Forty-six years ago, on May 12, 1962, as the United States was beginning to get more deeply involved in what would become our nation's most politically divisive war, retired General of the Army Douglas MacArthur returned to his beloved West Point to receive the Sylvanus Thayer Award and delivered one of the most memorable and timeless speeches about the American soldier. Today, in the midst of another politically divisive war, and as Memorial Day celebrations approach, Americans of all political persuasions should reflect on MacArthur's words which vividly capture the bravery, heroism, and sacrifice of our fighting men and women.
Perhaps no man had better claim than MacArthur to comment on the character of the American combat soldier. His father, Arthur MacArthur, earned the Congressional Medal of Honor at the age of 19 for leading Wisconsin volunteers up the slopes of Missionary Ridge during the Civil War Battle of Chattanooga. Arthur MacArthur later fought Indians on the western frontier, fought bravely in the Spanish-American War, led troops against insurgents in the Philippines, and rose to the rank of General.
Douglas worshipped his father and exceeded his father's military exploits. He fought bravely in Mexico during our incursion to capture Pancho Villa, heroically commanded the famous Rainbow Division in the First World War, served brilliantly as superintendent at West Point in the 1920s, became the youngest Chief of Staff of the Army, commanded U.S. forces in the Philippines in the 1930s, led U.S. forces in the southwest Pacific in World War II (where he, too, was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor), served as military governor of post-war Japan, and commanded U.S. and UN forces in Korea in 1950-51. William Manchester, one of his biographers, while noting MacArthur's many character flaws, nevertheless concluded that he was the greatest man at arms this nation has produced.
In the speech to the cadets at West Point, MacArthur repeatedly invoked the motto of the military academy: Duty, Honor, Country. These were not just words, a slogan, or a flamboyant phrase, he explained, rather:
They build your basic character. They mold you for your future roles as the custodians of the nation's defense. They make you strong enough to know when you are weak, and brave enough to face yourself when you are afraid. They teach you to be proud and unbending in honest failure, but humble...