Seventy years ago today, Winston Churchill received an honorary degree from Harvard University and addressed its faculty and students in the university’s largest room, Sanders Theater.
I was back in that theater in June, for my 35th college reunion. Harvard’s current president, Drew Gilpin Faust, was being interviewed by Hobart and William Smith College President Mark Gearan about the pressing issues in the university’s life today: a cheating scandal that had wracked the college earlier that year; the soaring coast of tuition and accumulating debt; the “rack rate” for attending the college versus the “real rate” once financial aid was factored in; "MOOCs," or massive online open courses.
Pretty uninspiring. The day before, Oprah had received a honorary degree, and her address was not one for the ages.
"It doesn't matter how far you might rise, at some point you are bound to stumble," she told the vast crowd stretching between Harvard’s Memorial Church and Memorial Library, "because if you're constantly doing what we do, raising the bar, if you're constantly pushing yourself higher, higher, the law of averages, not to mention the myth of Icarus, predicts that you will at some point fall.”
“And when you do," she cautioned, "I want you to know this, remember this: There is no such thing as failure. Failure is just life trying to move us into another direction."
This was a significantly different and peppier message than the one I heard at my graduation in 1978 when Alexander Solzhenitsyn delivered his famously gloomy “A World Split Apart” address which, among other things, told me and every other young man or woman headed into the world that “[t]he Western world has lost its civil courage, both as a whole and separately, in each country, each government, each political party and of course in the United Nations.”
“Such a decline in courage is particularly noticeable among the ruling groups and the intellectual elite,” the brooding genius added, just to make sure his audience didn’t miss the fact that he was talking about them, “causing an impression of loss of courage by the entire society.”
Of course, Ronald Reagan rose to power less than three years later, and the Soviet Union he feared had won the battle for the world was no more less than two decades after he proclaimed its triumph. Because Reagan stood up, the Soviets and their walls fell down.
Thirty-five years before Solzhenitsyn, Churchill had laid out the dilemma of the West and particularly of America in a wonderful speech. It deserves rereading in its entirety, but four paragraphs are particularly relevant today.
"Twice in my lifetime the long arm of destiny has reached across the oceans and involved the entire life and manhood of the United States in a deadly struggle," the greatest wartime leader of the millennium proclaimed.
Then came the words Congress ought to be rereading with particular care these days and into next week and through the next 39 months of President Obama’s increasingly disastrous tenure:
There was no use in saying ‘We don't want it; we won’t have it; our forebears left Europe to avoid these quarrels; we have founded a new world which has no contact with the old.’ There was no use in that. The long arm reaches out remorselessly, and every one's existence, environment, and outlook undergo a swift and irresistible change. What is the explanation, Mr. President, of these strange facts, and what are the deep laws to which they respond? I will offer you one explanation - there are others, but one will suffice.
The price of greatness is responsibility. If the people of the United States had continued in a mediocre station, struggling with the wilderness, absorbed in their own affairs, and a factor of no consequence in the movement of the world, they might have remained forgotten and undisturbed beyond their protecting oceans: but one cannot rise to be in many ways the leading community in the civilised world without being involved in its problems, without being convulsed by its agonies and inspired by its causes.
The United States cannot walk away from the convulsions in the Middle East, from the agonies of children gasping for breath in understaffed Syrian hospitals, from the fact that the Syrians who are decent and moderate fear not only the butcher who rules them but the killers invading their land to replace savagery with savagery.
It is an incredibly difficult and complicated situation, one that grows worse with every day of inaction and is compounded by every display of fecklessness from a president who has given a whole new definition to the word feckless.
“There was no use in saying ‘We don't want it; we won’t have it,’” Churchill proclaimed, and the Harvard of 1943, already marched off to various killing fields knew that. The names of all of those fallen from December 1941 through September 1943 are now on the walls of the Memorial Church, joined by the names of all who had attended the university from its founding and now through the most recent wars, but the audience didn’t need a memorial to know the truth of what Churchill was saying.
Cheating scandals and the soaring costs of tuition are important things. There’s nothing wrong with an uplifting bit of “Climb Every Mountain” in a commencement address. Indeed, Julie Andrews herself gave a memorable one at the University of Colorado this year.
And there is no room for or need of Solzhenitsyn gloom, and such pessimism can be self-fulfilling.
What is needed is a little resolve. A lot of resolve actually. And Churchill’s remarks of 70 years ago is a good place to begin to rekindle such resolve.