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Volume 41. No. 1.
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Watch Cronkite's speech


The Work of Peace

The following are excerpts from Walter Cronkite’s address to the Pomona College Class of 2004.


Quite some years ago, I gave a commencement address at Brandeis University. I thought it was quite good. Matter of fact, I thought it was splendid. But very few others seemed to agree. I got a letter afterwards from one of the distinguished alums there who said he was rather disappointed in my speech—that I had been far too pessimistic. ... I analyzed the situation, and I came to the same decision. I could not have given them a rousing pep talk; I could only give them the truth as I saw it, at that moment.

The speech was given in the most turbulent decade certainly in our 20th century—and very possibly one of the most turbulent in the whole history of our country. It was the 1960s. ...

Well, here we are at Pomona, almost a half century later. And as we look around the world into which you folks will be moving so shortly, I can’t really say things look much brighter.
We are plagued with the Iraq war, a possibility of an improving economy—but still a tragically large number of unemployed and underemployed—and an environmental crisis that literally threatens our planet. Here at home, we have a collapsing infrastructure of failing bridges, failing dams, a highway system that needs immediate attention. And worst of all, an inadequate educational system. ... And all of this as we face a national deficit that will hobble us through your generation—and through your children’s generation and very possibly, so desperate is it, that it may follow us through your grandchildren’s period of years.
We can only hope that there will be a considerable improvement. Where it will come from, I cannot attest to. We have an administration in Washington that has brought on this condition, and we have a Democratic candidate presumptive who so far has proposed few remedies that offer any specifics that, to this observer, at least, promise the necessary new deal in Washington.

On the most critical issue, for instance, surely a Democratic brain trust could come up with a peace plan for Iraq, as difficult as we know that is ... But the Kerry camp may well have been buffaloed by a repeated pledge that comes from the White House—that we won’t “cut and run” from Iraq. We all, and that includes this speaker, double up our fists and say “Right on, right on!” Naturally, we do. We don’t want to be seen as a nation of cowards, abandoning the fight we have started when the going gets tough. But let’s examine the proposition more closely. Nobody has seriously proposed that we “cut and run.” That is purely a jingoistic slogan of an administration intent upon playing the patriotic card to camouflage its lack of a plan to extricate us from its errors.

Is it possible that the “cut-and-run” stigma has so intimidated the Democratic candidate that he can’t muster the courage to acknowledge that we must leave Iraq and to offer a plan to expedite the departure with honor? Is it possible? If that is a sound analysis, the nation can only hope that Senator Kerry soon regains his political courage and offers the electorate an alternative to the administration’s failed Iraq policy.

So, with all these problems, am I supposed to stand up here today—proud as I am—and give you a message of unqualified hope for our immediate future? I’m sorry, but that would be outright dishonest. However, let me now render a bit of that inspirational message that is expected of commencement speakers.

All those problems I enumerated before can be solved, or at least mitigated a great deal, by an enlightened population and courageous leadership. You—this class of ’04—are particularly qualified by the education you have received here, to provide both.

Almost certainly the most imminent danger that we face is the rising threat of terrorism—this incredible wild warfare that we never anticipated and is now heavily upon us. Military defense is essential, of course, but equally, or perhaps more important is the job of removing the source of the terrorists’ increasing strength. That source is the envy and the bitterness that the deprived peoples of the world hold for the richer nations, of which we of course are the foremost. ...

The challenge is to bring hope to the world’s depressed people and thus diminish this source of their unrest. The soldiers in this great campaign to achieve a lasting peace will be those of your generation. ...

All of you, certainly, have been thinking long and hard of your future careers. Many of you, of course, will go on to advanced degrees in law, medicine, business, and I certainly hope education as well. It is my conviction that you can have both—a period of rewarding public service and a highly successful professional career. In fact, I think the odds are high that you can gain immensely by participating in the campaign for peace—an experience that will profit you handsomely in the work-a-day world. Of course, the glory is not in financial gain but in playing an important role in history, which you will be doing. Regardless of your active participation by your informed citizenship, you’ll be among those making a major contribution toward achieving what realists would say is impossible—a permanent peace among the peoples of our planet. ...

Success in that noble objective will depend on those of your generation who have had the opportunity of an education that equips you to take a leading role in our future—a role that you may begin, and possibly continue, in the public service of your country. And that could include elective office. The biographies of our future leaders may well include the notation, “graduated from Pomona College, 2004.”
©Copyright 2004
by Pomona College
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