U.S. Senator John McCain: This is your moment to make history
Thank you distinguished faculty, families and friends, and thank you, Corps of Cadets of The Citadel’s class of 2002. The invitation to give this commencement address is a great honor for someone who graduated fifth from the bottom in the United States Naval Academy of 1958. To stand here, at this venerable institution, before this distinguished assembly, and commend young men and women who are far more accomplished than I was at their age has reaffirmed my life-long faith that in America anything is possible.
If my old company officer at the Academy were here, whose affection for midshipmen was sorely tempted by my less than exemplary behavior, I fear he would decline to hold The Citadel in the high regard that I do.
Nevertheless, I want to join in the chorus of congratulations to the Class of 2002. You have earned it. You have succeeded in a demanding course of instruction from a renowned military college. Life seems full of promise. Such is always the case when a passage of life is marked by significant accomplishment. Today, it surely seems as if the whole world attends you.
But spare a moment for those who have truly attended you so well and for so long, and whose pride in your accomplishments is even greater than your own--your parents. When the world was looking elsewhere, your parents’ attention was one of life’s certainties. And if tomorrow the world seems a little more indifferent as it awaits new achievements from you, your families will still be your most unstinting source of encouragement and counsel.
So, as I commend the Class of 2002, I offer equal praise to your parents for the sacrifices they have made for you, and for their confidence in you and their love. More than any other influence in your lives, they have helped make you the success you are today, and might become tomorrow. And we thank all of the parents here today.
Traditionally, a great many graduates of The Citadel enter the armed forces of the United States. Many will make a career of military service. Some will rise to the highest ranks. And some will know the privilege and the burden of serving our country in war. Some of you will make other choices, find other ways to serve America. Some of you will become leaders in business and government. But the fact that many of you will excel at whatever profession you choose, and will contribute to the progress of the civilization that you are blessed to be a part of, proves the good judgment you showed in one of the first important decisions of your life: choosing a college. For you chose a college that not only instills military discipline, but has taught you the essence of leadership and the virtues of good character. Most importantly, it has imparted to you that sense of honor that is the pride of those who serve America’s interests and ideals, and ransom their lives to its safekeeping. And as you take your leave of this place, make its lessons your lifetime companions, and you will be a credit not only to your alma mater, to your families and to yourself, but to the good and great nation that is your safest shelter, and, I hope, your worthy cause.
I am the son and grandson of Navy admirals. I was born into America’s service. I am privileged to have held a public trust since I graduated from the Naval Academy forty-four years ago. I have never lived a single day, in the good times and bad, that I wasn’t grateful for the privilege. It is a blessing beyond exaggeration to serve this country and her causes.
For all the terrible suffering they caused, the attacks of September 11 did have one good effect. Patriotism flourished in America. We remembered how blessed we were to be Americans. When our ideals were threatened by people who despise them, we quickly remembered why we love those ideals and how they unite us. We instinctively grasped that the terrorists who organized the attacks mistook materialism for the only value of liberty. They believed liberty was corrupting, that the right of individuals to pursue happiness made societies weak. They held us in contempt. Spared by prosperity from the hard uses of life, bred by liberty only for comfort and easy pleasure, they thought us no match for the violent, cruel struggle that they planned for us. Now, hiding in caves from the swift justice of an aggrieved and mighty people, our enemies are beginning to appreciate just how badly they misjudged us.
What ensures our success in this struggle is that our military strength is only surpassed by the strength of our ideals, and our unconquerable love for them. Our enemies are weaker than we are in arms and men, but weaker still in causes. They fight to express an irrational hatred of all that is good in humanity, a hatred that has fallen time and again to the armies and ideals of the righteous. We fight for love of freedom and justice, a love that is invincible. We will never surrender. They will.
America and her causes are a blessing to mankind, and they honor all who work to make her a better country and America’s example a greater influence on human history. For all the terrible problems that still afflict humanity, the 21st century would have dawned on a much less hopeful world absent America’s place in it. Until the end of time, will there ever be a nation such as ours? I cannot imagine that another nation’s history will ever so profoundly affect the progress of the human race. That is not boastful chauvinism, my friends, but a profession of faith in the American creed, and in the men and women who understood what history expected of us, and who saw to it that we exceeded the loftiest expectations of our founders.
Twelve years ago, in the first days of the last days of the Soviet empire, a young Czech student stood before a million of his countrymen, while two hundred thousand Soviet troops still occupied his country, and, trembling with emotion, read a manifesto that declared a new day for the captive peoples of Eastern Europe. But he began that new day with borrowed words when he proclaimed:
"We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."
Theodore Roosevelt is one of my political heroes. The "strenuous life," as he called it, was T.R.’s definition of Americanism, a celebration of America’s pioneer ethos, the virtues that inspired our belief in ourselves as the New Jerusalem, bound by sacred duty to suffer hardship and risk danger to protect the values of our civilization and impart them to humanity. "We cannot sit huddled within our borders," he warned, "and avow ourselves merely an assemblage of well-to-do hucksters who care nothing for what happens beyond."
His Americanism was not fidelity to a tribal identity. Nor was it limited to a sentimental attachment to our "amber waves of grain" or "purple mountains majesty." Roosevelt’s Americanism exalted the political values of a nation where the people are sovereign, recognizing not only the inherent justice of self-determination, not only that freedom empowered individuals to decide their destiny for themselves, but that it empowered them to choose a common destiny. And for Roosevelt that common destiny surpassed material gain and self-interest. Our freedom and industry must aspire to more than acquisition and luxury. We must live out the true meaning of freedom, and accept as Roosevelt said, "that we have duties to others and duties to ourselves; and we can shirk neither."
Some critics, in his day and ours, saw in Roosevelt’s patriotism only flag-waving chauvinism, not all that dissimilar to Old World allegiances that incited one people to subjugate another and plunged whole continents into war. But they did not see the universality of the ideals that formed his creed.
A few years ago, I read an account of an Irishman’s attempt to make the first crossing of the Antarctic on foot. In August 1914, Sir Ernest Shackleton placed an advertisement in a London newspaper.
"MEN WANTED FOR HAZARDOUS JOURNEY. SMALL WAGES, BITTER COLD, LONG MONTHS OF COMPLETE DARKNESS, CONSTANT DANGER, SAFE RETURN DOUBTFUL. HONOUR AND RECOGNITION IN CASE OF SUCCESS."
Twenty-eight men answered the ad and began a twenty-two month trial of wind, ice, snow and endurance. Photographs of the expedition survive today produced from plate glass negatives that one of Shackleton’s men dove into freezing Antarctic waters to rescue from their sinking ship. The deprivations these men suffered are almost unimaginable. They spent four months marooned on a desolate ice-covered island before they were rescued by Shackleton himself. They endured three months of polar darkness, and were forced to shoot their sled dogs for food. Their mission failed, but they recorded an epic of courage and honor that far surpassed the accomplishment that had exceeded their grasp. When they returned to England, most of them immediately enlisted to fight in World War I.
Years later, Shackleton looked back on the character of his shipmates. He had had the sublime privilege of witnessing a thousand acts of unselfish courage, and he understood the greater glory that it achieved. "In memories we were rich," he wrote. "We had pierced the veneer of outside things."
I thought when I read it that there, in that memorable turn of phrase, was the Roosevelt code. To pierce the veneer of outside things, to strive for something more ennobling than the luxuries that privilege and wealth have placed within easy reach. For the memories of such accomplishments are fleeting, attributable as they are to the fortuitous circumstances of our birth, and reflect little credit on our character or our nation’s.
Nationalism is not intrinsically good. For it to be so a nation must transcend attachments to land and folk to champion universal rights of freedom and justice that reflect and animate the virtues of its citizenry. Racism and despotism have perverted many a citizen's love of country into a noxious ideology. Nazism and Stalinism are two of the more malignant examples. National honor, no less than personal honor, has only the worth it derives from its defense of human dignity. Then, and only then, are they virtues in themselves. Many a patriotic German sought honor in doing one’s duty to the furher and fatherland. History and humanity, not to mention a just God, scorn them for it. Prosperity, military power, a well-educated society are the attainments of a great nation, but they are not its essence. If they are used only in pursuit of self-interest or to serve unjust ends they degrade national greatness. Nazi Germany was temporarily a powerful nation. It was never a great one.
We are not a perfect nation. Prosperity and power might delude us into thinking we have achieved that distinction, but inequities and challenges unforeseen a mere generation ago command every good citizen’s concern and labor. But what we have achieved in our brief history is irrefutable proof that a nation conceived in an idea, in liberty, will prove stronger and more enduring than any nation ordered to exalt the few at the expense of the many or made from a common race or culture or to preserve traditions that have no greater attribute than longevity.
As blessed as we are, as empowered by liberty as we are, no nation complacent in its greatness can long sustain it. We are an unfinished nation. We are not a people of half-measures. We must take our place in the enterprise of renewal, giving our counsel, our labor, and our passion in our time to the enduring task of national greatness. We must prove again, as those who came before us proved, that a people free to act in their own interests will perceive their interests in an enlightened way, will live as one nation, in a kinship of ideals, and make of our power and wealth a civilization for the ages, a civilization in which all people share in the promise of freedom.
All lives are a struggle against selfishness. All my life I’ve stood a little apart from institutions I willingly joined. It just felt natural to me. But if my life had shared no common purpose, it wouldn’t have amounted to much beyond eccentricity. There is no honor or happiness in just being strong enough to be left alone.
I’ve made plenty of mistakes. And I have many regrets. But only when I have separated my interests from my country’s are those regrets profound. That is the honor and the privilege of public service in a nation that isn’t just land and ethnicity, but an idea and a cause. Any benefit that ever accrued to me on occasions in my public life when I perceived my self-interest as unrelated to the nation I served, has been as fleeting as pleasure, and as meaningless as an empty gesture.
I’m fascinated by documentaries chronicling the heroics of Americans who fought in World War II. I’m drawn to the faces of old veterans as they struggle to describe their experiences. They often become emotional and are unable to continue. Some of them had gone on to live lives of distinction after the war. Some lived more obscure but no less honorable lives. But as they reach the end of their days, the accomplishments and disappointments of their peacetime lives don’t seem important to them. The memories of personal triumphs aren’t an adequate account of their long years. It is the memory of war they return to, the memory of war that gave their lives lasting meaning. They return to hard times, times of pain, suffering, loss, violence and fear. They return to the place where they risked everything, absolutely everything, for the country that sent them there. No later success ever outshone its glory or later defeat took it from them. It is still there and vivid at the moment of their last breath.
In America, our rights come before our duties. We are a free people, and among our freedoms is the liberty to not sacrifice for our birthright. Yet those who claim their liberty but not the duty to the civilization that ensures it, live a half-life, having indulged their self-interest at the cost of their self-respect. The richest man or woman, the most successful and celebrated Americans, possess nothing of importance if their lives have no greater object than themselves. They may be masters of their own fate, but what a poor destiny it is that claims no higher cause than wealth or fame.
We are blessed to be Americans, not just in times of prosperity and wealth, but at all times, even in the dangerous times we live in now. Especially in these times. We are part of something providential: a great experiment to prove to the world that democracy is not only the most effective form of government, but the only moral government. And through the years, generation after generation of Americans has held fast to the belief that we were meant to transform history. What greater cause than that could we ever find?
Should we claim our rights and leave to others the duty to the nation that protects them, whatever we gain for ourselves will be of little lasting value. It will build no monuments to virtue, claim no honored place in the memory of posterity, offer no worthy summons to other nations. Success, wealth, celebrity gained and kept for private interest is a small thing. It makes us comfortable, eases the material hardships our children will bear, purchases a fleeting regard for our lives, yet not the self respect that in the end matters most. But, my friends, sacrifice for a cause greater than your self-interest, and you invest your life with the eminence of that cause, your self-respect assured.
When I was a young man, I thought glory was the highest ambition, and that all glory was self-glory. My parents tried to teach me otherwise, as did the Naval Academy. But I didn’t understand the lesson until later in life, when I confronted challenges I never expected to face.
In that confrontation, I discovered that I was dependent on others to a greater extent than I had ever realized, but that neither they nor the cause we served made any claims on my identity. On the contrary, they gave me a larger sense of myself than I had before. And I am a better man for it. I discovered that nothing in life is more liberating than to fight for a cause that encompasses you, but is not defined by your existence alone. And that has made all the difference, my friends, all the difference in the world.
Those days were long ago. But not so long that I have forgotten their purpose and their reward. This is your moment to make history. This is your chance to pierce the veneer of outside things, to live out the authentic meaning of freedom, and to build upon the accomplishments of America’s storied past. There will never be another nation such as ours. Take good care of her. The fate of the world depends upon it.
Congratulations and good luck.