Address at the Graduation Ceremonies, United States Military Academy, West Point, New York
General Bryan, members of this graduating class, West Point Alumni, ladies and gentlemen:
In the year 1915 I was one of a hundred sixty-four cadets who through four West Point years had eagerly looked forward--just as you of this class have done--to the moment of graduation. Actually we thought of it as liberation; but forty busy years have somewhat changed that youthful viewpoint.
During our Academy careers, we had, to the best of our ability, or at least to the maximum of our inclination, prepared ourselves in the lessons and the experiences of the past for a future that, we complacently felt, was predictable in pattern and design.
None among us could have realized that the world in which our fathers and we had lived was, at that moment, disappearing.
True, in Europe there was a war! But this tragic fact did not alarm us as it should have, for the Nation itself was not awake to the great threat thereby imposed on it. Wars--bloody and prolonged or one-sided and quick in their outcome--were in some countries still considered almost normal instruments for the achievement of a nation's objectives. The First World War erased all grounds for such smugness. Even our own country finally became a participant. Great European empires were destroyed. The world was confronted with human losses of staggering and unprecedented proportions.
By that war's end, over three years after our graduation, mankind had come to understand that any war is a human disaster-and in any major war the extent of the disaster is global. None escapes its effects.
Most of my class lived to see this lesson driven home with stunning emphasis more than two decades later. A second global conflict closed, just ten years ago, with a weapon that could make of war a catastrophe approaching almost the extermination of mankind.
By the calendar, exactly forty years separates my class from this one of 1955. Yet by the changes mine has seen--in the weapons of combat and the tools of peace, in the balance of international power, in the thinking of men--there might as easily be forty as four decades separating us.
Obviously, change is inescapable in human society. Since the beginning of history, the quality of a nation has been measured by its capacity to meet and to master evolving circumstances; the capacity of a man has been gauged, in part, by his flexible adjustment to the new and novel without sacrifice of principle or abandonment of standards. But change, in the leisurely days of the past, was gradual and evolutionary; the armies of Napoleon moved across Western Europe with no more speed than those of Caesar, his predecessor by eighteen centuries.
Now, within a single generation, a natural process has become a cataclysmic rush. This should generate neither a despairing belief that the tide of events is beyond human control nor an apathetic acceptance that human ability is not equal to the immense problems newly arisen. It does mean that we must think better and faster and more wisely than ever before.
When gas warfare was first introduced in combat in World War I, the techniques necessary to adjust for use the crude protective equipment of the time were both laborious and exacting. Because of this there grew up a saying in the Army that when a gas attack was met there were only two kinds of soldiers on the battlefront--"the quick and the dead."
Of the nations of today the future will say that there were two kinds: those that were intelligent, courageous, decisive, and fireless in their support of high principle--and those that disappeared from the earth.
The true patriots of today are those who are giving their best to assure that our own country will always be found in the first of these categories.
You, who graduate today, will be servants of the civil power, committed to quick obedience. But you may someday be responsible for the lives of men--possibly the fate of a campaign. No signal from headquarters will then communicate to you the proper action. The moment will not wait on the completion of a staff study. The arena of decision will be your own mind and conscience, naked of others' counsel. To be ready for that crisis is one mission of the American soldier.
The other is vastly different. Although you are to be leaders in the profession of arms, trained for the winning of battle, you are members of a vast team, the American Nation. Its historic objectives have always been human dignity, human peace, human prosperity. These, as a public servant, you must help attain. In this, no mastery of command can substitute for an intelligent comprehension of the economic goals, the political impulses, the spiritual aspirations that move tens of millions of people. But your greatest opportunity for enduring contribution to America may well come at a council table, far removed from war.
This country now approaches a Big Four Conference.
The populations of the countries to be represented at this Conference constitute only a fraction of mankind. And free nations do not claim any right to speak for others.
Therefore, this prospective meeting of the Four Powers can at best be only a beginning in a renewed effort that may last a generation. It is a task that may result in a long series of conferences. In them, this Government, meeting with others, will further extend its search for ways in which the peaceful aspirations of mankind may be advanced.
Though only a few individuals will be at those conferences to speak for America, yet in a definite sense we shall all be there-all of you, all the citizens of this great land. For the American words spoken in a world council will be of moment only if they conform to the spirit that is the true strength of our country.
Militarily and materially we are strong. More important, we are strong in the partnership of many allies. But above all, our Nation is strong in its support of principle: we espouse the cause of freedom and justice and peace for all peoples, regardless of race or flag or political ideology. Though in this strength we have reason for confidence, we likewise have need for wisdom, and the caution that wisdom enforces--at the conference table itself, in the halls of government, in every place of business and in every home in America.
By caution, I mean: a prudent guard against fatuous expectations that a world, sick with ignorance, mutual fears and hates, can be miraculously cured by a single meeting. I mean a stem determination that we shall not be reckless and witless, relaxing our posture merely because a persistent foe may assume a smiling face and a soft voice.
By wisdom, I mean: a calm awareness that strength at home, strength in allies, strength in moral position, arm us in impregnable fashion to meet every wile and stratagem that may be used against us. But I mean also a persevering resolution to explore every decent avenue toward a lasting and just peace, no matter how many and bitter our disappointments. I mean an inspired faith that men's determination and capacity to better their world will in time override their ability to destroy it; and that humanity's hunger for peace and justice is a mightier force than a few men's lust for power.
By the Preamble to the Constitution, the common defense-the first mission of the soldier--is elevated to a like rank with the loftiest objectives of men and women united in a free society. Its execution, therefore, deserves and demands the best that's in you.
Nevertheless, your entire lives may and should be as seriously devoted to leading toward peace as in preparing yourselves for the tasks of war. Almost certainly, some of you will sit at future council tables as principals or as staff advisers. Your second mission, then, will be to represent accurately the heart and purposes of America.
These purposes are rooted in spiritual values.
We are determined to preserve intact the traditions and principles which constitute what we call the American Heritage-the political, intellectual, moral truths that animate America. In this sense we must forever remember that the liberty and rights of the individual, limited only by the restriction that he infringe not upon the equal liberty and rights of others, are the cornerstone of our national existence. Unless we remain true to all that this means in worship, in thought, in speech, in work, and in the products of our individual toil, then all else will be for naught.
We shall protect our system against all enemies, foreign and domestic, and conserve the basic methods, practices, attitudes, and governmental organisms that time has proved most profitable for the solution of our problems. For example, individual initiative, competitive enterprise, the maximum local control of government are rooted in our belief that the human individual is the basis of society and the key to growth and progress. They work! To ignore them in the solution of problems is to water down the American formula for achievement.
We strive to correct the faulty and deficient in such manner that haste for change will not waste resources and effort; that constructive evolution will not degenerate into destructive revolution.
We know we must expand aggressively the application of new scientific knowledge and new techniques to every field of human endeavor for the improvement of man's existence. War necessity made nuclear fission initially a science of destruction, but we aspire to be foremost in harnessing its mighty power for peaceful use and the betterment of human living. Finally, we seek constantly to enrich the cultural content of our daily living. We hope to fortify the spirit of all of us in a wise understanding of our country's role in this time of quick and vast change and to prepare her better to lead toward peace.
As soldiers you will live by the traditions of the Service--built in the halls and on the campus of this greatest of all academies of its kind, and on many battlefields from Bunker Hill to the Korean mountains. They are a spiritual heritage whose intact preservation must be a first concern. All the wit and knowledge you may achieve can count for little in a desperate clutch unless there burns within you the inspiration springing from great traditions.
But--you must be ruthless in a self-imposed command never to rest in the pursuit of new knowledge, in your application of it to your own duties. You will be pioneers in the search for new ways to strengthen the common defense from the platoon to the General Staff. Many times you will feel that your mistakes outnumber your triumphs. But without the yeast of pioneers, the United States Army or any other organization of men cannot escape degeneration into a ritualistic worship of the status quo.
All of us gratefully acknowledge, as our fathers before us, our dependence on the guidance of Divine Providence. But this dependence must not tempt us to evade our personal responsibility to use every one of our individual and collective talents for the better discharge of our lifetime missions.
Working and living in this spirit, you as soldiers will make yourselves and the Army a professional counterpart of the American Way--jealously conserving principle; forceful in practice; courageous and calm in present crises; steadfast and patient in the long campaign for a secure and peaceful world; stout of faith in yourselves, your Alma Mater, your country and your God.
Note: The President's opening words "General Bryan" referred to Maj. Gen. Blackshear M. Bryan, Superintendent of the Academy.
Dwight D. Eisenhower, Address at the Graduation Ceremonies, United States Military Academy, West Point, New York Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/232914