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History in a Cap and Gown

President Kennedy addresses the American University Commencement, receives honorary degree. Washington, D.C., American University, John M. Reeves Athletic Field., 06/10/1963 (Kennedy Library, ARC 194263)

We’re now in the middle of commencement season, and there’ll be many words of wisdom coming from the mouths of speakers: academicians, celebrities, inventors, authors, artists, business people, and political leaders.

Sometimes commencement speeches become historic.

President John F. Kennedy announced talks for a test-ban treaty in his commencement speech at American University in 1963, and a treaty banning nuclear testing above ground was signed later in the year. “In the final analysis,” Kennedy said, “our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s futures. And we are all mortal.”

In 1964, President Lyndon Johnson officially unveiled his “Great Society” in his commencement speech at the University of Michigan in 1964. “The challenge of the next half century is whether we have the wisdom to . . . advance the quality of our American civilization,” Johnson told the graduates. “For in your time we have the opportunity to move not only toward the rich society and the powerful society, but upward to the ‘Great Society.’”

Another historic speech was made at the Harvard commencement in 1947. President Harry S. Truman’s administration was preparing a plan for an unprecedented amount of aid to shore up the economies of war-torn Europe. Instead of announcing it himself, he gave the task to Secretary of State George C. Marshall, the top World War II general highly respected by Republicans and Democrats alike. The program was enacted and became known as the Marshall Plan.

President Ronald Reagan’s commencement speech at Notre Dame University in 1981 was his first trip outside of Washington since the assassination attempt. He used the speech to expand on his vision of America and to evoke great pride and express great hopes for the United States.

And he made a prediction: “The West won’t contain communism, it will transcend communism. It won’t bother to dismiss or denounce it, it will dismiss it as some bizarre chapter in human history whose last pages are even now being written.” A decade later, the Soviet Union collapsed.

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