REMARKS AS PREPARED FOR DELIVERY BY SECRETARY OF DEFENSE WILLIAM S. COHEN COMMENCEMENT ADDRESS U.S. NAVAL ACADEMY, ANNAPOLIS, MARYLAND, MAY 26, 1999
Secretary Danzig, thank you for your kind words and for your outstanding leadership of the Navy. Admiral Johnson, General Krulak, Secretary Dalton, Admiral Ryan, parents and sponsors, distinguished guests, and most importantly, midshipmen of the Class of 1999.
Before addressing those who will today commence their careers in uniform, I would like to take a moment to honor a distinguished American who will soon be concluding his career in uniform. In the 39 years since he first entered this Yard as a midshipman, Chuck Krulak has served his country with distinction and valor. As John Kennedy said of a generation, General Krulak has indeed been "tempered by war and disciplined by a hard peace." General, for your lifetime of service, for your outstanding leadership of the United States Marine Corps over the past four years, you have the enduring gratitude of the nation.
It is always a challenge to deliver a commencement address. The parents would like a speech that is sentimental. The faculty would prefer a speech that is substantive. And the graduates want a speech that is, well, short. I will do my best to strike a balance between these competing interests.
It is truly an honor for me to stand before you today. Your admission to the Academy set you apart as something special -- as gifted, serious-minded young men and women who were prepared to give up a life of ease and comfort for one devoted to honor, allegiance and fidelity. That you survived your four years here confirms the promise and high purpose you hold for yourselves, your families, and your country. We are all enormously proud of who you are, who you will become, what you will give, and what we will receive.
The transformation that has occurred in each of you since Induction Day four years ago reaffirms Teddy Roosevelt's observation: This "nation cannot improvise its naval officers." Indeed, from these quiet shores of the Chesapeake have emerged leaders and legends who have
secured our freedom and led America across the often turbulent waves of history -- legends such as Burke, Nimitz, and Lejeune. And for over two centuries, our sea services have upheld the finest traditions of the country they serve, carrying our nation on their broad and steady deck, not for "self, but for country" and "always faithful."
We stand here on the shoulders of giants who came before. Whether we are worthy of their storied past is tested by our ability to manage the challenges of a future that is rushing at us at astonishing speed, of a world still in the midst of transition. Nations that found anchor in the stand-off of superpowers, now seek new international identities and new sources of protection and power. Ethnic rivalries and ancient animosities stifled by totalitarian repression, now burst forth into violent spasms. Dangerous weapons, once the sole province of mighty states, now find their way into the hands of rogue regimes and freelance merchants who traffic in terror.
Against these kaleidoscopic changes, nations the world-over struggle to find their path into the 21st Century. The world into which you are about to step is one that is quite different from the one you left when you entered the Academy. Sweep you finger across the horizon and you will find a vastly changed Africa, Europe, China, Russia, Southeast Asia, and South America. Countries once held under the heel and boot of dictators and totalitarians are eager to embrace free speech, free minds, and free markets. But those who hold onto the dead hand of the past have refused to concede defeat. They gather in dark catacombs and conspire how they can exploit the fear, poverty, and discontent of their people and how they can infect their populace with a rabid nationalism that can serve as a rallying cry for both pride and victimhood.
In this dangerous era, one truth is clear: One nation has the strength, the credibility, and the principles to lead. By virtue of history and our own accomplishment, America can help usher the community of nations towards peace and stability. The complacent may be content to see us retreat to within our own borders, to roll up within a continental cocoon, leaving Europe to the Europeans and Asia to the Asians. But nothing is further from America's best interest.
The United States is actively engaged in the world because it is profoundly in our interests to do so. No country enjoys more rewards from the stability provided by global institutions. No country sees greater returns from the prosperity enabled by a free and open world economy. No country reaps more security from our strategic alliances. Indeed, if we value the benefits of this global system, if we appreciate all that American leadership brings, we must embrace the duties of that leadership. As Winston Churchill once reminded us, "responsibility is the price of greatness."
Responsibility comes in many forms. Responsibility means active partnerships with our friends and allies. It means carriers on station across the globe. It means standing firm against adversaries such as North Korea and Iraq. It means addressing the first sparks of conflict or instability before they ignite into full-scale war. And, of course, responsibility means being prepared to protect our values and interests with force, if necessary.
When our country sends you into harm's way, when we put our national credibility at stake, when we aim the lethal force of the most powerful Navy the earth has ever known, we must do so recognizing there is no graver decision a nation can make, and we must take care to
determine: whether the lives of our citizens, the security of our nation, or the fundamental principles of our people are directly threatened; whether the vital interests of our closest Allies are threatened, risking the stability of regions on which our way of life depends; whether the wheel of conflict is allowed to spin on its violent axis, drawing America inevitably into its vortex at greater and more devastating cost; and whether inaction threatens humanitarian catastrophe or establishes a precedent of allowing unfettered criminal behavior to undermine international peace and stability.
Our goal should be that described by President Eisenhower: "We must steer a steady course between the assertion of strength that is truculent and a confession of helplessness that is cowardly." Indeed, America must treat the selfless dedication of those of you who wear the uniform as a sacred trust, resisting the temptation to use our forces in every dispute that catches our eye or emotions, and recognizing the truth that there are times not only when we can act, but when we must.
Two months ago, the United States and our European allies were forced to ask these very questions. After months of diplomacy and dialogue, after months of seeking peace, after witnessing the henchmen of Slobodan Milosevic massing to unleash their ethnic slaughter once again on the people of Kosovo, we knew that we could not sit on the sidelines of history and remain indifferent to the cruelty and misery being inflicted. We had no choice but to act.
"The ultimate measure of a man," Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, "is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy." The same is true of nations. A nation is not great simply because it is large in territory or has great monuments. We know of large countries with narrow minds and shallow pockets. We know of small countries with large bank accounts and small hearts. We know of countries where wealth exists but freedom does not. No, a nation is great because of the size of its heart, its ideals, and its spirit. A nation is great that treasures and secures individual freedom, that nourishes noble virtues, that promotes opportunity and duty, liberty and obligation, honor and sacrifice.
Today, in Kosovo, a battle rages for the principles that will hold sway at the dawn of the 21st Century. What is convulsing the United States and our NATO allies is the face of evil, an ethnic and religious nationalism that has at its core a hatred of everything our great democracies hold dear. This is no ordinary conflict. It is not a fight over territory or money or markets. It is a struggle for the future shape of civilized society. Slobodan Milosevic has taken us into the heart of darkness where the rule of law is trampled by the law of rule, where women are raped, villages pillaged, justice is a bullet in the back of the head, and evidence of villainy reduced to ashes in the fires of insane hatred. We could not bear witness to this murder and mayhem with indifference.
But NATO's action had to be based not simply on the virtue of our cause but on a sound strategy, one that would inflict serious and sustained damage on Milosevic's military machine while minimizing the risk to our pilots, to innocent civilians, and enjoying the support of our citizens. The Alliance decided to wage an air campaign to achieve our goals. It was the right decision then. It is the right course now.
Aboard ships such as the Roosevelt, the Philippine Sea, and the Vella Gulf, the 16,000 American sailors and Marines of Allied Force are carrying forth the tradition of those historic names. With little rest and great skill, our men and women in uniform are working without pause and without complaint. And from their able hands we have sent wave after wave into dangerous skies. Our pilots have flown over 26,000 sorties. They are enduring hundreds of surface-to-air missiles, countless rounds of anti-aircraft fire, difficult weather, and dangerous terrain. And they are succeeding.
Despite the desperate efforts of his propaganda machine to deny the stark reality, Milosevic stands alone amidst the rubble and ruin of failure. He is isolated from the world community. He has brought his economy to the brink of collapse. His troops are being hit harder with each passing day.
Until he agrees to meet NATO's demands by pulling his forces out of Kosovo, allowing refugees to return to their homes, and agreeing to an international peacekeeping with NATO at its core and the restoration of autonomy, Milosevic will continue to witness the decimation of his instruments of power. NATO cannot weaken at this time or yield to Milosevic tactics or the entreaties of others without forsaking our history and heritage.
The most powerful antidote to those hatreds, which can poison the soul of entire nations, can be found in the Class of '99. Your class, like all of America's military, "contains multitudes" -- colors, religions, and nationalities that mix to create a greater whole, a Navy that stands for character over creed.
Indeed, our success or failure in any struggle rests on heroes such as the brave hearts arrayed before us today. That is our nation's great good fortune. Indeed, the skill, dedication, and strength of character of our men and women in uniform have carried us through more than two centuries of trial and triumph.
President Lincoln once said: "Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a person's character, give him power." You will have more power at age 22 than most have in a lifetime. You will have at your command weapons and warriors such as few in history have known. You must be a sailor, a leader, an engineer, and an ambassador who spreads our values and virtues wherever you go. And you will be tested. So as Admiral Arleigh Burke once remarked: "We need men and women who by their personal integrity, their sense of moral purpose, will exemplify the best leadership traditions of the Navy and of our country."
Because we entrust you with our highest hopes, we hold you not to contemporary mores, but to the highest standards of excellence, service, and teamwork. Ultimately, the quality of your service will come down to the quality of your character, your perseverance in the face of adversity, your courage when all you feel is fear, and the respect and dignity that you afford the men and women around you. These are the true marks of character. These are what earn you the right to call yourself an officer. These are what earn America the reward of possessing the greatest military in the world. Indeed, our military is the best because we refuse to accept anything else.
That is the pledge you take today. And it is our pledge to lead you with wisdom, courage, and compassion, and to maintain that "sacred trust." To your parents we pledge that in our every decision we will keep the welfare of these brave young souls uppermost in our minds. At that fateful hour of decision, we will never forget the faces before us, nor the real and precious lives behind them.
In 1899, Teddy Roosevelt said: "Greet the new century high of heart, and face the mighty tasks which the coming years will surely bring." Class of 1999, on behalf of your parents and your nation, I charge you to live up to the great standards of those who have gone before you. Reflect honor on your Service and your country. Know that America profoundly appreciates your sense of duty, your sense of honor, and your deep love of country. And never forget that you have our pride, our support, and our respect in the mighty tasks which the coming years will surely bring. God bless you, and God bless America.