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North Dakota State University Commencement

As Delivered by Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, Fargo, ND, Saturday, May 14, 2011

Members of the faculty, parents, distinguished guests – it’s a special pleasure to be here with you today.  Of course, I would have to tell you it’s always great to be anywhere but Washington, D.C.

The last time I visited Fargo was to give a speech for the Boy Scouts.  It was in February.  It was then I realized that everything they say about winter in North Dakota is entirely accurate.  I’m told that you know you’re from North Dakota when:

  • The idea of snow in June or May doesn’t surprise you;
  • You can’t find your house key because you never lock the door; and
  • Passing six cars on the highway is considered a traffic jam.

I cannot fail at the outset to congratulate you on your selection of my very good friend and former Texas A&M colleague, Dean Bresciani, as President of North Dakota State University.  You have chosen a man of extraordinary talent, integrity, and energy.  He also fell in love with this place at first sight.

To friends and family members – a special thanks for the love and support you have given these young people over many years.  To the parents: you must be welling up with pride at the achievements of your children.  Having put two children through college, I know there are many sighs of relief as well, and you are probably already planning how to spend your newly re-acquired disposable income.  Forget it.  Trust me on this.  If you think you’ve written your last check to your son or daughter, think again.  The National Bank of Mom and Dad is still open for business.

To the members of the North Dakota State University Class of 2011: Congratulations.  I am truly honored to be your graduation speaker.  I know that most of you are thinking one thing at this point: I hope he keeps it short.  Don’t worry, having presided over 39 commencements at Texas A&M, I learned the importance of brevity on occasions such as this.  I also know that I stand between you and a great party—and for some, the continuation of a great party.

I guess today, as you finish one chapter in your life and move on to the next, I’m supposed to give you some advice on how to succeed.  I could quote the billionaire J. Paul Getty, who offered sage wisdom on how to get rich.  He said, “Rise early, work late, strike oil.”  Or, Alfred Hitchcock, who explained, “There’s nothing to winning really.  That is if you happen to be blessed with a keen eye, an agile mind, and no scruples whatsoever.”

Well, instead of those messages, my only words of advice for success today come from two great women.  First, opera star Beverly Sills, who once said, “There are no short cuts to any place worth going.”  And second, from Katherine Hepburn, who wrote, “Life is to be lived.  If you have to support yourself, you had bloody well find some way that is going to be interesting.  And you don’t do that by sitting around wondering about yourself.” 

This morning, I’d like to spend a few minutes talking about two matters I care very much about and think are of utmost importance to our country and your generation – the importance of America’s engagement with the world and the obligations of service and citizenship in our great country. 

In recent years I’ve noticed a “declinist” sentiment once again creeping into America’s political discourse, with calls from some quarters that we as a country should mind our own affairs and not concern ourselves with the wider world.  I understand this sentiment is borne out of widespread frustration with the state of the economy, huge deficits, and exhaustion from being at war on multiple fronts now for nearly a decade.

Indeed, throughout our history, Americans have periodically been tempted to crouch behind the nation’s borders, feeling secure surrounded by the vast seas, in the belief that remote events elsewhere in the world need not bother us.  That approach has repeatedly led to disastrous results, whether it was the failure to manage rising and aggressive powers in Europe in the first half of the 20th century or failing to deal with the rise of a violent terrorist network that would strike us here at home on 9/11.  The lessons of history tell us we must not allow our frustrations to cause us to withdraw from the world or diminish our ability or our determination to deal with the threats and challenges on the horizon. 

As Theodore Roosevelt once said, “While a nation’s first duty is within its own borders, it is not thereby absolved from facing its duties in the world as a whole… if it refuses to do so, it merely forfeits its right to struggle for a place among the peoples that shape the destiny of mankind.”  Are we as a nation prepared to forfeit our place to shape not only our own future, but the future of this world with which we all are so intrinsically linked? 

It falls on us as Americans to lead, to shape the course of world events, to face challenges, to make the necessary sacrifices and take the necessary risks to defend our values and our interests.  The Cold War generation – my generation – was called upon to stand up and defeat what back then we called the “evil empire.” 

Contrary to some predictions, history marches on.  And while I don’t foresee a repeat of the Cold War days – when we faced off against another military superpower – I believe there is a growing competition underway for global leadership and influence.  Yours is a generation that must help lead at a time when rising powers are taking a more assertive role on the world stage.  As America faces political, economic and military challenges to its global leadership and its long championship of liberty, it will need its best and brightest, from all walks of life, to come forward. 

I am reminded of a letter from Abigail Adams to her son John Quincy Adams.  She wrote him: “These are the times in which a genius would wish to live.  It is not in the still calm of life, or the repose of a pacific station, that great characters are formed. . . . Great necessities call out great virtues.” 

We live in a time of “great necessities” – a time when we cannot avoid dealing with serious problems here at home, or the burdens of global leadership and responsibility.  If, in the 21st century, America is to continue to be a force for good in the world – for freedom, justice, the rule of law, and the inherent value of each person – then the most able and idealistic of our young people – of you – must step forward and accept the burden and the duty of public service.  As President Obama has said, you must “put your foot firmly into the current of history.”  If you do, I am convinced great things can and will happen for our country and for the world.

I understand that it can be disheartening to hear today’s often rancorous and even tawdry political discourse.  Too often those who choose public service are dismissed as bureaucrats or worse, and in many cases politicians run for office running down the very government they hope to lead.  Cynicism about the people and the institutions that govern and protect our country can be corrosive.  So I worry that too many of our brightest young Americans, so public-minded, so engaged in volunteer service, in campus and community affairs, turn aside when it comes to careers in public service.

We shouldn’t delude ourselves: Political life has always been a rough business in this country.  Benjamin Franklin, of famously cheerful disposition, once carped: “The public is often [stingy], even of its thanks, while you are sure of being censured by malevolent critics and bug-writers, who will abuse you while you are serving them, and wound your character in nameless pamphlets; thereby resembling those little dirty insects, that attack us only in the dark, disturb our repose, molesting and wounding us while our sweat and blood are contributing to their subsistence.”  He certainly did have a way with words. 

But, there is another aspect to public service about which Americans hear very little: the idealism, the joy, and the satisfaction and fulfillment.  It was at CIA, through the long years of the Cold War, that I first had a chance to observe public servants at all levels, at various agencies and departments, from administrative assistants to great statesmen.  And after dealing with governments all over the world, I came to believe Americans have the most dedicated, capable, and honest public servants anywhere.  I’ve worked for eight presidents, and worked in the White House under four, from both parties.  I have seen, in political appointees and career civil servants alike, an extraordinary number of people of the highest quality.  Those of uswho have taken this path actually believe we can make a difference, that we can change the lives of others for the better, that we can make a positive difference in the life of our country.

Walter Lippmann once wrote that “[t]hose in high places are more than the administrators of government bureaucracies.  They are more than the writers of laws.  They are the custodians of a nation’s ideals, of the beliefs it cherishes, of its permanent hopes, of the faith which makes a nation out of a mere aggregation of individuals.”  Old-fashioned, perhaps.  But I believe what he said with all my heart.  We must never forget the ideals and the beliefs that make us a nation; we must never forget the hopes and aspirations of our people; we must always keep the faith.

I see that faith every day in the faces of the young men and women in the military who have volunteered to serve this great nation.  Over the past decade, hundreds of thousands of young Americans in uniform have volunteered to put their lives on the line to defend us – to set aside their dreams so you can fulfill your dreams.  They come from all over the United States and they join up knowing they will likely be sent to war. 

The ranks of these patriots include the graduates of North Dakota State’s ROTC program in this class of 2011.  Today, I have the distinction of commissioning several of your fellow classmates as second lieutenants in the United States military.  I extend my heartfelt gratitude to all ROTC cadets on campus – you have my deepest admiration and respect – as Secretary of Defense, but mostly as an American citizen.  You join an American military that has been fighting multiple wars at an incredible tempo over the past decade.  This is the true patriotism of the deed. 

Consider Thomas Gramith, class of 2005, here at NDSU.  He became a captain in the Air Force flying the F-15E Strike Eagle and deployed to the war in Afghanistan.  There, in summer 2009, he would make the ultimate sacrifice for his country while providing close air support to ground troops in Ghazni province.  I know that he and his family would be deeply grateful for the Fallen Bison Memorial under construction on your campus – and for the support this community has shown to those who have fought and fallen wearing America’s uniform since September 11th.

Serving others can take many forms.  To serve our country you don’t need to deploy to a war zone or Third World country or be buried in a windowless cube in a gothic structure by the Potomac River.  You don’t have to be a CIA spy or analyst or Navy SEAL who track down and then bring the most notorious terrorist in the world to final justice. 

Prepared to serve, devotion to one’s community and fellow citizens, caring beyond self – these are all fundamental to democracy.  Our forebears understood this when they risked their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor to establish a new nation conceived in liberty.
But it is a lesson that must be refreshed in every generation by the best and brightest young Americans.  It is a lesson that must be refreshed by you.

John Adams wrote his son, Thomas Adams: “Public business, my son, must always be done by somebody.  It will be done by somebody or another.  If wise men decline it, others will not; if honest men refuse it, others will not.”

And so I ask you, the North Dakota State University class of 2011, will the wise and honest among you come help us serve the American people? 

Congratulations and Godspeed.

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