Patrick J. Buchanan: Commencement address 1999
General Grinalds, distinguished guests, and friends of The Citadel. It is truly an honor to address this last graduating class of the 20th century--and a truly unique class it is, of an institution whose name has become synonymous with patriotism, courage, and a code of honor.
I must tell you, I was profoundly, personally moved by yesterday's parades, and those Scottish bagpipes playing "Auld Lang Zyne" to the Class of '99. And I was moved, in part, because we Buchanans, even though the General pointed out we were Irish, are actually of Scotch ancestry. Indeed, an historian once told me the Buchanans were a Highland warrior clan that had fought at the Battle of Agincourt, where England's Henry the Fifth achieved immortality.
And as I was basking in the reflected glory of my ancestry, however, the historian added, "Unfortunately, Pat, the Buchanans all fought on the side of the French." Now, as my two great grandfathers on the Buchanan side were from Mississippi, and fought with the Confederacy, we Buchanans have an established tradition of Lost Causes. Unfortunately, in the 1992 and 96 presidential campaigns, I made my own contributions to that family tradition.
My wife Shelley tells me that if I don't win this time, she is going to pack it in--and run for the Senate from New York. Friends, this is not my first trip to The Citadel; in 1995, I was invited to address the student body in its lecture series on the great issues of the day. And on the bookshelf in my living room, if any of you come to visit, you will find in a place of honor what is known as "the Brick"--a miniature replica of the old Citadel. Friends of The Citadel, we live in an age of self-indulgence where belief in your code of honor -- "A cadet does not lie, cheat, or steal, or tolerate those who do," is considered by some to be out of fashion. But all over this troubled land of ours, people hunger for the restoration of the values which I believe will soon be relevant and respected all over America again. For this country is not only about to cross over into a new century, we are entering upon a dangerous and uncharted time.
Indeed, as this era that the historians have already named "the American Century," approaches its end, it may be instructive to look back to the close of the 19th century, when it was the mighty British empire that was the world's preeminent power.
For the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria, Rudyard Kipling, the Poet of Empire, was asked to pen some verses to the greatness and the glory of his nation. As he wrote of Britannia's "(d)ominion over palm and pine," Kipling struck a note of unease, of apprehension, that the mighty empire on which the sun never set might itself be soon fading away.
"Far-called our navies melt away," wrote Kipling, "On dune and headland sinks the fire / Lo, all our pomp of yesterday / Is one with Nineveh and Tyre! / Judge of the Nations, spare us yet, / Lest we forget, lest we forget."
Kipling proved prophetic. In two decades, the British Empire was fighting for its life on the fields of France. In half a century, that empire had vanished from the face of the earth. Gone, forever. And so it was with all the great empires that strode so confidently onto the world's stage at the start of this bloodiest of centuries -- all save America. The Austro-Hungarian, German, Russian, and Ottoman empires perished in World War I. Japan's empire was destroyed utterly in World War II; the British and French expired soon after.
When the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, in that triumph of human freedom and American perseverance, the malevolent empire of Lenin and Stalin collapsed, leaving the United States as the world's last superpower. In the boast of our foreign policy elites, we have now become the world's "indispensable nation."
But it is just such hubristic rhetoric that calls forth apprehension, for it reflects a pride that all too often precedes a great fall. Long ago, Theodore Roosevelt admonished us: "Speak softly, and carry a big stick--you will go far." Today, as we whittle down the stick, we raise the decibel count.
My apprehension is traceable, too, to a belief that our republic has begun to retrace, step by step, the march of folly that led to the fall of the British, and every other great empire.
Today, our beloved country has become ensnared in a civil war in a Balkan peninsula where no U.S. army ever fought before, and no president had ever asserted a vital interest. Daily, we plunge more deeply in. Our motives are noble -- to protect a persecuted people -- but most now concede that we failed to weigh the risks of launching this war. Among the lessons America should have learned from Vietnam, said General Colin Powell, is that before you commit the army, you commit the nation. We did not do that.
Now, it is said that, as the credibility of NATO cannot survive defiance by tiny Serbia, we must do whatever needs to done to win, even if it means sending 100,000 or 200,000 American ground troops crashing into the Balkan peninsula. This sentiment was expressed by a columnist at the New York Times:
"It should be lights out in Belgrade; every power grid, every water pipe, bridge, road has to be targeted. Like it or not, we are at war with the Serbian nation," he said. "And the stakes have to be very clear: either you Serbs, if you ravage Kosovo, we will set you back by pulverizing you. You want 1950. We can do 1950. You want 1389. We can do 1389 too."Now, one cannot read that passage without recalling to mind the phrase, "the arrogance of power." Now, Milosevic is indeed a tyrant and a war criminal. But does America have the right to "pulverize" a nation that never attacked the United States? Did the Founding Fathers dedicate their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor to the cause of liberty, so that the republic they would create could emulate the empire they resisted? Is it America's destiny to be the policeman of the world?
In his Farewell Address, our greatest president implored us to stay out of Europe's endless quarrels: "Why quit our own to stand upon foreign ground?" Washington asked. "Why entangle our peace and prosperity in the toils of European Ambition?" When the Greeks rose up in rebellion against the Ottoman Turks in 1821, John Quincy Adams, our greatest Secretary of State, he too invoked and advocated American non-intervention.
"Wherever the standard of freedom and independence has been or shall be unfurled," said Adams, "there will [America's] heart, her benedictions, and her prayers be. But she goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy."
Now that America is at war, all of us pray for the success and safe return of the men and women we have sent into harm's way. They are some of the best and bravest of America's young. And no matter our disagreements, these are our sons and our daughters out there. But all of us, as citizens of a republic, must debate the decisions as to when, where, and whether to put their lives at risk.
Now, this Balkan war is not the first time America has heard and indeed heeded the siren's call to empire. A century ago, we annexed the Philippine Islands and crushed an independence movement in those islands. Before we did, in the fall of 1898, leaders from former president Grover Cleveland to union leader Sam Gompers implored us to resist that temptation.
"The fruits of imperialism, be they bitter or sweet," said William Jennings Bryan, "must be left to the subjects of monarchy. This is one tree of which citizens of a republic may not partake. It is the voice of the serpent, not the voice of God, that bids us eat."
America did not listen. And hard upon the annexation of the Philippines came the declaration of an Open Door policy far away in China, that would one day plunge us into the politics of Asia, out of which would come war with Japan, war in Korea, and war in Vietnam.
Today, this generation is facing the same question. Quo vadis, America? Where are you going, America? Will we conscript America's wealth and power to launch utopian crusades to reshape the world in our own image? Or shall we again follow the counsel of Washington and Adams, and keep our lamp burning bright on the Western shore?
Every citizen needs to take part in deciding the destiny of this republic, for we have now undertaken foreign commitments that no empire in history has ever sustained. We have assumed the role of the German empire in keeping Russia out of Europe, of the Austrian empire in policing the Balkans, of the Ottoman empire in keeping peace in the Middle East, of the Japanese empire in containing China, and of the British empire in patrolling the Gulf and maintaining freedom of the seas.
How long can America continue to defend scores of countries all over the world on a defense budget that has fallen to the smallest share of the U.S. economy since before Pearl Harbor?
As we see a limited air war in the Balkans stretch U.S. power to where F-16s are being cannibalized for spare parts, our Air Force runs low on laser-guided munitions, our Apache helicopters take weeks to be deployed, and our Pacific fleet is stripped of carriers for the first time in fifty years, it is clear: the long neglect of America's military must come to an end.
We must replenish and restore this nation's power, or we are headed for humiliations such as have marked the fall of every great nation than ever embarked on the course we now pursue.
America must retrench; and America must rearm. To make up for this lost decade, let us restore America's defenses to what they were when this decade began. Let us make this country, again, invincible on land, sea, and air, and build that missile defense that a great president, Reagan, sought as his legacy to his country. To be prepared for war, Washington reminded us, is the best guarantee of preserving peace.
But if there is cause for apprehension over what lies ahead, there is also cause for confidence and for hope. That confidence, that hope, rests not only on the boundless resources of this providential land, but on the almost infinite capacity of the American people to rise to and overcome any challenge with which history confronts them. We are, after all, the heirs of the heroes who launched the world's first great revolution for liberty. We are the sons and daughters of the great generation that brought us through the Depression and crushed fascism in Europe and Asia. And we are the men and women who persevered and triumphed in a half century of Cold War against the most monstrous tyranny mankind has ever known.
But now the time of testing is coming for the new generation. The America that your Class of '99 shall inherit is rich and prosperous and powerful, but also envied and resented.
And whether America retains into this new century what she carries out of the old one depends now on you and your generation. Fifty years from now, at the end of your lives, you will look back, and say one of two things: Yes, we, too, made our contribution to the preservation of the greatest republic the world has ever seen. Or you will say that it was during your custodianship that the lamp began to flicker, that we too began to follow inexorably in the footsteps of all the other great nations, down the spiral staircase of history.
All, then, will one day come to depend on the character and courage of this generation, for, as Churchill said, courage is the greatest of all virtues, because it makes all the others possible.
Last night at dinner, General Grinalds' wife told me that when members of the graduating class are asked what they will take away with them from The Citadel, almost invariably they tell her, "After going through The Citadel, I believe that I can do anything."
That is the spirit The Citadel instills, and that is the spirit America now requires. Because you have gone through this Citadel that has always cherished duty, honor, and country, you are more prepared than most of your generation for what lies ahead.
And the debt you owe The Citadel, the debt you owe your parents, the debt you owe your teachers, and all those who have gone before, is to be able to say, at the end of your lives: We, too, were faithful to The Citadel; we, too, did our duty; we, too, gave over to our children and their children the greatest country the world has ever known. God bless The Citadel, and God bless the Class of '99.