue, claim no place in the memory of posterity, hold no brief with aspiring nations. Success, wealth, celebrity gained and kept for private interest is a small thing. It makes us comfortable, eases the material hardships our children will bear, purchases a fleeting regard for our lives, yet not the self-respect that in the end will matter to you most. But sacrifice for a cause greater than self-interest and you invest your lives with the eminence of that cause, your self-respect assured.
When I was a young man, I thought glory was the highest ambition, and that all glory was self-glory. My parents
tried to teach me otherwise, as did the Naval Academy. But I didn’t understand the lesson until later in life, when
I confronted challenges I never expected to face.
In that confrontation, I discovered I was dependent on others to a greater extent than I had ever realized, but
that neither they nor the cause we served made any claims on my identity. On the contrary, they gave me a
larger sense of myself than I had before. I discovered that nothing is more liberating than to fight for a cause
larger than yourself; something that encompasses you, but is not defined by your existence alone.
Choose your cause with care, but any good cause is good service to America. In uniform or not, serve something
greater than yourselves, and you’ll know a happiness far more sublime than pleasure. It takes character to
choose wisely and to serve well. And a sense of honor is the essence of all good character. The institution you
take your leave from today is very demonstrative in its regard for honor. That might give you an advantage over
others who have been less fortunate in their education. But don’t assume for a moment that because you can speak of honor, and of men and woman who have lived honorably, that you will always merit the distinction yourselves.
I have always found that the most difficult choices between honor and dishonor occur when no one is watching,
when only you will know if you have done the right thing or not. For a politician that presents something of a
dilemma. We like to have our virtue affirmed in a public spotlight. But no matter how clever you are in crafting a public image of integrity, if it is a false image, the truth will emerge and usually sooner than expected.
The lessons I learned as a young man and officer have sometimes helped me to withstand the temptations of
public life to cut a few corners here and there for the sake of ambition. And sometimes not. I wouldn’t want you
to mistake my appeal to you for a claim to sainthood by the speaker. I have too often, in public and private,
fallen short of the example of rectitude I may pretend to be to my children.
But events I have witnessed and the example of others have taught me that it is far preferable in one short
lifetime to stick by truths that give more meaning to life than fame or fortune.
I do not believe war and military service are the only means to honor. God grants us all the privilege of having our character and our honor tested. The tests come frequently, as often in peace as in war, as often in private as in public.
For me, many of those tests came in Vietnam, the place where I learned much of what I know about honor. I
knew no one who ever chose death over homecoming. But I knew some men who chose death over dishonor. The memory of them, of what they bore for our country, helped me see the virtue in my own humility. It helped me understand that good character is self-respect, and courage and humility are its attributes.
Many years have passed since I learned that lesson. But I have not let the comforts and privileges of my present
life obscure the memory of what I witnessed then. And in recent years when I faced difficult decisions between
right and wrong, the choice was made easier by the memory of those who once made much harder choices, and
paid a much higher price for the privilege, and left me with no excuse other than my own weakness when I have
made the wrong choice.
A few years ago, I had occasion to recall an example of courage and honor that struck in me a deep chord of
remembrance about the meaning of patriotism. I would like to close by recalling it for you.
I was asked to make some brief remarks at a small moving ceremony in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. The occasion was
the dedication of a memorial to the Marines who fought in the last combat action of our war in Indochina – the
rescue of the Mayaguez, the American ship that had been seized by the Khmer Rouge.
You were not born when the incident occurred, and you may not know about the rescue and the losses we incurred in its execution. Among the casualties was a Marine fire team that had been mistakenly left behind, almost certainly alive, the details of whose fate we may never know, but who probably continued to fight for days, even weeks before all trace of them disappeared.
That tragic, closing episode of our long engagement in Indochina is not ranked in the first order of American
battles. It was a quick, confused engagement that did not go according to plan. Except for its brevity, the
Mayaguez rescue could in many respects serve as an apt metaphor for the whole of our war in Southeast Asia.
Like that war, the Mayaguez rescue is recalled, when it is recalled at all, more often for its mistakes than for the
lessons of courage and humility exemplified in the conduct of the men who fought it. That is unfortunate. For in that encounter, as in the war that preceded it, Americans fought for love and honor, and that should be
remembered as a priceless element of our national self-respect.
When the time came for them to answer their country’s call and fight on a field they did not know, they came. And on that small island they served well the country that sent them there. In the fog of a hard battle gone wrong, they held high a lantern of courage and faith that illuminated the way home with honor. Where they rest is unknown, but their honor is eternal, and lives in our country so long as she remains worthy of the sacrifice. They were family and friends to some; heroes to us all – who lived, fought and died for the love and honor of a free people.
Congratulations and good luck. Your opportunity is at hand. Make the most of it. Thank you for the honor of