GEORGE W. BUSH, “GRADUATION SPEECH AT WEST POINT” (1 JUNE 2002)
- Imagine that you are in the graduating class Bush addressed in this speech. What are your reactions? Where in the speech do you feel that Bush was addressing you? What parts seem to be addressed to other audiences? How do you imagine the speech affected the students Bush addressed in 2002?
- Listen to the recording of Bush’s speech at the White House website: http://georgewbush-whitehouse.archives.gov/news/releases/2002/06/20020601-3.html.
- How does Bush’s delivery affect your response to the speech? Where does he seem to place the most emphasis vocally? How do the many interruptions for applause shape your understanding.
- President Bush addressed the graduating class at West Point again in May, 2006. Read his speech at www.whitehouse.gov and discuss the similarities and differences in the two addresses.
- This address was delivered in the midst of the “war on terror,” about which Bush spoke on many other occasions. Two of them–the address to the Joint Session of Congress shortly after 9/11 and the Second Inaugural (January 2005) are available on the Voices of Democracy site. Read or listen to each of those speeches. What arguments are common to all three addresses? Do you get a sense of development through the three addresses? What changes do you note in language, ethos, intensity, or other rhetorical features?
- Some consider President Bush a polarizing force in the political arena. Identify someone else in the class whose political opinions differ from your own, and discuss your responses to the speech. On what points do they differ? Which arguments or rhetorical strategies seem to produce the most dramatic differences in your reactions? Where do you agree in your reactions to the speech? Did the speech itself, or your discussion with a classmate, change your political opinions in any way?
- Many commentators view the West Point graduation speech in retrospect as laying the groundwork for the war in Iraq, and yet Bush uses the term “peace” often within the speech. Review the uses of this term in the Bush speech and compare them with Eisenhower’s use of the term in his “Atoms for Peace” speech of December 8, 1953 (also on VOD). In either case, do you feel that the speaker’s use of the term constitutes a distortion of the word’s meaning?
- Many readers comment on President Bush’s black and white moral reasoning (e.g., Singer, The President of Good and Evil. The Ethics of George W. Bush). Reread paragraph 25 of the speech and find examples of pairs of words set in binary opposition. In this paragraph, Bush says “Moral truth is the same in every culture, in every time, and in every place.” Do you agree? Discuss examples that support or challenge this claim.
- The 2002 West Point graduation speech was delivered approximately six months after the war in Afghanistan had begun and over a year before the beginning of the war in Iraq (March 2003). At the time this article was written (June 2006), Americans were still at war in Iraq. What has happened in the intervening years? Research the progress of the war in Iraq up to the present time and write a brief summary of your findings. Return to the West Point speech and record your impressions of Bush’s arguments based on the current status of the war on terror and America’s current world-wide military engagements.
- The West Point speech presented a key element of the Bush Doctrine. Do an electronic search in a data base which includes the disciplines of political science or foreign policy under the term “Bush Doctrine” and collect five journal articles published since 2006 concerning this policy. What opinions are available about this doctrine? How has it been evaluated by the academic community? What are the major arguments for and against this U.S. foreign policy change?
- The invasion of Iraq raised questions about what constitutes a “just war.” The Wikipedia article on the just war tradition includes a list of just war theorists beginning with Cicero and Augustine in ancient Rome and extending through many centuries of European religious and philosophical writing (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Just_War_tradition). Select three authors from the list, find where they discuss just wars, and write an essay comparing and contrasting their views.
- You may have noted that the list of scholars cited in C) does not include any figures from non-Western scholarly traditions: e.g., East Asian, African, Asian Subcontinental, etc. Do another search of print and electronic resources concerning “just war” to discover whether or not this debate was conducted in other geopolitical settings and historical eras. Under what terms was the debate conducted? Who are major figures in, for example, the Chinese tradition of debate on the circumstances under which war can legitimately be waged and by whom?
- Scholars have associated some aspects of the new Bush Doctrine, particularly the belief that America has a duty to spread its principles beyond its borders, with a centuries-old idea of American exceptionalism introduced in the seventeenth century by Puritan John Winthrop. Explore the concept of American exceptionalism in the writings and speeches from figures in each of the four centuries between Winthrop and George W. Bush.
- In the West Point speech, Bush specifically refutes the claims that his policy involves empire-building (14), yet many others, both supportive and critical of the Bush Doctrine, openly accept the concept of an American empire. “Rebuilding America’s Defenses,” the Report of the Project for the New American Century written by men who became key Bush advisers, speaks positively of an “American peace,” an expression making America in the twenty-first century analogous with Rome of the early centuries of the Common Era. Pax Romana, or Roman Peace, referred to the stabilizing and benevolent effects of the Roman Empire on its subject states. The American peace “has, over the past decade, provided the geopolitical framework for widespread economic growth and the spread of American principles of liberty and democracy” (“Rebuilding,” 1; see also Ignatieff, “The Burden”). Use the phrase “Pax Americana” or “American peace” as a starting point for researching positions on the idea of an American empire. What are arguments for and against this idea? To what extent do the sources you discover use the historical analogy with Rome to make their case?
- Research can be conducted by consulting people as well as print records. The West Point speech was delivered during a time of war about the rationale for waging war and addressed to students soon to become commissioned officers in the Army. Who goes to war, for what reasons, and how do they make sense of their experiences? Identify friends or family members who have participated in armed conflict and interview them about their experiences. In developing your interview questions, try to incorporate concepts, language, or reasoning from the West Point speech. What are the results of your inquiry? Do any of your interviewees share the perspectives of the President in their reasons for becoming soldiers? Did their experience change their ideas about reasons nations should engage in war? (Note: This project is framed as an informal inquiry with friends and family because formal research on “human subjects” is governed by a set of regulations put in place to protect people from various kinds of harm that might result from research.Please see instructions provided by your university’s Institutional Review Board for more information about conducting research with people. If you have reservations about questioning people on these subjects, you may conduct this research using print records of soldiers’ experiences.)
- Bush placed considerable verbal emphasis on the protection of women as a rationale for intervention in non-democratic states. What is the history of U.S. influence on policies concerning the status of women in the Middle East prior to the invasion of Afghanistan in October of 2002?
- The West Point graduation speech and the Bush Doctrine more generally raise questions about America’s adherence to internationally agreed upon standards for waging war. The agreements establishing these standards are the charter of the United Nations, Chapter VII, and the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg, Article 6.a. (See also the international treaties at http://www.wpgaw.org/laws_and_treaties_violated_by_pr.htm.) Consult these documents and then read the Bush administration National Security Strategy document of September 2002. What is your judgment on the question of U.S. military actions in the period 2002 to the present? What arguments seem most valid in making a decision to engage in military action?
- View the PBS documentary “The War Behind Closed Doors” (http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/iraq/). Then go to the on-line discussion (http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/iraq/talk/) and contribute a comment making reference to the West Point speech. What is your assessment of the quality of the discussion? Do contributors seem to be responding to each other in the manner of a dialogue? Do the comments divide clearly into pro and anti-Bush camps? Are there any that seem to attempt to cross partisan boundaries? Did the process of viewing and commenting change your opinions about the West Point speech or the war on Iraq?
- Political issues are taken up in popular culture, providing avenues for citizens to become informed and engaged but also risking the substitution of entertainment for authoritative information. The Hollywood film Syriana, released in 2005, concerns the complex power moves among U.S. government officials, U.S. energy corporations, secret operatives, and leaders of Middle Eastern oil-rich states. The film is loosely based on a book by Robert Baer titled See No Evil (2002), purporting to tell the true story of a CIA “ground soldier.” The website for the film Syriana (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0365737/) offered a link to a political action campaign devoted to reducing Americans’ reliance on oil. You can read about it here. View the film, read the book, and review the website. Then write a reflective essay on the representations of the role of oil production in the U.S. government’s foreign policy statements and actions. What differences and similarities do you find in the various media? How do their purposes and audiences shape their rhetoric?What impact does the fictional narratives and visual impressions created by the film have on your decision-making process as a citizen?
- In June 1991, George H. W. Bush delivered the commencement address at West Point. On 21 June of that year, a letter to the editor appeared in the New York Times objecting to the use of the podium to “deliver a partisan political attack.” Track down this letter using Lexis/Nexis (or some other data base), and then search for letters to the editor concerning George W. Bush’s 2002 West Point Speech. (See Domke,God Willing?, 20, for a list of twenty major U.S. newspapers.) Write a report detailing your findings: number of letters, concentration in geographic regions, demographics of writers (to the extent that you can determine them), and, most important, the range of opinions expressed. Does this exercise change your opinion about the value of the letter to the editor as an act of rhetorical citizenship?
- You may encounter this site in a presidential election year. What can you learn about the stances of various candidates toward U.S. internationalism? Listen to a campaign speech or debate, or research candidates’ writings on foreign policy. Do you find references to the Bush Doctrine or any of its premises? Have any tenets become broadly accepted? Generally rejected? Do you find any echoes of President Bush’s rhetoric in the speech or writing of the candidates? How large a part will foreign policy positions play in your judgment about the best candidate?
Last updated March 20, 2016