It was 50 years ago today when President John F. Kennedy addressed the Air Force Academy’s class of ’63 at graduation.
He used the speech, which also made reference to the Cuban Missile Crisis and the brewing war in Vietnam, to tout a new federal program to build a supersonic transport plane.
He also made some observations about the Air Force that sound like they could have been made today.
“They claim that the future of the Air Force is mortgaged to an obsolete weapons system, the manned aircraft, or that Air Force officers of the future will be nothing more than “silent silo sitters,” but nothing could be further from the truth. It is this very onrush of technology which demands an expanding role for the Nation’s Air Force and Air Force officers, and which guarantees that an Air Force career in the next 40 years will be even more changing and more challenging than the careers of the last 40 years.”
Presidents have often used Air Force Academy graduation speeches to float trail balloons on policy. president George W. Bush announced his support for Democracy movements in the Middle East during a graduation speech. That later was though tied to regime change in Libya and Egypt.
President Bill Clinton in 1995 foreshadowed a growth in terrorism that would lead the U.S. top more than a decade of war just six years after the speech.
“We understand now that the openness and freedom of society make us even more vulnerable to the organized forces of destruction, the forces of terror and organized crime and drug trafficking. The technological revolution that is bringing our world closer together can also bring more and more problems to our shores. The end of communism has opened the door to the spread of weapons of mass destruction and lifted the lid on age-old conflicts rooted in ethnic, racial and religious hatreds. These forces can be all the more destructive today because they have access to modern technology.”
In 1969 President Richard Nixon foreshadowed the opening of in-roads to china in his speech.
“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.”
At the height of the Cold War, Ronald Reagan signaled its end in his 1984 speech to cadets.
“Now, what about your generation? Where do you go from here? The quickening pace shouldn’t generate the belief that the tide of events is beyond your control. No, you should be confident that with wisdom, responsibility, and care you can harness change to shape your future. We’ve only seen the beginning of what a free and courageous people can do. The bold, not the naysayers, will point the way, because history has shown that progress often takes its greatest strides where brave people transform an idea which is scoffed at by skeptics into a tangible and important part of everyday life.”
President George H.W. Bush pushed the country toward an integrated missile defense in his 1991 graduation speech.
“We learned that missile defense works and that it promotes peace and security. In the Gulf, we had the technologies of defense to pick up where theories of deterrence left off. You see, Saddam Hussein was not deterred, but the Patriot saved lives and helped keep the coalition together.”
But in some ways, Kennedy speech may have been the most prescient.
“We live in a world, in short, where the principal problems that we face are not susceptible to military solutions alone. The role of our military power, in essence, is, therefore, to free ourselves and our allies to pursue the goals of freedom without the danger of enemy attack, but we do not have a separate military policy, and a separate diplomatic policy, and a separate disarmament policy, and a separate foreign aid policy, all unrelated to each other. They are all bound up together in the policy of the United States. Our goal is a coherent, overall, national security policy, one that truly serves the best interests of this country and those who depend upon it. It is worth noting that all of the decisions which we now face today will come in increased numbers in the months and years ahead.”