Lyndon B. Johnson photo

Remarks at the Commencement Exercises of the National Cathedral School.

June 01, 1965

Presiding Bishop Hines, Bishop Creighton, Dean Sayre, members of the faculty, members of the 1965 graduating class and their parents, families, ladies and gentlemen:

The office of President presents many challenges, but I am sure that every father that is here this morning will understand sympathetically that few challenges could compare with the exacting demands of speaking before the graduating class of your own daughter.

I have been reminded repeatedly--before this morning--that in talking here I really have a family reputation to uphold. I only hope that it is not principally a reputation for talking.

For members of the class of '65, I know this is a very proud and happy and rewarding day for you. Speaking for myself, as a parent, I find this moment both sad and glad. I shall miss the small comfort of knowing that no matter how much homework I might bring to the White House every night, Luci still would have brought more from NCS. But at the same time I am glad and I am eternally grateful that by the time that she reached her junior year here at NCS Luci had learned to spell her name correctly, with an "i" instead of a "y."

Most of you here this morning will go on from here to serve your country in many ways. So this morning I want to ask your assistance in a very special way. This particular occasion will be broadcast and reported to millions of people--some in other lands. Now, this is not a tribute to me or to you, but it is a tribute to the importance of our beloved country. So this morning I would like to discuss with you and the Nation a matter which concerns me and about which I have given much thought.

FREEDOM OF DEBATE IN TIME OF DANGER As is true for most national issues, we have had much discussion here of late about the various aspects of American foreign policy. I have disagreed with some of the views that have been expressed. I know that the large majority of Americans support our country's efforts everywhere to stop aggression.

But I also know that such discussion is one of the great strengths of American democracy. How rare is the land and extraordinary the people who freely allow and really encourage, as I have on many occasions, the citizens of our Nation to discuss and to debate their Nation's policies in time of danger. So, let no citizen that is secure in his own liberty ever forget how precious it is and how brave we must be if we are to keep it, how many generations of men have perished in order to guard its light, and how many scattered throughout the world are dying still to protect it.

Our soldiers are falling in Viet-Nam. Twenty have died and more than a hundred have been wounded on guard in the Dominican Republic so that men may always rise with perfect safety to criticize and to try to influence the leadership of their government.

Nor should we forget that the purpose of liberty is not merely to allow error, but to discover truth; not only to restrict the powers of the Government, but to enrich the judgment of the Nation. So, by testing ideas in the forum of the Nation we discover their strength as well as their wisdom. As the Bible says: "Where no counsel is, the people fall: But in the multitude of counselors there is safety."

Therefore we welcome and we ask for new ideas from serious and concerned men and women, from universities and journals and public platforms all across this land. We are constantly searching for views and proposals which might strengthen and unite and help your Government. Of course, there can be no decision with which we all agree. But all will be heard.

Let no one ever think for a moment that national debate means national division. For even among those who do not support our Government policies, the very process of discussion rests on a broad and deeply set foundation of shared belief, principle, faith and experience.

There are, first of all, the assumptions of American democracy. Thus, most of those who disagree are really trying to influence the democratic process and not rip it and tear it apart. They are really seeking to exercise their own freedom and not deny it to others. They try to affect the decisions of the Nation, not flaunt or ignore them.

Secondly, even among those who quarrel with particular acts, most believe, as I believe, in the principles which have shaped American world policy now for more than a generation:

We seek neither conquest nor domination.

We seek to work toward a goal where every country can run its own affairs, can shape its own progress, can build its own institutions according to that country's own desires and needs.

We do all that can be done to find enduring peace--at the same time resisting aggression by any who wish to subdue others and gobble them up and really try to destroy us.

We seek to reserve our special friendship for those governments that are dedicated to social justice and progress for all of the people--all the people, not just a privileged few.

It is these principles which I am trying so hard, as best I can, for your Government to support in every continent of the world today. Because I think these are also the beliefs of the American people. Therefore, we need never shrink from debate because debate can only strengthen our determination and our ability to follow this course. In a democracy, the people have to want to do what must be done--and that particularly includes students like you.

THE COMMITTED GENERATION I have visited many campuses and I have talked to many students, and I can tell you that this generation of young Americans is a generation of which I am deeply proud. And I think you are very lucky to be joining them.

This is not the lost generation or the silent generation or the indifferent generation. This is the concerned and the committed generation. And I, for one, believe that adult America should be proud and should be thankful that young America--youthful America--is so concerned for their country, so committed and dedicated to a genuine understanding of all of America's problems and they are uncowed in their determination to be a part of the answers that we are seeking and that we need.

A RESTLESS WORLD This world that we live in is a restless world. It is a world filled with revolution and even violence, and we must never make the sad mistake of thinking that this is only the work of our enemies. Of course, our enemies are at work like ants, constantly united and dedicated and determined. But they thrive on the desperate struggle by the poor of the world to try to create a more hopeful life.

Our life in America is good. Our land is rich. Our comforts are many. But more than 2 billion of the 3 billion people in the world have an income of less than $20 per month. Half of the world's children today have no school to go to at all and have never darkened a schoolroom. Two hundred million people in the world today have no safe water to drink any day of their lives. More than half the population of Asia and Africa and Latin America, by our standards, have no home at all in which to live.

Now this is the world that you live in and, whether you know it or not, it is a world of slums and shacks; it is a world without lights or water in the homes; it is a world without food on the shelves or health in the bodies; a world with too few teachers and too few doctors. In Viet-Nam, they have 200 doctors. And if they had the same ratio of doctors that we have in this country they would not have 200, they'd have 5,000.

So, this is a world where hope is too rare and help is too scarce. Wherever and whenever men struggle to escape this misery no nation ought to be neutral--whatever be the continent or the creed or the color of those who reach upward striving and yearning for a better life.

Were there no cold war--and no communism at all--this planet would still be wracked and seething with man's heroic battle to secure justice for himself and his loved ones.

OUR MORAL COMMITMENT For myself, I do not propose that this powerful Nation which I lead shall stand alone or shall stand apart from this most decisive struggle of our times. Concerned as I am with the future of freedom for America, concerned as I am with the world that my daughters shall know, I would commit the American Nation to face up to its obligation to be with the world's people on their march toward the life that all God's children should know on this earth.

This is not a political commitment nor even an economic commitment that we alone must make. This is a moral commitment that we have made and that we must keep in all that we do.

Look around this great cathedral. Every day men and women come here to fulfill their spiritual and their moral needs. Every day they come here to seek the blessings and the strength and the guidance of God. But as people we shall never satisfy the command of God, or the responsibilities of country, simply by coming to the houses of worship.

When the time of judgment comes, it will be no excuse to say that they were far away, or their language was strange, or their color was different, or I did not know their names.

It will be asked of you, and it will be asked of me: What did you do--you, the children of abundance--what did you do to help those who were hungry, and those who were sick, and those who were fatherless, and those who were homeless ?

What did you do? You were conceived in hope, and you have been raised in opportunity, and your parents have made great sacrifices so that you could be in this place of honor today. But what did you do to brighten the promise of those who, from the moment of their birth, the moment they discovered the world, could see only the darkness of fear and insecurity and poverty.

I propose that when the day of answering comes, the American Nation and the American people shall be able to answer that we kept the trust of our abundance, that we kept the faith of our moral beliefs, because we were good and faithful servants of the ideals which we promulgated and for which we said that we stood.

You must give the hours of your life, and the fruits of your learning, and the courage of your spirit, and the substance of your home to those in need in every continent of the earth. You must, in the words of the Bible, "Let your light so shine before men that they may seek your good works."

Then only will you have earned what you have so abundantly received, as is in evidence here this morning.

Then only will you have really met your duty to your God and your country and your family, but most of all to yourself.

EDUCATION'S GREATEST GIFT To do all of these things you must prepare yourself.

You have been doing that in this school. Whether you go on to college or not you will continue your education for the rest of your life. For to stop learning, at any age, is to relapse into ignorance.

And one of the greatest satisfactions that come to me in my hours of sunshine and sorrow, and my nights of trouble, is the knowledge that my daughter, who is a part of you, has decided to spend her life healing the sick and ministering to the needs of the needy.

Yes, you are going to learn many things in the years to come, but I hope that you will remember that education's greatest gift is not just particular knowledge. Education's greatest gift is a spacious and a skeptical mind--a curious mind. It is the willingness to accept fresh ideas, even if they challenge the most cherished assumptions.

And here, I think, I can pay a very special tribute to Miss Lee and to the faculty of this great institution. Whatever else may be said about them, they do develop and instill, at least from my personal observation, a reasonable amount of independence and independent thinking among their graduates.

So, it is this ability to seek the right, to seek the right while never forgetting that you could be wrong, and that you may be wrong.

THE PRICE OF LEADERSHIP But if you are to be among those who lead and who act then even this is not enough. It is not hard to act when you know that you are right. I find it far more difficult to act when I just believe that I am right, but sometimes knowing that I could be wrong. Yet that is the burden that responsibility imposes on thought. And that is the price that leadership exacts of free men and free thinkers.

A great statesman once said that he would rather be right than President. Well, I must try to be both. I must try as best I can, with whatever the good Lord gave me and with whatever help God chooses to give me now, to seek the right course not just for myself but for you to whom I have a special responsibility, and to the Nation who relies on me.

And as President of your country I must act, in this 20th century--often swiftly, always decisively--according to judgment.

So, we will proceed with the course that we are on, glad of the overwhelming support of the American people, always open to criticism and the flow of ideas, but proceeding as we believe that we must, following the path that we believe is right, however the transient winds of opinion may blow.

This is what I believe the American people expect of their President.

And this is what they shall receive from me.

But, I guess, this is enough of such grave and weighty matters.

Recently I gave a speech, and when I came back to the White House that night my wife and my two daughters were sitting on the bed talking and reading, and I asked Lady Bird what she thought about what I had said that evening--as I will ask her when we go home this morning. She said, "Darling, you were wonderful, except you did miss several good opportunities to sit down."

Well, I will take that opportunity now. This is a shining spring day. You are all so young and beautiful, and this is a wonderful moment for me. And I think it is very nice of you sparkling, scintillating, fresh, intelligent young ladies to let a much older and a rather solemn man come here and talk to you about his problems. I hope that you know how it lifts my heart to just look at you, and to understand and to believe and to know that a little of what I will do today, and tomorrow, and the years ahead, may possibly enrich your lives and ensure peace for you and your families.

Thank you so much.

Note: The President spoke at 11 :13 a.m. in Washington Cathedral on the occasion of the graduation of his daughter, Luci Baines Johnson, from the National Cathedral School. In his opening words he referred to the Right Reverend John E. Hines, Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, the Right Reverend William F. Creighton, Bishop of Washington, and the Very Reverend Francis B. Sayre, Jr., Dean of the Washington Cathedral. Later the President referred to Katharine Lee, Headmistress of the National Cathedral School.

Lyndon B. Johnson, Remarks at the Commencement Exercises of the National Cathedral School. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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