Remarks at The Centennial Celebration of the Establishment of the United States Military Academy in West Point, New York

June 11, 1902

Colonel Mills, graduates of West Point, and you, the men and women who are drawn to them by ties of kinship, or by the simple fact that you are Americans, and therefore of necessity drawn to them:

I am glad to have the chance of saying a word to you today. There is little need for me to say how well your performance has squared with the prophetic promise made on your behalf by the greatest of Americans, Washington. This institution has completed its first hundred years of life. During that century no other educational institution in the land has contributed as many names as West Point to the honor roll of the nation's greatest citizens.

Colonel Mills, I claim to be a historian, and I speak simply in the spirit of one, simply as a reciter of facts, when I say what I have said. And more than that; not merely has West Point contributed a greater number of the men who stand highest on the nation's honor roll, but I think beyond question that, taken as a whole, the average graduate of West Point, during this hundred years, has given a greater sum of service to the country through his life than has the average graduate of any other institution in this broad land. Now, gentlemen, that is not surprising. It is what we had a right to expect from this Military University, founded by the nation. It is what we had a right to expect, but I am glad that the expectation has been made good. And of all the institutions in this country, none is more absolutely American, none, in the proper sense of the word, more absolutely democratic than this.

Here we care nothing for the boy's birthplace, nor his creed, nor his social standing; here we care nothing save for his worth as he is able to show it. Here you represent with almost mathematical exactness all the country geographically. You are drawn from every walk of life by a method of choice made to ensure, and which in the great majority of cases does ensure, that heed shall be paid to nothing save the boy's aptitude for the profession into which he seeks entrance. Here you come together as representatives of America in a higher and more peculiar sense than can possibly be true of any other institution in the land, save your sister college that makes similar preparation for the service of the country on the seas.

This morning I have shaken hands with many of you; and I have met the men who stand as representatives of every great struggle, every great forward movement this nation has made for the last fifty-five or sixty years. There are some still left who took part in the Mexican War, a struggle which added to this country a territory. vaster than has changed hands in Europe as the result of all the wars of the last two centuries. I meet, when I see any of the older men among you, men who took part in the great Civil War, when this nation was tried as in a furnace; the men who were called upon to do the one deed which had to be done under penalty of making the memory of Washington himself of little account, because if you had failed, then failure would also have been written across the record of his work. Finally, I see the younger men as well as the older ones, the men whom I myself have seen taking part in a little war—a war that was the merest skirmish compared with the struggle in which you fought from '61 to '65, and yet a war that has had most far-reaching effects, not merely upon the destiny of this nation, but, therefore, upon the destiny of the world--the war with Spain.

It was my good fortune to see in the campaign in Cuba how the graduates of West Point handled themselves; to see and to endeavor to profit by their example. It is a peculiar pleasure to come here today, because I was at that time intimately associated with many of these, your graduates, who are here. On the day before the San Juan fight, when we were marched up into position, the officers with whom I was, lost connection with the baggage and food, and I, for supper that night, had what Colonel Mills gave me. And the next morning Colonel Mills was with another West Pointer, gallant Shipp, of North Carolina.

The next morning we breakfasted together. I remember well congratulating myself that my regiment, a raw volunteer regiment, could have, to set it an example, men like Mills and Shipp, whose very presence made the men cool, made them feel collected and at ease. Mills and Shipp went with our regiment into action. Shortly after it began Shipp was killed and Colonel Mills received a wound from which no one of us at the time dreamed that he would recover. I had at that time in my regiment, as acting second lieutenant, a cadet from West Point. He was having his holiday; he took his holiday coming down with us, and just before the assault he was shot, the bullet going, I think, into the stomach, and coming out the other side. He fell, and as we came up I leaned over him, and he said, "All right, Colonel, I am going to get well." I did not think he was, but I said, "All right, I am sure you will," and he did; he is all right now. There was never a moment during that time, by day or by night, that I was not an eyewitness to some performance of duty, some bit of duty well done, by a West Pointer, and I never saw a West Pointer failing in his duty. I want to be perfectly frank, gentlemen; I heard of two or three instances; you cannot get in any body of men absolute uniformity of good conduct; but I am happy to say that I never was an eyewitness to such misconduct. It was my good fortune to see what is the rule, with only the rarest exception, the rule of duty done in a way that makes a man proud to be an American, and the fellow-citizen of such Americans.

Your duty here at West Point has been to fit men to do well in war. But it is a noteworthy fact that you also have fitted them to do singularly well in peace. The highest positions in the land have been held, not exceptionally, but again and again by West Pointers. West Pointers have risen to the first rank in all the occupations of civil life. Colonel Mills, I make the answer that a man who answers the question must make, when I say that, while we had a right to expect that West Point would do well, we could not have expected that she would do so well as she has done.

I want to say one word to those who are graduating here, and to the undergraduates as well. I was greatly impressed the other day by an article of one of your instructors, himself a West Pointer, in which he dwelt upon the changed conditions of warfare, and the absolute need that the man who was to be a good officer should meet those changed conditions. I think it is going to be a great deal harder to be a first class officer in the future than it has been in the past. In addition to the courage and steadfastness that have always been the prime requirements in a soldier, you have got to show far greater fertility of resource and far greater power of individual initiative than has ever been necessary before if you are to come up to the highest level of officer-like performance of duty.

As has been well said, the developments of warfare during the last few years have shown that in the future the unit will not be the regiment nor the company nor troop; the unit will be the individual man. The army is to a very great extent going to do well or ill according to the average of that individual man. If he does not know how to shoot, how to shift for himself, how both to obey orders and to accept responsibility when the emergency comes where he will not have any orders to obey, if he is not able to do all of that, and if in addition he has not got the fighting edge, you had better have him out of the army; he will be a damage in it.

In a battle hereafter each man is going to be to a considerable extent alone. The formation will be so open that the youngest officer will have to take much of the responsibility that in former wars fell on his seniors; and many of the enlisted men will have to do most of their work without supervision from any officer whatsoever. The man will have to act largely alone, and if he shows a tendency to huddle up to somebody else his usefulness will be pretty near at an end. He must draw on his own courage and resourcefulness to meet the emergencies as they come up. It will be more difficult in the future than ever before to know your profession, and more essential also; and you officers, and you who are about to become officers, if you are going to do well, have got to learn how to perform the duty which, while becoming more essential, has become harder to perform.

You want to face the fact and realize more than ever before that the honor or the shame of the country may depend upon the high average of character and capacity of the officers and enlisted men, and that a high average of character and capacity in the enlisted men can to a large degree be obtained only through you, the officers; that you must devote your time in peace to bringing up the standard of fighting efficiency of the men under you, not merely in doing your duty so that you cannot be called to account for failure to perform it, but doing it in a way that will make any man under you abler to perform his.

I noticed throughout the time that we were in Cuba that the orders given and executed were of the simplest kind, and that there was very little maneuverings, practically none of the maneuverings of the parade ground. Now, I want you to weigh what I say, for if you take only half of it, you will invert it. I found out very soon in my regiment that the best man was the man who had been in the Regular Army in actual service, out in the West, campaigning on the plains; if he had been a good man in the Regular Army in actual service on the plains he was the best man that I could get hold of. On the other hand, if he had merely served in time of peace a couple of years in an Eastern garrison, where he did practically nothing outside of parade grounds and barracks, or if he had been in an ordinary National Guard regiment, then one of two things was true; if he understood that he had only learned five per cent of war, he was five per cent better than anyone who had learned none of it, and that was a big advance; but if he thought he had also learned the other ninety-five per cent he was worse than anyone else. I recollect perfectly one man who had been a corporal in the Regular Army; this young fellow joined us sure that he knew everything, confident that war consisted in nice parade-ground man oeuvres. It was almost impossible to turn his attention from trying the very difficult task of making my cowpunchers keep in a straight line, to the easier task of training them so that they could do the most efficient fighting when the occasion arose. He confused the essentials and the non-essentials. The non-essentials are so pretty and so easy that it is a great temptation to think that your duty lies in perfecting yourself and the men under you in them. You have got to do that, too; but if you only do that you will not be worth your salt when the day of trial comes.

Gentlemen, I do not intend to try here to preach to you upon the performance of your duties. It has been your special business to learn to do that. I do ask you to remember the difference there is in the military profession now from what it has been in past time; to remember that the final test of soldiership is not excellence in parade-ground formation, but efficiency in actual service in the field, and that the usefulness, the real and great usefulness in the parade-ground and barracks work comes from its being used not as an end, but as one of the means to an end. I ask you to remember that. I do not have to ask you to remember what you cannot forget—the lessons of loyalty, of courage, of steadfast adherence to the highest standards of honor and uprightness which all men draw in when they breathe the atmosphere of this great institution.

Theodore Roosevelt, Remarks at The Centennial Celebration of the Establishment of the United States Military Academy in West Point, New York Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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