Duty. Honor. Country.: Going beyond the dictionary's definitions
To be chosen to receive the Sylvanus Thayer Award is a personal tribute of high and unmatched quality. This single event places me among a group of distinguished Americans you believe best embody the core principles of West Point: Duty. Honor. Country. You must understand those words in order to allow your lives to fulfill their meaning in depth and to expand that meaning through the service rendered. A biographer of the Duke of Marlborough, writing in 1894, said that "in England, the noble, selfless word duty' has long been the motto of her famous warrior sons." We should understand duty in the context of a noble, selfless word rather than as simply something that has to be done. Dwight Eisenhower, who preceded me on this stage by 34 years, was a student of the concept of duty. "No man can always be right," he wrote. "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 factors involved and then to do one's duty."
Why are you here? I believe for one purpose that transcends all others. To serve your country. If I were to look each of you in the eyes and ask why you came to West Point, I think you would agree that not every honest answer would place service of country at the top of the list. Some of you have more practical reasons for being here. Perhaps it was parental pressure. Perhaps it was the realization that you could not afford this level of education at any other school. Perhaps it was the desire to become the world's premier engineer. Nothing is wrong with personal motivation. Nothing is wrong with understanding the worth of a West Point education. Certainly nothing is wrong with a desire to be the best. The key to your success at this institution, however, will be your ability to mature your personal motivation into a selfless motivation. The rewards for both you and the country will be far greater. Those of you who accomplish great things in service to your country will be those who learn the meaning of denial of self.
Those of you who will accomplish great things will achieve the elevation of character that constitutes honor. Among the world's great writers at the time of West Point's founding were William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Each wrote about honor in the same context in which we are considering duty, honor and country tonight. Coleridge said that honor implies "a reverence for the invisible and supersensual in our nature." Again, a denial of self. Wordsworth said that honor "'tis 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. It is my hope that your circumstances will not include warfare, but they very well may. If you do not develop honor, if you do not embrace the finest sense of justice that the human mind can frame, you will not be worthy of the confidence West Point and your country will place in you.
How many times since you first stepped on this campus have you heard words to the effect that the role of the military is changing radically in these post Cold War years? I hope you do not become numb to the meaning of the changing military role. Instead, take those words as compliments. For if your role were not changing, if you were not willing to change and shape change, then I suggest that you would not be of West Point caliber. Some things do not change. High ethical values inspirited by your principles. Duty. Honor. Country. They do not change. There is no magic formula to guarantee success. I can assure you that if you embrace your West Point heritage . . . if you go beyond the dictionary definitions of duty, honor, country and learn their meanings . . . if these words are inculcated into your very souls and are not just everyday chatter . . . you will not need magic formulas.
The late Barbara Jordan (1936-1996) was the first Black woman from the South to serve in the U.S. Congress and the first Black selected to keynote a major political convention, that of the 1976 Democratic National Convention. The above is an excerpt from her Thayer Award acceptance speech, West Point, July 25, 1974.
By Barbara Jordan