In 1876, Lieutenant Theodorus Mason, later the first head of the Office of Naval Intelligence, published an article “Two Lessons from the Future.” Using the literary device of letters in the future, he wrote that “they are supposed to be written in the future, and are merely conjectures as to the probable results of possible events.” The letters predicted the impact in 1880 of torpedoes defeating the Navy in a great battle and a later victory due to trends and necessary changes. As he wrote in the latter: “Something had to be done and was done” including throwing the Naval Academy open to all applicants, with “great weight being given to professional aptitude and officerlike qualities.”
It is in the spirit of Theodorus Mason that the following speech is offered.
By Claude Berube
Commissioning Day, 2055
Good morning, Brigade.
It doesn’t seem that long ago that I sat where you are now – sort of. Thirty-five years ago. I was in the Naval Academy Class of 2020, the first class to have a virtual graduation due to the COVID-19 pandemic. I can’t say a few of us weren’t disappointed while we were just weeks away from celebrating four years of hard work, some fun, and the foundation of lifelong friends and shipmates. But we and our families saw the immediate consequences of COVID-19. Some of our parents and siblings lost their jobs as the nation closed most businesses – some of them permanently. Eventually, nearly every one of us lost someone we knew – family, friends, neighbors. We had dreamt of that one day – commissioning – being on the football field under the sunshine and roar of the Blue Angels. Our loved ones were going to be in the stands cheering as we approached leadership and receive our diploma. We were to be sworn in as officers in the Navy and Marine Corps. We were going to toss our covers in the air and leave before children swarmed the field to pick them up.
That did not happen.
That Superintendent made some of the toughest calls any Superintendent in the history of the Academy had to make, from not reforming the Brigade after Spring Break to cancelling graduation. The history – the data – in the past 35 years has proven what those decisions meant. He protected the health and safety of the midshipmen, the faculty, the staff, and the community. History shows what would have happened if he hadn’t demonstrated that leadership – that ability to make tough calls.
He saved lives. And we welcome and recognize he and his wife who are with us here to share in this day.
[Resounding applause from the midshipmen via the speakers.]
Our class took that leadership by example to heart. It prepared us to make the tough calls in our own careers. We learned to be agile like when the entire faculty and Brigade had to literally shift overnight from teaching in the classroom to teaching online as we were spread across the country on computers – those things you only see in museums today. We learned how to modify our services. We learned the importance of the situational awareness of our people when they’re overseas. And in the aftermath of COVID-19, the nation and the Navy learned to adapt our education and training.
COVID-19 had many effects but three especially on how we had to change the navy including the Naval Academy. The first was its effect on the economy. The Dow Jones tanked – three times. The debt spiraled out of control. The president and Congress had little choice – they had to shrink the military budget. The navy was the first hit because of the cost of its platforms. In recognition of his prophecies about the “Terrible Twenties,” CDR Salamander was given the rank of brevet Commodore. When we graduated in 2020, some navalists were touting a 355-ship Navy. [Gasps from the midshipmen]. That’s right. Who could have predicted the 155-ship Navy that you will join in a few weeks?
We had to be leaner, so autonomous, unmanned vehicles proliferated. By 2040, we grounded the last of our manned air platforms and that’s why modern graduating classes don’t select naval aviation as a community like their parents and grandparents did, and why Pensacola was BRAC’d shortly after. Only a few officers are needed to command drone squadrons from our aircraft carrier.
The second effect was on jobs. Jobless rates soared in 2020. Some businesses closed until the pandemic abated the following year. Other businesses closed permanently. Those businesses that returned found ways to reduce costs. Fast food was the first to turn to automation. Even restaurants began replacing service staff. Soon there was a permanently high unemployment rate which led to more people competing for enlistments in the military and admission to the Naval Academy. When I was in high school, about 16,000 students competed for 1,100 slots. Nearly 40,000 students across the United States competed for one of the 500 slots in your class. The Navy determined that it should expect more years of service. In addition to the competitive entry to the Academy, constantly high unemployment meant we could no longer lose our educated and trained officers after only five years. Back in 2018, I signed my 2-for-7 [groans from the midshipmen]. Today, you sign your 2-for-17s+5s (active and reserve.) But you all have a guaranteed job defending our country and you’re still young enough to embark on a second career.
The third effect was the options and flexibility presented by online teaching. As the fleet shrank in size, so too did the need for officers. Additional cost savings came from smaller crews from increased automation. The Navy revisited how we commissioned officers.
When I was your age, officers commissioned through the Academy, ROTC, Officer Candidate School, or a few in the Direct Commission Officer program for Reserves. The Naval Officer Commissioning Act of 2037 consolidated the programs for the first time since before the first World War. But we knew we couldn’t return to the past. We had to adapt. And that’s why we changed how the Academy prepared officers. We asked ourselves a fundamental question: how could the navy and the nation retain the best of the Academy, OCS, and ROTC? We couldn’t maintain the four-year program we had become accustomed to. Some alumni argued, “you shouldn’t change tradition.” But what tradition? The Academy wasn’t always a four-year program. And it didn’t always require four years for a class to graduate, as we witnessed in previous wars. Commissioning didn’t always include a hat toss – that started in 1912. The Herndon climb only started in 1940 and they didn’t grease it until 1949.
Tradition is not constant. It has a start. It changes. Tradition rarely retains its original qualities and people rarely remember the historical reasons that began those traditions.
The Navy and Congress found the right formula for our 21st century conditions. Anyone accepted to the Academy could choose whatever accredited domestic or international college to attend that they wanted to for one year. Because of advancements in online teaching, they would have one online course with a Naval Academy professor to start their tie to Annapolis. In their second year, they would serve on a ship as a midshipman. These conditions allowed the students to grow by seeing a bit of the world around them, to experience other schools and cultures, and to see what life in the Navy meant. If they did well in that one-year college program and received a positive recommendation from their ship’s commanding officer, they would come to Annapolis for I-Day. Induction Day. And here you would learn for the next three years.
Class of 2055, we must be aware of the conditions around us. We must adapt to those conditions. We must remain agile. And just as my class faced its challenge and sacrifice, so too does yours. Because of that, you are each ready to join the fleet and the challenges you will face in your careers.
I salute you, good luck, and hold fast.
[The midshipmen stood, cheered, and tossed their covers in the air. As media digitographers captured the moment, the covers and the midshipmen slowly pixilated, disappearing off the field to leave behind neat rows of holograph emitters.]
Commander Claude Berube, USNR, PhD, teaches history at the U.S. Naval Academy, is the Director of the Naval Academy Museum, and is a former Senate staffer and defense contractor. His next two books will be released in the next year. The views above are the author’s alone and not necessarily reflect those of the Navy or Naval Academy.
Featured Image: ANNAPOLIS, Md. (December 19, 2019) U.S. Naval Academy delayed graduation ceremony. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Nathan Burke/Released)