Mr. McCloy, President Plimpton, Mr. MacLeish, distinguished guests, ladies
I am very honored to be here with you on this occasion
which means so much to this college and also means so much to art and the
progress of the United States. This college is part of the United States. It
belongs to it. So did Mr. Frost, in a large sense. And, therefore, I was
privileged to accept the invitation somewhat rendered to me in the same way that
Franklin Roosevelt rendered his invitation to Mr. MacLeish, the invitation which
I received from Mr. McCloy. The powers of the Presidency are often described.
Its limitations should occasionally be remembered. And therefore when the
Chairman of our Disarmament Advisory Committee, who has labored so long and
hard, Governor Stevenson's assistant during the very difficult days at the
United Nations during the Cuban crisis, a public servant for so many years, asks
or invites the President of the United States, there is only one response. So I
am glad to be here.
Amherst has had many soldiers of the king since its
first one, and some of them are here today: Mr. McCloy, who has long been a
public servant; Jim Reed who is the Assistant Secretary of the Treasury;
President Cole, who is now our Ambassador to Chile; Mr. Ramey, who is a
Commissioner of the Atomic Energy Commission; Dick Reuter, who is head of the
Food for Peace. These and scores of others down through the years have
recognized the obligations of the advantages which the graduation from a college
such as this places upon them to serve not only their private interest but the
public interest as well.
Many years ago, Woodrow Wilson said, what good
is a political party unless it is serving a great national purpose? And what
good is a private college or university unless it is serving a great national
purpose? The Library being constructed today, this college, itself--all of this,
of course, was not done merely to give this school's graduates an advantage, an
economic advantage, in the life struggle. It does do that. But in return for
that, in return for the great opportunity which society gives the graduates of
this and related schools, it seems to me incumbent upon this and other schools'
graduates to recognize their responsibility to the public interest.
Privilege is here, and with privilege goes responsibility. And I think,
as your president said, that it must be a source of satisfaction to you that
this school's graduates have recognized it. I hope that the students who are
here now will also recognize it in the future. Although Amherst has been in the
forefront of extending aid to needy and talented students, private colleges,
taken as a whole, draw 50 percent of their students from the wealthiest 10
percent of our Nation. And even State universities and other public institutions
derive 25 percent of their students from this group. In March 1962, persons of
18 years or older who had not completed high school made up 46 percent of the
total labor force, and such persons comprised 64 percent of those who were
unemployed. And in 1958, the lowest fifth of the families in the United States
had 4 1/2 percent of the total personal income, the highest fifth, 44 1/2
percent. There is inherited wealth in this country and also inherited poverty.
And unless the graduates of this college and other colleges like it who are
given a running start in life--unless they are willing to put back into our
society, those talents, the broad sympathy, the understanding, the
compassion--unless they are willing to put those qualities back into the service
of the Great Republic, then obviously the presuppositions upon which our
democracy are based are bound to be fallible.
The problems which this
country now faces are staggering, both at home and abroad. We need the service,
in the great sense, of every educated man or woman to find 10 million jobs in
the next 2 1/2 years, to govern our relations--a country which lived in
isolation for 150 years, and is now suddenly the leader of the free world--to
govern our relations with over 100 countries, to govern those relations with
success so that the balance of power remains strong on the side of freedom, to
make it possible for Americans of all different races and creeds to live
together in harmony, to make it possible for a world to exist in diversity and
freedom. All this requires the best of all of us.
Therefore, I am proud
to come to this college, whose graduates have recognized this obligation and to
say to those who are now here that the need is endless, and I am confident that
you will respond.
Robert Frost said:
Two roads diverged in a
wood, and I--
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the
I hope that road will not be the less traveled by, and I
hope your commitment to the Great Republic's interest in the years to come will
be worthy of your long inheritance since your beginning.
devoted to the memory of Robert Frost offers an opportunity for reflection which
is prized by politicians as well as by others, and even by poets, for Robert
Frost was one of the granite figures of our time in America. He was supremely
two things: an artist and an American. A nation reveals itself not only by the
men it produces but also by the men it honors, the men it remembers.
America, our heroes have customarily run to men of large accomplishments. But
today this college and country honors a man whose contribution was not to our
size but to our spirit, not to our political beliefs but to our insight, not to
our self-esteem, but to our self- comprehension. In honoring Robert Frost, we
therefore can pay honor to the deepest sources of our national strength. That
strength takes many forms, and the most obvious forms are not always the most
significant. The men who create power make an indispensable contribution to the
Nation's greatness, but the men who question power make a contribution just as
indispensable, especially when that questioning is disinterested, for they
determine whether we use power or power uses us.
Our national strength
matters, but the spirit which informs and controls our strength matters just as
much. This was the special significance of Robert Frost. He brought an unsparing
instinct for reality to bear on the platitudes and pieties of society. His sense
of the human tragedy fortified him against self-deception and easy consolation.
"I have been" he wrote, "one acquainted with the night." And because he knew the
midnight as well as the high noon, because he understood the ordeal as well as
the triumph of the human spirit, he gave his age strength with which to overcome
despair. At bottom, he held a deep faith in the spirit of man, and it is hardly
an accident that Robert Frost coupled poetry and power, for he saw poetry as the
means of saving power from itself. When power leads men towards arrogance,
poetry reminds him of his limitations. When power narrows the areas of man's
concern, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of his existence. When
power corrupts, poetry cleanses. For art establishes the basic human truth which
must serve as the touchstone of our judgment.
The artist, however
faithful to his personal vision of reality, becomes the last champion of the
individual mind and sensibility against an intrusive society and an officious
state. The great artist is thus a solitary figure. He has, as Frost said, a
lover's quarrel with the world. In pursuing his perceptions of reality, he must
often sail against the currents of his time. This is not a popular role. If
Robert Frost was much honored in his lifetime, it was because a good many
preferred to ignore his darker truths. Yet in retrospect, we see how the
artist's fidelity has strengthened the fibre of our national life.
sometimes our great artist have been the most critical of our society, it is
because their sensitivity and their concern for justice, which must motivate any
true artist, makes him aware that our Nation falls short of its highest
potential. I see little of more importance to the future of our country and our
civilization than full recognition of the place of the artist.
If art is
to nourish the roots of our culture, society must set the artist free to follow
his vision wherever it takes him. We must never forget that art is not a form of
propaganda; it is a form of truth. And as Mr. MacLeish once remarked of poets,
there is nothing worse for our trade than to be in style. In free society art is
not a weapon and it does not belong to the spheres of polemic and ideology.
Artists are not engineers of the soul. It may be different elsewhere. But
democratic society--in it, the highest duty of the writer, the composer, the
artist is to remain true to himself and to let the chips fall where they may. In
serving his vision of the truth, the artist best serves his nation. And the
nation which disdains the mission of art invites the fate of Robert Frost's
hired man, the fate of having "nothing to look backward to with pride, and
nothing to look forward to with hope."
I look forward to a great future
for America, a future in which our country will match its military strength with
our moral restraint, its wealth with our wisdom, its power with our purpose. I
look forward to an America which will not be afraid of grace and beauty, which
will protect the beauty of our natural environment, which will preserve the
great old American houses and squares and parks of our national past, and which
will build handsome and balanced cities for our future.
I look forward
to an America which will reward achievement in the arts as we reward achievement
in business or statecraft. I look forward to an America which will steadily
raise the standards of artistic accomplishment and which will steadily enlarge
cultural opportunities for all of our citizens. And I look forward to an America
which commands respect throughout the world not only for its strength but for
its civilization as well. And I look forward to a world which will be safe not
only for democracy and diversity but also for personal distinction.
Robert Frost was often skeptical about projects for human improvement,
yet I do not think he would disdain this hope. As he wrote during the uncertain
days of the Second War:
Take human nature altogether since time
began . . .
And it must be a little more in favor of
fraction of one percent at the very
least . . .
Our hold on this planet
wouldn't have so
Because of Mr. Frost's life and
work, because of the life and work of this college, our hold on this planet has