Documentation: The Road Not Taken

How Private Conscience Shaped Public Policy

Editor’s note: The following article is adapted from a speech delivered by Admiral James D. Watkins, U.S. Secretary of Energy, to the 5,000 midshipmen at the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis on February 28, 1990. Admiral Watkins, a nuclear engineer, is a former member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Here is a great deal of talk today about ethics—ethics in Washington, ethics in government, ethics in journalism. A week doesn’t go by without our hearing some rumblings about yet another ethics scandal. Yet I sense even with all this newfound concern for ethics, something is missing. It’s as if ethics were reduced to a set of traffic rules, with special prosecutors nothing more than cops in traffic court, and people reflecting on ethics rules as if they were following detailed instructions for their taxes.

Ethics are not a hollow shell of rules and protocols; of what to say and what to do; of what to avoid and what to overlook. Our future leadership capability rests not on adding lustre to such a shell—a little spit here and a little polish there. For if we are to bring meaning to our lives and leadership to this nation, we will need to develop the moral person within that shell.

But how to develop that moral dimension? After all, it is far easier to talk and study about morality than to live it; easier to dream of a loving marriage than to make one work. So, we know what the goal is, but how do we get there?

We get there by making the right choices. All my life I faced the onslaught of choices to make—at Annapolis as a midshipman; rebuilding America’s navy at the Pentagon; taking over a failing presidential commission on the volatile subject of AIDS; and now cleaning up nuclear facilities operated by the Department of Energy. Choices are often between good and evil. Sometimes I choose between one good and another good, or between a greater good and a lesser good, or sometimes even between two apparent evils.

What separates the moral man from others—from the veneer of hollow ethics—is that the moral being makes choices based on a well-honed conscience. That conscience is guided by an inner voice, formed from home and school and faith and heroic example. Rarely is it shaped by the loud shout, the hysterical rant of a mob, or the intimidation of tyrants.

Essentially, each of us is alone with that inner voice for it is the spirit which gives us life, that makes us human, that makes us humane. And so our conscience, which tells us what is right and what is wrong, gives us a commonality of purpose, today, yesterday, and tomorrow. I believe that events of this past year alone prove without question that how we make decisions based on fundamental principles makes all the difference.

Listen and you will hear the whisper of freedom and liberty echoing through the centuries to 1989: to Poland, to Czechoslovakia, to Romania, to East Germany, to the U.S.S.R., to Nicaragua, and even to Tiananmen Square. And in these places we see difficult yet wise choices have been made—by them, by us.

Who cannot feel exhilaration at what we are witnessing? As I watched with my family on Christmas Eve—watched the people from eastern and western parts of Germany tear down that wall—I was over-whelmed by gratitude, gratitude to God for the power of the human spirit and for the long sustained choice our nation has made to support and defend freedom and human dignity wherever endangered or denied. Yes, this choice has never let us down, one cheerfully made by great patriots—including many of your predecessors—who were, and are, still willing to give their own lives for that noble call to human freedom.

The less sensitive may never grasp the blood, sweat, and tears that preceded the remarkable events we are witnessing. But it is your duty to know that these results are firmly moored in a deliberate choice for good. True, domestic economic problems of the eastern bloc and the Soviet Union are partially responsible as well. Some say the Soviets had no choice. But the sense of failure of the communist system did not arise in a vacuum. It didn’t just happen overnight.

Over 40 years ago, a choice was made to form a western alliance of like-minded democracies with strength and conviction to deter those who would challenge freedom and human dignity—a choice long since proven right. We made the right choice, and thank God we had the will to stick to our guns and sustain that choice for 40 years. This steady hand on freedom’s tiller had to give impetus to the past special year of democratic revolution.

For our part, Americans chose strength over weakness, chose deterrence over war. “Peace through strength” is not a hollow slogan, not a Madison Avenue catch-all. Rather, it is a philosophy proven—shown to the world in 1990 to have worked.

Why did we chose peace through strength when others made different choices? Because it was a choice solidly founded on a matured conscience born of our victory in our war of independence. We can be proud of most of our national choices over these more than 200 years.

Having said that, however, we all sadly recall one recent situation, during a 15-year period, from the late 1960s through most of the 1970s, in the wake of the Vietnam crisis, when we seemed to lose our way, lose our resolve, lose our will —and probably because of making questionable choices more for reasons of political expediency than enlightened conscience. Results were costly in every way and almost tore us apart as a nation.

In fact, as our country faltered in this short period of time, we saw, one by one, nations fall under communist oppression. From Angola to Ethiopia to Grenada and Nicaragua—and, of course, Afghanistan. It appeared, to those without faith, that the forces of tyranny and oppression seemed to represent the inevitable course of history. But fortunately, something funny happened on the way to the 1980s—something that represented the beginning of the end of our national paralysis. A choice was made. The American people had not lost their common sense, their sense of right and wrong, even when a portion of their intellectual and political leaders had.

We chose to rebuild and reaffirm the concept of “peace through strength.” I was fortunate and proud to have been part of that rebuilding. We took strong action to measure up to the rhetoric of standing tall again. We in the Navy gathered around us the best minds available, we applied the best research and intelligence, we began to rebuild. We were asked to support anti-communist insurgencies, we tightened restraints on the transfer of critical military technology to foreign nations, and we pressed forward to counter enormous Soviet investments in nuclear missiles. In this connection, we made a choice, often condemned, to deploy the controversial Pershing II and ground-launched cruise missiles to Europe. We also made a choice to commit to aggressive research into the possible shift away from the increasingly distasteful concept of offensive nuclear weaponry and mutually assured destruction to one we know now as SDI, the Strategic Defense Initiative.

We dealt with reality. We dealt with the reality of both a Soviet threat from without that could deprive us or others of peace and freedom, as well as a threat from within that the continuation of a larger offensive nuclear weapons arsenal was rapidly becoming an un-acceptable option to the American public. We simply had to find and choose some alternative. Moral persons confronted with these increasingly contentious political realities had to make a choice in the interests of the common good, and we, as a nation, did. A man of peace, Pope Paul VI, told the United Nations that “as long as man remains the weak, changeable, and even wicked being he often shows himself to be, defensive armaments will, alas, be necessary.”

Our world is imperfect. So our means of providing peace will also be imperfect. We made the choice to modernize our nuclear forces in the near term and at the same time explore a more acceptable defensive mode for the long haul. It was a realistic set of choices, and one we could support through our beliefs as moral people—a continuation of an awesome instrument of deterrence as a necessary transitional strategy device while also giving Americans some hope that there may be an eventual way out of the distasteful mutual extinction sword of Damocles hanging over all our heads.

Another choice was made—very controversial within this past decade—to support fledgling and struggling democracies in Central America against interference by the communist-supported government of Nicaragua. While partisan debate continues as to which U.S. political party can claim partial credit for recent successes there, few can refute the pressures on Mr. Ortega brought by our sustained support over the decade of neighboring El Salvador, Honduras, as well as the contra forces. This support, combined with our demonstrated willingness to use force when asked by friends to help them throw off tyranny and oppression—witness Grenada and Panama—surely made a difference in the positive outcome and hence contributed to the ultimate common good.

Just recently we saw the startling results of this sustained pressure. Against seemingly insurmountable odds a brave, determined widow emerged victorious against one of the last communist hold-outs in the world. Surmounting the insurmountable, she surprised all because too many naysayers were resigned to the idea that the Sandinistas would somehow manipulate their incumbency—the army, a controlled media, or whatever means—to deny a fair and free democratic vote. But under the watchful eye of a strong observer force, and at a time when communist conversions were on a roll in Eastern Europe, it would have been hard for even a skilled despot to ignore the will of the people.

What once seemed an unrealistic dream for a free world is fast becoming realistic.

Soon, the century will end and history will look back at this era. What conclusions it will make cannot yet be fully known, but one thing I know it will see is certain individuals who made choices. If I can de-fine leadership as choosing well for the common good, then I see a number of key human beings who will be scrutinized for the choices they made. The leaders who shaped just this past decade, for example, who gave the world new hope beyond the current decade into the next century, will surely include: President Bush, President Reagan, Lech Walesa, Margaret Thatcher, General Secretary Gorbachev, and others. In “the others” category, for example, will be such leaders as the man who came from the eastern bloc, neither professional soldier nor politician but rather a holy man and thus an unlikely source of power for those who do not believe in the strength of interior values and developed consciences.

This man listened to conscience. From a place called Cracow, Poland, he knew firsthand the suffocation and death modern ideologies like fascism and communism bring to bear on mankind. A man who heard the murmurings of a subjugated people throughout the eastern bloc. In solidarity with his people, he listened, he acted, he chose. We may never know how great a role he played, but what we do know is that Marxism had repeatedly denigrated religion as an illusion. But what is now the illusion in Eastern Europe? Unquestionably, the pope’s “divisions,” too, have helped carry the day.

As yet another Eastern European, Vaclav Havel, the new president of Czechoslovakia recently stated, the crisis of communism was not economic—it wasn’t simply because the system didn’t work. It was a spiritual crisis. A breakdown of morality. Of what it means to be—to simply be—men and women.

Listen to the voice of conscience. If you are true to that, I believe you will find the answers to life’s many questions. A well-developed conscience is one tool you will use every day of your life. Look there often for moral strength. For you are expected to choose the very best course for the common good. Yes, Americans do place you on a pedestal. If for no other reason than the oath you have already taken and one you will take again at commissioning and for the high esteem this nation holds for the Navy as an institution, you must never let them down.

God bless and good luck.


  • Admiral James D. Watkins

    James David Watkins (1927 – 2012) was a United States Navy admiral and former Chief of Naval Operations who served as the U.S. Secretary of Energy during the George H. W. Bush administration, also chairing U.S. government commissions on HIV/AIDS and ocean policy.

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