Commencement Address at the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland
The poet reminds us that "Knowledge comes, but wisdom lingers." It may not be difficult to store up in the mind a vast quantity of facts within a comparatively short time, but the ability to form correct judgments requires the severe discipline of hard work and the tempering heat of experience and maturity. By your previous preparation and by your four years' course at this institution, your diploma will testify that you are possessed of knowledge. Your future life will reveal your attainments in wisdom. I have come here to express the faith that your country holds in your abiding worth and in your ability to succeed.
You have chosen a profession which represents one of the great military arms of our Government. You will be a constant testimony throughout your lives that America believes in military preparation for national defense, for the protection of the rights, the security, and peace of her citizens. You will be called to places of responsibility and command. You will be given the power of life and death over fellow countrymen. You will represent the power, the glory, and the honor of this Nation among foreign peoples, with all the prominence that arises from wearing the uniform and carrying the flag. What you are the American sailor will be, and what you represent the American Navy will represent in the ports of our own country and in those of foreign peoples where little will be known of the nature of authority under liberty, save what is learned from you. You have been chosen for this high calling.
But while you will serve the Nation in this special field of endeavor, you will not forget that the real profession of every American is citizenship. Under our institutions each individual is born to sovereignty. Whatever he may adopt as a means of livelihood, his real business is serving his country. He can not hold himself above his fellow men. The greatest place of command is really the place of obedience, and the greatest place of honor is really the place of service. It is your duty in the part you propose to take to make the largest contribution you can to the general citizenship of your country.
Not long ago I heard a Navy chaplain refer to the sage advice of the Apostle to put first things first. It was my understanding that this meant putting proper emphasis on what is essential in life and disregarding so far as possible that which is accidental. The great body of American people will, I hope, always be devoted to civilian life. Their main purpose has been and will be the maintenance of an honorable peace. It may not have occurred to some of you, but I feel warranted in asserting it to be true that your success lies in giving a very large support to the civilian life of the Nation and to the promotion of the public peace. If I were not convinced that this is true, I should question the usefulness of the National Navy.
If we are to heed the admonition to put first things first, a very little deliberation would reveal to us that one of the main essentials which lies at the very beginnings of civilization is that of security. It is only when people can feel that their lives and the property which their industry has produced to-day will continue to be safe on the morrow that there can be that stability of value and that economic progress on which human development has always rested. We do not know of any people in history where this has not been first provided through some form of monarchy supported by a sufficient military force. This condition of security has long been proverbially characterized among English-speaking people as "The King's peace." All violations of that security were crimes against the Crown, as in our Republic they are crimes against the State or the Nation.
It is only when such peace and security have been achieved under well-established customs and the orderly process of the law that there is any opportunity for the advancement of liberty. When a people have begun to respect the rights of each other and maintain common standards of action, they have advanced to a position where they do not constantly require the all-protecting power of force and can begin to take over the making of their own laws and the determination of their own government. Finding that they are secure in the possession of life and property, they can begin the establishment of their liberty. Gradually this policy develops until the last vestige of monarchy disappears and the people become entirely free and self-governing.
There is no need for me to enlarge in this presence upon the privileges which come to the individual in the development of a free people. They are the common experiences of our daily life and the precious heritage of all Americans. Freedom in religion and in expression, popular education, increasing production and more equitable distribution, a larger independence of the mind and of the body, the works of charity and humanity, a broader culture, all mark a material and spiritual advance which follows in the progress of this development. In all this progress and ah this advance it has never been possible to maintain that first essential of security without a background of military force. It is that background, that support, that service which your profession helps to provide, that is your contribution, one of the first things, one of the essentials to the civilian life of our country. You may not be actually employed in production, but you are helping to increase the value of production and maintain the public peace without which there could be no production.
It is my firm conviction that the duty of national defense, like the general duty of citizenship, should be broadly extended and borne by all our people. We do not believe in or wish to bear the expense of maintaining large standing military forces. The very genius of a republic would be threatened by that policy. Freedom, independence, self-government are all opposed to anything that assembles a mercenary force. But while military science has advanced to such a degree that it is necessary constantly to maintain a considerable body of trained experts in that profession, the true spirit of American institutions requires that each citizen should be potentially a soldier, ready to take his place in the ranks in time of peril, either in the field or in the necessary productive activity. Not all of our people can pursue a long course of study so as to become trained military experts any more than they can give up the time to become trained physicians, jurists, diplomats, or statesmen. Our military forces on land and sea represent the necessary accomplishment in that profession the same as other professions are represented in civilian life. It is exactly because we wish to keep our standing forces small that the average citizen must give some attention to military affairs, precisely as he gives some attention to other Government affairs, in order that he may express a deliberate and informed judgment at the ballot box.
These are some of the principles that your Government had in mind in giving you a training in the science of naval warfare and reposing in you the public duty of maintaining the learning of that profession for the purposes of national defense. It is for this object that our country remains armed. Though ultimately I believe peace will prevail, I have too much knowledge of the history of mankind and too much experience with the traits of human nature to dare to assert that we shall never again be engaged in war. It is known of all the world that we have no present or traditional enmities, that we covet no territory, harbor no imperialistic designs, and are not arming ourselves with the expectation of attacking or being attacked. The power of our arms is not only consistent with, but ought to be regarded as an additional guaranty of, the peace of the world. And so far as we can look into the future, so far as we can gauge the power and temper of other peoples, there never was a time when it was less likely that any other nation or combination of nations would or could make any attack on us. Both by necessity and by choice the whole world is against war. It has given incomparable hostages to peace. Our own country is disarmed, has adopted the policy of limitation of naval armaments, has voluntarily imposed restrictions upon the traffic in arms, and is taking part in negotiations to secure an agreement to extend such restriction among other nations. The policy of peace through reason rather than peace through force is one in which America has taken and ought always to continue to take a leading part.
As I have already tried to make clear, I regard our Navy as a great instrument of peace. As such it can not fail to secure adequate support from the Public Treasury and command the confidence and admiration of the American people. Whatever aid can be given by voluntary associations in advancing the welfare of the Navy and keeping the public informed of its true aims and purposes and its necessary needs is entirely welcome and thoroughly to be commended. The officers of the Navy are given the fullest latitude in expressing their views before their fellow citizens, subject, of course, to the requirements of not betraying those confidential affairs which would be detrimental to the service. It seems to me perfectly proper for anyone upon any suitable occasion to advocate the maintenance of a Navy in keeping with the greatness and dignity of our country. But as one who is responsible not only for our national defense, but likewise our friendly relations with other peoples and our title to the good opinion of the world, I feel that the occasion will very seldom arise, and I know it does not now exist, when those connected with our Navy are justified, either directly or by inference, in asserting that other specified powers are arming against us, and by arousing national suspicion and hatred attempting to cause us to arm against them.
The suggestion that any other people are harboring a hostile intent toward us is a very serious charge to make. We would not relish having our honorable motives and peaceful intentions questioned; others can not relish having any of us question theirs. We should not forget that in the world over the general attitude and one of the strongest attributes of all peoples is a desire to do right. Unless we lay our course in accordance with this principle, the great power for good in the world with which we have been intrusted by a Divine Providence will be turned to a power for evil. We shall make no progress and be of no benefit to ourselves or to anyone else.
In a recent address made by Ambassador Houghton, who represents us at the Court of St. James, he gave utterance to a great truth most admirably expressed when he said that "Peace is an adventure in faith." That was a thought most appropriate to these times. The chief reliance of the world is faith. We can not maintain any of our necessary relations without it. It is one of those first things which must be put first. It is one of the main elements of the Navy. How far could you proceed in organization or discipline, or what would be the result in battle, if the officers and men did not cherish an almost absolute faith in each other? Such a sentiment of course will be justified only by the knowledge that there exists in each of us qualities which are worthy of our trust and confidence. I want the Navy when it attempts to deal with our own people, or with the other peoples of the earth, to remember that the dominant traits of mankind are truth and justice and righteousness, and that the appeal to reason must ultimately prevail. I am not arguing that there is no evil in the world. We are painfully aware that it is altogether too prevalent. But we shall make no progress unless we do more than undertake to recompense evil with evil. We must make our appeal to the greater realities. We must put the emphasis not upon the false, but upon the true, not upon corruption and treachery, but upon purity and honor. Local and national faith must be extended to international faith.
It is in accordance with these principles which are so clearly sound that we base our belief in the ability of nations to compose their differences by negotiation, by arbitration and by the judgments of duly constituted courts. It is under this conception that we try to disarm and mutually agree to place limits on the extent of military preparation. Man is a reasonable being and finally reason must assert itself. We must make our choice between holding to this theory or holding that our only reliance must be placed on armed force. Carried to its logical conclusion, that means more and more armaments, more and more hatreds and suspicions, a return to the old plan of direct competition in military preparation with the certainty that as soon as the world can arm and prepare itself after one war it will be plunged into another.
I am not unfamiliar with the claim that if only we had a sufficient Military Establishment no one would ever molest us. I know of no nation in history that has ever been able to attain that position. I see no reason to expect that we could be the exception. Although I believe thoroughly in adequate military preparations, what I am trying to argue is that they are not sufficient unto themselves. I do not believe the American Navy can succeed if it represents mere naked force. I want to see it represent much more than that. We must place it on a much higher plane. We must make it an instrument of righteousness. If we are to promote peace on earth, we must have a great deal more than the power of the sword. We must call into action the spiritual and moral forces of mankind.
The world moves forward under a reign of law. Our own great Admiral Dewey, the hero of Manila Bay, being approached one time with the suggestion that he become a candidate for office, was asked what platform he would adopt. He replied, "The Constitution and the flag." By that he meant law and loyalty. You will stand peculiarly as the guardians of that great instrument, as supporters of that great symbol. You will always remember the provision of the sixth article, which declares that "This Constitution and the laws of the United States which shall be made in pursuance thereof; and all treaties made, or which shall be made, under the authority of the United States, shall be the supreme law of the land." Acting in accordance with this supreme law of the land, through their duly constituted Government, your fellow citizens are committing into your keeping the solemn and sacred duty of guarding and preserving the integrity of the law of the land and of defending and increasing the honor and glory of the national colors. When the commendations of your fellow countrymen shall come to you, when you shall have won world-wide fame by the faithful discharge of your duty in the service of your country, when in your declining years you shall seek for the last best refuge of human freedom, may your life experience inevitably and unhesitatingly turn your thoughts to the Constitution and the flag.
Source: Coolidge, Calvin, Foundations of the Republic: Speeches and Addresses (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1926)
Calvin Coolidge, Commencement Address at the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/363281