EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the text of William F. Buckley Jr.’s June 8, 1971, commencement address to the United States Military Academy at West Point. The speech appears here as it is in Let Us Talk of Many Things : The Collected Speeches.
The morale in the armed services was low, reflecting the impasse and progressive demoralization in Vietnam, and especially the trial of Lieutenant William Calley for the massacre at Mylai. A drastic charge, flamboyantly made by decorated veteran John Kerry (now a United States senator from Massachusetts), had been rapturously received. Kerry ascribed to our soldiers in Vietnam uncivilized, barbarous practices. I devoted my talk to asking about Mr. Kerry’s charges and reflecting on their implications.
A great deal has been written lately on the spirit of progressivism at West Point. I note that a generation ago, cadets were not permitted to read a newspaper, whereas today, each cadet room receives a daily copy of the New York Times. I know now what it means to be nostalgic for the good old days.
I read ten days ago the full text of the quite remarkable address delivered by John Kerry before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. It was an address, I am told, that paralyzed the committee by its eloquence and made Mr. Kerry–a veteran of the war in Vietnam, a pedigreed Bostonian, a graduate of Yale University–an instant hero.
After reading it I put it aside, deeply troubled as I was by the haunting resonance of its peroration, which so moved the audience. The words he spoke were these:
“[We are determined] to undertake one last mission, to search out and destroy the last vestige of this barbaric war, to pacify our hearts, to conquer the hate and fear that have driven this country these last ten years and more, so that when, thirty years from now, our brothers go down the street without a leg, without an arm, or a face, and small boys ask why, we will be able to say ‘Vietnam!’ and not mean a desert, not a filthy obscene memory, but the place where America finally turned and where soldiers like us helped it in the turning.”
“Where America finally turned.” We need to wonder: where America finally turned from what?
Mr. Kerry, in introducing himself to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, made it plain that he was there to speak not only for himself, but for what he called “a very much larger group of veterans in this country.” He then proceeded to describe the America he knows, the America from which he enjoined us all to turn.
In Southeast Asia, he said, he saw “not isolated incidents but crimes committed on a day-to-day basis with the full awareness of officers at all levels of command.”
A grave charge, but the sensitive listener will instantly assume that Mr. Kerry is using the word “crime” loosely, as in, “He was criminally thoughtless in not writing home more often to his mother.” But Mr. Kerry quickly interdicted that line of retreat. He went on to enumerate precisely such crimes as are being committed “on a day-to-day basis, with the full awareness of officers at all levels of command.” He gave tales of torture, of rape, of Americans who “randomly shot at civilians, razed villages in a fashion reminiscent of Genghis Khan, shot cattle and dogs for fun, poisoned food stocks, and generally ravaged the countryside of South Vietnam in addition to the normal ravages of war.”
Mr. Kerry informed Congress that what threatens the United States is “not Reds, and not redcoats,” but “the crimes” we are committing. He tells us that we have “created a monster, a monster in the form of millions of men who have been taught to deal and to trade in violence, and who have returned with a sense of anger.”
Most specifically he singled out for criticism a sentence uttered by Mr. Agnew here at West Point a year ago: “Some glamorize the criminal misfits of society while our best men die in Asian rice paddies to preserve the freedom which most of those misfits abuse.” Mr. Kerry insists that the so-called misfits are the true heroes, inasmuch as it was they who “were standing up for us in a way that nobody else in this country dared to.” As for the men in Vietnam, he added, “we cannot consider ourselves America’s ‘best men’ when we are ashamed of and hated for what we were called on to do in Southeast Asia.”
And indeed, if American soldiers have been called upon to rape and to torture and to exterminate non-combatants, it is obvious that they should be ashamed, less obvious why they have not expressed that shame more widely on returning to the United States, particularly inasmuch as we have been assured by Mr. Kerry that they have been taught to deal and to trade in violence.
Are there extenuating circumstances? Is there a reason for our being in Vietnam?
“To attempt to justify the loss of one American life in Vietnam, Cambodia, or Laos by linking such loss to the preservation of freedom . . . is . . . the height of criminal hypocrisy, and it is that kind of hypocrisy which we feel has torn this country apart.” It is then, we reason retrospectively, not alone an act of hypocrisy that caused the joint chiefs of staff and the heads of the civilian departments engaged in strategic calculations to make the recommendations they made over the past ten years, to three Presidents of the United States: it was not merely hypocrisy, but criminal hypocrisy. The nature of that hypocrisy? “All,” Mr. Kerry sums up, “that we were told about the mystical war against Communism.”
The indictment is complete.
It is the indictment of an ignorant young man who is willing to condemn in words that would have been appropriately used in Nuremberg the governing class of America: the legislators, the generals, the statesmen. And, reaching beyond them, the people, who named the governors to their positions of responsibility and ratified their decisions in several elections.
The point I want to raise is this: If America is everything that John Kerry says it is, what is it appropriate for us to do? The wells of regeneration are infinitely deep, but the stain described by John Kerry goes too deep to be bleached out by conventional remorse or resolution: better the destruction of America, if, to see ourselves truly, we need to look into the mirror John Kerry holds up for us. If we are a nation of sadists, of kid-killers and torturers, of hypocrites and criminals, let us be done with it, and pray that a great flood or fire will destroy us, leaving John Kerry and maybe Mrs. Benjamin Spock to take the place of Lot, in reseeding a new order.
Gentleman, how many times, in the days ahead, you will need to ask yourselves the most searching question of all, the counterpart of the priest’s most agonizing doubt: Is there a God? Yours will be: Is America worth it?
John Kerry’s assault on this country did not rise fullblown in his mind, like Venus from the Cypriot Sea. It is the crystallization of an assault upon America which has been fostered over the years by an intellectual class given over to self-doubt and self-hatred, driven by a cultural disgust with the uses to which so many people put their freedom. The assault on the military, the many and subtle vibrations of which you feel as keenly as James Baldwin knows the inflections of racism, is an assault on the proposition that what we have, in America, is truly worth defending. The military is to be loved or despised according as it defends that which is beloved or perpetuates that which is despised. The root question has not risen to such a level of respectability as to work itself into the platform of a national political party, but it lurks in the rhetoric of the John Kerrys, such that a blind man, running his fingers over the features of the public rhetoric, can discern the meaning of it:
Is America worth it?
That is what they are saying to you. And that is what so many Americans reacted to in the case of Lieutenant Calley. Mistakenly, they interpreted the conviction of Calley as yet another effort to discredit the military. And though they will not say it in as many words, they know that if there is no military, it will quickly follow that there will be no America, of the kind that they know, that we know. The America that listens so patiently to its John Kerrys, the America that shouldered the great burden of preserving oases of freedom after the great curtain came down with that Bolshevik subtlety that finally expressed itself in a Wall, to block citizens of the socialist utopia from leaving, en route even to John Kerry’s America; the America that all but sank under the general obloquy, in order to stand by, in Southeast Asia, a commitment it had soberly made, to the cause of Containment–I shall listen patiently, decades hence, to those who argue that our commitment in Vietnam and our attempt to redeem it were tragically misconceived. I shall not listen to those who say that it was less than the highest tribute to national motivation, to collective idealism, and to international rectitude. I say this with confidence because I have never met an American who takes pleasure from the Vietnam War or who desires to exploit the Vietnamese.
So during those moments when doubt will assail you, moments that will come as surely as the temptations of the flesh, I hope you will pause. I know, I know, at the most hectic moments of one’s life it isn’t easy–indeed, the argument can be made that neither is it seemly–to withdraw from the front line in order to consider the general situation philosophically. But what I hope you will consider, during these moments of doubt, is the essential professional point: Without organized force, and the threat of the use of it under certain circumstances, there is no freedom, anywhere. Without freedom, there is no true humanity. If America is the monster of John Kerry, burn your commissions tomorrow morning and take others, which will not bind you in the depraved conspiracy you have heard described. If it is otherwise, remember: the freedom John Kerry enjoys, and the freedom I enjoy, are, quite simply, the result of your dedication. Do you wonder that I accepted the opportunity to salute you?