Most commencement addresses are fairly forgettable exercises. I have sat through three of them, high school, college and law school, and I confess I can remember almost nothing about them. I guess they are a rite of passage, but few rites of passage are so universal and so universally ignored.
One hundred years ago, President Roosevelt, on May 2, 1902, gave the commencement speech at the Naval Academy. Although he served in the Army during the Spanish-American War, the Navy, without a doubt, was TR’s favorite service. He wrote the seminal history, at that point, of the naval war of 1812 as a young man, a book which still may be read with much profit. He was convinced that in the 20th century naval power would be the decisive factor in World history, a belief greatly supported by his enthusiastic reading of Dennis Hart Mahan’s The Influence of Sea Power Upon History (1890). Roosevelt would greatly enhance American naval power during his term in office. Here is his address:
TO THE GRADUATING CLASS OF THE NAVAL ACADEMY
MAY 2, 1902
Gentlemen of the Graduating Class:
In receiving these diplomas you become men who above almost any others of the entire Union are to carry henceforth ever-present with you the sense of responsibility which must come if you are worthy of wearing the uniform; which must come with the knowledge that on some tremendous day it may depend upon your courage, your preparedness, your skill in your profession, whether or not the nation is again to write her name on the world s roll of honor or is to know the black shame of defeat. We all of us earnestly hope that the occasion for war may not arise, but if it has to come then this nation must win; and as Dr. Winston has pointed out, in winning the prime factor must of necessity be the United States Navy.
If the navy fails us then we are doomed to defeat. It should therefore be an object of prime importance for every patriotic American to see that the navy is built up; and that it is kept to the highest point of efficiency both in personnel and material. Above all, it can not be too often repeated to those representatives of the nation in whose hands the practical application of the principle lies, that in modern naval war the chief factor in achieving triumph is what has been done in the way of thorough preparation and training before the beginning of the war. It is what has been done before the outbreak of war that counts most. After the outbreak, all that can be done is to use to best ad vantage the great war engines, and the seamanship, marksmanship, and general practical efficiency which have already been provided by the forethought of the national legislature and by the administrative ability, through a course of years, of the Navy Department.
A battleship can not be improvised. It takes years to build. And we must learn that it is exactly as true that the skill of the officers and men in handling a battleship aright can likewise never be improvised ; that it must spring from use and actual sea service, and from the most careful, zealous, and systematic training. You to whom I am about to give these diplomas now join the ranks of the officers of the United States Navy. You enter a glorious service, proud of its memories of renown.
You must keep ever in your minds the thought of the supreme hour which may come when what you do will forever add to or detract from that renown. Some of you will have to do your part in helping construct the ships and the guns which you use.
You need to bend every energy toward making these ships and guns in all their details the most perfect of their kind throughout the world. The ship must be seaworthy, the armament fitted for best protection to the guns and men, the guns in all their mechanism fit to do the greatest possible execution in the shortest possible time. Every detail, whether of protection to the gun-crews, of rapidity and sureness in handling the ammunition and working the elevating and revolving gear, or of quickness and accuracy in sighting, must be thought out far in advance, and the thought carefully executed in the actual work. But after that has been done it remains true that the best ships and guns, the most costly mechanism, are utterly valueless if the men have not been trained to use them to the best possible ad vantage. From now on throughout your lives there can be no slackness in the performance of duty on your part. Much has been given you, and much will be expected from you. Your duty must be ever present with you, waking and sleeping. You must train yourselves, and you must train those under you, in the actual work of seamanship, in the actual work of gunnery. If the day for battle comes you will need all that you possess of boldness, skill, de termination, ability to bear punishment, and instant readiness in an emergency. Without these qualities you can do nothing, yet even with them you can do but little if you have not had the forethought and set purpose to train yourselves and the enlisted men under you aright. Officers and men alike must have the sea habit; officers and men alike must realize that in battle the only shots that count are the shots that hit, and that normally the victory will lie with the side whose shots hit oftenest. Of course you must have the ability to stand up to the hammering; the courage, the daring, the resolution to endure; but I take it for granted you will have those qualities.
It is less to be thought to your credit to have them than it would be eternally to your discredit to lack them. I take it for granted you will have the courage we have a right to expect to go with American seamanship; that you will have the daring and the resolution. And I ask that you make it from now on your object to see that if ever the day should arise, your courage, your readiness, your eager desire to win fresh renown for the flag be made good by the training you have given yourselves and those under you in the practical work of your profession in seamanship and gunnery.