July 1942Commencement AddressBernard DeVoto
American faiths—the faith that to grow in knowledge is to grow in personality and citizenship. They have a complex symbolism. They formally receive the Class of 1942 in a continuity which reaches as far back as the human spirit has sought to know the nature of things. And they formally proclaim that the Class of 1942 have completed an apprenticeship in learning and may now begin the lives for which, according to our enduring faith, their education has prepared them.
Twenty-five years ago these same ceremonies invoked this same symbolism on behalf of the Class of 1917. Then, as now, some members of the graduating class were already absent when the ritual was fulfilled. Then, as now, that ritual had an irony hardly to be borne. For young men are educated in order to live their lives in function, develop what is in them, and achieve their expectation. Education, if our faith is not merely frivolous, is education for peace. And in 1917, as in 1942, the graduating class was called upon to relinquish its preparation for peace and assume instead the obligation of war. I conceive that it is as soldiers you should be addressed, and that any member of the Class of 1917 who ventures to speak to the Class of 1942 on Commencement Day should speak as a soldier. What could a man who was a soldier in 1917 say to his son who is a soldier in 1942? He would avoid the pitfall of rhetoric, he would say no more than he has found true in his own experience as a veteran of war and also of peace. He would try to phrase what the Class of 1917 found out.
They went off to war, they prepared to fight, some of them fought, some of them served without fighting, and the war reached its end—or its twenty-five years’ armistice. When it ended some of the Class of ‘17 were dead, some were crippled in body or in soul, some were unaffected, some were diminished, some increased. Those who were left took up the interrupted expectation. They began the completion of their individual experience, which has included the begetting of sons and the hope that their sons might live out their lives in peace.
Decent reticences fence off a soldier’s privacies. He can no more speak of love of country than any man can truly find words for love of a woman. Yet the inestimable experience is there, and a soldier has had his moment of dedication. It is, in his full consciousness, hardly more than a moment—a brief exaltation soon crusted over by the human habit of being shamefaced about consummate emotion and by the routine of war. It is remembered only in oblique associations, precisely as the privacies of love are remembered. But in that moment the soldier has achieved a knowledge otherwise altogether beyond his attainment. What were mere words have become a living truth for him, he has found the reality in experience deep in the bitter grief of mankind and knows that the function of those who must live for a country may also be to die for it and that to die for it truly is seemly. . . . That moment will overtake you suddenly at some point of the path you now start out on. In that moment you will seem to yourself already dead in your country’s defense and already fulfilled by dying. It will pass swiftly, you will allude to it only with a grin or a cheap joke, you will deny it many times, it will lie covered over with the dreariness and the manifold boredoms of soldiering. Nevertheless at the depths an immutable change will have occurred, for you have been touched by something eternal.
Other knowledge comes to a soldier. It is not that he has looked on the unspeakable and survived, or seen the dignity of the human body made a mere blasphemy by wounds and filth and dismemberment, but has nevertheless endured. He has felt the deepest affirmation. No man has ever known that death must be faced—death in peace or in war—without fearing that his fear of death would betray the fundamental honor of life. For his God has promised him, and man’s conception of himself has promised him, that at the extremity he will behave with dignity and fortitude. All men fear that fear may break this honor. What a soldier learns is that, at the extremity, he will rule his fear and do whatever it is his part to do. He will see it through. So that, whether he lives or dies, the knowledge will not fail him that when the simplest but most rigorous test of manhood was upon him he met it.
There is also the fellowship of soldiers. It may come to you quite suddenly and by way of only an eight-man squad marching down a road or resting under trees. You are suddenly members one of another, in daily boredom and labor, in the risk of death, in the necessity of the nation. You are enlarged in a fraternity of things shared, and the awareness widens out to the company, the regiment, the army, to a knowledge too often slurred or denied or scorned in times of safety, a knowledge that the Americans are members one of another. . . . During your college years you have seen the world break up. And in your senior year you have seen the nation form, as it always forms in times of danger. You have seen the discords lessen, the phantasms fade, the will harden, and the purpose take shape. You have felt your own doubts go. Some of you, I do not doubt, were long troubled by ignorance: you thought that you had no faith, that America had found for you no belief real enough and precious enough to make you will to live for it, still less to die for it. You have now come to know that it had been there all along, too plain to be seen, too mighty to be realized. You have seen it waken all around you. They say that in the Naval Hospital at Pearl Harbor on December 7th a young sailor with half his body shot away held out his hand to no one in particular, to someone unnamed and unseen, and said, “We were there together.” In five months you have seen America wake to the knowledge of a soldier, that we are here together. While we meet in a college hall other Americans face death in all the oceans and continents. A year ago no one could have communicated to you the fellowship you now feel with the men who died and those who lived at Pearl Harbor and on the Bataan Peninsula.
As you go to war some private symbol will mean that faith to you. It may be one of those names which embody the poetry of the American land—Susquehanna, Yemassee, Kaskaskia, Niobrara. It may be a glimpse of some familiar landscape, the swell of a prairie, the edge of a woods, a hayfield or orchard, the curve of a highway, some effect of rain or cloud or sunlight over your own place. It may be the verse of a song, something from Stephen Foster, from some idle, ephemeral song, or from one of the songs sung on this campus last night. It may be a memory of some college hour, the sun on the lawns, or voices over the tennis courts, or friends talking together after midnight. Whatever it may prove to be, it will mean America in you. It will mean that you were nurtured to the expectation of peace and that on you also has fallen the necessity of war. On you also has been put the challenge which Abraham Lincoln put on other Americans long ago, to “nobly save or meanly lose the last, best hope of earth.”
A few weeks ago America called on the Class of 1917 to register for the second time in universal liability to serve. Chance had me registering in a building of my own college, one which was erected as a memorial to the men of that college who died in the Civil War. Our line of registrants moved through a long hall where names of no meaning to us personally are recorded in marble with names of places where they died—Bull Run, Antietam, Chancellorsville, Shiloh, Chickamauga, Gettysburg, the Wilderness. We never knew them, but on them as on us had fallen the summons and the necessity. And every man who moved down that line beside those names could remember other men, members of the Class of 1917, who had been our friends and who had sat with us in that same building during the college years. Their names mean nothing to you, but on you has fallen the summons and the necessity. We were all there together.
I will not speak their names but only say that they were my friends. One would have been a lawyer in a small, obscure town. He married a girl in September, 1917; he was killed at Saint Mihiel. He begot no sons, he died, so we say, without issue, he never lived to be a lawyer. One would have been a chemist. He fought the war through, was in a number of battles, was wounded several times, survived, came home, studied chemistry for another year, and died. He also begot no sons. One served through the war, came home, lived according to his light, and died ten years ago. Another, a bacteriologist, served through the war and came home and took up the career that had been broken off, and died two years ago. He died triumphant, we should say, since when he died the terror of one disease that has afflicted mankind was ended forever because he had lived to do his work.
That bacteriologist nobly fulfilled the promise of his generation, after honorably fighting in its war. He married and begot children, worked out as much as might be of his expectation, lived fully, and when he rounded out his years had added to man’s knowledge and power. Therein, we believe, is the implied contract which life makes with us and which is ratified by the college years: that every man shall have his chance. It would have been sweet and seemly if those others had had their chance. If the young lawyer had been able to come back to his wife, live in his little town, beget children, rear them to maturity, and round out his years. If the young chemist had been able to find his place, make his talent fruitful, and marry and beget children. But the past five months have taught you, as the years have taught me, that the phrase which you and I both have sometimes mocked is true—that their death was sweet and seemly, that their life was sweet and seemly in their death. They did not die without issue or without function. You are their issue, and their function was not to work out their personal promise but to die maintaining the continuity in which you have lived.
Now on the Class of 1942 has fallen the necessity they faced in 1917. No old soldier would dare in the slightest to mitigate for any young soldier the horror of what must be faced. Hell is real and you must go into hell and run your chance. No father can mitigate to himself or to his son the ruth of a young man’s dying in war. It may be that your name will yet be carved in marble when this college lists her sons who died in the service of America. Your very dog may outlive you, and your father, who survived his war, be left to make what he can of hearing someone else whistling to that dog. All anyone can say is: good luck, God give you courage, may you do your parts as men and soldiers. Your cause is the last, best hope of earth, and in you the American people, all people who accept decency and practice freedom and believe that mankind has dignity, are working out their destiny. Moreover, in the knowledge you have discovered in yourselves during the past five months exists the certainty of triumph. When you felt the common will asserted in you, the fixed universe on which our enemy has staked his destiny was shattered. In that moment the underlying fear that has besotted the modern world was proved unreal; for you knew that the spirit of man is truly free and that its contemners, who have staked everything on the guess that it was bound, must go down defeated.
Living or dying, you have found your function and will have your issue: to do the common job, at the summons of your country, in the need of your kind. Your fathers, the Class of 1917, won their war. They lost their peace. I will not say that they meanly lost it but they did not do all that peace required of them. The disease that overspread the earth after the last war had many causes. In part we were ignorant, in part careless, in part weak. We were too timid or too stupid to assume for the United States in peace the responsibility of power we had asserted for it in war. We were too easily discouraged, too easily cynical, too superficial, too untrue to the knowledge and faith we have proved in ourselves. We were too Utopian, we asked too much of fallible men and so were too readily disheartened. Twenty-five years ago it was in our power to advance more than a little the solutions of the unsolved problems of giving order to the societies of the world. We failed, and so the disease spread, hope died, and you have grown up in an era abandoned to despair. You have the knowledge that we failed. But you have the knowledge that your generation, though it faces the result of our failure, also faces the possibility of repairing it.
So the summons has now fallen on you. You will win your war. You have a chance to win your peace.
There is no certainty that you will win it. With death and life, as with steel and explosives, men may either build or destroy. But if it is true, and it is true, that in my generation hope went out of the world, it is true that in your generation hope has come back to the world. If when you have ceased fighting you do not deal more successfully than your fathers with the problems of giving order to the societies of the world, then indeed the world will be more full of sorrow than anyone can understand and your sons will grow up to unmitigated and absolute despair. But before your eyes the wild and inconceivable has happened, the thing itself. Meaning has come back to men’s effort and men’s desire. When you recognized the will in yourselves, determinism was refuted and the monstrous nightmare of our time was broken. In you the world of free men again has a chance to bring itself to be. There is no more than a chance, a fighting chance. But need you, or the lives fulfilled in you, ask for more than a fighting chance? You have a chance to win the fight your predecessors lost. In the inexorable working out of man’s fate, that has come to be the meaning of your lives.