“The shadows are lengthening for me…” West Point Commemorative Silver Dollar Coin

Today, the West Point Commemorative Silver Dollar Coin remembers General Douglas MacArthur, who at 82 received the Thayer Award on May 12, 1962 at West Point.

In later newspapers, Ralph McGill described General MacArthur’s speech to the cadets on that day 53 years ago.

In the Miami News:


Gen. Mac Speaks Of The Old Image

No more old-fashionedly eloquent and poetically emotional speech has been made in our time than that by General of the Army Douglas MacArthur when recently he received the Sylvanus Thayer Award at West Point.

The general is 82 years old, but stands straight and trim as of yore. Emotions boil within him; he cannot put them down. Time was when he could entirely control them. There was a day when he, in uniform, was so moved as to venture across the line and become a political figure. Harry Truman stopped that—firmly and unequivocally—as should have been done.

The general could not avoid letting the Corps sense how he felt. But he warned them away. There are two revealing paragraphs.

The tall old man, one of the legends of our Army, not too subtly let the cadets know his doubts about our post-war politics. (He did not agree, even, with President Eisenhower.) But, perhaps out of his own experience, he warned them to remain soldiers. One feels the frustrations within the man in these two paragraphs:

“Let civilian voices argue the merits or demerits of our processes of government: Whether our strength is being sapped by deficit financing indulged in too long, by Federal paternalism grown too mighty, by power groups grown too arrogant, by politics grown too corrupt, by crime grown too rampant, by morals grown too low, by taxes grown too high, by extremists grown too violent; whether our personal liberties are as firm and complete as they should be.

“These great national problems are not for your professional participation or military solution. Your guidepost stands out like a tenfold beacon in the night: Duty, honor, country.”

The soldier, said the general, prays for peace. He does this because he suffers and bears the deepest wounds and scars of war.

Here we have the old man with the old image. In the Second World War, the role of the civilian was also productive of deep wounds and scars. Only civilians felt the searing, destructive blast of the two atomic bombs dropped in war. Cities have become the major target. He gave them a quote by Plato—”Only the dead have seen the end of war.”

Standing before the young men, some of whom were not born when the Japanese struck in December of 1941, the old general pulled from his mind this wondrously moving pageant of emotional response:

“The shadows are lengthening for me. The twilight is here. My days of old have vanished—tone and tints. They have gone glimmering through the dreams of things that were. Their memory is one of wondrous beauty, watered by tears and coaxed and caressed by the smiles of yesterday. I listen then, but with thirsty ear, for the witching melody of faint bugles blowing reveille, of far drums beating the long roll. In my dreams I hear again the crash of guns, the rattle of musketry, the strange, mournful mutter of the battlefield. But in the evening of my memory I come back to West Point.”

This is the stuff of oratory such as stirred another generation when William Jennings Bryan, Bob Taylor, Bob Ingersol, and others of equal eloquence appeared in lectures under the various lyceums. There is something in it of Tennyson and his Ulysses: “Though we are not now of that strength which in old days moved Heaven and earth…”

The general included a caveat: “You face a new world,” he said, “a world of change…a new epoch begins. We deal now, not with things of this world alone, but with illimitable distances, and yet unfathomed mysteries of the universe…” But, for the soldier, he concluded, the mission remains unchanged—to win wars.

There was a grandeur in the speech—and a certain pathos, too.


The West Point Commemorative Silver Dollar Coin shows beside a portrait of General MacArthur, circa 1945.

West Point Commemorative Silver Dollar Coin