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Forrestal Lecture -- United States Naval Academy (Leadership/Character)

Remarks as Delivered by Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, Annapolis, MD, Wednesday, April 07, 2010
Thank you. Please have a seat.
First of all, I would like to thank all of you all for not passing out at the parade this afternoon. You did a great job.
It is a pleasure to be back at the Naval Academy – it’s my third visit since becoming secretary of defense. Now in a normal speech I would thank you all for coming, but I know that this evening is not exactly optional for you midshipmen. I am also keenly aware that this address is strategically placed between a high-calorie dinner and some well-deserved rack time. So I’ll do my best to keep you all awake – and I’m mindful of those of you all in the cheap seats and keeping you awake as well.
Now of course, falling asleep in class or here is one thing. Falling asleep in a small meeting with the President of the United States is quite another. But it happens. I was in one Cabinet meeting with President Reagan where he and six members of the cabinet all fell asleep.
The first President Bush even created an honor, to award the American official who most obviously fell asleep in a meeting with the president of the United States. This was not a frivolous event. The president evaluated candidates according to three criteria: first, duration – how long did they sleep during the meeting? Second, the depth of the sleep; snoring always got you extra points. And third, the quality of recovery – did you just quietly open your eyes and return to consciousness, or did you jolt awake – and maybe knock over something hot in the process? Well, the award was named for Air Force Lieutenant General Brent Scowcroft, who was the President’s national security adviser. He was, as you might suspect, the first awardee, and, I might add, won many stars.
But I should also say that the Secretary of Defense at the time Dick Cheney, was an occasion honorable mention.
Of course, much has changed since those days, when our consuming national security problem was dealing with either the problem posed by the Soviet Union or the aftermath of its implosion. The world is become much more complex, unpredictable, and, I would say, arguably more dangerous – from global terrorism to ethnic conflicts; from rogue nations to rising powers.
So this evening I want to talk about the implications of these changes and these challenges for you, the next generation of Navy and Marine Corps officers – and above all, I want to talk about the qualities, I believe are necessary for you to be successful as military leaders in the 21st century.
Above all, I want to talk to you tonight:
  • About learning from the experiences and the setbacks of the past;
  • About being open to ideas and inspiration from wherever they come;
  • About overcoming conventional wisdom and the bureaucratic obstacles thrown in your path; and
  •  About candor and speaking truth to power.
So consider first the story of Victor Krulak, Class of 1934.
In the late 1930s, the Marine Corps was still grappling with how to move troops from ship to shore under hostile fire. At the time, and after the disastrous Gallipoli campaign of the First World War, such a campaign maneuver was considered foolhardy at best, and suicidal at worst. In 1937, Marine 1st Lieutenant Krulak was stationed in China and observed the Japanese amphibious assault on Shanghai using a new kind of landing craft with a ramp. Lieutenant Krulak sent some photos and an accompanying report back to Washington. The report gathered dust in a cabinet with a note that read: “the work of some nut in China.” Krulak eventually returned to Washington, doggedly pursued his idea and finally was put in touch by a Marine general with an eccentric New Orleans boat maker named Higgins. The result was the landing craft used to carry Allied forces to liberate Europe and much of Asia.
Krulak would go on to win the Navy Cross in World War II, became a leading counterinsurgency expert, and later commander of Marine Pacific forces during the Vietnam War.  Some choice words to Lyndon Johnson about his Vietnam strategy arguably cost Krulak his fourth star and the post of Marine commandant.
You’ve presumably studied the exploits of Chester Nimitz, Class of 1905, hero of the Pacific. Less known about his early career – which was hardly by the book. Three years after being commissioned, Nimitz ran his ship aground in Manila Bay. His career survived what would be a death sentence today and he was later tasked with building a submarine base at Pearl Harbor. The problem was that he was given no building material. So then-Lieutenant Commander Nimitz led nighttime raiding parties on other units’ surplus materials to get what was needed – and successfully finished the base. I wouldn’t advise that today.
During the 1920s, the American Navy was caught between aviation enthusiasts convinced that aircraft carriers would negate the need for all other ships, and traditionalists devoted to the battleship. Eschewing these dogmatic and parochial positions, Nimitz had the vision to recognize and promote the potential of the circular formation – carriers protected by battleships – for integrating the two capabilities. This insight was largely ignored for 20 years, but was later employed to great effect in World War II, and remained the basic template for carrier formations for decades afterward.
Few graduates of this institution were as brilliant, iconoclastic, and as, difficult as Hyman Rickover. He demanded efficiency and he hated waste in all forms, he was a person who first pilfered and then horded the little bars of soap from airline and hotel bathrooms. When interviewing young officers, he used to cut the legs of chairs short to see whether or not the interviewee could remain seated – not a technique that will endear you to your future subordinates.
In the 1950s the conventional wisdom was the nuclear reactors were too bulky and dangerous to put on submarines – diesel would have to do. It was through Rickover’s genius and tenacity that these objections were overcome, producing a submarine fleet that included the most stealthy and feared leg of America’s nuclear triad. Rickover was a stickler for safety in all phases of submarine production and operations – and because of that he was even accused letting us fall behind the Soviets. But he had the vision to see that even one nuclear disaster might well kill the program altogether. And his legacy is that to this day, there has never been a nuclear failure in an American submarine.
My final example didn’t attend this institution, or attend any college for that matter. Roy Boehm enlisted as a diver at age 17. He was in just about every major battle of the Pacific theater during the Second World War – from retrieving the fallen at Pearl Harbor to surviving 13 hours in shark infested waters to ferrying supplies to guerrillas in the Philippines. And drawing on those experiences, he would later design and lead a commando unit that became the Navy SEALs. In his efforts to get his men the equipment they needed, Boehm was nearly court-martialed at one point for modifying official gear and buying the weapons from commercial sources. White House intervention helped keep him out of jail. In 1962, Boehm was called to Washington to brief President Kennedy on the progress of the Navy’s new commando unit. When Kennedy walked in, the first thing Boehm said was, “Well, Mr. President, I didn’t vote for you, but I’d die for you.” And after a long pause, Kennedy said “Well, we need more guys like that.”
Boehm sent his SEALs into prisons to learn lock-picking, safecracking and hotwiring cars – which could become handy behind enemy lines. In Vietnam, the price on his head rose from $50 when he first arrived to more than $400,000 when he left. He never made it higher than Lieutenant Commander, but his legacy is at work every night, tracking down our country’s most lethal enemies in Afghanistan and elsewhere around the world.
The qualities these legends embody have been important and decisive throughout the history of warfare. But I would contend that they are more necessary than ever in the first decades of this century, given the pace of technological changes, and the agile and adaptive nature of our most likely and lethal adversaries – from modern militaries using asymmetric tactics to terrorist groups with advanced weapons. As a result, America’s military will need the maximum flexibility to deal with the widest possible range of scenarios and adversaries. And our military leaders – like the great men I just talked about – will have to be as flexible and as agile, as resilient and determined, and, I will say will have to have the similar moral courage.
What strikes me about figures like Krulak and Nimitz, and Rickover and Boehm, is not that they were always right, nor that they should be emulated in every way – to put it mildly. What is compelling about these leaders is that they had the vision and insight to see that the world and technology was changing, they understood the implications of these shifts, and then pressed ahead in the face of often fierce institutional resistance. Indeed, one of the key reasons they were successful was because they were willing to speak truth to power – they were willing to tell superiors what they needed to hear, not what they wanted to hear.
So at this point I hope you’ll forgive me for citing a towering figure from another service: General George Marshall Army Chief of Staff and architect of Victory in World War II. In late 1917, during World War I, was on military staff in France conducting an exercise for the American Expeditionary Force. General “Black Jack” Pershing was in a foul mood. He dismissed critiques from one subordinate after another and stalked off. But then-Captain Marshall, imagine this, Captain Marshall dealing with four-star General Pershing, took the arm of the four-star general, spun him around and told him how the problems they were having resulted from not receiving a necessary manual from the American headquarters – Pershing’s headquarters. And the commander said, “Well, you know, we have our problems.” And Marshall said, “Yes, I know you do, General . . . but ours are immediate and everyday and have to be solved before night.” And after the meeting, Marshall was approached by other officers offering condolences for the fact he was sure to be fired and sent to the front lines. But instead Marshall became a valued adviser to Pershing, and Pershing a valued mentor to Marshall.
Twenty years later, then-General Marshall was sitting in the White House with President Roosevelt and all of his top advisors and cabinet secretaries. War in Europe was looming, but still a distant possibility for America. And in that meeting, Roosevelt proposed that the U.S. Army – which at that time ranked in size somewhere between that of Switzerland and Portugal – should be of lowest priority for funding and industry. FDR’s advisors nodded. Building an army could wait.
Then FDR, looking for the military’s imprimatur for his decision said: “Don’t you think so George?” Marshall, who hated being called by his first name, said: “I’m sorry, Mr. President, but I don’t agree with that at all.” The room went silent. The treasury secretary told Marshall afterwards: “Well, it’s been nice knowing you.” But it was not too much later that Marshall became chief of staff of the Army.
There are other, more recent examples of senior officers speaking frankly to their civilian seniors. Just before the ground war started against Iraq in 1991 General Colin Powell, then-chairman of the joint chiefs, met with the first President Bush. And I was there in the Oval Office. And Colin looked the President in the eye and he said words to this effect: “We are about to go to war. We may suffer thousands of casualties. If we do, are you prepared to drive on to victory?” General Powell wanted the president to face reality. The president gave the right answer.
I can say that a similar spirit of candor suffused discussions about major troop increases with the second President Bush in Iraq, and then with President Obama in Afghanistan – discussions shaped importantly by independent military advice from General Peter Pace and Admiral Mike Mullen – from the Classes of ‘67 and ‘68 respectively. Both presidents, again, in my view at least, gave the right answer.
In addition to speaking hard truths to your superiors, as a leader you must create a climate that encourages candor among your subordinates, especially in difficult situations. During World War II, Nimitz was in a plane that had crashed, and found himself caught in the middle of sailors swarming to the scene to rescue the wounded. Finally, an exasperated 18-year old crewman yelled, “Commander, if you would only get the hell out of the way, maybe we could get something done.” When the crewman realized he had just chewed out a four star admiral, he tried to apologize. But Nimitz’s response was: “Stick to your guns, sailor, you were quite right.”
Even in less urgent situations, all those in senior positions would be well-advised to listen to enlisted troops, NCOs, and junior officers. They are the ones on the front line, and will often know the real story – whether the issue is equipment needed for the mission, or stress on families back home. A story that is often different from what’s on the power point slide back at flag headquarters or the Pentagon. Being open to advice, and even criticism, will take some confidence and self-assurance.
On trips to the front lines, I have made it a priority to meet with and hear from small groups of troops ranging from junior enlisted to field-grade officers. Their candid observations have been invaluable and helped shape my thinking and my decisions. I recall having lunch a few weeks ago in a combat post in Afghanistan with a dozen young enlisted guys—mostly E-2s and E-3s. Among other things they told me that the crotch of the Army field uniform pants is ill-equipped to deal with climbing over walls and fences--they tore out easily. As one of the specialists helpfully explained, it’s a welcome feature in the summer – but, he added, it gets pretty chilly in the winter. Now that’s a piece of information perspective I would never get in my conference room in the Pentagon.
I should add that, in most of the cases that I’ve cited this evening – from the highest ranking to the lowest – straight talk, integrity and courage were usually rewarded. And in a perfect world, that should always happen. Sadly, it does not, and I will not pretend there is not risk.
At some point in your career each of you will surely work for a jackass, we all have. But that does not make taking a stand any less necessary for the sake of our country.
I say this because on the larger, strategic scale, the need for candor is not just an abstract notion. It has very real effects on the perception of the military and of the wars themselves – as well as an operational impact.  World War II was America’s last straightforward conventional war that ended in a regular surrender of the enemy. The military campaigns since – from Korea to Vietnam, Somalia, Iraq, Afghanistan – have all been frustrated, controversial efforts for the American public and our American armed forces. Each conflict has produced debates over whether the senior military officers were too deferential or not deferential enough to civilians, and whether civilians, in turn, were too receptive or not receptive enough to military advice.
Here, again, I’d reference Marshall, who has been recognized as a textbook model for the way military officers should handle disagreements with superiors and in particular with the civilians vested with control of the armed forces under our Constitution.
Consider the situation in mid-1940. The Germans had just overrun France and the battle of Britain was about to begin. President Roosevelt believed that rushing arms and equipment to Britain, including half of America’s bomber production, should be the top priority in order to save our ally. Marshall believed that rearming America should come first. Roosevelt overruled Marshall and others, and made what most historians believe was the right decision – to do what was necessary to keep England alive.
The significant thing is what did not happen next. There was a powerful domestic constituency for Marshall’s position among a whole host of newspapers and congressmen and lobbies, and yet Marshall did not exploit or use them. There were no overtures to friendly congressional committee, no leaks to sympathetic reporters, no ghostwritten editorials in newspapers, no coalition-building with advocacy groups. Marshall and his colleagues simply made the president policy work and saved England.
In the ensuing decades, a large permanent military establishment emerged as a result of the Cold War – an establishment that forged deep ties to the Congress and to industry. This is not completely new in the history of our republic. Henry Knox, the first secretary of war, an artillery guy of all things, was charged with building the first American fleet to help combat pirates. To get the necessary support from the Congress, Knox eventually ended up with six frigates being built in six different shipyards in six different states. Some things never change.
Over the years, senior officers have from time to time been tempted to use these ties to do end runs around the civilian leadership, particularly involving disputes over purchase of large weapons systems. The first secretary of defense, for whom this lecture is named, after World War II had to contend with a navy that didn’t even want to work for him – preferring to stay an independent cabinet department, despite the National Security Act of 1947. In the “Revolt of the Admirals” that followed, the Navy and the Air Force went at each other – first in private, then in public – over which service was better suited to deliver the new atom bomb. These parochial tendencies must be avoided. They are also in this day and age outdated, evidenced by the fact that there are more sailors ashore than on ships in the Central Command, all in support of our ground forces and the overall war effort.
Just over 50 years ago, Admiral Arleigh Burke wrote of his beloved service: “The Navy believes in putting a man [– and, today, we would add “woman” –] in a position with a job to do, and let him do it – and give him hell if he doesn’t perform. We capitalize on the capabilities of our individual people rather than make automatons out of them. This builds the essential pride of service and sense of accomplishment. [And] if it results in a certain amount of cockiness, I am [all] for it.” Looking to the challenges America’s sea services will face in the years ahead, you have reason to be confident – in your own abilities and in the traditions of leadership and excellence of this great institution.
Here at the Naval Academy, as at every university and company in America, there is a focus on teamwork, consensus-building, and collaboration. But mark my words and make no mistake, the time will come for each one of you when you must stand alone in making an unpopular difficult decision; when you must challenge the opinion of superiors or tell them that you can’t get the job done with the time and resources available; or when you will know that what superiors are telling the press or the Congress or the American people is inaccurate. These will be moments when your entire career is at risk.
To be ready for that moment, you must have the discipline to cultivate integrity and moral courage here at the Academy, and then from your earliest days as a commissioned officer. Those qualities do not suddenly emerge fully developed overnight or as a revelation after you have assumed important responsibilities. These qualities have their roots in the small decisions you will make here and early in your career and must be strengthened all along the way to allow you to resist the temptation of self before service. And you must always ensure that your moral courage serves the greater good: that it serves what’s best for the nation and our highest values – not a particular program nor pride nor parochialism.
For the good of the Navy, and the Marine Corps, for the good of the armed services, and for the good of our country, I urge you to reject convention and careerism. I urge you instead to be principled, creative, and reform-minded – leaders of integrity.
A final thought. All of you entered military service in a time of war, knowing that you would be at war. Theodore Roosevelt once said, “The trumpet call is the most inspiring of all sounds, because it summons men to spurn all ease and self-indulgence and bids them forth to the field where they must dare and do and die at need.” You have answered the trumpet call, and the whole of America is grateful and filled with admiration. I salute you and I thank you for your service. For my part, I consider myself personally responsible for each and every one of you as though you were my own sons and daughters. And when I send you in harm’s way, as I will, I will do everything in my power to see that you have what you need to accomplish your mission – and come home safely.

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