Dwight D. Eisenhower photo

Address at the Columbia University National Bicentennial Dinner, New York City

May 31, 1954

Mr. Toastmaster, President Kirk, members and friends of Columbia's family, representatives here of Columbia's great sister institutions of learning, fellow citizens and friends:

I have many regrets in memory occasioned by my leaving Columbia University, and I have a new one this evening, that I never had a chance to attend the classes of our Toastmaster.

This occasion has for me particular significance because, for a time, I was intimately associated with those whose life-work is the education of America's youth. I am very proud that, through a brief span in Columbia's two hundred year history, my name was closely joined with that of this great institution. For such expression of personal pride in an association with a home of learning, I have illustrious predecessors.

Thomas Jefferson, for one, at the end of his long life, preferred that posterity should think of him, not as the holder of high office, but for his relationship to the University of Virginia.

He held that the free flow of information was indispensable to the maintenance of liberty. He wrote that if he had to make a choice between a society without newspapers or newspapers without a government, he would prefer the latter. And, of the diffusion of knowledge among the people through schools, he said: "No other sure foundation can be devised for the preservation of freedom and of happiness."

A relentless foe of tyranny in every guise, Jefferson throughout his life was steadfast to a fundamental tenet of Western Society, proclaimed two thousand years ago in the treasury of the Temple at Jerusalem, that the truth will make men free.

The pursuit of truth, its preservation and wide dissemination; the achievement of freedom, its defense and propagation; these purposes are woven into the American concept of education. The American university--neither the property of a favored class, nor an ivory tower where visionaries are sheltered from the test of practice--every American university fundamentally is dedicated to Columbia's Bicentennial theme-"Man's right to knowledge and the free use thereof."

Those who chose the theme of this Bicentennial could not have found a more American one. I say this with apology to scholars of all countries, lest they think that I might be deliberately narrowing a universal principle to a provincial application. But from the very beginning of the Republic, education of the people, freedom for the people--these interdependent purposes have been the core of the American Dream.

Far from being fearful of ideas, the founders of the Republic feared only misguided efforts to suppress ideas.

No less profound was their faith in man's ability to use freedom, for the achievement of his own and his country's good. In the freedom of the individual, they saw an energy that could hurdle mountains, harness rivers, clear the wilderness, transform a continent.

So convinced, they proclaimed to all the world the revolutionary doctrine of the Divine Rights of the Common Man. That doctrine has ever since been the heart of the American faith. Emphatic rejection of this faith is the cardinal characteristic of the materialistic despotisms of our time.

In consequence, the world, once divided by oceans and mountain ranges, is now split by hostile concepts of man's character and nature. Physical barriers and their effects have been largely surmounted. But new barriers seem more insuperable than the old.

Two world camps, whose geographic boundaries in important areas are mutually shared, lie farther apart in motivation and conduct than the poles in space. One is dedicated to the freedom of the individual and to the right of all to live in peace--the other to the atheistic philosophy of materialism, and the effort to establish its sway over all the earth. Watching the two opposing camps are hundreds of millions still undecided in active loyalty.

Today, there is no more important knowledge for each of us to understand than the essential characteristics of this struggle.

One fact stands out stark and clear: of all who inhabit the globe, only relatively small numbers--only a handful even in Russia itself--are fixed in their determination to dominate the world by force and fraud. Except for these groups in the several nations--mankind everywhere--those who still walk upright in freedom; those who hesitate in neutralism; those who must bow to communism--mankind everywhere hungers for freedom; for well-being; for peace. Now, how can a few men thwart the will of hundreds of millions?

Because, answering to no judge in conscience or in public opinion, they are engaged in a relentless and highly organized world campaign of deceit, subversion, and terrorism. And, opposed to them, there is no single, global effort to promote knowledge and cooperation.

They preach a material dogma that is abhorrent to us, a dogma coated with false promises. And they speak it with a single and a tireless voice, while the free world speaks with diverse tongues a message that demands from each responsibility, perseverance, and sacrifice.

Our opponents focus all the weight of government on the single objective they have chosen as the next goal. The free world uses government for the furtherance of human happiness, a front so broad that forward movement is at times almost imperceptible.

To spread their falsehoods, the few who seek world domination possess a global organism ceaselessly engaged in carrying out the orders of their masters. To give the world the truth, the free nations rely largely on the volunteer efforts of individuals--efforts often weak because they are intermittent and uncoordinated.

Possibly in no other way do the Communists so clearly exhibit their fear of the free world achieving real unity as in their persistent efforts to divide and thereby weaken us. They exploit every difference of view among independent nations to make honest discussion falsely appear, not as a valued characteristic of free systems, but as indication of mutual hatreds and antagonisms. This doctrine of divide and conquer they apply not only as between nations, but among groups and individuals of the same nation. They ceaselessly attack our social, industrial, educational, and spiritual institutions, and encourage every type of internecine struggle of whatever kind.

It is very easy to become an unwitting tool or ally of such conniving. For example, there is no other subject or purpose in which Americans are so completely united as in their opposition to communism. Yet, my friends, and I say this sadly, is there any other subject that seems, at this moment, to be the cause of so much division among us as does the matter of defending our freedoms from Communist subversion? To this problem we must apply more knowledge and intellect and less prejudice and passion. Above all, we must not permit anyone to divert our attention from the main battle and to inspire quarrels that eventually find good citizens bitterly opposed to other good citizens, when basically all would like to be joined in effective opposition to communism.

Now, we must, of course, require from the governmental organizations set up for our internal and external security the utmost in vigilance, energy, and loyalty. We must make certain through constant examination that they are so performing their duties. Let us provide any additional laws or machinery necessary to protect America--remembering that protecting America includes also the protection of every American in his American rights. Let us not lose faith in our own institutions, and in the essential soundness of the American citizenry lest we--divided among ourselves--thus serve the interests and advance the purposes of those seeking to destroy us.

The Soviet Communism claim that their cause is timeless, possibly requiring an entire era to achieve desired results. But they know that the truth of freedom possesses an unchanging validity and a cumulative power as more millions learn of it. So the dictators seek to deny to the world the time and opportunity to learn the truth of both communism and freedom. The power-hungry few are therefore persistently aggressive.

In this situation, we, the American people, stand committed to two far-reaching policies--

First and foremost: We are dedicated to the building of a cooperative peace, based upon truth, justice, and fairness.

Second: To pursue this purpose effectively, we seek the strengthening of America--and her friends--in love of liberty, in knowledge and comprehension, in a dependable prosperity widely shared, and in a military posture adequate for security.

In these two policies, there is no iota of aggression, no intent to exploit others or to deny them their rightful place and space in the world. This consideration of others--this dedication to a world filled with peaceful, self-respecting nations--finds its only opposition in militant totalitarianism.

If we are to work intelligently in the cause of freedom, we must study and understand these factors in the world turmoil.

Even when so armed with knowledge, it is not easy for the free world's representatives to negotiate successfully with those who either cannot or will not see the truth or admit the existence of obvious fact.

But surely, even the men in the Kremlin must realize that before all mankind now lies a grand prospect of a far better life for everyone. Its achievement requires only that the scientists of every nation concentrate on the means to a plentiful life rather than on the tools of sudden death; that the millions now under arms be released to fruitful work; that industries of war be converted to the production of useful goods. We have sought and will seek to make this prospect a reality.

Knowledge of the efforts being made by our own Nation to lead the world to this goal is another item of information important to every citizen.

The present administration assumed office 16 months ago, fully aware of the ruthless manner in which the Communists negotiate, conscious of the undependability of their agreements. But we believed that this country's foreign policy must be dedicated to unremitting effort for the preservation of peace, within the enlightened self-interest and fundamental objectives of the United States. Partisan purposes, personal attitudes, all the pressures of lesser interests, we believed, had to be subordinated to this paramount goal.

We knew that every negotiation with the Communists would be fraught with traps and pitfalls but we knew, too, that positive, determined day-today toil would pay real dividends among the free nations. We sought a rebirth of trust among all nations--an enduring foundation for a cooperative peace--not a mere breathing space free from imminent crisis.

Every measure we have proposed has been conceived as a step toward this rebirth of trust. These proposals have included an honorable armistice in Korea; a free and united Germany, a liberated Austria; a secure Indochina and southeast Asia; atomic energy harnessed for peaceful purposes under international control.

The first has been achieved. The armistice in Korea, moreover, inaugurated a new principle of freedom--that prisoners of war are entitled to choose the side to which they wish to be released. In its impact on history, that one principle may weigh more than any battle of our time.

Negotiations to unify Germany have been, for the time being, at least, nullified by Soviet demands for a satellite climate in that country. With respect to Austria, the United States, Great Britain, and France agreed to accept State Treaty terms which up to that moment had been acceptable to the Soviet Union. But once this acceptance was announced, the Soviet Union immediately invented new conditions which would enable it, for an indefinite period, to keep military occupation in Austria.

To such a plan we could not agree. Far better, this administration believes, that we end the discussion with the issue still unresolved than to compromise a principle or to accept an agreement whose price might be exacted in blood years hence.

In our effort to find the ways by which the miraculous inventiveness of man should not be dedicated to his death, but consecrated to his life, there have been written exchanges of views between the United States and the Soviet Union. Secretary of State Dulles has personally conferred both at Berlin and at Geneva with the Soviet Foreign Minister, Mr. Molotov. These have not been productive of the results we seek, but we, on our side, are continuing exchanges of views and consultations with the other free nations principally involved.

We intend to proceed with these and other like negotiations, confident in the merits of our cause, realistic in our appraisal of Soviet intention, and assured that our purposes and hopes will survive even the most frustrating series of talks.

To be successful, our peaceful purposes and hopes must of course be clad in obvious truth and constantly proclaimed to the world. Our actions must stand examination by every eye--friendly and hostile and doubtful. We must be forthright and patient in presenting them. Scarcely could we devise, for the cause of peace, a more fitting battle cry than the theme of the Columbia Bicentennial: "Man's right to knowledge and the free use thereof."

Let us not, however, define truth or knowledge of the truth solely in the narrow terms of mere fact or statistic or mathematical equation. Wisdom and human understanding--a sense of proportion--are essential. Knowledge can give us nuclear fission; only wisdom and understanding can assure its application to human betterment rather than to human destruction.

In this light, the Columbia theme is a dynamic idea, a true offspring of the revolutionary doctrine proclaimed by our forefathers. We should preach it--and practice it--fearlessly.

Here, tonight, in this brilliant company and pleasant surroundings, we might easily take for granted, as assured through all time, the preservation and the free use of knowledge. Two hundred years of Columbia history and the existence of thousands of other institutions of learning in our country seem to give validity to such assurance. But can we be sure that possession of these values, even by ourselves, is as indestructible as it is priceless? The bleak history of a dozen nations insistently warns us differently.

Always and everywhere, even though they may never have experienced it--even though they know its values only in their instincts rather than in their minds--men have sought personal liberty; have fought for it; have died for it.

Nevertheless, within the past few decades, the whole philosophy of our Founding Fathers has been rejected by powerful men who control great areas of our planet. The revolutionary doctrines of our free society have not, to America's amazement, swept around the world. Rather, we have too often seen the counterattacks of fascism and of communism substitute for them the police state, with suppression of all liberties and free inquiry. We have too often seen education perverted into an instrument for the use and support of tyranny.

Beyond this, these few decades have seen science confer upon man technical processes whose colossal destructiveness, the virtual obliteration of space as a protective shield, has brought all of us to the frontline of any new war.

Amid such alarms and uncertainties, doubters begin to lose faith in themselves, in their country, in their convictions. They begin to fear other people's ideas--every new idea. They begin to talk about censoring the sources and the communication of ideas. They forget that truth is the bulwark of freedom, as suppression of truth is the weapon of dictatorship. We know that when censorship goes beyond the observance of common decency, or the protection of the Nation's obvious interests, it quickly becomes, for us, a deadly danger. It means conformity by compulsion in educational institutions; it means a controlled instead of a free press; it means the loss of human freedom.

The honest men and women among these would-be censors and regulators may merely forget that the price of their success would be the destruction of that way of life they want to preserve. But the dishonest and the disloyal know exactly what they are attempting to do--perverting and undermining a free society while falsely swearing allegiance to it.

Whenever, and for whatever alleged reason, people attempt to crush ideas, to mask their convictions, to view every neighbor as a possible enemy, to seek some kind of divining rod by which to test for conformity, a free society is in danger. Wherever man's right to knowledge and the use thereof is restricted, man's freedom in the same measure disappears.

Here in America we are descended in blood and in spirit from revolutionaries and rebels--men and women who dared to dissent from accepted doctrine. As their heirs, may we never confuse honest dissent with disloyal subversion.

Without exhaustive debate--even heated debate--of ideas and programs, free government would weaken and wither. But if we allow ourselves to be persuaded that every individual, or party, that takes issue with our own convictions is necessarily wicked or treasonous--then indeed we are approaching the end of freedom's road. We must unitedly and intelligently support the principles of Americanism.

Effective support of principles, like success in battle, requires calm and clear judgment, courage, faith, fortitude. Our dedication to truth and freedom, at home and abroad, does not require--and cannot tolerate--fear, threat, hysteria, and intimidation.

As we preach freedom to others, so we should practice it among ourselves. Then, strong in our own integrity, we will be continuing the revolutionary march of the Founding Fathers.

As they roused in mankind the determination to win political freedom from dynastic tyranny, we can ignite in mankind the will to win intellectual freedom from the false propaganda and enforced ignorance of Communist tyranny. Through knowledge and understanding, we will drive from the temple of freedom all who seek to establish over us thought control--whether they be agents of a foreign state or demagogues thirsty for personal power and public notice.

Truth can make men free! And where men are free to plan their lives, to govern themselves, to know the truth and to understand their fellowmen, we believe that there also is the will to live at peace.

Here, then, in spite of A-bombs, H-bombs, all the cruel destructiveness of modern war; in spite of terror, subversion, propaganda and bribery, we see the key to peace. That key is knowledge and understanding-and their constant use by men--everywhere.

Today, of course, we must have infantry--and planes and ships and artillery. Only so can we be sure of a tomorrow and the opportunity to continue the mobilization of spiritual and intellectual energies. But there is no time to waste if truth is to win the war for the minds of men! Here is the unending mission of the university--indeed of every educational institution of the free world--to find and spread the truth!

We send professors, scholars, and students out to the schools of the free world, to promote understanding of us even as they grow in knowledge and in understanding of others. This practice must be accelerated.

We find room in our own schools for tens of thousands of young men and women from other lands who within the American community learn the truth about us and give understanding of their own people. This effort must be expanded.

The purposes of the free world must not be too limited! Our goal is not merely to react against inroads of Communist lies and attacks. That would be endless and profitless; the tactics of falsehood are limitless. We must join with our friends in a crusade of truth. We must make our aim the building of peace in justice and freedom. That is a worthy objective and a golden reward. Under God, the united energies of free people can attain it.

"The prospect now before us in America," wrote John Adams in 1765, "ought to engage the attention of every man of learning to matters of power and of right, that we may be neither led nor driven blindfolded to irretrievable destruction." And he ended by saying, "Let every sluice of knowledge be opened and set aflowing."

Tonight I think it fitting to repeat John Adams' exhortation, confident that, prompted by reason and armored by faith, we shall speed the advance of knowledge and liberty on their hand-in-hand journey along the avenue of the ages.

My friends, to each of you my thanks for the compliment you pay me in asking me to appear before you, to renew old associations and friendships. Thank you.

Note: The President spoke at 9:30 p.m. at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City. His opening words "Mr. Toastmaster, President Kirk" referred to Dr. Lyman Bryson, Professor Emeritus of Education, Teachers College, Columbia University, and Dr. Grayson Kirk, President of the University.

Dwight D. Eisenhower, Address at the Columbia University National Bicentennial Dinner, New York City Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/232084

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