The Honorable Condoleezza Rice Receives Thayer Award

Categories: Thayer Award, Events & Awards

In 1958, Major General Garrison Davidson ’27, USMA’s Superintendent at the time, summarized the Sylvanus Thayer Award with a purpose that still stands today: “…to recognize an American citizen of outstanding character and accomplishments whose status in the civilian community would draw wholesome comparisons to the values for which West Point strives—Duty, Honor, Country.” In introducing the 57th recipient of West Point’s highest award Lieutenant General (Retired) Larry Jordan ’68, Chairman of the West Point Association of Graduates, noted Davidson’s belief that the Thayer Award would inspire young people to become cadets. But in her speech accepting the 2014 Thayer Award, Dr. Condoleezza Rice remarked that it is the Corps of Cadets that inspires America’s citizens.

Rice began her speech to the cadets assembled in the Mess Hall for the event by saying that, as a university professor herself, she is tremendously impressed by what cadets do as students. She also noted how the football team at Stanford University, the University for which Rice served as Provost and at which she currently teaches as a professor of political economy at its Graduate School of Business, returned from its 2013 game at West Point inspired with stories of the lives cadets lead. Rice even concluded her speech by citing how the young men and women of West Point inspire. “You inspire us by the traditions of this place that has inspired you,” she said, “and you inspire us because you believe in Duty and Honor and Country.”

Of course, Rice did some inspiring herself in her speech, the body of which was a mix of the personal and the politically philosophical. At one point, she told a gripping account of 9/11 from her perspective on that day, including a light-hearted moment when the Secret Service “escorted” her (i.e., picked her up and carried her) to a bunker. She also noted that despite the threats that remain after 9/11, the United States is up to the task because of who we are. “Who we are is really the core of our inspiration,” she said, and it’s the Constitution of the United States of America that has helped us expand who we are to meet any threat to freedom, whether that is from an external enemy or an internal injustice. In a powerful passage, Rice told the cadets, “That remarkable Constitution which you have vowed to defend is one that began with my ancestors counted as 3/5ths of a man…and yet it was that same Constitution to which Martin Luther King would appeal when he said that segregation was wrong in my home state of Alabama.” “‘We the people’ is not bound by ethnicity, nationality or religion,” Rice said. “Ours has been a history of expanding the concept of ‘We the people’ to become ever more inclusive every day.”

Earlier in the day, Rice had the opportunity to review the diverse and inclusive Corps of Cadets assembled in formation on the Plain to honor the Thayer Award recipient. “I just can’t tell you how much I enjoyed the wonderful review and how grateful I am to now be counted among the exceptional individuals who have received the Sylvanus Thayer Award,” she later said.

In 1981, Rice became a professor of political science at Stanford University, where she caught the attention of Brent Scowcroft ’47 at a 1985 meeting of arms control experts. Four years later, Scowcroft asked Rice to become his Soviet expert when he became President George H.W. Bush’s National Security Adviser. Rice would later become National Security Advisor herself to President George W. Bush in 2000, the first woman to hold this post. Making such history was nothing new to Rice. In 1993, she was the first woman, the first African American, and the youngest person ever appointed Provost of Stanford University. Later she would become the first African-American woman to serve as Secretary of State, during which she championed the expansion of democratic governments and set the record for most miles logged in the position while conducting diplomatic efforts. Rice returned to Stanford as a political science professor in 2009 and is currently a professor of Political Economy in the Graduate School of Business and the Thomas and Barbara Stephenson Senior Fellow on Public Policy at the Hoover Institution at Stanford. She also serves on the boards of the George W. Bush institute, the Commonwealth Club, the Aspen Institute, and the Boys and Girls Clubs of America.

Since 1958, the West Point Association of Graduates has presented the Sylvanus Thayer Award to an outstanding citizen of the United States, other than a West Point graduate, whose service and accomplishments in the national interest exemplify personal devotion to the ideals expressed in the West Point motto: Duty, Honor, Country. Dr. Condoleezza Rice’s lifetime of ongoing achievements certainly merits this honor.


57th Annual Sylvanus Thayer Award
Dr. Condoleezza Rice
October 6, 2014
Washington Hall, United States Military Academy at West Point

Good evening. General Odierno, General Caslen and Mrs. Caslen, Command Sergeant Major Byers, and especially the Corps of Cadets, thank you so much for having me and thank you for the Thayer Award. I am so grateful to receive the Sylvanus Thayer Award. I walked today in the Thayer Award room and looked at the portraits of others who have received this great award. And it’s one of those moments when you think, “Do I really belong in this list?” because there are some exceptional folks in that room, and I am just very grateful that from now on I will be counted among them. That’s thanks to you, and I just can’t tell you how grateful I am for this honor and how much I enjoyed the wonderful review earlier today. So, to the Corps of Cadets, thank you for that as well. [Applause.]

Now, I am also really glad to be here at West Point. I am going to have to ask you to help me out with something. You see, I was recently appointed to the college football playoff committee, and as a member of that committee, which will choose in about seven or eight weeks four teams that will compete in the first national semi-finals playoffs leading to the first true national championship game—as a member of that committee I have to maintain absolute impartiality, I am sure you understand that. So I am only going to say half of this phrase, and I want you to say the rest. “Go Army!” [Corps of Cadets: “Beat Navy!” Applause.]

West Point is a very special place. It’s a place of tradition, a place of honor and duty. It’s a place that recognizes that the United States of America, this very special and exceptional country, must have very special and exceptional people to lead it and to defend it. As a university professor, I am incredibly impressed with what the Corps of Cadets does as students. I know that a university life is difficult enough. I know that you have chosen concentrations and majors about which you are passionate. I know that you do hard work every day to make yourselves experts in those concentrations and majors. I know that sometimes the studies come easily because it comes naturally to you, and I know that it sometimes is hard because no one can only do what comes easy; you also have to do that which is hard. And indeed sometimes overcoming that which is hard is more fulfilling than always doing that which comes easily. And so I know that you expand and push yourselves to get outside of your zones of comfort, to expand your talents to become better at what you do in the classroom every single day, and I admire that. I know too that, just like any other college student, it requires a lot of time—a lot of time for books, a lot of time in the lab, a lot of time in the study hall, a lot of time with professors—and that’s not easy.

But, of course, here at West Point more is demanded of you. More is asked of you: to keep your physical readiness to defend this country, to keep your moral compass, to lead those who will defend this country. And I want you to know that your peers appreciate that. When the Stanford football team played here last year, they all came back filled with stories of how inspired they were by what you do at West Point. Perhaps people don’t tell you that very often. But you set an example for your college peers around the country about what “honor” and “duty” can mean as you prepare to take on the challenges and the tasks ahead of you. As future officers, I know too that you work hard to develop leadership skills, to act with integrity, to act in a way that those who we will lead will always know that you would never ask them to do anything that you yourself would not do. To me that is the definition of integrity. Because the people you lead must know that you have it, you must never lose their confidence that you have it, because you will never get it back. And so to lead with integrity is a challenge and a trust, and I know that you work at it every day.

Our country has depended on very special men and women who volunteer to defend us at the front lines of freedom. They volunteer to defend our interests, and they volunteer to defend our values. America has always been at its best when it leads both from power and from principle, and that is what you represent here at West Point. There has probably never been in the history of humankind a more powerful military force than the United States of America’s military. Global in its reach, capable beyond much of human comprehension, it is indeed a powerful, powerful force. But it has been dedicated to using that power to try and make the world a better place. To see the world not as it is, but the world as it should be. America has always led from the core belief that people have a right to live in freedom. That there is no corner of the earth where people should be condemned to live in tyranny. That men and women are only afforded human dignity when they can say what they think, worship as they please, be free from the knock of the secret police at night and the arbitrary power of the state, and when they can demand that those who would govern them would have to ask for their consent to do it. We have always believed that there is no man, there is no woman, and there is no child who doesn’t desire those basic rights as we do. And we have set aside those who would argue that there are cultures, peoples who just don’t have the DNA for democracy. We believe that it is the God-given right, indeed it is the highest form of human potential to be governed in a democratic fashion. And we have fought for that. And we believe too that when men and women are free, we are safer. You see, our values and our interests are inextricably linked because we know that societies that treat their people badly, that oppress women and minorities, that are ruled by the arbitrary hand of authoritarians are dangerous societies. We have seen it throughout history. And that is why our belief in a more democratic and freer world is also a belief in a safer world.

Now the United States of America has been willing to sacrifice on behalf of that belief. We’ve been animated to stand for those values and to defend them. And that has meant that we have behaved like no ordinary country would behave. It has meant that we have sent young men to storm the beaches of Normandy and fight for people that they would never meet. It has meant that we stood vigilant in Asia for more than 70 years now so that democracy could triumph in Japan and in South Korea, and so that those people of those great countries could remake themselves into democratic societies. And, of course, we stood vigilant in Europe until the Soviet Union could be defeated and rolled back to the shore of Russia, and Europe could emerge whole, free, and at peace. And then we would try to give people a chance in Baghdad and Basra, in Kabul and Kandahar, because we knew that if they could come to decent lives and decent governance, then we, too, would be safer.

9/11, that awful day that took place more than 13 years ago now, required a different and new call to Americans to serve our country. We had become awfully accustomed to our threats being “out there,” but on that day evil would visit our very shores. I will never forget standing at my desk in the White House; my young assistant coming to me and saying that a plane had hit the World Trade Center, and I thought what a terrible accident that must have been. President Bush was at an education event in Florida. To show our pre-9/11 thinking, he was only going to be gone a few hours, so I was not with him as the National Security Advisor and neither was the Deputy National Security Advisor, and I got on the phone with him and told him what had happened, and he said, “What a terrible accident.” And then a few minutes later, my assistant handed me a note that said a second plane had hit the World Trade Center. I thought, “My God, this is a terrorist attack.” And then I went into the Situation Room to try and reach the other national security principles: Colin Powell, the Secretary of State, was in Peru; George Tenant, the Director of the CIA, had already gone to a bunker; and I tried to reach Secretary Rumsfeld, and his phone was just ringing and ringing and ringing—and I looked behind me and a plane had hit the Pentagon. Now about that time the Secret Service came and said, “Dr. Rice you have got to get to a bunker because planes are flying into buildings all over Washington, DC. The White House has got to be next.” Now when the Secret Service wants to escort you under those circumstances, they don’t escort you; they pick you up and they carry you. And I remember being levitated toward a bunker, getting there, talking to the President, having him say, “I’m coming back,” and telling him, “Stay where you are. It’s not safe here. The United States of America is under attack.” From that day forward, nothing would ever be the same. Our conception of security would never be the same. We knew that, yes, we would have to protect the homeland, but if we were not to once again become “Fortress America”, we would have to take the fight to the terrorists too. We would have to defeat them where they are, where they were, so that they could never again visit that kind of chaos and wreak that kind of havoc on our home soil.

The men and women of West Point answered that call with many other young volunteers. And I know that West Point lost a disproportionate number of young lives in that struggle. I want you to know, as those who follow them, that they will never be forgotten for what they did; that they will always be an inspiration as we remember what service really is, and their sacrifice was worth it. Because nothing of value is ever won without sacrifice.

I was National Security Advisor on that day, and from that day on every day after seemed like September 12th. We would worry more about ungoverned spaces like Somalia, Yemen, and the high mountains between Afghanistan and Pakistan. And, yes, today an ungoverned swath of territory larger than the state of Indiana between Iraq and Syria, where a force so brutal and so barbaric that Al Qaeda expelled them is operating. The challenges go on. The threats remain. But one thing is certain: we are up to the task because we have on our side not just what we’ve done for the world, as much as we have done—it is a lot—but it is not just what we have done, but who we are.

You see, remembering who we are is really the core of our inspiration. “We the people” is not an exclusive concept. “We the people” is not bound by ethnicity or nationality or religion. Ours has been a history of expanding the conception of “We the people” to become ever more inclusive every day. “We the people” has meant a creed, a creed that we believe that you can come from humble circumstances and do great things. That it does not matter where you came from, but where you are going. That is who we are as “We the people.” It has been a hard struggle to expand this concept. We are not a perfect country. No human institution is perfect. But what makes us special is that we keep striving each and every day to become a little bit better at who we are.

We have had and were bequeathed a remarkable document, the Constitution of the United States of America, which has helped us to expand “We the people,” step by step, brick by brick, along the long journey toward inclusion. That remarkable Constitution which you have vowed to defend is a Constitution that began with my ancestors counted as 3/5ths of a man in the compromise that allowed the United States of America to be born. And yet it was that same Constitution to which Martin Luther King would appeal when he said that segregation was wrong in my home state of Alabama. It was the Constitution that would eventually make it possible for women to vote, and it was the Constitution, that remarkable evergreen document that keeps expanding the conception of “We the people,” to which I would take an oath of allegiance as the 66th Secretary of State, despite the fact that I had grown up in a hometown where I couldn’t go to a movie theater, where I couldn’t go to a restaurant, where segregation was legal and where blacks were second-class citizens. When you defend America, remember that you are not defending a country that claims perfection: you are defending a country that simply promises to try to get better day after day.

“We the people” is not only not a conception of nationality, ethnicity or religion, it is what has allowed people to come here from every corner of the earth and be a part of it. But “We the people” must also not be bound by class. You were not to be a prisoner of the circumstances of your birth, but rather through hard work and through energy and, ultimately, through a high-quality education, you were to be able to access that belief that it doesn’t matter where you came from, it matters where you are going. We have work to do to make sure that this remains the case. Today I can look at your zip code and I can tell whether you are going to get a high-quality education or not and for our “We the people,” that is a terrible thing to say. So each and every one of us as we defend our values and our interests need to remember that our work here at home is done to make certain that this concept is as inclusive as possible, that class is not a barrier to inclusion.

Now, as we go out into this troubled world, as we go out to defend our values and our interests, as we remember the history and tradition of what we have done, and as we remember who we are, we must never forget why we do what we do. We do what we do because there has always been in international politics a country that had a view of how human history ought to unfold and was willing to sacrifice on behalf of it. For many years now, that country has been the United States, and we have said that human history will unfold toward free peoples.

I know that the burdens of leadership are sometimes heavy. I know too that Americans are sometimes tired of those burdens of leadership, wondering can’t someone else take this mantle and move it forward? But we know that there is no one else to take up this mantle of leadership. We know that those who might take up the mantle of leadership are not those who share our values and our interests. Perhaps we are tired after the 13 long years since 9/11 of war, terrorism, and vigilance. Perhaps we are tired of trying to extend to peoples who are not free freedoms, so that we might be more secure. But let me assure you of one thing: the terrorists are not tired. Great powers that behave badly, like Vladimir Putin’s Russia, are not tired. Countries that would challenge the order in Asia, like China, are not tired. And we cannot afford to be tired either.

The mantle of leadership is ours. And I do believe that we will once again answer the call and take it up. And if, at times, that burden seems too heavy, let’s just remember the times when the impossible now seems inevitable in retrospect. I was the White House Soviet specialist at the end of the Cold War. It frankly doesn’t get better than that. I had a chance to be there for the liberation of Eastern Europe and the unification of Germany and the beginnings of the peaceful collapse of the Soviet Union. But every day as we harvested the good decisions that had been taken long, long before, I asked myself the following question: What if in 1946 when the Italian communists won 48 percent of the vote and the French communists 46 percent of the vote, what if America had been tired? What if in 1947, when there was civil war in Greece and civil conflict in Turkey and 2 million starving Europeans necessitating the Marshall Plan, what if America had been tired? What if in 1948, when President Truman risked recognizing Israel and war broke out in the Middle East the next day, what if America had been tired? Or the Berlin airlift of 1948 or when the Soviet Union exploded a nuclear weapon five years ahead of schedule or the Chinese communists won when the Korean War broke out in 1950, what if we had been tired and unwilling to take the mantle of leadership? Would we have been able many years later to say here is what had happened: Eastern Europe was liberated and Europe was whole and free; Germany was unified fully and completely on Western terms—NATO survived; the Soviet Union, by the way, collapsed, the hammer and sickle coming down for the last time; and in 2006 an American president would attend a NATO summit in Latvia. What would have happened had America been tired?

And so, we will take up that mantle again, and we will do so with inspiration and we will do so with a sense of purpose. And you, the men and women of West Point, will help to inspire us. You will inspire us by the traditions of this place that has inspired you. You will inspire us by the heritage to which you are the rightful heirs. And you will inspire us because you believe in Duty and Honor and Country. You will take on the obligation to defend this exceptional country called the United States of America, and your fellow citizens will always be grateful that you answered the call. Thank you very much. [Applause.]


For the first time in its 56-year history, the Sylvanus Thayer Award will be presented to a female recipient for a second year in a row. Dr. Condoleezza Rice will receive the award on October 6, 2014, while the Honorable Madeleine K. Albright received it in 2013. Interestingly, this is not the only distinction these recipients share. Of course, both served as U.S. Secretary of State, but not so known is the fact that Albright’s father, Josef Korbel, taught Rice political science as an undergrad at the University of Denver and reportedly sparked her interest in international relations. Rice went on to receive a doctorate in political science from the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver and became known as an expert on the former Soviet Union.



Thayer Award

Since 1958, the West Point Association of Graduates has presented the SYLVANUS THAYER AWARD to an outstanding citizen of the United States whose service and accomplishments in the national interest exemplify personal devotion to the ideals expressed in the West Point motto, “DUTY, HONOR, COUNTRY.”
The Sylvanus Thayer Award is funded by a generous endowment from E. Doug Kenna ’45 and his wife, Jean.

More News