Seal of the Department of Defense U.S. Department of Defense
Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs)
On the Web:
Media contact: +1 (703) 697-5131/697-5132
Public contact:
or +1 (703) 571-3343

U.S. Naval Academy Commencement (As Delivered)
Remarks as Delivered by Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld, Annapolis, MD, Friday, May 23, 2003

Thank you very much. Thank you very much. (Cheers, applause.) Thank you very much. H.T. Johnson, I thank you for those kind words.

Members of the Class of 2003 -- what a day this is! (Laughter.) My congratulations to you all.

My colleague, Tom Ridge, who's here, it's good to see you. We thank you for all you do for our country. (Applause.)

Representative Akin, we thank you for being with us.

Chief of Naval Operations Vern Clark and Marine Commandant Mike Hagee, you two are an outstanding team, and I thank you both for your absolutely superb leadership. (Applause.)

Lieutenant Governor Michael Steele, Admiral Naughton, former Senator Chuck Robb, distinguished guests, proud parents -- I should say properly proud parents, and ladies and gentlemen. It is a real pleasure for me to be here. You folks were so thoughtful to invite a broken down ex-Navy pilot to join you on this important occasion. Since you've been so generous to me, let me return the kindness by exercising what I'm told is my authority as secretary of Defense to grant amnesty to all those midshipmen who are on minor -- (pause) -- (laughter) -- MINOR conduct offenses. (Cheers, applause.) I'll leave it to others to define "minor." (Laughter.)

My association with the United States Navy stretches back -- (public address system stops working) -- oh. (Cheers, laughter.)

How we doing? (Laughter, cheers, applause.) It stretches back more than six decades, back to the early 1940s when my dad served in the Pacific war on a baby flattop. I can still remember sitting on the hangar deck of that aircraft carrier, the USS Hollandia, for the commissioning ceremony. I suppose I was 11 or 12 years old. But I can vividly recall the sounds and the smells and the feeling of that aircraft carrier. And I see the Hollandia written up there in the far end of your stadium.

Those impressions stayed with me. And in 1950, as a freshman in college, I became a midshipman in the Naval ROTC. And after my service, as H.T. said, I stayed in the Reserves for a good many years, until I reached a difficult point; I had to make a command decision. I finally had to admit that as secretary of Defense, I really couldn't call myself up. (Laughter.) That's a true story! (Laughter.)

I mention all of that simply to say that I do share your devotion for the Navy, and I believe I know something of the sense of pride and accomplishment that each of you must 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. (Cheers, applause.) And the next day, in the front page of the New York Times, there was a photograph of a midshipman sound asleep -- (laughter) -- in the front row, right about down there. (Laughter.)

I have not asked John R. Allen if it was the same person. (Laughter.)

Well, 27 years later -- (laughter) -- he's moved through the ranks -- (cheers) -- and he's now second-in-command of this great institution, and a Marine Corps brigadier general-select. (Cheers, applause.) I can say this: It's humbling for me to see how far he has progressed, and here I am in the same old job. (Laughter.) It just goes to show what an academy education can do for you. (Laughter.)

Colonel Allen and his classmates and each of you came to this academy to serve a cause greater than yourselves. The fact that you've chosen a life of service says something important -- important about you, about your character, 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 instill in you. It says something about our military; that it is an institution that you deem worthy of dedicating your lives and your talents. 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 future may hold for you is certainly not knowable today. But this much seems reasonably certain: Your future is likely to be unlike anything that we 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 to the deepest corners of the ocean, and the two superpowers lived each day with literally thousands of nuclear missiles pointed at each other's 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 close allies in NATO, working alongside of us in a wholly new and unexpected struggle with the global war on terror.

In fact, the only thing that's the same today that I can think of is that I'm still secretary of Defense. (Laughter.)

Those remarkable changes didn't just happen. They were the result of leadership -- leadership at literally every level of government, from successive commanders in chiefs to the commanders of aircraft carriers, submarines, battleships and marine expeditionary units, and leadership by the American people and by the leaders in our allied countries as well.

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

Consider a few examples.

Nineteen-seventy-six Midshipman William Brown became a Coast Guard chaplain. He could not have imagined, sitting where you are now, that one day he would be standing amid smoldering rubble and twisted steel at Ground Zero in New York City, comforting firefighters, policemen and giving families -- grieving families, as part of a chaplains emergency response team.

Midshipman Scott Pugh never imagined at that commencement that one day he would be working in his Pentagon office when American Airlines Flight 77 crashed into the building just below him, 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.

Nineteen-seventy-six 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 Arabian Sea as they delivered literally 2 million pounds of ordnance to Taliban and al Qaeda positions in Afghanistan, helping to liberate a people and deliver justice to the terrorists that attacked us on September 11th.

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

And like the members of the Class of 1976, you will be called upon, over the course of your careers, to serve in ways that you will not have imagined.

Consider how the world has changed just in the four years since you arrived. 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, but it will end -- and you will face still more challenging tasks -- possibly a world with double the number of nuclear nations, and many of those new nuclear states terrorist nations; 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, by hostage-takers and by drug lords.

We are living in a period of tumult and change, and it's important to note that in dealing with new threats, that will require something even more than new technologies. To defend freedom in the 21st century, you will have to bring innovation, flexibility and agility into your progressively more important posts. Don't be afraid to think for yourself, to take risks and to try new things. Recognize that you may meet resistance along the way. Expect it. But don't be dissuaded. Progress in life generally comes from those who swim upstream.

And take pride in your service and the great naval tradition that it is now your responsibility to uphold. But remember at the same time that the wars and the conflicts of the 21st century will not be fought by individual services, whether the Army, the Navy, the Air Force or the Marines. Rather, they will be fought joint, and more often than not, combined. You will have to think and 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 that you will face or riding them like waves of a force beyond your control. Rather, your challenge will be to help shape the chaos, to ensure that whatever new threats and challenges that may emerge, our nations 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, witnessed the rise and fall of empires. My generation has seen fascism, communism and now terrorism emerge to challenge free nations and free people. And we've seen free nations successfully unite and turn back every one of those challenges. But each time a foe has been defeated in one corner of the world, a new challenge arises, which is why each generation of Americans has been called upon to produce patriots; patriots willing to dedicate their lives to the defense of liberty.

You are that next generation of patriots, and 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. Do not underestimate the power that you have to help shape the world.

Back in 1954, almost a half century ago, Governor Adlai Stevenson spoke to my senior class. What he said that evening stayed with me over my long life. To our class, he said something that I considered 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 with 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 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, the men and women in this graduating class, are different. They may go on to become leaders in industry, discoverers of medicine, new technologies that can improve how we live. They may become government officials, or teachers, or artists or architects, whose contributions may become monuments to the possibilities of the human spirit. But while you serve your country, while you wear that uniform, it will be what you are doing that makes everything they do possible. For there can be no free choice, no art, science or industry; indeed, no real prosperity, without peace and without security, and the freedom that you, each of you, will help to assure for all of our fellow citizens, for peace and security, do 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. We thank you for stepping forward; for your willingness, indeed, your eagerness to shoulder that immense responsibility. I respect your passion for service, the courage of your choice. Know that your country is grateful and proud of each of you.

May God bless you all. (Applause.)