Although he humorously implies the opposite, there is only one man in the United States who could have said the following in the course of his commencement speech at the Merchant Marine Academy this week:
My father, who was honored here at a Regimental Review, was a man with enormous responsibilities, which he never shirked. He was brave, and as loyal to the Navy and his country as any officer who ever held a command. He lived a challenging and dangerous life. He served in three wars, and in his last war, Vietnam, he commanded all U.S. forces in the Pacific, including those who fought in Vietnam. I am his oldest son and namesake, and I fought under his command.
For several years I was a prisoner of war in the enemy’s capital, Hanoi. When the President of the United States and his advisors decided to try to shorten the war by bombing Hanoi, it was my father’s duty to order it done.
The planes that flew to Hanoi on his orders were B-52s, the largest bombers in the Air Force. They could carry and deliver the biggest stick of bombs. They flew at very high altitudes, and unlike our Air Force today they did not have the technology to be very accurate in their targeting.
The pilots knew Americans were held captive very near their targets. So did the man who commanded them, my father. He knew where I was, and he loved me. He prayed on his knees every day for my safe return. Whenever he visited his soldiers in Vietnam, he would end his day by walking to the northern end of the base, and stand quietly alone looking toward the place where his son was held. But his conscience required him to do his duty, and his duty required him to risk his son’s life. So he did.
That is a very hard decision for a father to make. Very few of us will ever have to face such a difficult choice. Even fewer of us would have the character to make the right decision. I doubt I would. But he did. And the memory of him, and the example he set for me helped to form my own conscience.
In prison I served with men of extraordinary character, honorable men, strong, principled, loyal, and compassionate. Better men than me, in more ways than I can number. They were often treated cruelly. For several years they were tortured. Some were beaten terribly and worse. Some were killed. Sometimes they were tortured for information that could be used to help our enemy, and sometimes for information that our captors could use against other prisoners. Most often, they were tortured to compel them to make statements criticizing our country, and the cause we had been asked to serve.
Occasionally, the torture would be briefly suspended, and the prisoners were encouraged to make a statement with promises that no one would hear what they said or know that they had abandoned their responsibilities and sacrificed their integrity. ‘Just say it, and we will spare you any more pain,’ they promised, ‘just say it, and no one will know of your dishonor.’ The men I had the honor of serving with always had the same response. I will know.
That is the sense of responsibility that makes you a good leader. That, my friends, is character. I hope it is your destiny as you become leaders, in whatever work you turn your hand to, to hear the voice in your own heart, when you face hard decisions, to hear it say to you, again and again, until it drowns out every other thought, I will know. I will know. I will know.