sealPurdue Commencement

Sunday, May 18, 1997 - 9:30 a.m.
Division III
Schools of Consumer & Family Sciences,
Liberal Arts, & Veterinary Medicine

President Steven C. Beering

Ladies and gentlemen, and members of the Class of 1997 ---

We continue today an ancient tradition of assembling in formal convocation to recognize those who have reached a significant milestone on the road to knowledge and accomplishment.

It was a year to be remembered, and this is the fiftieth anniversary of one of the most remarkable projects ever undertaken by a government. It was June of 1947 when George C. Marshall, America's Secretary of State at that time, delivered the commencement address at Harvard University. In a twelve-minute speech, he outlined the main points of a plan to rebuild a European continent that -- two years after the end of World War II -- remained in a state of devastation.

The celebrations that came in 1945 when peace returned after nearly seven years of total war quickly gave way to the harsh reality that the continent's economic infrastructure had been shattered. Agricultural and mining production had virtually stopped; starvation was widespread; and political chaos seemed imminent.

The United States, in contrast, not only had avoided the war's destruction, but came away from it with a vastly increased industrial capacity, the ability to deliver goods and services in an unprecedented way, and an understanding of how to develop and use technology. We stood alone as an economic and military superpower in the world.

However, Secretary Marshall -- one of the great thinkers our nation has produced -- recognized that America's strength could not exist in a vacuum. He knew that our nation's destiny was not merely to possess wealth and power but to use them for the good of all and to create a more prosperous world.

So, he proposed to the nations of Europe that, if they would develop comprehensive plans for economic recovery, the United States would provide assistance in the form of massive financial support and technical expertise. Often forgotten today is the fact that he extended this offer not only to America's World War II allies and to Italy and Germany, which had been our enemies, but also to the Soviet Union and the other nations of the Eastern Bloc, which already were aligning themselves as enemies of America. Those countries rejected the proposal.

During the next four years, the United States would spend more than $17 billion in aid to Europe. Even by today's standards, that is a lot of money! Its effect in the late 1940s and early 1950s was miraculous. Within five years, western Europe was again prospering. Its industrial output was 35 percent above pre-war levels, and it was ready to stand on its own feet.

Next month, the 50th anniversary of the Marshall Plan will not receive the same kind of media attention as the remembrances of more spectacular events like, say, D-Day and the end of the great wars. However -- like the G.I. Bill, which made possible the growth of college populations in this country from three million to fifteen million today -- it has played a far larger role in shaping the entire globe.

I am telling you the story of the Marshall Plan this morning as a parable. The theme of our four commencement addresses this weekend has been "Building the Future ," and I believe that, in an uncommonly visionary way, building the future was what Mr. Marshall had in mind.

In outlining the concept, he said, "Our policy is directed not against any country or doctrine, but against hunger, poverty, desperation, and chaos. Its purpose should be the revival of a working economy in the world, so as to permit the emergence of political and social conditions in which free institutions can exist."

The leader of one of the nations that was rebuilt through the Marshall Plan later commented: "Never before has a strong power, in victory, made it a central objective of foreign policy to create another strong power."

The question then for us today is: "What motivated the United States under Marshall's guidance to carry out such a unique idea?" If we ascribe it merely to altruism, we sell Mr. Marshall short. Certainly the desire to help other nations was present. But Marshall recognized that a world of "haves" and "have nots" could never be secure, prosperous, or peaceful.

America, at that moment in history (50 years ago), seemed to have everything it needed, but that state of prosperity could not be sustained in isolation indefinitely. Marshall believed that the money and other assistance sent across the ocean would eventually return to America in the form of goodwill and free trade, and a revived world economy. Furthermore, he knew that poverty and economic chaos provide fertile conditions for dictatorial governments that not only restrict human freedoms but also restrict the development of free global trade.

So the Marshall Plan was not a gift to other nations as much as it was an investment in the future of the entire world. And, looking back today, five decades later, it certainly has continued to pay dividends. The young men and women who will receive their degrees this morning represent a very similar investment.

You are here because someone recognized the need to prepare for the future -- not just your own future, but to look beyond immediate needs and direct gratification and assure a prosperous future for Indiana, America, and the world. Those "someones" are not only parents who made financial commitments, and spouses who made many sacrifices. They also have included the agencies and corporations that provided financial aid; the teachers and professors who went that extra mile for you students; employers who made time available; and you students yourselves. After all, you were called upon to do the real work.

All of you are part of a wonderful conspiracy that recognizes that in today's world, we build the future through education. As you embark on your new careers or continue your studies, you will become the most valuable resource, the human capital of the future, and you will be traveling on an ever-shrinking planet, and become role models for others. Because you have developed the ability to solve problems and to create new ideas, you will move into positions of leadership and influence. Some of you will be making decisions like Secretary Marshall -- decisions of global impact, and all of you will be well rewarded for your talents, your achievements, and your hard work.

But with power and remuneration also comes great responsibility. In an era when data can be processed and shared at seemingly infinite speeds and communication is instantaneous, opportunistic choices may become quite appealing. So, looking beyond short-term consequences will perhaps be even more difficult than it has ever been.

And yet, we expect no less of you. Just as George Marshall had to persuade those who argued that other nations' problems were none of our business, the leaders of your generation -- and that means you -- will face tough moral challenges.

Those challenges will not be the same as those encountered in Marshall's era or the same as those confronting us right now, but you will recognize that they are crucial because you have been well prepared by your Purdue experience. Of course, the first step in solving a problem is to know that you have one.
Will you have difficulties? Of course!
Will you fail sometimes? Almost surely.
Can you overcome those problems and rise from your mistakes? Absolutely! I have no doubt whatever.

Purdue has given you its best, and you have given us your best. Together, we have learned from the past; today, we stand here in triumph. You are ready to build your future......our future.

On behalf of the trustees, administration, and faculty of Purdue, I congratulate you, the class of 1997, and wish you the most exciting future possible!