Remarks on Receiving a Doctorate in Civil Law From Oxford University in Oxford, United Kingdom
Thank you very much, Chancellor, distinguished members of the university community. I must say that it was quite easy for me to take the chancellor's gentle ribbing about the Presidency, since he is probably the only chancellor of this great university ever to have written a biography of an American President. I thank you for your biography of President Truman and for your leadership and for honoring me.
You know, as I walked today through the streets of Oxford with my wife and with my classmate, now the Secretary of Labor in our administration, Mr. Reich, who is here, it seemed almost yesterday when I first came here. And I remembered when I walked in this august building today how I always felt a mixture of elation and wariness, bordering on intimidation, in your presence. I thought if there was one place in the world I could come and give a speech in the proper language, it was here, and then I heard the degree ceremony. [Laughter] And sure enough, once again at Oxford I was another Yank a half step behind. [Laughter]
This week the world has taken a profound journey of remembrance. Here in Great Britain, in the United States and France and Italy, all around the world we have reflected on a time when the sheer will of freedom's forces changed the course of this century.
Many of you in this room, including my good friend, the former warden of Rhodes House, Sir Edgar Williams, who is here with me today, played a major role in that great combat. It was a great privilege and honor for me to represent the United States in paying tribute to all the good people who fought and won World War II, an experience I have never had the like of and one which has profoundly deepened my own commitment to the work the people of the United States have entrusted to me.
I am also deeply honored by this degree you have bestowed on me, as well as the honorary fellowship I received from my college today. I must say that, as my wife pointed out, I could have gotten neither one of these things on my own. [Laughter] I had to be elected President to do it—with her help. Indeed, it was suggested on the way over here that if women had been eligible for the Rhodes Scholarship in 1968, I might be on my way home to Washington tonight at this very moment. [Laughter]
I am profoundly grateful for this chance to be with you and for this honor, not only because of the wonderful opportunity I had to live and study here a quarter century ago but because of the traditions, the achievements, the spirit of discovery, and the deep inspiration of this noble university. Even in a country so steeped in history, there are few institutions as connected to the past as Oxford. Every ritual here, no matter how small, has a purpose, reminding us that we must be part of something larger than ourselves, heirs to a proud legacy.
Yet Oxford could hardly be called backwardlooking. Over the centuries, as a center of inquiry and debate, this great university has been very much involved in the action and passion of its time. Just listen outside here: everything from disputes over battles to the nature of the Italian Government to the character of the word "skinhead"—[laughter]—is being debated even as we are here.
This university has been very much committed to passing on our legacy to yet another generation. Our first obligation is what I have been doing here this week: It is remembrance— to know how we came to be what we are we have all learned again this week in reflecting on the uncommon valor and the utter loss that bought us 50 years of freedom. I know I speak for everyone in this theater when I say, again, a profound thank you to the generation which won World War II. We can never forget what was done for us. Our memories of that sacrifice will be forever alive.
But our obligations surely go beyond memory. After all, when the soldiers of D-Day broke through at Normandy, when the sons and daughters of democracy carried on their struggle for another half-century, winning the cold war against the iron grip of totalitarian repression, they fought not for the past but for the present and the future. And now it falls to us to use that hard-won freedom, to follow through in this time, expanding democracy, security, prosperity, fighting bigotry, terrorism, slaughter, and chaos around the world.
There are—make no mistake about it—forces of disintegration at work in the world today, and to some extent even within our own countries, that could rob our children of the bright future for which so many of our parents gave their lives.
There are also, to be sure, forces of humanity in progress which, if they prevail, could bring human history to its highest point of peace and prosperity. At this rare moment, we must be prepared to move forward, for in the end, the numberless sacrifices of our forebears brought us to precisely this, an age in which many threats to our very existence have been brought under control for the moment.
So what shall we do with the moment? Our challenge is to unite our people around the opportunities of peace, as those who went before us united against the dangers of war and oppression. The great Oxford don Sir Isaiah Berlin once said, "Men do not live only by fighting evils; they live by positive goals, a vast variety of them, seldom predictable, at times incompatible."
History does not always give us grand crusades, but it always gives us opportunities. It is time to bring a spirit of renewal to the work of freedom—to work at home to tap the full potential of our citizens, to strengthen our families and communities, to fight indifference and intolerance; and beyond our borders, to keep our nations strong so that we can create a new security, here especially, all across Europe; to reverse the environmental destruction that feeds the civil wars in Africa; to halt the spread of nuclear weapons and terrorism; to light the lives of those still dwelling in the darkness of undemocratic rule.
Our work in this world, all of it, will surely take all of our lifetimes and more. But we must keep at it, working together with steadiness and wisdom, with ingenuity and simple faith. To those of you here in this ancient temple of learning and those beyond who are of a younger generation, I urge you to join this work with enthusiasm and high hope.
This week, at the gravesites of the generation that fought and died to make us the children of their sacrifice, I promised that we would be the new pathfinders, lighting the way in a new and still uncertain age, striving in peace as they struggled in war. There is no greater tribute to give to those who have gone before than to build for those who follow. Surely, that is the timeless mission of freedom and civilization itself. It is what binds together the past, the present, and the future. It is our clear duty, and we must do our best to fulfill it.
Thank you very much for this wonderful day.
NOTE: The President spoke at 3:32 p.m. in the Sheldonian Theater. In his remarks, he referred to the Right Honorable Lord Jenkins of Hillhead, chancellor of the university.
William J. Clinton, Remarks on Receiving a Doctorate in Civil Law From Oxford University in Oxford, United Kingdom Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/219302