27. Address by President Nixon1
[Omitted here are the President’s introductory remarks in which he warned the graduating class that they were beginning their military careers at a difficult time. He told them that they would have to be prepared to risk their lives in a limited war while facing those at home who questioned the need for a strong national defense and saw a danger in the power of the military.]
This paradox of military power is a symptom of something far deeper that is stirring in our body politic. It goes beyond the dissent about the war in Vietnam. It goes beyond the fear of the “military-industrial complex.”
The underlying questions are really these: What is America’s role in the world? What are the responsibilities of a great nation toward protecting freedom beyond its shores? Can we ever be left in peace if we do not actively assume the burden of keeping the peace?
When great questions are posed, fundamental differences of opinion come into focus. It serves no purpose to gloss over these differences, or to try to pretend that they are mere matters of degree. Because there is one school of thought that holds that the road to understanding with the Soviet Union and Communist China lies through a downgrading of our own alliances and what amounts to a unilateral reduction of our arms in order to demonstrate our “good faith.”
They believe that we can be conciliatory and accommodating only if we do not have the strength to be otherwise. They believe that America will be able to deal with the possibility of peace only when we are unable to cope with the threat of war.
Those who think that way have grown weary of the weight of free world leadership that fell upon us in the wake of World War II. They argue that we—that the United States is as much responsible for the tensions in the world as the adversaries we face.
They assert that the United States is blocking the road to peace by maintaining its military strength at home and its defenses abroad. If we would only reduce our forces, they contend, tensions would disappear and the chances for peace would brighten.
America’s powerful military presence on the world scene, they believe, makes peace abroad improbable and peace at home impossible.[Page 87]
Now we should never underestimate the appeal of the isolationist school of thought. Their slogans are simplistic and powerful: “Charity begins at home. Let’s first solve our problems at home and then we can deal with the problems of the world.”
This simple formula touches a responsive chord with many an overburdened taxpayer. It would be easy, easy for a President of the United States to buy some popularity by going along with the new isolationists. But I submit to you that it would be disastrous for our Nation and the world.
I hold a totally different view of the world, and I come to a different conclusion about the direction America must take.
Imagine for a moment, if you will, what would happen to this world if America were to become a dropout in assuming the responsibility for defending peace and freedom in the world. As every world leader knows, and as even the most outspoken critics of America would admit, the rest of the world would live in terror.
Because if America were to turn its back on the world, there would be peace that would settle over this planet, but it would be the kind of peace that suffocated freedom in Czechoslovakia.
The danger to us has changed, but it has not vanished. We must revitalize our alliances, not abandon them.
We must rule out unilateral disarmament, because in the real world it wouldn’t work. If we pursue arms control as an end in itself, we will not achieve our end. The adversaries in the world are not in conflict because they are armed. They are armed because they are in conflict, and have not yet learned peaceful ways to resolve their conflicting national interests.
The aggressors of this world are not going to give the United States a period of grace in which to put our domestic house in order—just as the crises within our society cannot be put on a back burner until we resolve the problem of Vietnam.
The most successful solutions that we can possibly imagine for our domestic programs will be meaningless if we are not around to enjoy them. Nor can we conduct a successful peace policy abroad if our society is at war with itself at home.
There is no advancement for Americans at home in a retreat from the problems of the world. I say that America has a vital national interest in world stability, and no other nation can uphold that interest for us.
We stand at a crossroad in our history. We shall reaffirm our destiny for greatness or we shall choose instead to withdraw into ourselves. The choice will affect far more than our foreign policy; it will determine the quality of our lives.[Page 88]
A nation needs many qualities, but it needs faith and confidence above all. Skeptics do not build societies; the idealists are the builders. Only societies that believe in themselves can rise to their challenges. Let us not, then, pose a false choice between meeting our responsibilities abroad and meeting the needs of our people at home. We shall meet both or we shall meet neither.
That is why my disagreement with the skeptics and the isolationists is fundamental. They have lost the vision indispensable to great leadership. They observe the problems that confront us; they measure our resources and then they despair. When the first vessels set out from Europe for the New World these men would have weighed the risks and they would have stayed behind. When the colonists on the eastern seaboard started across the Appalachians to the unknown reaches of the Ohio Valley, these men would have counted the costs and they would have stayed behind.
Our current exploration of space makes the point vividly; here is testimony to man’s vision and to man’s courage. The journey of the astronauts is more than a technical achievement; it is a reaching-out of the human spirit. It lifts our sights; it demonstrates that magnificent conceptions can be made real.
They inspire us and at the same time they teach us true humility. What could bring home to us more the limitations of the human scale than the hauntingly beautiful picture of our earth seen from the moon?
When the first man stands on the moon next month every American will stand taller because of what he has done, and we should be proud of this magnificent achievement.
We will know then that every man achieves his own greatness by reaching out beyond himself, and so it is with nations. When a nation believes in itself—as Athenians did in their Golden Age, as Italians did in the Renaissance—that nation can perform miracles. Only when a nation means something to itself can it mean something to others.
That is why I believe a resurgence of American idealism can bring about a modern miracle, and that modern miracle is a world order of peace and justice.
[Omitted here are Nixon’s concluding remarks, in which he argued for sufficient defense expenditures to maintain a strong military establishment.]
- Source: Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Richard Nixon, 1969, 432-437. The President was speaking at the Air Force Academy Commencement Exercises.↩