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National Library for the Study of George Washington Groundbreaking Ceremony

As Delivered by Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, Mt. Vernon, VA, Thursday, April 14, 2011

Thank you, Senator Warner, for that most kind introduction.  Senator Warner has introduced me to the United States Senate for confirmation four different times.  The first time was almost exactly 25 years ago.  That dates us both.  He is a great Virginian, a great statesman, and a great American – someone for whom the term “distinguished gentleman” can be used without a hint of irony.

It is a singular honor to speak on these grounds at another important moment in its storied history.  I’d like to thank the Mount Vernon Ladies Association for extending this invitation to me, and for your tireless efforts not only to preserve the mansion, but to sustain and strengthen the legacy of George Washington. 

Seventy years ago this summer, one of Washington’s successors, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, dedicated the first modern presidential library at his upstate New York residence, Hyde Park.  At that ceremony, Roosevelt said that it reflected the nation’s belief “in the capacity of its own people to learn from the past so that they can gain in judgment in creating their own future.”  

Today at Mount Vernon, we begin construction of the new National Library for the Study of George Washington.  No American president deserves the honor of a presidential library more than George Washington.  As an avid reader of history, I have found Washington to be a source of strength, wisdom, and inspiration throughout my life. 

In my current position as Secretary of Defense, I take heart in George Washington’s belief that to preserve the peace, we must be prepared for war.  I can even relate to some of the challenges faced by his Secretary of War, Henry Knox.  In response to the threat of piracy off the North African coast, Knox sought to build the first American naval fleet.  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.

Another example of this.  Last December, I read Ron Chernow’s new biography of Washington.  And I so enjoyed it, I gave a copy to President Obama, singling out one passage I thought might cheer him up because of the perspective it provided on our current budget travails.  In 1778, General and future President Washington wrote the following about Congress: “Party disputes and personal quarrels are the great business of the day,” while “great and accumulated debt, ruined finances, depreciated money, and want of credit,” were “postponed from day to day, from week to week, as if our affairs wore the most promising aspect.”

Now all that said, Washington had great respect for the Congress and for civilian control of our military.  The Chevalier de Chastellux wrote of Washington in 1782, “this is the seventh year that he has commanded the army and he has obeyed Congress: more need not be said.”

I’m moved by the examples Washington set as a military leader at every rank – lessons I have often shared with aspiring military officers over the past four and a half years.  Washington recognized early on that his success was built on the shoulders of the men under his command.  When Washington – then only 26 – resigned his commission as leader of the Virginia regiment during the French and Indian War, his officers composed a tribute to him.  And Washington’s response was to say: “if I have acquired any reputation, it is from you I derive it.”

As commander of the continental army during the revolutionary war, Washington held frequent war councils to hear all sides of an issue, and did not seek to quiet contrary opinions or criticism.  As he told one of his closest aides, “I can bear to hear of imputed or real errors…The man who wishes to stand well in the opinion of others must do this, because he is thereby enabled to correct his faults.”  

Washington also counseled his officers to lead by example, as he did.  During the war, a man in civilian clothes rode past a small fortification being repaired by a group of exhausted-looking soldiers.  The commander was shouting orders but not helping.  When the rider asked why, the supervisor of the work said he didn’t work because, “Sir, I am a corporal!”  The stranger apologized, dismounted, and went about helping the soldiers himself.  When he was done, he turned toward the supervisor and said, “Mr. Corporal, the next time you have a job like this and not enough men to do it, go to your Commander-in-Chief and I will come and help you again.”  Too late, the corporal recognized George Washington.  

Yet we are not coming together here today simply to extol George Washington’s virtues as a military leader and the foremost of our founding fathers.  Recalling Roosevelt’s words at Hyde Park, the construction of this library affirms the continued relevance of Washington to the dilemmas facing our nation and its leaders, now and in the future.  And since my interest is in national security, I’d like to briefly discuss one of the central foreign policy challenges and dilemmas Washington faced as the first American president, a dilemma that we have faced all through our history, to the present day. 

Not long after ascending the highest office, George Washington was confronted with the consequences of the French Revolution.  The issue was whether to support the revolutionary government and its war against an alliance of European monarchies led by Great Britain. To many, like Thomas Jefferson, the French Revolution, with its stated ideals of liberty, equality, and fraternity, seemed a natural successor to our own revolution. 

John Adams and the Federalists, however, were just as adamantly opposed. They were appalled by the revolution’s excesses and feared the spread of violent French radicalism to our shores.  The Federalists mocked Jefferson for his rhetorical defense of freedom and equality across the Atlantic while he continued to own slaves.  Adams and Alexander Hamilton were, in turn, accused of being crypto-monarchists.

So it was left to Washington to resolve the matter. He had said: “My best wishes are irresistibly excited whensoever, in any country, I see an oppressed nation unfurl the banners of freedom.”  But the European wars and, in particular, our estrangement from the British, had begun to disrupt the lives of ordinary Americans by impeding trade and causing riots and refugees. Washington, understanding the fragility of America’s position at the time, adopted a neutrality policy toward France and would go on to make a peace treaty with Great Britain – sparking massive protests and accusations of selling out the spirit of 1776.

But consider the historic irony: The United States had recently broken free of the British monarchy only with the help of an absolutist French king. Yet when France itself turned in the direction of popular rule and was confronted by Europe’s monarchies, the United States took a pass and made amends with our old British foe.

In this episode, Washington was confronting a question, a dilemma, that has been persistent throughout our history: how should we incorporate America’s democratic ideals and aspirations into our relations with the rest of the world?  

What Washington’s experience shows is that, from our earliest days, American leaders have struggled with “realistic” versus “idealistic” approaches to international challenges facing us.  The most successful leaders, starting with Washington, have steadfastly encouraged the spread of liberty, democracy, and human rights.  At the same time, however, they have fashioned policies blending different approaches with different emphases in different places and different times.

We have at times made human rights the centerpiece of our national strategy even as we did business with some of the worst violators of human rights. We have worked with authoritarian governments to advance our own security interests even while urging them to reform.  And we have also used our military against governments seen as a threat to our national security, to undo aggression, to end ethnic slaughter, and to prevent chaos.

In just the past few months begun to witness an extraordinary story unfolding across the Middle East and North Africa.  People across the region have come together to demand change, and in many cases, a more democratic, responsive government.  Yet many of the regimes affected have been longstanding, close allies of the United States, ones we continue to work with as critical partners in the face of common security challenges like Al Qaeda and Iran, even as we urge them to reform and respond to the needs of their people. 

An underlying theme of American history going back to Washington is that we are compelled to defend our security and our interests in ways that, in the long run, lead to the spread of democratic values and institutions.  As President Obama said last month: “for generations, we have done the hard work of protecting our own people, as well as millions around the globe.  We have done so because we know that our own future is safer, our own future is brighter, if more of mankind can live with the bright light of freedom and dignity.”

When we discuss openly our desire for democratic values to take hold across the globe, we are describing a world that may be many years or decades off.  Though achievement of the ideal may be limited by time, space, resources, or human nature, we must not allow ourselves to discard or disparage the ideal itself.  It is vital that we speak out about what we believe and let the world know where we stand, even as we do what we must to protect our interests and our security.  And when we look at the challenges facing contemporary fledgling democracies, or societies and governments facing great pressures for change, before we criticize too harshly we would do well to be modestly mindful of the turbulence of our own early history, what historian Joe Ellis called “improvising on the edge of catastrophe.”  And to remember our own long journey from a political system of, by, and for property-owning white men to an inclusive nation with an African American president.

I close by returning to these grounds, and an event that transpired here at Mt. Vernon on this precise day in 1789, when the hopes of a republican government were pinned on George Washington.  Although he had known it would happen for some time, it was on April 14th of that year Washington received official word here at Mt. Vernon that he had been elected our nation’s first President.  His response, in typical self-effacing fashion: “All I can promise is only that which can be accomplished by an honest zeal.”  

Thanks to Washington’s integrity, character, and judgment, the values we represent as Americans could take hold – emanating from this corner of Virginia and spreading across the continent and beyond.  The work of this library will further solidify those roots, and by anchoring them in his beloved estate, ensure that his singular legacy will endure.  Thank you to all who have helped and worked so hard to make this day happen.  Thank you.

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