A Republic Not An Empire

by Patrick J. Buchanan – May 8, 1999
COMMENCEMENT ADDRESS
Citadel, South Carolina

We must restore this nation’s military power… America must retrench and America must rearm.

General Grinalds, distinguished guests, and friends of the Citadel. It is truly an honor to address this last graduating class of the 20th century — and a truly unique class it is, of an institution whose name is synonymous with patriotism, courage, and a code of honor.

I must tell you, I was profoundly moved by yesterday’s parade, and the Scottish bagpipes playing “Auld Lang Zyne” to the Class of ’99. I was moved, in part, because we Buchanans are of Scotch ancestry.

Indeed, an historian once told me the Buchanans were a Highland warrior clan that had fought at Agincourt, where England’s Henry V achieved immortality. And as I was basking in the reflected glory of my ancestors, however, the historian added, “Unfortunately, Pat, the Buchanans all fought on the side of the French.” Now, as my two great grandfathers on the Buchanan side were from Mississippi, and fought with the Confederacy, we Buchanans have an established tradition of Lost Causes.

Unfortunately, in 1992 and 1996, I made my own contributions to that family tradition. My wife Shelley tells me that if I don’t win this time, she is going to pack it in — and run for the Senate from New York.

This is not my first trip to the Citadel; in 1995, I was invited to address the student body in its lecture series on the great issues of the day. On the bookshelf in my living room, if you come to visit, you will find in a place of honor what is known as the Brick — a miniature replica of the original Citadel.

Friends of the Citadel, we live in an age of self-indulgence where the values embodied in your code of honor — “A cadet does not lie, cheat, or steal, or tolerate those who do,” are considered by some to be out of fashion. But all over this troubled country of ours, people hunger for a restoration of the values which I believe will soon be both relevant and respected again.

For this country is not only about to cross over into a new century, we are entering upon a new and potentially dangerous decade. Indeed, as this era that the historians have already designated “the American Century,” approaches an end, it may be instructive to look back to the close of the 19th century, when the British empire was the world’s preeminent power.

For the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria, Rudyard Kipling was asked to pen some verses to the greatness and glory of his nation. As he wrote of Britannia’s “(d)ominion over palm and pine,” Kipling struck a note of unease, of apprehension, that the mighty empire on which the sun never set might itself also pass away.

Let me recite a few lines from his poem “Recessional”:

Far-called our navies melt away —
On dune and headland sinks the fire —
Lo, all our pomp of yesterday
Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!
Judge of the Nations, spare us yet,
Lest we forget, lest we forget.

Kipling proved prophetic. In two decades, the British empire was fighting for its life on the fields of France. In half a century, that empire had vanished from the earth. And so it was with all the great nations that had strode so confidently onto the world’s stage at the start of this bloodiest of centuries — all except America.

The Austro-Hungarian, German, Russian, and Ottoman empires perished in World War I. Japan’s was destroyed in World War II; the British and French expired soon after. When the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, in that triumph of human freedom and American perseverance, the empire of Lenin and Stalin collapsed, leaving the United States as the world’s sole superpower.

In the phrase of our foreign policy elite, we have become the world’s “indispensable nation.” But it is just such hubristic rhetoric that calls forth apprehension, for it reflects a pride that all too often precedes a great fall.

Long ago, Teddy Roosevelt admonished us: “Speak softly and carry a big stick.” Today, we have whittled down the stick, even as we raised the decibel count. My apprehension is traceable, too, to a belief that our republic has begun to retrace, step by step, the march of folly that led to the fall of the British and every other great empire.

Today, America has become ensnared in a civil war in a Balkan peninsula where no U.S. army ever fought before, and no president ever asserted a vital interest. Daily, we plunge more deeply in. Our motives were noble — to protect an abused people — but most now concede that we failed to weigh the risks of launching this war.

Among the lessons America should have learned from Vietnam, said General Colin Powell, is that before you commit the army, you must first commit the nation. We did not do that.

Now, it is said that as the credibility of NATO cannot survive defiance by tiny Serbia, we must do whatever needs to be done to win, even if it means ordering 100,000 U.S. ground troops into the Balkans.

This sentiment was expressed by a columnist at the New York Times: “It should be lights out in Belgrade; every power grid, water pipe, bridge, road…has to be targeted. Like it or not, we are at war with the Serbian nation…and the stakes have to be very clear: Every week you ravage Kosovo is another decade we will set you back by pulverizing you. You want 1950. We can do 1950. You want 1389. We can do 1389 too.”

One cannot read that passage without recalling to mind the phrase, “the arrogance of power.” Now, Milosevic is a tyrant and a war criminal. But does America have the right to “pulverize” a nation that never attacked the United States? Did the Founding Fathers dedicate their lives, fortunes and sacred honor to the cause of liberty, so that the republic they would create could emulate the empire they overthrew? Is it America’s destiny to be the policemen of the world?

In his Farewell Address, our greatest president implored us to stay out of Europe’s endless quarrels: “Why quit our own to stand upon foreign ground?” Washington asked. “Why…entangle our peace and prosperity in the toils of European Ambition, Rivalship, Interest, Humour, or Caprice?”

When the Greeks rose in rebellion against the Ottoman Turks in a Balkan war, John Quincy Adams, our greatest Secretary of State advocated America’s non-intervention. “Wherever the standard of freedom and independence has been or shall be unfurled,” said Adams, “there will [America's] heart, her benedictions, and her prayers be. But she goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy.”

Now that America is at war, all of us pray for the success and safe return of the men and women we have sent into battle. They are some of the best and bravest of our young. And no matter our disagreements, those are our sons and our daughters out there.

But all of us, as citizens of a republic, must debate the decisions as to when, where, and whether to put their lives at risk.

This Balkan war is not the first time America has heard the siren’s call to empire. A century ago, we heeded it, and annexed the Philippines. In the fall of 1898, leaders from Grover Cleveland to Sam Gompers implored us to resist the temptation.

“The fruits of imperialism, be they bitter or sweet,” said William Jennings Bryan, “must be left to the subjects of monarchy. This is one tree of which citizens of a republic may not partake. It is the voice of the serpent, not the voice of God, that bids us eat.”

America did not listen. And hard upon the annexation of the Philippines came the declaration of an Open Door policy in China, that plunged us into the politics of Asia, out of which would come war with Japan, war in Korea, and war in Vietnam.

Today, this generation is facing the same question. Quo vadis, America? Whither goest thou, America?

Will we conscript America’s wealth and power to launch utopian crusades to reshape the world in America’s image? Or shall we again follow the counsel of Washington and Adams, and keep our lamp burning bright on the Western shore?

Every citizen needs to take part in deciding the destiny of this republic, for we have now undertaken foreign commitments that no empire in history has ever sustained. We have assumed the role of German empire in keeping Russia out of Europe, of the Austrian empire in policing the Balkans, of the Ottoman empire in keeping peace in the Middle East, of the Japanese empire in containing China, of the British empire in patrolling the Gulf and maintaining freedom of the seas.

How long can American continue to defend scores of countries around the world on a defense budget that has fallen to the smallest share of the U.S. economy since before Pearl Harbor?

As we see a limited air war in the Balkans stretch U.S. power to where F-16s are cannibalized for spare parts, our Air Force runs low on laser-guided munitions, our Apache helicopters take weeks to be deployed, and our Pacific fleet is stripped of carriers, it is clear: The long neglect of America’s military must come to an end.

We must restore this nation’s military power, or we are headed for humiliations such as have marked the fall of every great nation that has ever embarked on the imperial course we now pursue.

America must retrench; and America must rearm.

To make up for this lost decade, let us restore America’s defenses to what they were when the decade began. Let us make our country, again, invincible on land, sea, and air, and build the missile defense that a great president, Ronald Reagan, sought as his legacy to America. To be prepared for war, Washington reminded us, is the best guarantee of preserving peace.

But if there is cause for apprehension over what lies ahead, there is also cause for confidence and hope. That confidence, that hope, rests not only on the boundless resources of this providential land, but on the almost infinite capacity of the American people to rise and overcome any challenge with which history confronts them.

We, after all, are the heirs of the heroes who launched the world’s first revolution for liberty. We are the sons and daughters of the great generation that brought us through the Depression and crushed fascism in Europe and Asia. We are the men and women who persevered and triumphed in a half century of Cold War against the most monstrous tyranny mankind has ever known.

Now the time of testing is coming for you.

The America that this Class of ’99 shall inherit is rich and prosperous and powerful, but also envied and resented. And whether America retains into this new century what she carries out of this old one, depends now on your generation.

Fifty years from now, at the end of your lives, you will look back, and say one of two things: Yes, we, too, made our contribution to the preservation of the greatest republic the world has ever seen.

Or you will say that it was during your custodianship that the lamp began to flicker, that we began to follow inexorably in the footsteps of all the other great nations, down the staircase of history.

All, then, will come to depend on the character, and courage of this generation, for, as Churchill said, courage is the greatest of all virtues, because it alone makes all the others possible.

Last night at dinner, General Grinald’s wife told me that when members of the graduating classes are asked what they will take away from the Citadel, almost invariably they say, “After going through the Citadel, I believe that I can do anything.” That is the spirit the Citadel instills, and that is the spirit America needs.

Because you have gone through this Citadel that has always cherished duty, honor and country, you are more prepared than most of your generation for what lies ahead.

And the debt you owe the Citadel, the debt you owe your parents, the debt you owe your teachers, and all those who have gone before, is to be able to say, at the end of your lives: We, too, were faithful to the Citadel; we, too, did our duty; we, too, gave over to our children and their children the greatest country the world has ever known.

God bless the Citadel, and God bless the Class of ’99.