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Secretary Cohen Remarks at the Norfolk State University ROTC Commissioning

Presenter: Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen
May 16, 1998

Secretary Cohen: Goody [Marshall], thank you very much for a very generous introduction. As a matter of fact I was thinking, as you were reciting, you may very well go to heaven for your generosity. Of course the converse may be true as far as the exaggerations. But I want to say that your shining qualities and your eloquent enthusiasm make it very clear why both President Clinton and Vice President Gore have turned to you to serve in key positions in the last several years, including the President's Initiative on Race to which you have lent your very powerful voice. So thank you for a very generous introduction.

Distinguished graduates and members of Congress, and members of the faculty, honored guests, Janet, ladies and gentlemen. I'm always a little bit intimidated when I come to a new audience. I feel somewhat like Henry Ford, who after having made all of his millions in this country wanted to go back to his fatherland in County Cork, Ireland. His reputation for wealth had long preceded his arrival. So, when he finally stepped off the plane, there were a group of local town officials waiting seeking contributions for the construction of one of their local hospitals.

And Ford, who was quite accustomed to being touched in that fashion, he pulled out his checkbook and made a check out for $5,000. The next day in bold print the local paper said Ford contributes $50,000 for the construction of the local hospital. The local officials came running back and said oh, Mr. Ford, we're terribly sorry. It was not our fault. It must have been a typographical error, and we'll be happy to see to it that a retraction is printed in tomorrow's paper. (Laughter)

He said, wait a minute, I think I've got a better idea. He says, you give me one wish and I'll give you the balance of $45,000. So they said anything you want. He said, I want, when that hospital is finally built, to have an inscription over the entranceway with a quote taken from a source of my choice. They said it's done.

So he gave the check for $45,000, the hospital was built. It is there today. It has a plaque over the entranceway with a quote taken from the book of Matthew. It says, "I came unto you as a stranger and you took me in." (Laughter)

I come unto a little bit as a stranger this morning and I hope you'll take me in, but not quite in that fashion. (Laughter)

This is a very special day of commemoration and expectation. For the graduates it's a day of celebration of all that you've achieved and a day of expectation for all that you will achieve as military officers. For America's armed forces, we celebrate 50 years of racial integration in which we acknowledge both our success and the work that remains for us to do. And there is no more fitting a place to mark this historic anniversary than Norfolk.

There are so many people in uniform here, and so many military bases, that Norfolk is sometimes called the "Pentagon by the Sea". The congressional delegation is nodding. (Laughter) But moreover, this university stands in the proud tradition of historically black colleges and universities that have given America some of our finest military leaders.

Ladies and gentlemen, this is an historic gathering. We have in one room a stunning array of talent that spans the tapestry of time. We have the groundbreakers whose remarkable stories of service and sacrifice I would like to share with you in today. We have our current military leaders who are confronting the security challenges of our time. We have the future officers illuminated by all the potential possibilities of tomorrow.

In all of these faces I am reminded of a passage written by Albert Murray, the Tuskegee Institute graduate, the retired Air Force major, and the acclaimed novelist. He said, "Heroism, which, like a sword, is nothing if not steadfast. It is measured in terms of the stress and strain it can endure, and the magnitude and complexity of the obstacles that it overcomes. The difficulties and vicissitudes which beset the potential hero bring out the best in him."

Well, considering the stresses and strains endured by African-Americans in the defense of our country, it's little wonder that we have so many heroes among us. In some way the military has always been a mirror of American society, reflecting back the same scars and blemishes that define the face of the nation itself. For African-Americans, these difficulties meant color lines that too often prevented them from openly serving on the front lines. And yet they did serve. And it brought out the best in themselves, if not the best in America.

They were there on the first morning of the American Revolution, fighting to defend Concord Bridge and for the freedom of a nation that would deny them their freedom. They were there on the fields of the Civil War, in that famous assault on Fort Wagner, answering President Lincoln's appeal to "the better angels of our nature". And in 1917 they were over there in Europe, in the Great War, fighting to make the world safe for democracy, only to return to a country where they could be lynched for demanding democracy.

Indeed, the acceptance of African-Americans on the battlefield was more often a matter of military pragmatism than moral principles. After the guns fell silent they were forced to endure what Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. described in a different context as the tragedy of contemporary life, "when people who are conscious of their powers are denied their chance".

And yet, African-Americans seized their chance again in World War II, and though forced to endure segregated support units, they served with distinction from Normandy to Iwo Jima. They served with heroism, as did Robert Jones of Newport News who last month finally received the Distinguished Navy Cross for his bravery during the 1944 Japanese kamikaze attack on the USS INTREPID.

African-Americans served with heroism and bravery and they became legends. Legends like the Tuskegee airmen. In 200 missions over North Africa and Europe, these bomber escorts never lost a plane that they were protecting to an enemy fighter. They were the first black fighter squadron, and by their great and good fortune they were led by Colonel Benjamin O. Davis, Jr.

From his earliest days as a Tuskegee airman, throughout a lifetime of service in the Air Force, few did more than General Davis to prove that black and white Americans could not only serve together -- indeed, that white soldiers would serve under a black superior -- but that they could succeed together.

Regrettably, General Davis could not be with us here today, but I am proud to say that I fully expect the Department of Defense and the Congress to work together this year to confer upon General Davis the honorary rank of full, four-star general. (Applause) There is no rank higher for a general and few deserve this honor more or have waited for it longer than General Davis.

We are fortunate to have with us, several of the courageous men who flew with General Davis. Howard Baugh, was only 22 when he became a Tuskegee airman in 1942, but before long he was escorting bombers, dive bombing and strafing Hitler's Fortress Europe. When American troops stormed the beaches at Salerno and Anzio, Second Lieutenant Baugh was overhead downing a German bomber and keeping others at bay. For his bravery and skill, he received the Distinguished Flying Cross. At the time, when most white pilots were relieved from combat flying after 50 missions, Howard Baugh flew 135 missions. Ladies and gentlemen, Lieutenant Colonel Howard Baugh is with us today. (Applause)

Growing up in Harlem, Lee Archer always wanted to fly. And when he became a Tuskegee airman he took to the skies like few others, flying 169 missions in just over a year. First Lieutenant Lee Archer was crediting with downing four planes, destroying six on the ground -- more than any other Tuskegee airman. All of these airmen, he once noted, went through life not expecting anyone to say thank you. Lieutenant Colonel Lee Archer, thank you for your service to America. (Applause)

These veterans of World War II learned quickly that victory over Hitler and Mussolini did not mean victory over Jim Crow. Like others before them, they returned not to parades or confetti, but to a barrage of bigotry and bias. Some were kicked and beaten, and between blows they too must have wondered, as did poet Langston Hughes, "I swear to the Lord, I still can't see, why democracy means everybody but me."

President Harry Truman vowed "to end to such evils," and he did -- with a bold stroke of his pen that changed the face of the military, and indeed the face of America, forever. Justice Thurgood Marshall, Sr., once remarked that "Sometimes history takes things into its own hands." 1948 surely was one of those times, for Truman's executive order that year could not have put it any plainer: "There shall be equal treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed services without regard to race, color, religion or national origin." President Truman cleared a path by wiping out an overtly racist rule. But it would fall to many others over many years to brave that path and turn those principles into practice.

One of the first who did was Charles Bussey, a Tuskeegee airman who made history again in July of 1950 at the battle of Yechon, South Korea. First Lieutenant Bussey was returning to the front when he spotted an enemy unit attempting to outflank his all-black company. Only Bussey, a group of three truck drivers and two machine guns stood between his men and 250 advancing North Koreans. But when the dust settled and the smoke had cleared, there was only Bussey and his men and America had one of its first victories of the Korean War. Reflecting on his heroic service to a country still shackled by segregation, this Silver Star hero later wrote, "I loved my country for what it could be, far beyond what it was." Lieutenant Colonel Bussey, thank you for helping America to realize what it could be and taking us beyond what we were. (Applause)

Norman McDaniel blazed a path as well. After his reconnaissance plane was shot down over North Vietnam in 1966, he was confined to those unimaginable hellholes called the Hanoi Hilton and the Zoo. Captain McDaniel served America in a dark, wretched cell for over six years. Over six years of courage in the face of unspeakable horrors and inhumanity. Over six years of bravery under the heel of brutal torture. Over six years of isolation punctuated by harassment and false hopes of freedom. And yet in the midst of all of this hell, Captain McDaniel never lost his faith. He was "the chaplain" to his fellow prisoners, giving them song and prayer and the strength and hope to endure. And when he was released from captivity in 1973, he continued serving his country in the Air Force for another 15 years, at one point instructing pilots in areas in which he was uniquely qualified -- how to survive on the ground in enemy territory.

Throughout his captivity, the North Vietnamese tried to break Captain McDaniel, to have him turn against his country by trying to exploit the examples of racism in the United States and he refused. He later wrote his own book, but also contributed to another book called Bloods, which is an oral history of Vietnam about the experience of black officers during that time. He said, "Although black people are kind of behind the power curve, we have just as much claim to this country as any white man. America is the black man's best hope." I want to say, Captain, you are American's best hope. Thank you very much. (Applause)

The seasoned veterans and the fresh officers that we are celebrating today are a testament to the two struggles that have been waged by African-Americans. The fight against fascism and aggression, enemies of freedom beyond our borders; and the fight against racism and prejudice, enemies of freedom within in. For African-American women, there has been a third struggle, the fight against sexism and harassment.

No one knows that struggle better than Charity Adams-Early. In the closing days of World War II, then Major Adams found herself in England as that war's highest ranking African-American woman. She commanded a postal battalion, the only all African-American, all-female battalion that was deployed overseas. For the morale of soldiers in wartime, there's only one thing that counts more than somewhere to sleep or something to eat, and that's mail from home -- holiday greetings, or perhaps a photograph of a newborn child. In those final, frantic months of the war, hundreds of thousands of GIs counted on Major Adams and her colleagues. Few American women did so much to help our troops win that war, so please join me today in paying tribute to Lieutenant Colonel Charity Adams-Early. (Applause)

Today, the legacy of Charity Adams-Early lives on in countless women. It lives on in Evelyn Fields, a Norfolk State graduate who in 1989 became skipper of the research ship McArthur, and the first African-American woman to command a U.S. vessel.

It lives on in Admiral Lillian Fishburne who is here today. To her Navy father, it was inevitable that Lillian would become a sailor herself. It was not inevitable that she would go so far and so fast. But through her intellect and her industry, she rose to high command, most recently overseeing the Navy's computers and communication systems of over half the globe, all the way from San Diego to Diego Garcia. And this February she became the first African-American woman in naval history to attain flag rank. Ladies and gentlemen, she is a woman whose story helps us to understand today the truth that women are an indispensable part of today's military. Please give a round of applause to Rear Admiral Lillian Fishburne. (Applause)

Today, we can say that the United States military is one of the most racially integrated institutions in America. African-Americans are flying more combat aircraft, commanding more ships, leading more troops, serving in more senior civilian leadership positions, and bearing more stars on their shoulders than ever before. Graduates, if you want to see just how high you may soar, think of Major General Charles Bolden, the first African-American space shuttle commander who today is the highest ranking African-American in the Marine Corps. Think of the former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Colin Powell, who could not be here today.

Or just look around you this room and see Admiral Paul Reason. I like the fact that I can call an Admiral, Reason. This Vietnam veteran has commanded a destroyer, a nuclear-powered guided missile cruiser, and a cruiser-destroyer battle group. And as Commander in Chief of the Atlantic Fleet based right here in Norfolk, he oversees virtually half of the United States Navy. Paul Reason is the first African-American in naval history to achieve the rank of four-star admiral. (Applause)

In so doing Admiral Reason joins Air Force General Fig Newton and Army General Johnnie Wilson in setting a historic precedent. For the first time in history, African-Americans are serving at four star rank in the Army, the Navy, and the Air Force at the same time. Today is the first time that Admiral Reason, and Generals Newton and Wilson have appeared together, and I ask that they, along with Admiral Ben Hacker, who is one of the Navy's first African-American naval base commanders, and all the flag and general officers in attendance, please stand and accept our applause and thanks. (Applause)

These leaders and these young graduates prove that the service of African-Americans in our Active, Guard, and Reserve forces is not a modern nicety, it's a moral imperative and a military necessity. In today's small military, we can't afford to waste the talents of a single individual. So in a sense, ridding ourselves of this most insidious institutional barrier of the past was only the first step. Today challenges remain. We'll have to struggle with more subtle and yet equally corrosive ingrained attitudes. African-American officers remain few in number and African-Americans are more heavily represented in other areas such as support, service, and supply. We must make full equality of opportunity, not only a principle, but also our standard practice.

Ours must be a triumph of action over apathy. Indifference can be just as great a barrier to future progress as outright intolerance. So President Clinton is right to have initiated his national dialogue on race. And we are right to recognize that it takes a decade or more to develop military leaders. We cannot have more African-American generals and admirals simply by wishing it to be the case. If the new officers who stand before us today are to achieve high ranks in the future, we need to invest in them as lieutenants and ensigns. We've go to invest more of our efforts to achieve the ultimate goals. We must assure that discrimination never flows through any door at any rank in any sector or at any stage of their career.

So ours must also be a triumph of harmony over hate. Hate groups within our ranks, no matter how few or far between, have the power to destroy lives and indeed devastate communities. Those who seek to make others unwelcome because of their racial or ethnic background must know that it is they who are unwelcome in today's military. So we have to be intolerant of any activity of any behavior that undermines human dignity or respect or honor of the individual. We have to be intolerant of racism. And all those who wish to serve in the American military, be they policymaker or platoon leader, must demonstrate this by their deeds and by their words as well, if they hope to succeed.

The heroes that we honor today help us to understand some simple truths. General Davis; Lieutenant Colonels Baugh, Bussey, Adams-Early; Colonels Archer and McDaniel; Admirals Fishburne and Reason; Generals Newton and Wilson and all the flag and general officers who are here today -- you and countless others overcame suspicion and segregation through perseverance and professionalism. You shattered the stereotypes. And you proved that patriotism has nothing to do with the color of your skin, but everything to do with the content of your character.

Future officers of the United States Army, Navy, and Marine Corps -- you inherit the legacy of these heroes. And now you have to go forward to create your own legacy of which future generations can be just as proud.

There was a book I read some years ago, written on our bicentennial by Alistair Cook, a very gifted author. And in that book there was a chapter comparing America to prior nations, one being Rome. But in it he said something I thought was very perceptive. He said, "America is a country in which I see the most persistent idealism and the blandest of cynicism; the most persistent idealism, the blandest of cynicism and the race is on between its vitality and its decadence." He said, paraphrasing Ben Franklin, "we have a great country and we can keep it, but only if we care to keep it."

Let me say in looking into the faces of those who are in this audience today, I am persuaded that we indeed have a great country and we are going to keep it because you care to keep it.

Master of Ceremonies, prepare these graduates to receive the oath.