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Commencement Address United States Naval Academy
As Delivered by Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen , Annapolis, Maryland , Wednesday, May 26, 1999

Secretary [Richard] Danzig, thank you for your very kind and overly generous words, and also let me take this opportunity to thank you for the outstanding leadership that you are providing for the Navy. Admiral [Jay] Johnson [Chief of Naval Operations], General [Charles] Krulak [Commandant, Marine Corps], [Former Navy] Secretary [Richard] Dalton and Mrs. Dalton, Admiral Ryan and Mrs. Ryan, Janet, my wife, pleasure to have you here to see this commencement, parents and sponsors, distinguished guests, and most importantly, midshipmen of the Class of 1999. [Applause.]

Before addressing those who are now commencing their careers in uniform, I would like to take a moment to honor a distinguished American who will soon be concluding his distinguished career in uniform. In the thirty-nine years since he first entered this Yard as a midshipman, Chuck Krulak has served his country with great 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 indeed earned the enduring gratitude of the entire country. Thank you very much. [Applause.]

I always find it a challenge to deliver a commencement address. The parents who are here would like a speech that is somewhat sentimental. The faculty would prefer a speech that is substantive. And the graduates want a speech that is, well, short. [Applause.] I will do my best to strike an appropriate compromise on all of those demands.

On of my favorite stories is about Yale. Yale University doesn't have a commencement speaker. They make a very big thing of their baccalaureate service. The story, it may be apocryphal, is of a Bishop who decided he wanted to give his sermon based on the wonderful letters found in Y-A-L-E.

Y, he said, stands for youth. He became so invigorated he spoke for a full 20 minutes on the subject of youth. A, he said, was for ambition. He took 20 minutes to talk about ambition. L was for loyalty, that took another 30 minutes. And finally, he said E stands for enthusiasm, and with that he became so enthusiastic he talked a full 40 minutes on the subject of enthusiasm. And when he finally completed his sermon, he walked down the steps and he saw a student who was holding his head in his hands in a sort of prayerful attitude.

He said, "My son, I can see something that I've said has touched you in a very deep and profound way. Could you tell me exactly what it was that has moved you in this fashion?" The young man looked up at him and he said, "I'm just sitting here thanking God that I'm not graduating from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology." [Laughter] So I will tell you in advance, I will not based my speech on the wonderful letters found United States Naval Academy. [Laughter.]

But let me say what everyone else here is saying to you today. It is truly an honor for me to stand before you. The fact that you’re here, the fact that you were admitted to the Academy showed that you are something special -- 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 and for your families and for your country. We are all enormously proud of who you are, who you will become, what you will give, and what we are going to receive.

The transformation that has occurred in each of you since Induction Day ago reaffirms Teddy Roosevelt’s observation that 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 and 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."

All of us here 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 with astonishing speed, and a world still in the midst of transition. Nations that once 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 are struggling to find their path into the next Century. The world into which you are about to step is one that is quite different from the one you left just a few years ago when you entered the Academy. Sweep your finger across the horizon and you will find a vastly changed Africa, Europe, China, Russia, Southeast Asia, and South America. Countries that were once held under the heel and boot of dictators and totalitarians are eager to embrace free speech, free minds, and free markets. But there are still those who hold onto the dead hand of the past, and they refuse to concede defeat. They gather in dark catacombs and they conspire how they can exploit the fear, poverty, and the discontent of their people and how they can infect their populace with a rabid nationalism that can serve as a rallying cry for pride and victimhood.

In this dangerous era, there is one truth that is clear: There is one nation that has the strength, the credibility, and the principles to lead. By virtue of history and by virtue of our accomplishments, America can help the community of nations move towards peace and stability in the 21st Century. The complacent may be content to see us somehow retreat to our own borders, to roll up within a continental cocoon, leaving Europe to the Europeans and Asia to the Asians. But nothing would be further from America’s interests.

We are actively engaged in the world because it is profoundly in our interests to be so engaged. There is no country that enjoys more rewards from the stability provided by global institutions. There is no country that sees greater returns from the prosperity enabled by a free and open world economy. There is no country that 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, then 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. It comes in the form of 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 or 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 those 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 that there is no graver decision a nation can make and we must take care to determine the following: 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 jeopardized, risking the stability on which our way of life depends; whether the wheel of conflict, if allowed to spin on its violent axis, will draw 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.

In answering these questions, we should, in President Eisenhower’s words, "steer a steady course between the assertion of strength that is truculent and a confession of helplessness that is cowardly." Indeed, we must treat the selfless dedication of those of you who wear the uniform as a sacred trust, and resist the temptation to use our forces in every dispute that catches our eye or emotions, and recognizing the truth, also, that there are times when only we can act, and must act.

Two months ago, the United States and our European allies were forced to make a difficult decision. After months of diplomacy, after months of dialogue, after months of seeking peace, after witnessing Slobodan Milosevic’s thugs who were 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 the 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 all know of large countries with narrow minds and shallow pockets. We know of small countries with large bank accounts and empty hearts. We know of countries where wealth exists but freedom does not. No, a nation is great because of the size of its soul, its ideals, and its spirit. A nation is great that treasures and secures individual freedom, that nourish noble virtues, that promotes opportunity and duty, life and liberty and obligation, honor and sacrifice.

Today, in Kosovo, a battle is raging. It is a battle for the principles that will hold sway at the dawn of the next Century. What is convulsing the United States and our NATO allies is the face of evil, an ethnic and religious nationalism that has as its core a hatred of everything our great democracies treasure. This is no ordinary conflict. It is not a fight over territory or money or markets. It is a struggle for the future and shape of civilized society. Mr. 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, where villages pillaged, justice comes at you in the form of 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 to this mayhem with indifference.

But NATO’s action had to be based not simply on the virtue of our cause. It had to be based on the soundness of our strategy, one that would inflict serious and sustained damage on Milosevic’s military machine while minimizing the risk to our pilots and to innocent civilians. The Alliance decided to wage an air campaign to achieve our goals. It was the right decision then. It is the right course of action 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 of aircraft and munitions 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 coming out of Serbia to deny the stark reality, Milosevic stands alone amidst the rubble and ruin of his failure. He is isolated from the world community. He has brought his economy to the brink of collapse. And he has consigned his troops to being hit harder with each passing day.

So he must agree to NATO’s conditions. He must let those refugees come back. He must allow them to go back into a safe environment with an international peacekeeping force with NATO at its core. And he must restore their autonomy. Absent that, our effort will continue and NATO will not weaken at this time or yield to Milosevic tactics or to the pleading and entreaties of others without forsaking our history and heritage.

Ladies and gentlemen, the most powerful antidote to those hatreds that we see, which can poison the soul of an entire country, can be found right here 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, America, with all our unfinished struggles, can be transforming. Set against the current conflict, this is perhaps most powerfully illustrated by a Marine Sergeant named Louis Cukela. The citation on his Medal of Honor from the First World War reads as follows: "Disregarding warnings, he crawled out into heavy fire, rushed the machine gun placement that had pinned down his unit, he drove off the enemy with his bayonet." What distinguished this valiant American is his heroism, not the fact that he was born in the Balkans. It was said that Sergeant Cukela "had little interest in his own ethnicity and during his life was called Austrian, Slav, Yugoslav, Serb, and Croatian." In fighting in a war that started in the Balkans, this young hero did not care to be caught up in the ancient grudges. He was fighting for democracy. He fought for his country. He fought for America.


In the end, our success or failure in any struggle rests on heroes such as Sergeant Cukela. And on you, the brave hearts that are arrayed before us today. Lincoln said that "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 the age of 22 than most have in a lifetime. You will have at your command weapons and warriors that few in history have known. You must be a sailor, a marine, a leader, an engineer, and an ambassador who spreads our values and virtues wherever you go. And you will be tested.


Because we entrust you with our highest hopes, we hold you, not to contemporary mores, but to the highest standards of excellence and 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 to the men and women around you. These are the true marks of character. This what earns 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 less.

That is the pledge you are taking today. To be your best and to do your best. And it is our pledge to lead you with wisdom, courage, and care, and for us 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 that are before us today, nor ignore the real and very precious lives behind them.

One hundred years ago, 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, I would ask you to live up to the great standards of those who have gone before you. Reflect honor on your Service and your nation. Know that America profoundly appreciates your sense of duty and 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 are surely going to bring to you. God bless you, God bless America, and go Navy!