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U.S. Naval Academy Commencement
Remarks as Prepared for Delivery by Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld, Annapolis, MD , Friday, May 23, 2003

H.T. Johnson – Thank you for those kind words.


Members of the Class of 2003 -- What a day this is.  My congratulations to you all.


My colleague, Secretary Tom Ridge -- It is good to see you here, and we thank you for all you do for our country.


Representatives Gilchrest, Green, and Akin -- We thank you for being with us.


Admiral Vern Clark and Marine Corps Commandant Mike Hagee – You are an outstanding team and I thank you for your superb leadership.


Admiral Naughton, Former Senators Bill Brock and Chuck Robb, and Admiral Stan Turner.  It is good to see you all.


Distinguished Guests,


Proud parents—indeed properly proud parents -- My congratulations to each of you.


Ladies and Gentlemen. 


It is a pleasure to be with you —You folks are so thoughtful to invite a broken-down ex-Navy pilot to join you on this wonderful occasion. 


Since you’ve been so generous to me, let me return the kindness—by exercising my authority as Secretary of Defense to grant amnesty to all midshipmen on restriction for minor – I repeat, “minor” -- conduct offenses.  I will leave it to the Administration to define “minor.”


Truth be told, my association with the Navy stretches back more than six decades—back to the early 1940s, when my dad served in the Pacific War aboard a baby flattop.  I can still remember sitting in the hangar deck for the commissioning of the U.S.S. Hollandia — I suppose I was 11 or 12 years old.  I vividly recall the smells, the sounds, and the feeling of that aircraft carrier.  


Those impressions stayed with me.  And in 1950, as a freshman in college, I became a midshipman, joining the Naval ROTC program.  And after active duty I served in the Reserves for a good many years, until I had to make a command decision and finally admit that, as Secretary of Defense, in the event of war, I really couldn't call myself up. 


I mention all of this only to say that I share your devotion to the Navy—and I believe I know something of the sense of pride and accomplishment each of you feel as you anticipate your commissioning.


I did not attend this fine Academy, but I did have the privilege of addressing a Naval Academy commencement many years ago.  It was the class of 1976 -- during my first tour as Secretary of Defense.


In the audience that day was a Midshipman named John R. Allen.  Well, twenty-seven years later, he’s moved through the ranks to become Commandant of Midshipmen—second in command at this great institution–and a Marine Corps Brigadier General-select.


It is interesting to see how far he has progressed -- while here I am, twenty-seven years later, right back in the same old job.


It goes to show what a Naval Academy education can do for you!


Col. Allen and his classmates, and each of you, came to this Academy to serve a cause greater than yourselves.  The fact that you have chosen a life of service says something important -- about you, about your character, and about the values you hold dear.  It says something about your parents as well—about the virtues of sacrifice and love of country that they helped to instill in you. 


It says something about our military—that it is an institution that you deem worthy of dedicating your lives and your talent.  And it says something about our country—that it represents what each of you believes is worth serving and worth defending.


Precisely how you will serve in the years ahead—the challenges you will face and what the future may hold for you—is not knowable  --  But this much seems reasonably certain: your future is likely to be unlike anything you might imagine today. 


Consider the class of 1976.   They received their commissions in the midst of the Cold War.  Communism was on the march, Europe was divided, the armies of the Warsaw Pact were poised for a tank invasion across Germany, U.S. and Soviet subs tracked each other in the deepest corners of the oceans, and the two superpowers lived each day with thousands of nuclear missiles pointed at each others’ cities.  


No one in that graduating class could have imagined that a quarter century later the Soviet Union would no longer exist, the majority of the world’s nations would be free, and many of our former Warsaw Pact adversaries would be our allies in NATO, working alongside of us, in a wholly new and unexpected struggle—the global war on terror. 


In fact, about the only thing that’s the same today -- is that I’m Secretary of Defense again.


Those remarkable changes did not just happen.  They were the result of leadership—leadership at every level of our government, from successive Commanders-in-Chief to the commanders of aircraft carriers, submarines, battleships, and Marine expeditionary units.  And leadership by the American people, as well as leaders in our allied nations. 


And many of those who left this Academy a quarter century ago to fight the Cold War, are now defending our nation in this new kind of war, that they never expected to fight.  Consider a few examples:


  • 1976 Midshipman William Brown became a Coast Guard chaplain.  He could not have imagined that one day he would be standing amidst the smoldering rubble and twisted steel at Ground Zero in New York—comforting firefighters, policemen, mortuary workers, and grieving families as part of the Chaplain Emergency Response Team.


  • Midshipman Scott Pugh probably never imagined, at that commencement so long ago, that one day he would be working in his Pentagon office, when American Airlines Flight 77 crashed into the building just below him—and that he would survive, and go on to help rebuild the Navy Special Programs Office so that it can help us find and destroy terrorist networks.


  • 1976 Midshipman Thomas Zelibor never anticipated that one day, as Commander of the Carl Vinson Carrier Battle Group, he would be directing U.S. forces in the North Arabian Sea, as they delivered some 2 million pounds of ordnance to Taliban and al-Qaeda positions in Afghanistan—helping to liberate a people and deliver justice to the terrorists who struck us on September 11th.


  • Midshipman Richard O’Hanlon never imagined in 1976 that one day, as commanding officer of the U.S.S. Theodore Roosevelt, he would be sending squadrons of aircraft to strike Saddam Hussein’s military command centers—helping to remove a brutal regime that murdered its people and threatened ours.


Each of these officers, and their classmates, expected to be serving in a notably different world from the one they have found.  And like the members of the class of ’76, you will be called on, over the course of your careers, to serve in ways you will not have imagined. 


Consider how the world has changed just in the four years since you arrived here.  You came to this Academy in a time of peace; and you leave today in the midst of a new and unprecedented global war. 


Yet, one day the war on terror will end—not soon, to be sure—but it will end.  And you likely will face still more challenging tasks—possibly a world with double the number of nuclear nations—and many of those new nuclear nations terrorist states—or a world with novel and still unimagined information-age challenges or biological threats, or a world with still more ungoverned areas, inhabited by terrorists, hostage-takers, drug lords and revolutionaries. 


We are living in a period of tumult and change.  It is important to note that dealing with new threats will require something even more important than new technologies.  To defend freedom in the 21st century, you will have to bring innovation, flexibility, and agility to your progressively more important posts. 


Don’t be afraid to think for yourself—to take risks, and try new things.  I recognize that you may meet resistance along the way—expect opposition—but don’t be dissuaded.  Progress in life has come generally from those who swim upstream.


Take pride in your service, and the great naval tradition that it is now your responsibility to carry on.  But remember, at the same time, that the wars and conflicts in this 21st century will not be fought by individual services—whether Army, Navy, Air Force, or Marines.  Rather, they will be fought by joint and, often, combined forces.  You will have to think, train and exercise jointly—because, let there be no doubt, that is how the wars of your future will be fought.


Your challenge will be to do more than simply navigate through all the changes you will face, riding them like waves with a force beyond your control.  Rather, your challenge will be to help shape the chaos—to ensure that, whatever new threats and challenges may emerge, our nation will be able to face them squarely, deal with them, and yet allow our people to continue to live free and unafraid.


History teaches us that freedom is not destined to prevail over tyranny.  Liberty and our way of life are fragile gifts—their care is in your hands.


In my lifetime I have lived through the Great Depression, and witnessed the rise and fall of empires.  My generation has seen fascism, communism, and now terrorism emerge to challenge the world’s free nations.  And we have seen free nations successfully unite to turn back every one of those challenges. 


But each time one foe has been defeated in a corner of the world, a new challenge arises.  Which is why each generation of Americans has been called to produce patriots – patriots willing to dedicate their lives to the defense of liberty. 


You are that next generation of patriots—upon your shoulders that burden now rests.


This much is certain: the future must not simply unfold.  Rather, it will need to be shaped by your leadership.  The decisions you make, the courage and creativity you bring to your responsibilities, will determine America’s future.


Whatever you do, do not underestimate the power you have to help to shape the world.  Back in 1954 – almost a half century ago -- Governor Adlai Stevenson spoke to my senior class.  What he said that evening has stayed with me over my long life. 


To our class he said something truly breathtaking.  He said: “Your power is virtually beyond measure.  You dare not, if I may say, withhold your attention.  For if you do — if those young Americans who have the advantage of education, perspective, and self-discipline, do not participate to the fullest extent of their ability—America will stumble, and if America stumbles, the world will fall.”  Those words have never been far from my thoughts.


You know, there are thousands of bright, talented young people—with a fine education, perspective and self-discipline—who will graduate from America’s colleges and universities this spring.  And their accomplishments may one day affect our country in many ways. But you are different in an important sense. 


They may go on to become leaders in industry; discoverers of medicines or new technologies that can improve how we live; government officials; teachers, musicians, artists or architects, whose contributions may become monuments to the possibilities of the human spirit.


But while you serve our country—while you wear that uniform—it will be what you are doing that will make everything that they do possible.  For there can be no free choice -- no art, science, or industry — indeed, no real prosperity -- without the peace and security, and the freedom that you—each of you—will help to assure for all of your fellow citizens. 


Peace and security form the bedrock foundation on which our free society is built.  So, recognize and respect the role you have chosen --  the future of our country, to be sure, but to a great extent the future of the world, will be in your hands. 


We thank you for volunteering—for stepping forward—for your willingness and indeed your eagerness to shoulder that immense responsibility.   I respect your passion for service—and the courage of your choice.  Your country is grateful, and proud of each of you.


May God bless you all.