Barbara Jordan

Sylvanus Thayer Award Acceptance Address

delivered 5 October 1995, West Point

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[AUTHENTICITY CERTIFIED: Text version below transcribed directly from audio]

To the Corps and to all of you here:

I am delighted to have been chosen a recipient Sylvanus Thayer Award. It's a personal tribute. It places me in the company of a group of distinguished Americans you believe exemplify the best of this institution. You have placed me among a group you feel best demonstrates the core principles of the United States Military Academy: Honor, Duty, Country.

My being here is enhanced by your being here. Why? Your Corps. You are cadets. You chose to come here and that decision to come to this institution was not a trivial decision. You had to discard unnecessary irrelevances and distracting engagements commit yourselves -- to what? Commit yourselves to a path designed to bring distinction not just to you, but a path designed to bring distinction to your country.

I believe I'm looking at people who are the embodiment of the motto of this institution. Why? Your desire to come here means that you were willing to go through the rigorous training process; you were willing to go through the rites of passages which are West Point; and I know that you have already shown that West Point is a resource from which leaders will come.

I know that it must be difficult to be a cadet and you probably think that's an understatement. I know through conversations with some of your predecessors and through anecdotes which filter through the Press and other media -- some of those anecdotes are true, some are exaggerated -- I know that your education is unlike anybody else's education. Your peers across the country would shutter if they had to go through the kind of things you had to go through in order to attend this institution and be successful. And I know -- I know that it is difficult for you to live up to your own standards, and the standards of this school, and at the same time try to understand the important philosophical context of a West Point education.

But it is important for each of you to take time out, examine your purpose, understand that you are here not here simply to get a degree. You could have anywhere to just do that. You're not here just to go through the motions. You are not here just to endure whatever abuses are heaped upon you by the people who are your superiors.

Think for a minute. What do those words really mean? They just roll off your tongue: duty, honor, country. What are you talking about? It has a resonance. Douglas MacArthur said they are "hallowed words." It is just not the sound of those words placed together; it is the assumptions which undergird what those words really mean, and let's look at that.

What are we talking about? What are you talking about? Can you do what is necessary through service to your country to give those words such meaning that they will suffice not just now but into the next century? You have got to understand that those words mean a lifetime commitment. You fulfill their meaning through service. And you expand their meaning through the service your render.

Look at the words: "Duty." A biography -- A biographer of the Duke of Marlborough, writing in 1894, said "in England, the noble, selfless word 'duty' has long been the motto of her famous warrior sons." A noble, selfless, word. "Duty" -- if you looked in the dictionary it would simply say "something you have to do." But a noble, selfless, word.

Dwight Eisenhower received this award 34 years ago. And he was a person who studied what "duty" really means. And what he said: "No man can always be right, so the struggle is to do one's best; to keep the brain and conscience clear; never to be swayed by unworthy motives and inconsequential reasons, but to strive to unearth the basic involved and then to do one's duty."      

In the 193 years of this institution our famous warrior daughters and sons have come from West Point. They have led us in war and they've led us in peace. There is something which sets them apart from everybody else. What is it? What is it? I believe it is the courage to deny self. The ability to remain unswayed by unworthy motives and inconsequential reasons?

Why are you here, Corpsmen? Why are you here? I believe one purpose above all others stands out: serve your country. You made a decision which has monumental consequences when you entered here. Your decision has consequences. If I were to ask each of you one by one singly, "Why are you here?" you may not say the honest answer is to serve your country. Some of you may have a more practical reason. Perhaps it was parental pressure. Perhaps it was the realization that you could not find an education of this quality anywhere else. Perhaps it was a desire to become the world's premiere engineer.

There is nothing wrong with personal motivation, or with understanding the worth of an education at this institution. There is nothing wrong with the desire to be the best. The key to your success at this institution will be your ability to advance your personal motivation into a self-less motivation. The rewards to you and your country will be extraordinary.

Those of you who accomplish great things in the service of your country will be those who have learned the meaning of "denial of self." Selflessness. Those of you who will accomplish great things will achieve an elevation of character that constitutes honor -- honor.

Among the world's great writers at the time of the founding of this school, William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge each wrote about honor in the same context in which we tonight are talking about it.

What did Coleridge say? Honor implies "a reverence for the invisible and supersensual in our nature." Again, a denial of sense. And Wordsworth? He said, [honor] is "the finest sense of justice that the human mind can frame." 

You will be the decision makers of the future. You will literally hold the lives and fortunes of others within your power, and it is my hope that your circumstances will not include a shooting war, but they very well may. If you do not -- If you do not develop warfare, but they very well may. If you do not develop honor, if you do not embrace the finest sense of justice the human mind can frame, I'm not sure you will be worthy of the confidence this institution places in you.

How many times since you came onto this campus have you heard the role that -- have you heard the words that the role of the military is changing in the post-Cold War years? I hope that you do not become numb [to] the meaning of the changing military role. For if your role were not changing, if you were not to change and shape change, you would not be of the caliber this institution requires.

There are some things, however, which do not change, no matter what happens. Some things do not change. High ethical values inspirited by your principles: Duty. Honor. Country -- they do not change. Your mission statement should be a constant inspiration to you. It says, in part, "Each graduate shall have the attributes essential to professional growth throughout a career as an officer [of] the regular Army." Now, growth means change. Do not fear change. Embrace change as part of your mission.

I know that tradition is very important here at West Point. I know you are still being taught by some of the methods used by Sylvanus Thayers [sic] in the 1820s. But don't make a mistake and somehow equate tradition with fear of change. Not so. One of your predecessors with whom I work at the LBJ School in Texas told me of a standing joke -- and I don't think it's that funny -- but he said it's a joke that West Point represents 193 years of tradition unhampered by progress. If tradition means a steadfast adherence to the highest ethical standards; if tradition means an unfailing dedication to duty; if tradition means leadership with character; then let tradition continue for another 193 years. We need it. We need it.

I know that it was a part of tradition that you would have had a parade for me today. And I know that you cadets are troubled and saddened by not having that opportunity.

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If you practice the highest ethical standards, if you are dedicated to your duty, if you lead with character as Sylvanus Thayer taught, you will then be able to embrace change without fear. Tradition and change are not antithetical. If you look at those persons who were honored before me, you will see that there is an embodiment, a weaving [of] tradition, and an ability to embrace change. And by enrolling in -- at West Point, and I hope embracing the traditions of this school, that you have accepted a lifetime of public service.

If you accept that challenge, a lifetime of public service, you will be held to the higher -- highest ethical standards of anybody, and you should be, should be. Those who serve should be held to the highest ethical standards because they also have accepted public trust.

For 193 years that public trust has been well placed. West Point is where leadership is born. West Point is not just famous names. It's men and women who achieve great things. It's people who built the East-West railroads, and built the Panama Canal; it's people who figured out how we could go to the moon.

193 years ago we had just begun this country, this grand experiment, that we call Democracy, and we're still working on it. We're trying to get our footing. We're just beginning to define our character 193 years ago and West -- West Point, here, seeds were planted.

The men and women of West Point watered our native soil. Of course you should not expect that just because you attend this institution that automatically you're going to achieve some kind of immortality. Not every graduate does. Like in every great institution in this country, not every graduate does. Some have not lived up [to] the principles of their duty, their honor, or what their country required.

But there is no system which is perfect and we are all human and we have weaknesses and fears and misfortune. There is no formula to guarantee your success. But I can assure you, if you embrace the heritage here, if you go beyond the dictionary definitions of your motto, if you take those words, place them in your soul, in your heart, and not just everyday chatter: you won't need a formula.

Your West Point education is only the beginning, folks. But it's a terrific beginning. The idea of service before self becomes ingrained in you here -- you'll be given every opportunity to serve.

You will leave here [with] the necessary tools to lead this country into the next century. And I am convinced that you will do it honor. And then things, if things get too murky, too cloudy, too unclear in your future, there is always one single imperative: beat Navy.

*Thank you and good luck.*


Book/CDs by Michael E. Eidenmuller, Published by McGraw-Hill (2008)

* = worlds within asterisks absent from this audio

Audio and Image Courtesy of http://www.west-point.org/

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