David Kennedy: 'Get out and make things happen'

This is the prepared text of remarks by Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David Kennedy, who spoke during the Class Day Luncheon on June 11, 2005.

I have three short stories, one historical reflection, one piece of advice and one translation.

The first story is about my very own favorite professor. And for that reason, it's autobiographical. When I was about your age, and graduation was approaching, I decided it was time to venture off campus and have a look around. And I discovered something that I want to share with you before it's too late: College was the easy part. Now it gets hard. I know college has seemed hard—all those papers and exams and labs and problem sets. But three things have made it easy: freedom, forgiveness and indulgence. All three of those are about to disappear from your lives.

Think about the freedom part. Consider what you're going to miss: no more mid-day naps, no more spring breaks, no more three-week Christmas holidays, no more three-month summer vacations, no more skipping classes when you feel like it, no more choosing to study only what you want, no more avoiding all classes before 11 a.m.—and most painful of all, no more daytime TV.

As for the forgiveness: Well, outside the bosom of your family, you will never again be in such a forgiving environment as the one that has nurtured you here at Stanford. If you oversleep and miss class, hey, just get somebody else's notes. Miss an exam question, just ace the next one. Paper no good? Ask to rewrite it. Course too tough? Take it credit/no clue. Flunk the course—or, worse, get a B-minus—just repeat it. Not prepared for the final exam? Get a doctor's excuse (or arrange to have a grandparent die) and take it later.

But out there beyond the Palm Tree Curtain—well, suffice it to say it's a jungle out there. Oversleep and lose your job. Turn in the wrong results and get sued. And just try to see a doctor.

And as for indulgence, let me tell you something: For four years my colleagues and I have been paid to read your papers, to answer your questions, to listen to your comments, recommend you for grants and jobs and internships.

No one will ever be obligated to do this again. If your writing is not clear, original and compelling, nobody will read it. If your comments are not trenchant and factual, nobody will listen. Out there in that jungle called the real world, nobody cares, nobody listens, nobody notices—unless you're really good.

So, I figured all this out about 40 years ago, when I came back from that expedition off campus, and I've never left it again. I know I'm sharing this with you at the eleventh hour, but I apologize for not being in touch sooner.

Now for a bit of historical reflection. It's customary on occasions like this for speakers to try to reach across the generational divide—to attempt to bridge the cultural chasm that leaves me unable to program a VCR and leads you to labor under the assumption that Paul Newman has always made salad dressing and that Michael Jackson has always been white. Commencement speakers by the thousands struggle every springtime to find some intergenerational connection—some element of comparison or contrast that links the historical moment in which their own graduation was set to the historical circumstances that will now face the graduates they face—usually by way of suggesting that back in the day the winters were colder, the snowdrifts higher, the gruel thinner, the hardships harder, and by comparison your lives are cushy and privileged and the road has been paved for you with the blood, sweat and tears of your eternally toiling forebears, and you'd darn well better—well, you get the picture.

But the fact is that my generation had the unexampled good fortune of being given much of our allotted time on this Earth during what the novelist Philip Roth has called "the greatest moment of collective inebriation in American history." He referred to that giddy, prosperous, self-confident post-World War II era when anything seemed possible, and lots of previously unimaginable things were indeed possible—like a college education for this grandson of a railroad section boss and a coal miner.

So I want to go back to a moment before both my time and yours—the World War II era—by way of suggesting something that's new and more than a little troubling under history's sun in this year of grace 2005.

From the time of the ancient Greeks through the American Revolutionary War and well down into the 20th century, the obligation to bear arms and the privileges of citizenship were intimately linked. From Aristotle's Athens to Machiavelli's Florence and Rembrandt's Amsterdam and John Adams' Boston and beyond, to be a full citizen was to stand ready to shoulder arms. It's why the founders of this country were so concerned with militias and so worried about standing armies, about which Samuel Adams said, "A standing army, however necessary it may be at some times, is always dangerous to the liberties of the people." It's why Franklin Roosevelt could boast about those GIs as "the greatest generation" who landed in Normandy on D-Day in 1944. And he said, "Our sons, pride of the nation … are lately drawn from the ways of peace … They yearn but for the end of battle, for their return to the haven of home." It's why African Americans were so eager to serve in World Wars I and II, to secure their full claim to citizenship rights. For more than two millennia, the tradition of the citizen-soldier has served the indispensable purposes of sustaining civic engagement, protecting individual liberty—and guaranteeing political accountability.

But today, we have configured our military in a fashion that has many of the attributes of a mercenary army. None of you is liable to the obligation of service, and very, very few of you will ever taste battle. In another era, exemption from that obligation would have disqualified you from full citizenship. Maybe it will yet.

To be sure, we hire what I call the modern American mercenary army internally (unlike the hated Hessians that King George III employed in trying to extinguish the American Revolution). But it is nonetheless an all-volunteer force that signs up for some mighty dangerous work primarily for wages and benefits, a compensation package that may not always be commensurate with the dangers in store, as current recruiting problems testify. Now I am emphatically not impugning either the idealism or the patriotism of those who serve today. I happen to believe that the profession of arms is a noble calling. And I see no shame whatsoever in wage labor. But the fact remains that we have evolved a force that is extraordinarily lean, mean and lethal—and that has an unprecedented asymmetrical relation both to the world around us and to our own society. Now let me explain what it is about that compound asymmetry that I find worrisome.

First, the relation of the U.S. military to the rest of the world: By some reckonings, the United States' military budget is greater than the military expenditures of all other nations combined. That money buys an arsenal of smart, precision weapons and the skilled operators to fire them that can lay down a coercive footprint in the world larger and more intimidating than anything history has ever seen. Now, we believe that our armed forces seek only just goals and at the end of the day will be understood as exerting a benign influence. But that perspective may not come so easily to those who find themselves on the receiving end of that supposedly beneficent violence. Here, surely, is why so many people, even our sister societies in Europe and North America, regard us with wariness and apprehension.

But the second element of what I've called the "compound asymmetry" of America's military relationship to the world and to society, the second element of this compound asymmetry is even more troubling. It concerns the military's place in the larger context of American society itself—and here the historical comparison with the World War II era comes into especially sharp and telling focus. From the inauguration of the draft in 1940 through the second world war's end just 60 years ago in 1945, the United States put some 16 million men and several thousand women into uniform. What's more, it mobilized the economic, social and psychological resources of the society down to the last factory and railcar and victory garden. World War II was a "total war." It compelled the mass participation of all citizens and the commitment of virtually all the society's energies to secure the ultimate victory.

But thanks to something called the "revolution in military affairs," a product of the last decade and a half that has wedded the achievements of the newest electronic and information technologies to the destructive purposes of history's second-oldest profession, we now have an active-duty military establishment that is proportionate to population about 4 percent—1/25th—of the size of the force that fought in World War II. What's more, in the behemoth $11 trillion American economy, the fruits of which we all enjoy, the total military budget is now less than 4 percent of gross domestic product. In World War II it was more than 40 percent—a greater than tenfold difference in the relative incidence of the military's claim on the society's overall resources.

Now the implications of this seem to me to be pretty clear: History's most deadly and destructive military force can now be put into the field by a society that scarcely breaks a sweat when it does so—that force and that situation puts at risk very few of its sons and daughters, and only those who go willingly into harm's way. Our society neither asks nor requires any significant material deprivations on the part of the citizens in whose name that force is ultimately being deployed.

I believe this is not a healthy situation. It is, among other things, a standing invitation to the kind of military adventurism that the Founders correctly feared was among the greatest danger of standing armies—a danger that in their day was made manifest in the career of Napoleon Bonaparte. Thomas Jefferson said of Bonaparte that he "transferred the destinies of the republic from the civil to the military arm. Some will use this as a lesson against the practicability of republican government." Said Jefferson, "I read it as a lesson against the danger of standing armies."

I recognize that some, perhaps many, of you may find it offensive to call today's armed forces a "mercenary army," and I repeat that I am in no way impugning the motives or the loyalties of those who are currently serving. But they are surely not the members of the citizen-army that we fielded two generations ago—drawn from all ranks of society, without respect to background or privilege or education, and an army mobilized on such a scale that civilian society's deep and durable consent to the shaping and the use of that force was absolutely necessary. Leaving questions of equity aside, I for one cannot believe that it is healthy for democracy to let such an important function—the application of military force—to grow so far removed from popular participation and accountability. It makes some supremely important things too easy—like dealing out death and destruction to others and seeking military solutions on the assumption they will be swifter and more cheaply bought than those that could be accomplished by the slower and more vexatious business of diplomacy. And the life of a robust democratic society should be, in some measure at least, a strenuous life, one that makes demands on its citizens, especially when they are asked to engage with issues of life and death.

So let me turn to my second story, one that brings us back a little closer to home. It's a story about two people from Stanford's founding era. One of the great figures who taught on Stanford's faculty in the early days was William James, the distinguished Harvard psychologist and philosopher and the brother of the greatest of all American novelists, Henry James. Not far from this very spot, he once gave a talk called "Stanford's Ideal Destiny." In it he conjured a vision of Stanford 100 years in the future—just about now. He said: "Can we not frame a vision of what Stanford may be a century hence, with all the honors of the intervening years rolled up in its traditions? Not vast, but intense; devoted to truth; radiating influence, setting standards; shedding abroad the fruits of learning; mediating between America and Asia."

Now that spirit—so obviously ambitious, world-beating, almost immodest in its energy and reach—still pulses robustly on this campus today. I'm sure you have been touched by it; indeed, have contributed to it. It's among the things that make Stanford great and distinctive. It's probably among the reasons why you came here.

But another spirit abides here as well—and it, too, comes down to us from the earliest days of the university, and I hope it's one that we've managed to pass on to you, along with all the skills we've presumably imparted to equip you to be world-beatingly victorious out there in the fabled rat race that awaits you.

When David Starr Jordan, Stanford's first president, arrived in California, he took himself around the state to recruit students for the brand new university. In the standard little talk he gave, he did not dwell especially on the newness of Stanford, or its ambition, or its energy, or how it would equip those young Californians to make their way in the hugger-mugger Darwinian struggle of the frontier West. He struck another kind of note altogether—a note that sang of the values of serenity and contemplation. He spoke to those young people more than 100 years ago not so much about the necessity of making a living as about the importance of making a life. He talked about the value of the humanities—about what used to be called a liberal arts education. He put it this way:

"To turn from the petty troubles of the day to the thoughts of the masters is to go from the noise of the street through the doors of a cathedral. If you learn to unlock those portals, no power on Earth can ever take from you the key. The whole of your life must be spent in your own company, and only the educated man is good company for himself."

Now it's appropriate for us, I think, to remind ourselves on a day like this of both of these legacies from Stanford's founding. The one as much as the other makes up the essence of this place, and together they compose the gift that we hope you will take away from here.

My third story is very brief, and it leads to my concluding piece of advice. In those early Stanford days, in the end of the 19th century, it was still common, especially out here in the West and even more especially in the regions where the railroad had not yet reached, for people to travel by stagecoach. And most stagecoach lines in those days offered three categories of ticket: first class, second class and third class. A first-class ticket gave the passenger a guarantee that no matter what happened en route, he or she would arrive at the destination in good shape. A second-class ticket guaranteed arrival, but also provided that in case of difficulty en route—a mudslide that might have closed the road or a broken axle on the wagon—the passenger could be asked to step out of the coach for a period of time and wait until the problem was overcome. A third-class ticket carried the stipulation that in case of difficulty the holder of such a ticket would be expected to get out, to go to work with pickax or shovel, put a shoulder to the wheel and help to get the show on the road again.

Stanford is a first-class institution, and the sheepskin you'll be handed tomorrow is a first-class ticket to the rest of your life. My advice to you is don't take it. I don't mean don't take your diploma—of course you should take it. You've earned it and your parents would be aghast if you didn't take it. But don't take the first- or even the second-class route through life. Go third class. Don't be too comfortable. Don't be a bystander. Get out and make things happen. Get dirty. Put your shoulder to the wheel. Make the world move. And don't make the mistake of thinking that military service is something that can be safely left to the other passengers.

Finally, the promised translation. The document I want to translate for you is two lines of a poem by Gwendolyn Brooks. She said:

Exhaust the little moment. Soon it dies.

And be it gash or gold it will not come again in identical disguise.

Here's the translation: Carpe diem.

Good luck, and Godspeed.