Miller Center

Address at the University of North Carolina (October 12, 1961)

John Fitzgerald Kennedy

Mr. Chancellor, Governor Sanford, members of the faculty, ladies and gentlemen:

I am honored today to be admitted to the fellowship of this ancient and distinguished university, and I am pleased to receive in the short space of 1 or 2 minutes the honor for which you spend over 4 years of your lives. But whether the degree be honorary or earned, it is a proud symbol of this university and this State.

North Carolina has long been identified with enlightened and progressive leaders and people, and I can think of no more important reason for that reputation than this university, which year after year has sent educated men and women who have had a recognition of their public responsibility as well as in their private interests.

Distinguished Presidents like President Graham and Gray, distinguished leaders like the Secretary of Commerce, Governor Hodges, distinguished members of the congressional delegation, carry out a tradition which stretches back to the beginning of this school, and that is that the graduate of this university is a man of his Nation as well as a man of his time. And it is my hope, in a changing world, when untold possibilities lie before North Carolina, and indeed the entire South and country, that this university will still hew to the old line of the responsibility that its graduates owe to the community at large--that in your time, too, you will be willing to give to the State and country a portion of your lives and all of your knowledge and all of your loyalty.

I want to emphasize, in the great concentration which we now place upon scientists and engineers, how much we still need the men and women educated in the liberal traditions, willing to take the long look, undisturbed by prejudices and slogans of the moment, who attempt to make an honest judgment on difficult events.

This university has a more important function today than ever before, and therefore I am proud as President of the United States, and as a graduate of a small land grant college in Massachusetts, Harvard University, to come to this center of education.

Those of you who regard my profession of political life with some disdain should remember that it made it possible for me to move from being an obscure lieutenant in the United States Navy to Commander-in-Chief in 14 years, with very little technical competence.

But more than that, I hope that you will realize that from the beginning of this country, and especially in North Carolina, there has been the closest link between educated men and women and politics and government. And also to remember that our nation's first great leaders were also our first great scholars.

A contemporary described Thomas Jefferson as "a gentleman of 32 who could calculate an eclipse, survey an estate, tie an artery, plan an edifice, try a cause, break a horse, dance the minuet, and play the violin." John Quincy Adams, after being summarily dismissed by the Massachusetts Legislature from the United States Senate for supporting Thomas Jefferson, could then become Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory at Harvard University, and then become a great Secretary of State.

And Senator Daniel Webster could stroll down the corridors of the Congress a few steps, after making some of the greatest speeches in the history of this country, and dominate the Supreme Court as the foremost lawyer of his day.

This versatility, this vitality, this intellectual energy, put to the service of our country, represents our great resource in these difficult days.

I would urge you, therefore, regardless of your specialty, and regardless of your chosen field or occupation, and regardless of whether you bear office or not, that you recognize the contribution which you can make as educated men and women to intellectual and political leadership in these difficult days, when the problems are infinitely more complicated and come with increasing speed, with increasing significance, in our lives than they were a century ago when so many gifted men dominated our political life. The United States Senate had more able men serving in it, from the period of 1830 to 1850, than probably any time in our history, and yet they dealt with three or four problems which they had dealt with for over a generation.

Now they come day by day, from all parts of the world. Even the experts find themselves confused, and therefore in a free society such as this, where the people must make an educated judgment, they depend upon those of you who have had the advantage of the scholar's education.

I ask you to give to the service of our country the critical faculties which society has helped develop in you here. I ask you to decide, as Goethe put it, "whether you will be an anvil or a hammer," whether you will give the United States, in which you were reared and educated, the broadest possible benefits of that education.

It's not enough to lend your talents to deploring present solutions. Most educated men and women on occasions prefer to discuss what is wrong, rather than to suggest alternative courses of action. But, "would you have counted him a friend of ancient Greece," as George William Curtis asked a body of educators a century ago, "would you have counted him a friend of ancient Greece who quietly discussed the theory of patriotism on that hot summer day through whose hopeless and immortal hours Leonidas and the three hundred stood at Thermopylae for liberty? Was John Milton to conjugate Greek verbs in his library when the liberty of Englishmen was imperiled?"

This is a great institution with a great tradition and with devoted alumni, and with the support of the people of this State. Its establishment and continued functioning, like that of all great universities, has required great sacrifice by the people of North Carolina. I cannot believe that all of this is undertaken merely to give this school's graduates an economic advantage in the lifestruggle.

"A university," said Professor Woodrow Wilson, "should be an organ of memory for the State, for the transmission of its best traditions." And Prince Bismarck was even more specific. "One third of the students of German universities," he once said, "'broke down from over-work, another third broke down from dissipation, and the other third ruled Germany." I leave it to each of you to decide in which category you will fall.

I do not suggest that our political and public life should be turned over to college trained experts, nor would I give this university a seat in the Congress, as William and Mary was once represented in the Virginia House of Burgesses, nor would I adopt from the Belgian constitution a provision giving three votes instead of one to college graduates--at least not until more Democrats go to college. But I do hope that you join us.

This university produces trained men and women, and what this country needs are those who look, as the motto of your State says, at things as they are and not at things as they seem to be.

For this meeting is held at an extraordinary time. Angola and Algeria, Brazil and Bizerte, Syria and South Viet-Nam, Korea or Kuwait, the Dominican Republic, Berlin, the United Nations itself--all problems which 20 years ago we could not even dream of.

Our task in this country is to do our best, to serve our Nation's interest as we see 'it, and not to be swayed from our course by the faint-hearted or the unknowing, or the threats of those who would make themselves our foes.

This is not a simple task in a democracy. We cannot open all our books in advance to an adversary who operates in the night, the decisions we make, the weapons we possess, the bargains we will accept--nor can we always see reflected overnight the success or failure of the actions that we may take.

In times past, a simple slogan described our policy: "Fifty-four-forty or fight." "To make the world safe for democracy." "No entangling alliances." But the times, issues, and the weapons, all have changed--and complicate and endanger our lives. It is a dangerous illusion to believe that the policies of the United States, stretching as they do world-wide, under varying and different conditions, can be encompassed in one slogan or one adjective, hard or soft or otherwise-or to believe that we shall soon meet total victory or total defeat.

Peace and freedom do not come cheap, and we are destined, all of us here today, to live out most if not all of our lives in uncertainty and challenge and peril. Our policy must therefore blend whatever degree of firmness and flexibility which is necessary to protect our vital interests, by peaceful means if possible, by resolute action if necessary.

There is, of course, no place in America where reason and firmness are more clearly pointed out than here in North Carolina. All Americans can profit from what happened in this State a century ago. It was this State, firmly fixed in the traditions of the South, which sought a way of reason in a troubled and dangerous world. Yet when the War came, North Carolina provided a fourth of all of the Confederate soldiers who made the supreme sacrifice in those years. And it won the right to the slogan, "First at Bethel. Farthest to the front at Gettysburg and Chickamauga. Last at Appomattox."

Its quest for a peaceful resolution of our problems was never identified in the minds of its people, of people today, with anything but a desire for peace and a preparation to meet their responsibilities.

We move for the first time in our history through an age in which two opposing powers have the capacity to destroy each other, and while we do not intend to see the free world give up, we shall make every effort to prevent the world from being blown up.

The American Eagle on our official seal emphasizes both peace and freedom, and as I said in the State of the Union Address, we in this country give equal attention to its claws when it in its left hand holds the arrows and in its right the olive branch.

This is a time of national maturity, understanding, and willingness to face issues as they are, not as we would like them to be. It is a test of our ability to be far-seeing and calm, as well as resolute, to keep an eye on both our dangers and our opportunities, and not to be diverted by momentary gains, or setbacks, or pressures. And it is the long view of the educated citizen to which the graduates of this university can best contribute.

We must distinguish the real from the illusory, the long-range from the temporary, the significant from the petty, but if we can be purposeful, if we can face up to our risks and live up to our word, if we can do our duty undeterred by fanatics or frenzy at home or abroad, then surely peace and freedom can prevail. We shall be neither Red nor dead, but alive and free--and worthy of the traditions and responsibilities of North Carolina and the United States of America.