Richard Nixon photo

Address at the Air Force Academy Commencement Exercises in Colorado Springs, Colorado

June 04, 1969

General Moorman, Governor Love, Senator Allott, Senator Dominick, General McConnell, Secretary Searoans, all the distinguished guests on the platform, members of the graduating class, and this great audience here in Falcon Stadium:

Before addressing the members of the graduating class, I would like to be permitted a personal word to the people of Colorado and to the people of this city. I want to thank you for the very warm and gracious welcome you gave to me and the members of our family.

I well remember the conversations that I had with General Eisenhower in the months before he died. He often reminisced about the past and among his fondest memories were his visits to Colorado. These were some of the happiest days of his life.

Yesterday when we arrived in Colorado Springs, we stepped out of the aircraft; we breathed this wonderfully fresh air; we looked off across to the mountains 50 miles away; and as we stood there we knew what he meant when he spoke of Colorado, its people, and also the climate-everything that all of you who live here know and love so much.

I should just like to give you one impression that shows you there is some continuity in history. Dwight David Eisenhower II, the grandson of General Eisenhower, and his namesake, as he saw this beautiful country and looked to the mountains off to the distance, said, "Gee, this is great country." I want you to know that I agree, and I congratulate the Air Force for having the good judgment to locate the Air Force Academy here in Colorado Springs.

One other personal note: I had the opportunity before coming to this stadium to take a tour of some of the campus facilities and particularly the chapel. Now, there has been some controversy about that chapel. This is the first time that I have seen it. I am not an architectural expert, but I think it is magnificent, and I think you can be very proud of that chapel at the Air Force Academy.

Now, if I could address the members of the graduating class. For each of you, and your parents, and your countrymen, this is a moment of quiet pride. After years of study and training, you have earned the right to be saluted.

But you are beginning your careers at a difficult time in military life.- On a fighting front, you are asked to be ready to make unlimited sacrifice in a limited war. On the home front, you are under attack from those who question the need for a strong national defense, and indeed see a danger in the power of the defenders.

You are entering the military service of your country when the Nation's potential adversaries abroad have never been stronger and when your critics at home have never been more numerous.

It is open season on the Armed Forces. Military programs are ridiculed as needless if not deliberate waste. The military profession is derided in some of the so-called best circles of America. Patriotism is considered by some to be a backward fetish of the uneducated and the unsophisticated. Nationalism is hailed and applauded as a panacea for the ills of every nation-except the United States of America.

This paradox of military power is a symptom of something far deeper that is stirring in our body politic. It goes beyond the dissent about the war in Vietnam. It goes behind the fear of the "military-industrial complex."

The underlying questions are really these: What is America's role in the world? What are the responsibilities of a great nation toward protecting freedom beyond its shores? Can we ever be left in peace if we do not actively assume the burden of keeping the peace?

When great questions are posed, fundamental differences of opinion come into focus. It serves no purpose to gloss over these differences, or to try to pretend that they are mere matters of degree. Because there is one school of thought that holds that the road to understanding with the Soviet Union and Communist China lies through a downgrading of our own alliances and what amounts to a unilateral reduction of our arms in order to demonstrate our "good faith."

They believe that we can be conciliatory and accommodating only if we do not have the strength to be otherwise. They believe that America will be able to deal with the possibility of peace only when we are unable to cope with the threat of war.

Those who think that way have grown weary of the weight of free world leadership that fell upon us in the wake of World War II. They argue that we-that the United States is as much responsible for the tensions in the world as the adversaries we face.

They assert that the United States is blocking the road to peace by maintaining its military strength at home and its defenses abroad. If we would only reduce our forces, they contend, tensions would disappear and the chances for peace would brighten.

America's powerful military presence on the world scene, they believe, makes peace abroad improbable and peace at home impossible.

Now we should never underestimate the appeal of the isolationist school of thought. Their slogans are simplistic and powerful: "Charity begins at home. Let's first solve our problems at home and then we can deal with the problems of the world."

This simple formula touches a responsive chord with many an overburdened taxpayer. It would be easy, easy for a President of the United States to buy some popularity by going along with the new isolationists. But I submit to you that it would be disastrous for our Nation and the world.

I hold a totally different view of the world, and I come to a different conclusion about the direction America must take.

Imagine for a moment, if you will, what would happen to this world if America were to become a dropout in assuming the responsibility for defending peace and freedom in the world. As every world leader knows, and as even the most outspoken critics of America would admit, the rest of the world would live in terror.

Because if America were to turn its back on the world, there would be peace that would settle over this planet, but it would be the kind of peace that suffocated freedom in Czechoslovakia.

The danger to us has changed, but it has not vanished. We must revitalize our alliances, not abandon them.

We must rule out unilateral disarmament, because in the real world it wouldn't work. If we pursue arms control as an end in itself, we will not achieve our end. The adversaries in the world are not in conflict because they are armed. They are armed because they are in conflict, and have not yet learned peaceful ways to resolve their conflicting national interests.

The aggressors of this world are not going to give the United States a period of grace in which to put our domestic house in order-just as the crises within our society cannot be put on a back burner until we resolve the problem of Vietnam.

The most successful solutions that we can possibly imagine for our domestic programs will be meaningless if we are not around to enjoy them. Nor can we conduct a successful peace policy abroad if our society is at war with itself at home.

There is no advancement for Americans at home in a retreat from the problems of the world. I say that America has a vital national interest in world stability, and no other nation can uphold that interest for us.

We stand at a crossroad in our history. We shall reaffirm our destiny for greatness or we shall choose instead to withdraw into ourselves. The choice will affect far more than our foreign policy; it will determine the quality of our lives.

A nation needs many qualities, but it needs faith and confidence above all. Skeptics do not build societies; the idealists are the builders. Only societies that believe in themselves can rise to their challenges. Let us not, then, pose a false choice between meeting our responsibilities abroad and meeting the needs of our people at home. We shall meet both or we shall meet neither.

That is why my disagreement with the skeptics and the isolationists is fundamental. They have lost the vision indispensable to great leadership. They observe the problems that confront us; they measure our resources and then they despair. When the first vessels set out from Europe for the New World these men would have weighed the risks and they would have stayed behind. When the colonists on the eastern seaboard started across the Appalachians to the unknown reaches of the Ohio Valley, these men would have counted the costs and they would have stayed behind.

Our current exploration of space makes the point vividly; here is testimony to man's vision and to man's courage. The journey of the astronauts is more than a technical achievement; it is a reaching out of the human spirit. It lifts our sights; it demonstrates that magnificent conceptions can be made real.

They inspire us and at the same time they teach us true humility. What could bring home to us more the limitations of the human scale than the hauntingly beautiful picture of our earth seen from the moon?

When the first man stands on the moon next month every American will stand taller because of what he has done, and we should be proud of this magnificent achievement.

We will know then that every man achieves his own greatness by reaching out beyond himself, and so it is with nations. When a nation believes in itself as Athenians did in their Golden Age, as Italians did in the Renaissance-that nation can perform miracles. Only when a nation means something to itself can it mean something to others.

That is why I believe a resurgence of American idealism can bring about a modem miracle, and that modem miracle is a world order of peace and justice.

I know that every member of this graduating class is, in that sense, an idealist.

However, I must warn you that in the years to come you may hear your commitment to the American responsibility in the world derided as a form of militarism. It is important that you recognize that strawman issue for what it is, the outward sign of a desire by some to turn America inward and to have America turn away from greatness. I am not speaking about those reponsible critics who reveal waste and inefficiency in our defense establishment, who demand clear answers on procurement problems, who want to make sure new weapons systems will truly add to our defense. On the contrary, you should be in the vanguard of that movement. Nor do I speak of those with sharp eyes and sharp pencils who are examining our post-Vietnam planning with other pressing national priorities in mind. I count myself as one of those.

But as your Commander in Chief, I want to relay to you as future officers of our Armed Forces some of my thoughts on these great issues of national moment.

I worked closely with President Eisenhower for 8 years. I know what he meant when he said: "... we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex."

Many people conveniently forget that he followed that warning with another: "... we must also be alert to the equal and opposite danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite."

We sometimes forget that in that same farewell address, President Eisenhower spoke of the need for national security. He said: "A vital element in keeping the peace is our military establishment. Our arms must be mighty, ready for instant action, so that no potential aggressor may be tempted to risk his own destruction."1

1. “Public Papers of the presidents, Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1960-61,: Item 421.

I say to you, my fellow Americans, let us never forget those wise words of one of America's greatest leaders.

The American defense establishment should never be a sacred cow, but on the other hand, the American military should never be anybody's scapegoat.

America's wealth is enormous, but it is not limitless. Every dollar available in the Federal Government has been taken from the American people in taxes, and a responsible government has a duty to be prudent when it spends the people's money. There is no more justification for wasting money on unnecessary military hardware than there is for wasting it on unwarranted social programs.

There can be no question that we should not spend unnecessarily for defense. But we must also not confuse our priorities.

The question, I submit, in defense spending is a very simple one: "How much is necessary?" The President of the United States is the man charged with making that judgment. After a complete review of our foreign and defense policies I have submitted requests to the Congress for military appropriations. Some of these are admittedly controversial. These requests represent the minimum I believe essential for the United States to meet its current and long-range obligations to itself and to the free world. I have asked only for those programs and those expenditures that I believe are necessary to guarantee the security of this country and to honor our obligations. I will bear the responsibility for those judgments. I do not consider my recommendations infallible. But if I have made a mistake, I pray that it is on the side of too much and not too little. If we do too much it will cost us our money. If we do too little, it may cost us our lives.

Mistakes in military policy today can be irretrievable. Time lost in this age of science can never be regained. America had months in order to prepare and to catch up in order to wage World War I. We had months and even years in order to catch up so we could play a role in winning World War II. When a war can be decided in 20 minutes, the nation that is behind will have no time to catch up.

I say: Let America never fall behind in maintaining the defenses necessary for the strength of this Nation.

I have no choice in my decisions but to come down on the side of security, because history has dealt harshly with those nations who have taken the other course.

So, in that spirit, to the members of this graduating class, let me offer this credo for the defenders of our Nation:

I believe that we must balance our need for survival as a nation with our need for survival as a people. Americans, soldiers and civilians, must remember that defense is not an end in itself; it is a way of holding fast to the deepest values known to civilized men.

I believe that our defense establishment will remain the servants of our national policy of bringing about peace in the world and that those in any way connected with the military must scrupulously avoid even the appearance of becoming the master of that policy.

I believe that every man in uniform is a citizen first and a serviceman second, and that we must resist any attempt to isolate or separate the defenders from the defended. So you can see that in this regard, those who agitate for the removal of the ROTC [Reserve Officers' Training Corps] from college campuses contribute to an unwanted militarism.

I believe that the basis for decisions on defense spending must be "What do we do; what do we need for our security?" and not "What will this mean for business and employment?" The Defense Department must never be considered as a modern WPA [Work Projects Administration]. There are far better ways for government to help insure a sound prosperity and high employment.

I feel that moderation has a moral significance only in those who have another choice. The weak can only plead. Magnanimity and restraint gain moral meaning coming from the strong.

I believe that defense decisions must be made on the hard realities of the offensive capabilities of our potential adversaries, and not on the fervent hopes about their intentions. With Thomas Jefferson, we can prefer "the flatteries of hope" to the gloom of despair, but we cannot survive in the real world if we plan our defense in a dream world.

I believe we must take risks for peace—but calculated risks, not foolish risks. We shall not trade our defenses for a disarming smile or charming words. We are prepared for new initiatives in the control of arms in the context of other specific moves to reduce tensions around the world.

I believe that America is not going to become a "garrison state," or a "welfare state," or a "police state"-simply because the American people will defend our values from those forces, external or internal, that would challenge or erode them.

And I believe this above all: That this Nation shall continue to be a source of world leadership, a source of freedom's strength, in creating a just world order that will bring an end to war.

Members of the graduating class and your colleagues in the Academy, a President shares a special bond with the men and women in the Nation's Armed Forces. He feels that bond strongly at moments like these, facing all of you who have pledged your lives, your fortunes, and your sacred honor to the service of your country. He feels that bond most strongly when he presents the Medal of Honor to an 8-year-old boy who will never see his father again. Because of that bond, let me say this to you: In the past generation, since 1941, this Nation has paid for 14 years of peace with 14 years of war. The American war dead of this generation has been far greater than all of the preceding generations in America's history. In terms of human suffering, this has been the costliest generation in the two centuries of our history.

Perhaps this is why my generation is so determined to pass on a different legacy. We want to redeem that sacrifice. We want to be remembered, not as the generation that suffered in war, but as the generation that was tempered in its fire for a great purpose: to make the kind of peace that the next generation will be able to keep.

This is a challenge worthy of the idealism which I know motivates every man who will receive his diploma today.

I am proud to have served in the Armed Forces of this Nation in a war which ended before the members of this class were born.

It is my deepest hope and my belief that each of you will be able to look back on your military career with pride, not because of the wars in which you have fought, but because of the peace and freedom which your service will make possible for America and the world.

Note: The President spoke at 9:52 a.m. in Falcon Stadium at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo. In his opening words he referred to Lt. Gen. Thomas S. Moorman, Superintendent, U.S. Air Force Academy; Governor John A. Love, Senator Gordon Allott, and Senator Peter H. Dominick, all of Colorado; Gen. John P. McConnell, Chief of Staff of the U.S. Air Force; and Secretary of the Air Force Robert C. Searoans, Jr.

On the same day the White House Press Office released an advance text of the President's remarks.

[APP NOTE: There is a typo around the middle of the speech using "reponsible" instead of "responsible." This appeared in the original publication. APP policy is to reproduce as accurately as possible the original published document including any errors.]

Richard Nixon, Address at the Air Force Academy Commencement Exercises in Colorado Springs, Colorado Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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