The Sylvanus Thayer Award is an honor given annually at the United States Military Academy to someone whose accomplishments exemplify the motto of West Point. Thayer was a graduate of Dartmouth College, and later from West Point. Following a distinguished military career, Colonel Thayer was appointed by President James Monroe as Superintendent at the Academy in 1817. Under his leadership West Point became the nation’s first college of engineering. During Thayer’s tenure the Academy established numerous academic advances, policies and traditions, still in effect today, for which he is credited as the “Father of West Point.”
In 1958 the West Point Association of Graduates established the Sylvanus Thayer Award to recognize a citizen of the United Sates, whose character, accomplishments, and stature exemplify the qualities for which the West Point motto strives: Duty, Honor, Country. It is an honor that must be received at the Academy. In 1962 the West Point Association of Graduates chose to honor (Ret.) General of the Army, Douglas MacArthur. It became his farewell address.
On May 12th that year, MacArthur left the Waldorf Astoria Hotel where he lived, and proceeded to West Point, where he spoke to the Corps in the mess hall. He referred to the Academy’s motto – Duty, Honor, Country – as a “moral code.” His words are among the most eloquent ever spoken and, in these troubled and divisive times, a welcome source of inspiration and comfort today. Here are some excerpts:
“Duty, Honor, Country: These three words reverently dictate what you ought to be, what you can be, what you will be. They are your rallying points: to build courage when courage seems to fail; to regain faith when there seems to be little cause for faith; to create hope when hope becomes forlorn.”
“The unbelievers will say that they are but words, but a slogan, but a flamboyant phrase. Every pedant, every demagogue, every cynic, every hypocrite, every troublemaker, and, I am sorry to say, some others of an entirely different character, will try to downgrade them even to the extent of mockery and ridicule.
But these are some of the things they do. They build basic character.…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 and gentle in success; not to substitute words for actions; not to seek the path of comfort, but to face the stress and spur of difficulty and challenge; to learn to stand up in the storm, but to have compassion for those who fall; to master yourself before you seek to master others; to have a heart that is clean, a goal that is high; to learn to laugh, yet never forget how to weep; to reach into the future, yet never neglect the past; to be serious, yet never take yourself too seriously; to be modest so that you will remember the simplicity of true greatness; the open mind of true wisdom, the meekness of true strength.”
When MacArthur spoke of the soldiers he led, he said:
“I do not know the dignity of their birth, but I know the glory of their death. They died unquestioning, uncomplaining, with faith in their hearts, and on their lips the hope that we would go on to victory. Always for them: Duty, Honor, Country. Always their blood, and sweat, and tears, as they saw the way and the light…. The code which those words perpetuate embraces the highest moral laws and will stand the test of any ethics and philosophies ever promulgated for the uplift of mankind. Its requirements are the things that are right, and the restraints are the things that are wrong. The soldier, above all other men, is required to practice the greatest act of religious training – sacrifice.”
“You now face a new world, a world of change…. All through this welter of change and development your mission remains fixed, determined, inviolable.”
As he came to the close of his remarks, MacArthur said:
“The shadows are lengthening for me. The twilight is here. My days of old have vanished – tone and tints. They have gone glimmering through the dreams of things that were. Their memory is one of wondrous beauty, watered by tears and coaxed and caressed by the smiles of yesterday. I listen to them, but with thirsty ear, for the witching melody of faint bugles blowing reveille, of far drums beating the long roll.
In my dreams I hear again the crash of the guns, the rattle of musketry, the strange mournful mutter of the battlefield. But in the evening of my memory I come back to West Point. Always their echoes and re-echoes: Duty, Honor, Country.
Today marks my final roll call with you. But I want you to know that when I cross the river, my last conscious thoughts will be of the Corps, and the Corps, and the Corps. I bid you farewell.”
These are troubling times. A still surging life-threatening virus has brought the entire planet to its knees. Health systems and front line warriors are completely overwhelmed and at risk. In our attempt to respond to COVID-19 by sheltering-in-place, we face a global economic collapse not seen since the Great Depression, which has further exposed racial and economic divisions, all made worse by the spread of disinformation and hatred. Particularly hard hit by the pandemic have been black and brown communities, the poor, and the elderly. It is our most vulnerable that have suffered the most. This has resulted in a profound loss of trust in our leaders and institutions. The void must be filled by those of us who, individually and collectively, will carry the torch forward in response to these crises, propelled by our commitment to Duty, Honor, Country.
Keith Darcy is President of Darcy Partners Inc., a boutique consulting firm that works with boards and top executives on a wide variety of complex governance, ethics, compliance, and reputation risk challenges. (Website: Darcy.Partners)