Dwight D. Eisenhower photo

Address at the Gettysburg College Convocation: The Importance of Understanding.

April 04, 1959

Mr. Chairman, President Paul, Members of the Board of Trustees, Members of the Faculty, the Alumni, Student Body, and the Friends of Gettysburg College:

As one who in 1914 first visited Gettysburg College when I was still a West Point cadet, who years later had the great distinction of receiving from this institution its honorary doctorate, and who, in recent years, became an official resident of Adams County and your neighbor, I congratulate Gettysburg College on having recorded 127 years of faithful service to its community and to the nation.

And I am reminded also that I owe a debt to this institution of personal gratitude. During the 86th year of its existence--41 years ago-Gettysburg College, through some of its fraternities, made available a home for my family and me during the months that we served here in World War I. I am happy to have the opportunity, again, to thank the entire Gettysburg College family for its thoughtfulness in arranging for us, in the crowded community of that war year, a much needed place to live.

Now like any other individual invited to speak on a subject of his own choosing before a collegiate group, I have been confronted with the need for making one or two decisions.

One of these has been the selection of a subject that you here might consider to be both current and interesting. Another has been the length of the time I might need for its exposition. Napoleon, reflecting upon the desirable qualities of a political constitution, once remarked that such a document should preferably be short, and always vague in meaning. Unfortunately he did not comment upon the appropriate length and character of a talk commemorating Founder's Day at a liberal arts college. But if I do not wander too far from my text, I can, at least, attain respectable brevity--and I do assure you that there will be nothing vague about the convictions I express.

I shall not attempt to talk to you about education, but I shall speak of one vital purpose of education--the development of understanding-understanding, so that we may use with some measure of wisdom the knowledge we may have acquired, whether in school or out.

For no matter how much intellectual luggage we carry around in our heads, it becomes valuable only if we know how to use the information-only if we are able to relate one fact of a problem to the others do we truly understand them.

This is my subject today--the need for greater individual and collective understanding of some of the international facts of today's life. We need to understand our country's purpose and role in strengthening the world's free nations which, with us, see our concepts of freedom and human dignity threatened by atheistic dictatorship.

If through education--no matter how acquired--people develop understanding of basic issues, and so can distinguish between the common, long-term good of all, on the one hand, and convenient but shortsighted expediency on the other, they will support policies under which the nation will prosper. And if people should ever lack the discernment to understand, or the character to rise above their own selfish short-term interests, free government would become well nigh impossible to sustain. Such a government would be reduced to nothing more than a device which seeks merely to accommodate itself and the country's good to the bitter tugs-of-war of conflicting pressure groups. Disaster could eventually result.

Though the subject I have assigned myself is neither abstruse nor particularly difficult to comprehend, its importance to our national and individual lives is such that failure to marshal, to organize, and to analyze the facts pertaining to it could have for all of us consequences of the most serious character. We must study, think, and decide on the governmental program that we term "Mutual Security."

The true need and value of this program will be recognized by our people only if they can answer this question: "Why should America, at heavy and immediate sacrifice to herself, assist many other nations, particularly the less developed ones, in achieving greater moral, economic, and military strength?"

What are the facts?

The first and most important fact is the implacable and frequently expressed purpose of imperialistic communism to promote world revolution, destroy freedom, and communize the world.

Its methods are all-inclusive, ranging through the use of propaganda, political subversion, economic penetration, and the use or the threat of force.

The second fact is that our country is today spending an aggregate of about 47 billion dollars annually for the single purpose of preserving the nation's position and security in the world. This includes the costs of the Defense Department, the production of nuclear weapons, and mutual security. All three are mutually supporting and are blended into one program for our safety. The size of this cost conveys something of the entire program's importance--to the world and, indeed, to each of us.

And when I think of this importance to us, think of it in this one material figure, this cost annually for every single man, woman, and child of the entire nation is about 275 dollars a year.

The next fact we note is that since the Communist target is the world, every nation is comprehended in their campaign for domination. The weak and the most exposed stand in the most immediate danger.

Another fact, that we ignore to our peril, is that if aggression or subversion against the weaker of the free nations should achieve successive victories, communism would step-by-step overcome once free areas. The danger, even to the strongest, would become increasingly menacing.

Clearly, the self-interest of each free nation impels it to resist the loss to imperialistic communism of the freedom and independence of any other nation.

Freedom is truly indivisible.

To apply some of these truths to a particular case, let us consider, briefly, the country of Viet-Nam, and the importance to us of the security and progress of that country.

It is located, as you know, in the southeastern corner of Asia, exactly halfway round the world from Gettysburg College.

Viet-Nam is a country divided into two parts--like Korea and Germany. The southern half, with its twelve million people, is free, but poor. It is an under-developed country--its economy is weak--average individual income being less than $200 a year. The northern half has been turned over to communism. A line of demarcation running along the 17th parallel separates the two. To the north of this line stand several Communist divisions. These facts pose to South Viet-Nam two great tasks: self-defense and economic growth.

Understandably, the people of Viet-Nam want to make their country a thriving, self-sufficient member of the family of nations. This means economic expansion.

For Viet-Nam's economic growth, the acquisition of capital is vitally necessary. Now, the nation could create the capital needed for growth by stealing from the already meager rice bowls of its people and regimenting them into work battalions. This enslavement is the commune system--adopted by the new overlords of Red China. It would mean, of course, the loss of freedom within the country without any hostile outside action whatsoever.

Another way for Viet-Nam to get the necessary capital is through private investments from the outside, and through governmental loans and, where necessary, grants from other and more fortunately situated nations.

In either of these ways the economic problem of Viet-Nam could be solved. But only the second way can preserve freedom.

And there is still the other of Viet-Nam's great problems--how to support the military forces it needs without crushing its economy.

Because of the proximity of large Communist military formations in the North, Free Viet-Nam must maintain substantial numbers of men under arms. Moreover, while the government has shown real progress in cleaning out Communist guerillas, those remaining continue to be a disruptive influence in the nation's life.

Unassisted, Viet-Nam cannot at this time produce and support the military formations essential to it, or, equally important, the morale--the hope, the confidence, the pride--necessary to meet the dual threat of aggression from without and subversion within its borders.

Still another fact! Strategically, South Viet-Nam's capture by the Communists would bring their power several hundred miles into a hitherto free region. The remaining countries in Southeast Asia would be menaced by a great flanking movement. The freedom of twelve million people would be lost immediately, and that of 150 million others in adjacent lands would be seriously endangered. The loss of South Viet-Nam would set in motion a crumbling process that could, as it progressed, have grave consequences for us and for freedom.

Viet-Nam must have a reasonable degree of safety now--both for her people and for her property. Because of these facts, military as well as economic help is currently needed in Viet-Nam.

We reach the inescapable conclusion that our own national interests demand some help from us in sustaining in Viet-Nam the morale, the economic progress, and the military strength necessary to its continued existence in freedom.

Viet-Nam is just one example. One-third of the world's people face a similar challenge. All through Africa and Southern Asia people struggle to preserve liberty and improve their standards of living, to maintain their dignity as humans. It is imperative that they succeed.

But some uninformed Americans believe that we should turn our backs on these people, our friends. Our costs and taxes are very real, while the difficulties of other peoples often seem remote from us.

But the costs of continuous neglect of these problems would be far more than we must now bear--indeed more than we could afford. The added costs would be paid not only in vastly increased outlays of money, but in larger drafts of our youth into the Military Establishment, and in terms of increased danger to our own security and prosperity.

No matter what areas of Federal spending must be curtailed--and some should--our safety comes first. Since that safety is necessarily based upon a sound and thriving economy, its protection must equally engage our earnest attention.

As a different kind of example of free nation interdependence, there is Japan, where very different problems exist--but problems equally vital to the security of the free world. Japan is an essential counterweight to Communist strength in Asia. Her industrial power is the heart of any collective effort to defend the Far East against aggression.

Her more than 90 million people occupy a country where the arable land is no more than that of California. More than perhaps any other industrial nation, Japan must export to live. Last year she had a trade deficit. At one time she had a thriving trade with Asia, particularly with her nearest neighbors. Much of it is gone. Her problems grow more grave.

For Japan there must be more free world outlets for her products. She does not want to be compelled to become dependent as a last resort upon the Communist empire. Should she ever be forced to that extremity, the blow to free world security would be incalculable; at the least it would mean for all other free nations greater sacrifice, greater danger, and lessened economic strength.

What happens depends largely on what the free world nations can, and will, do.

Upon us--upon you here--in this audience--rests a heavy responsibility. We must weigh the facts, fit them into place, and decide on our course of action.

For a country as large, as industrious, and as progressive as Japan to exist with the help of grant aid by others, presents no satisfactory solution. Furthermore, for us, the cost would be, over the long term, increasingly heavy. Trade is the key to a durable Japanese economy.

One of Japan's greatest opportunities for increased trade lies in a free and developing Southeast Asia. So we see that the two problems I have been discussing are two parts of a single one--the great need in Japan is for raw materials; in Southern Asia it is for manufactured goods. The two regions complement each other markedly. So, by strengthening Viet-Nam and helping insure the safety of the South Pacific and Southeast Asia, we gradually develop the great trade potential between this region, rich in natural resources, and highly industrialized Japan to the benefit of both. In this way freedom in the Western Pacific will be greatly strengthened and the interests of the whole free world advanced. But such a basic improvement can come about only gradually. Japan must have additional trade outlets now. These can be provided if each of the industrialized nations in the West does its part in liberalizing trade relations with Japan.

One thing we in America can do is to study our existing trade regulations between America and Japan. Quite naturally we must guard against a flooding of our own markets by goods, made in other countries, to the point where our own industries would dry up. But the mere imposition of higher and higher tariffs cannot solve trade problems even for us, prosperous though we be. We too must export in order to buy, and we must buy if we are to sell our surpluses abroad.

Moreover, unless Japan's exports to us are at least maintained at approximately their present levels, we would risk the free world stake in the whole Pacific.

There is another fact that bears importantly upon this situation. In international trade our competitors are also our customers. Normally, the bigger the competitor, the bigger the customer. Japan buys far more from us, from the United States, than she sells to us. She is our second largest customer--second only to Canada. Last year she bought $800 million in machinery, chemicals, coal, cotton, and other items--and thus made jobs for many thousands of Americans. She paid for these with American dollars earned largely from the goods she sold to us. If she had earned more dollars she would have bought more goods, to our mutual advantage and the strengthening of freedom.

Now I turn to one other case, where the hard realities of living confront us with still a further challenge. I refer to West Berlin, a city of over two million people whose freedom we are pledged to defend.

Here we have another problem but not a unique one. It is part of a continuing effort of the Communist conspiracy to attain one overriding goal: world domination.

Against this background we understand that the mere handing over of a single city could not possibly satisfy the Communists, even though they would particularly like to eliminate what has been called the "Free World's Show Case behind the Iron Curtain." Indeed, if we should acquiesce in the unthinkable sacrifice of two million free Germans, such a confession of weakness would dismay our friends and embolden the Communists to step up their campaign of domination.

The course of appeasement is not only dishonorable, it is the most dangerous one we could pursue. The world paid a high price for the lesson of Munich--but it has learned the lesson well.

We have learned, too, that the costs of defending freedom--of defending America--must be paid in many forms and in many places. They are assessed in all parts of the world--in Berlin, in Viet-Nam, in the Middle East--here at home. But wherever they occur, in whatever form they appear, they are first and last a proper charge against the national security of the United States.

Because mutual security and American security are synonymous.

These costs are high--but they are as nothing to those that would be imposed upon us by our own indifference and neglect, or by weakness of spirit.

And though weakness is dangerous, this does not mean that firmness is mere rigidity, nothing but arrogant stubbornness. Another fact, basic to the entire problem of peace and security, is that America and her friends do not want war. They seek to substitute the rule of law for the rule of force, the conference table for the battlefield.

These desires and their expressions are not propaganda. They are aspirations felt deeply within us; they are the longings of entire civilizations based upon a belief in God and in the dignity of man. Indeed, they are the instinctive hopes that people feel--in all nations--regardless of curtains. People everywhere recoil from the thought of war as much as do any of us present here in this peaceful gathering.

Tensions are created, primarily, by governments and individuals that are ruthless in seeking greater and more extensive power. Berlin is a tension point because the Kremlin hopes to eliminate it as part of the free world. And the Communist leaders have chosen to exert pressure there at this moment. Naturally they always pick the most awkward situation, the hard-to-defend position, as the place to test our strength and to try our resolution. There will never be an easy place for us to make a stand, but there is a best one.

That best one is where principle points. Deep in that principle is the truth that we cannot afford the loss of any free nation--for whenever freedom is destroyed anywhere we are ourselves, by that much weakened. Every gain of communism makes further defense against it harder and our security more uncertain.

A free America can exist as part of a free world, and a free world can continue to exist only as it meets the rightful demands of people for security, progress, and prosperity. That is why the development of South Viet-Nam and Southeast Asia is important; why Japanese export trade is important; why firmness in Berlin is important.

It is why Communist challenges must always be answered by the free world standing on principle, united in strength and in purpose.

This is the true meaning of mutual security.

It is the idea that by helping one another build a strong, prosperous world community, free people will not only win through to a just peace but can apply their wonderful, God-given talents toward creating an ever-growing measure of man's humanity to man.

But this is something that will come only out of the hard intellectual effort of disciplined minds. For the future of our country depends upon enlightened leadership, upon the truly understanding citizen.

We look to the citizen who has the ability and determination to seek out and to face facts; who can place them in logical relationship one to another; who can attain an understanding of their meaning, and then act courageously in promoting the cause of an America that can five, under God, in a world of peace and justice. These are the individuals needed in uncounted numbers in your college, your country, and your world.

Over the one hundred and twenty-seven years of Gettysburg College's existence, its graduates have, in many ways, served the cause of freedom and of justice. May the years ahead be as fruitful as those which you now look back upon with such pride and with such satisfaction.

Thank you very much indeed.

Note: The President's opening words "Mr. Chairman, President Paul" referred to John S. Rice, President of the Board of Trustees, and Dr. Willard S. Paul, President of Gettysburg College.

Dwight D. Eisenhower, Address at the Gettysburg College Convocation: The Importance of Understanding. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/235390

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