Remarks at the United States Naval Academy Commencement Ceremony in Annapolis, Maryland
Thank you very much, Secretary Dalton, for those fine remarks. Admiral Lynch, thank you for your comments and your leadership here at the Academy. Admiral Owens, Admiral Boorda, General Mundy, proud parents and family members, faculty and staff of the Academy, brigade of the midshipmen: It's a great honor for me to join you at this moment of celebration. I'm delighted to be back here on the eve of the Academy's 150th year.
Since 1845, the U.S. Naval Academy has provided superb leadership for our Navy, for our Marine Corps, and for our entire Nation. And I cannot imagine a more valuable contribution.
The last time I was here, I joined some of you for lunch at King Hall. And ever since then, whenever people have asked me what I liked best about my visit to the Naval Academy I try to think of elevated things to say, but part of my answer is always pan pizza and chicken tenders. [Laughter] In memory of that luxurious meal—[laughter]—I have today a small graduation present. In keeping with longstanding tradition I hereby grant amnesty to all midshipmen who received demerits for minor conduct offenses. [Laughter] See, today the interest group is in the stands, not on the field. [Laughter]
Next week I will have the proud responsibility to represent our Nation in Europe in the ceremonies marking the 50th anniversary of D-Day, the invasion of Italy, and World War II. That war marked the turning point of our century when we joined with our allies to stem a dark tide of dictatorship, aggression, and terror and to start a flow of democracy and freedom that continues to sweep the world down to the present day.
That war also marked an era of sacrifice almost unequaled in our entire history. Some 400,000 of our fellow countrymen and women lost their lives. Over half a million more were wounded. Today we have among us many who took part at Normandy and the other great battles of World War II, such as retired Commander Alfred McKowan, Academy class of 1942, who served aboard the U.S.S. Quincy off Utah Beach on D-Day. They're a great reminder of what our armed services have done for America. And I would ask all the veterans of that war to stand now so that the rest of us might honor them. [Applause]
To the members of the class of 1994, my parents' generation and your grandparents' generation did not end their work with the liberation of Europe and victory in the Pacific. They came back to work wonders at home. They created the GI bill so that freedom's heroes could reenter civilian life and succeed and build strong families and strong communities. They built our Interstate Highway System. They turned our economy into a global wonder. They forged the tools of international security and trade that helped to rebuild our former allies and our former enemies so that we could ultimately win the cold war. It brought us decades of peace and prosperity.
Today we have come to celebrate your graduation from this Academy and your commission as officers of the United States Navy and Marine Corps. As we do, the question which hangs over your head is the question of what your generation will accomplish, as the generation of World War II accomplished so much.
Lately, there have been a number of books written, not about you, of course, but about your generation that says that so many people your age are afflicted with a sense of fatalism and cynicism, a sort of Generation X that believes America's greatest days are behind us and there are no great deeds left to be done. Well, this class, this very class is a rebuke to those cynics of any age.
Look at the extraordinary effort you have made to become leaders in service to America: formation at dawn, classes at 8 a.m., rigorous mandatory PT, parading on Worden Field, summers spent aboard ship or down at Quantico. Most college students never go through anything like it. It's a routine that turns young men and women into officers and that has taken your basketball team to the NCAA Tournament.
I deeply respect your decision to serve our Nation. Your service may take many forms in the years ahead: commanding ships in combat, training aviators for flight, running a business, perhaps one day even sitting in the Oval Office. Your career, regardless of its past, will require sacrifices, time away from loved ones, and potentially, service in the face of danger. But regardless of where your careers take you, you clearly understand the imperative of civic duty. There's no brighter badge of citizenship than the path you have chosen and the oath you are about to take.
You just heard Secretary Dalton speak of President Kennedy's wonderful speech here at the Naval Academy when he was here. I read that speech carefully before I came here. And among other things, President Kennedy said, along the lines that Secretary Dalton quoted, that if someone asked you what you did with your life, there's not a better answer than to say, "I served as an officer in the United States Navy."
The challenge for your generation is to remember the deeds of those who have served before you and now to build on their work in a new and very different world. The world wars are over; the cold war has been won. Now it is our job to win the peace.
For the first time in history, we have the chance to expand the reach of a democracy and economic progress across the whole of Europe and to the far reaches of the world. The first step on the mission is to keep our own Nation secure. And your very graduation today helps ensure that. Today the American people have 874 new leaders, 874 new plates of battle armor on our ship of state, 874 reasons to sleep better at night.
The past 4 years have been a time of challenge and exertion for each of you, a time of challenge and exertion, too, for the U.S. Navy and for this Academy. The Navy has had to confront the difficulty of the Tailhook scandal. And this year the Academy had to confront improper conduct regarding an academic examination. These are troubling events, to be sure, because our military rests on honor and leadership. But ultimately, the test of leadership is not constant flawlessness. Rather it is marked by a commitment to continue always to strive for the highest standards, to learn honesty when one falls short, and to do the right thing when it happens.
I came here today because I want America to know there remains no finer Navy in the world than the United States Navy and no finer training ground for naval leadership then the United States Naval Academy. You have my confidence. You have America's confidence.
These are challenging times to be in the Navy because it's a new era in world affairs. When this class entered the Academy in June of 1990, think of this, Israel and the PLO were sworn enemies; South Africa lived under apartheid; Moscow, Kiev, and Riga all were still part of the Soviet Union; and the United States and the Soviet Union still pointed their nuclear weapons in massive numbers at each other. But now Nelson Mandela is the President of his nation. There is genuine progress toward peace in the Middle East between Israel and the PLO and the other parties. Where the Kremlin once imposed its will, a score of new free states now grapple with the burden of freedom. And the United States and Russia at least no longer aim their nuclear weapons at each other.
These amazing transformations make our Nation more secure. They also enable us to devote more resources to the profound challenges we face here at home, from providing jobs for our people to advancing education and training for all of them, to making our streets safer, to ensuring health care for all of our citizens, and in the end building an economy that can compete and win well into the 21st century.
But the world's changes also can create uncertainty for those who have committed their careers to military service. Indeed, they create uncertainty for the United States. And in this time of uncertainty they tempt some to cut our defenses too far.
At the end of the cold war it was right to reduce our defense spending. But let us not forget that this new era has many dangers. We have replaced a cold war threat of a world of nuclear gridlock with a new world threatened with instability, even abject chaos, rooted in the economic dislocations that are inherent in the change from communism to market economics, rooted in religious and ethnic battles long covered over by authoritarian regimes now gone, rooted in tribal slaughters, aggravated by environmental disasters, by abject hunger, by mass migration across tenuous national borders. And with three of the Soviet Union's successor states now becoming nonnuclear and the tension between the U.S. and Russia over nuclear matters declining, we still must not forget that the threat of weapons of mass destruction remain in the continuing disputes we have over North Korea and elsewhere with countries who seek either to develop or to sell or to buy such weapons. So we must, we must do better. For this generation to expand freedom's reach, we must always keep America out of danger's reach.
Last year I ordered a sweeping review—we called it the bottom-up review—to ensure that in this new era we have a right-sized Navy, Marine Corps, Army, and Air Force for the post-cold-war era. That is especially important for our naval forces. For even with all the changes in the world, some basic facts endure: We are a maritime nation; over 60 percent of our border is seacoast. Over 70 percent of the world is covered by water, and over 90 percent of the human race lives within our Navy's reach from the sea. Now, as long as these facts remain true, we need naval forces that can dominate the sea, project our power, and protect our interests.
We've known that lesson for over 200 years now, since the time Admiral John Paul Jones proclaimed, "Without a respectable Navy, alas, America." The right-size defense costs less but still costs quite a bit. That is why this year I have resisted attempts to impose further cuts on our defense budget.
I want you to understand this clearly. It is important for your generation and your children to bring down this terrible debt we accumulated in recent years. And I have asked the Congress to eliminate outright over 100 programs, to cut over 200 others. We've presented a budget that cuts discretionary domestic spending for the first time since 1969. That will give us 3 years of deficit reduction in a row for the first time since Harry Truman was President of the United States right after World War II. But we should not cut defense further. And I thank the Congress this week for resisting the calls to do so. That enables us to answer John Paul Jones' cry.
Today you can see the importance of our naval forces all around the world. Right now, at this very moment as you sit here, the U.S.S. Saratoga and her battle group are steaming in the Adriatic to help enforce the no-fly zone and to protect the safe havens in Bosnia. At this very moment, the U.S.S. Carl Vinson is in the Persian Gulf to help enforce sanctions on Iraq. Right now, the U.S.S. Independence is patrolling the waters of Northeast Asia to protect our allies and interests in Japan, Korea, and throughout the Asian-Pacific region.
As we adjust our forces to a new era, our motto should still be: "Reduce where we should, but strengthen as we must." That's why we're investing in new weapons such as the next carrier, CVN-76; our new Sea Wolf attack submarine; new AEGIS ships, like the DDG-51; new air capabilities like F-18 upgrades and the Joint Advanced Strike Technology. It's why we're improving our weapons systems and making the technology that won Operation Desert Storm even better: Tomahawk missiles with increased accuracy and target area and better night-fighting capabilities for our Harrier jump jets and other aircraft, so we can not only own the night today but dominate the night tomorrow.
We have been able to afford a right-sized military at lower cost, but this year we must continue to fight any deeper cuts to defense. I want to emphasize how important it is that the House of Representatives and the Senate do that. I want to thank Congressman Gilchrest, who is here, and Congressman Machtley from Rhode Island, a graduate of the Naval Academy, also here, and their colleagues for their support for the C-17 vote and for their continuing support for an adequate military. This is a bipartisan issue; it knows no party. We have done all we should do, and we now must support an adequate defense.
We are working to safeguard the quality of the most important defense asset of all, you and the more than one million other men and women in uniform, who stand sentry over our security. Today our Armed Forces are clearly and without dispute the best trained, the best equipped, the best prepared, and the best motivated military on the face of the Earth. As long as I am President, that will continue to be the truth.
The question of our security in this era still ultimately depends upon our decisions about where to bring our military power to bear. That is what makes it possible for our enormous economic strength to assert itself at home and around the world. And there is no decision any President takes more seriously than the decision to send Americans into harm's way.
History teaches us that there is no magic formula, nor should a President ever try to draw the line so carefully that we would completely rule out the use of our military in circumstances where it might later become important. After all, the mere possibility of American force is itself a potent weapon all around the world. But this is clear: We must be willing to fight to defend our land and our people, first and foremost. That's why we responded forcefully when we discovered an Iraqi plot to assassinate former President Bush. And the Tomahawks we fired that day were fired by the Navy.
We must be willing to fight to protect our vital interests. And that's why we've adopted a defense strategy for winning any two major regional conflicts nearly simultaneously. We must be willing to fight to protect our allies. That's why we deployed Patriot missiles to South Korea, and working with others—working with others—we must be willing to use force when other American interests are threatened. And that's why we sought a stronger role for NATO in Bosnia.
The hardest cases involve the many ethnic and religious conflicts that have erupted in our era. The end of the superpower standoff lifted the lid from a cauldron of long-simmering hatreds. Now the entire global terrain is bloody with such conflicts, from Rwanda to Georgia. We cannot solve every such outburst of civil strife or militant nationalism simply by sending in our forces. We cannot turn away from them, but our interests are not sufficiently at stake in so many of them to justify a commitment of our folks. Nonetheless, as the world's greatest power, we have an obligation to lead and, at times when our interests and our values are sufficiently at stake, to act.
Look at the example of the former Yugoslavia. For centuries, that land marked a tense and often violent fault line between empires and religions. The end of the cold war and the dissolution of that country into so many new republics surfaced all those ancient tensions again, triggering Serb aggression, ethnic cleansing, and the most brutal European conflict since the Second World War.
Whether we get involved in any of the world's ethnic conflicts in the end must depend on the cumulative weight of the American interests at stake. Now, in Bosnia, we clearly have an interest in preventing the spread of the fighting into a broader European war, in providing that NATO can still be a credible force for peace in the post-cold-war era in this first-ever involvement of NATO outside a NATO country, in stemming the incredibly destabilizing flow of refugees from the conflict and in helping to stop the slaughter of innocents.
These interests do not warrant our unilateral involvement, but they do demand that we help to lead a way to a workable peace agreement if one can be achieved, and that if one can be achieved, we help to enforce it. Our administration is committed to help achieve such a resolution, working with others such as NATO, the United Nations, and Russia.
Those efforts have not been easy or smooth, but we have produced results. By securing NATO enforcement of the no-fly zone over Bosnia, we kept the war from escalating into the air. We initiated humanitarian air drops and have now participated in the longest humanitarian airlift in history. We secured NATO enforcement of the exclusion zones around Sarajevo and Gorazde, and as a result, the people of Sarajevo have experienced over 3 months of relative calm, and Gorazde is no longer being shelled. And by stepping up diplomatic engagement, we have worked with others to foster a breakthrough agreement between the Croats and the Bosnians, signed here in Washington, which I believe eventually will lead to a broader settlement.
One of the dreams of World War II was that after the war, through the United Nations and in other ways, the United States might be able to cooperate with others to help resolve the most difficult problems of our age, not always to have its own way, not always to be able to prescribe every move, but in order to help resolve the problems of the world without having to commit the lives of our own soldiers where they should not be committed and still being able to play a positive role. That is what we are attempting to work out in Bosnia. And if it can be done—if it can be done—we'll be on the way to managing some of this incredible chaos that has threatened to engulf the world in which you will raise your children.
Today I want to acknowledge the outstanding contributions of Admiral Mike Boorda which were made to our efforts in Bosnia. His stunning leadership there, his clarity of thought, and resolve of purpose is one of the key reasons I named him to be our new Chief of Naval Operations. Thank you, Admiral Boorda.
At every turn, we have worked to move the parties there toward a workable political solution. This is one of those conflicts that can only end at the negotiating table, not on the battlefield. They can fight for another 100 years and not resolve it there. At every turn we have rejected the easy-out of simplistic ideas that sound good on bumper stickers but that would have tragic consequences. The newest of these is that we should simply unilaterally break the United Nations arms embargo on Bosnia and the other former Yugoslav states.
I do not support that arms embargo, and I never have. We worked with our allies and tried to persuade all of them that we should end it. Now some say we should simply violate the embargo on our own because it was a bad idea to impose it in the first place. Well, if we did that, it would kill the peace process; it would sour our relationships with our European allies in NATO and in the U.N.; it would undermine the partnership we are trying to build with Russia across a whole broad range of areas; it would undermine our efforts to enforce U.N. embargoes that we like, such as those against Sadaam Hussein, Colonel Qadhafi, and General Cedras in Haiti.
We simply must not opt for options and action that sound simple and painless and good but which will not work in this era of interdependence where it is important that we leverage American influence and leadership by proving that we can work with others, especially when others have greater and more immediate stakes and are willing to put their soldiers in harm's way.
Our administration will not walk away from this Bosnian conflict. But we will not embrace solutions that are wrong. We plan to continue the course we have chosen, raising the price on those who pursue aggression, helping to provide relief to the suffering, and working with our partners in Europe to move the parties to a workable agreement. It is not quick. It is not neat. It is not comfortable. But I am convinced in a world of interdependence, where we must lead by working with others, it is the right path. It is the one that preserves our leadership, preserves our treasure, and commits our forces in the proper way.
The world's most tearing conflicts in Bosnia and elsewhere are not made in a day. And one of the most frustrating things that you may have to live with throughout your life is that many of these conflicts will rarely submit to instant solutions. But remember this, it took years after D-Day to not only end the war but to build a lasting peace. It took decades of patience and strength and resolve to prevail in the cold war.
And as with generations going before, we must often be willing to pay the price of time, sometimes the most painful price of all. There is no better source of the courage and constancy of our Nation that we will lead in this era than this Academy and our Armed Forces. This Academy has prepared you to lead those Armed Forces. As you take your place in the Navy and the Marine Corps, always bear in mind the heroism, the sacrifice, the leadership of those who have served before you.
I think, in particular, of one of the stories that comes out of D-Day, June 6th, 1944. On that gray dawn, as U.S. Rangers approached Pointe du Hoc, they were raked by German fire from the cliff above. One landing craft was sunk; others were endangered. But then, an American destroyer, the U.S.S. Satterlee, along with a British destroyer, came to the rescue. They came in perilously close to the shore, and opened fire with all their guns at the Germans who were raining fire down on the Rangers. By its actions, the Satterlee saved American lives and enabled the Rangers to carry out their nowfamous mission. Forty-eight years later, a Ranger Platoon leader said, "Someday I'd love to meet up with somebody from Satterlee so I can shake his hand and thank him."
The valor of those who proceeded you is the stuff of inspiration. A great country must always remember the sacrifices of those who went before and made our freedom possible. But even greater accomplishments lie ahead if you can make them happen. For remember this: When our memories exceed our dreams, we have begun to grow old. It is the destiny of America to remain forever young.
As the guardians of your generation's freedom and our future, may you never know directly whose lives you have saved—you may not— whose future you have improved. You may never hear their thanks or get to shake their hands. But they'll be out there. We'll all be out there, aware of your courage, impressed by your dedication, grateful for your service to God and country. You can keep America forever young.
Good luck, and God bless you.
NOTE: The President spoke at 10:28 a.m. at the Navy/Marine Corps Memorial Stadium. In his remarks, he referred to Rear Adm. Thomas C. Lynch, USN, Superintendent, U.S. Naval Academy; Adm. William A. Owens, USN, Vice Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff; and Gen. Carl E. Mundy, Jr., Commandant of the Marine Corps.
William J. Clinton, Remarks at the United States Naval Academy Commencement Ceremony in Annapolis, Maryland Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/220346