HAVRE DE GRACE -- Commencement season looms, and with it the 50th anniversary of the most famous commencement speech of all time, George Marshall's announcement of an extraordinary plan for the reconstruction of war-shattered Europe.
General Marshall, the secretary of state, made the speech at Harvard on the afternoon of June 5, 1947. This year, the anniversary machinery is already at full throttle. The Clinton administration is paying close attention. It is not by coincidence that in June Secretary of State Madeleine Albright will deliver the Harvard commencement address to the class of 1997, 50 years later to the day.
The Marshall speech had tremendous international implications. On both sides of the Atlantic, it contributed to peace and progress for two generations. But it's also the subject of a homely little footnote in one Maryland family's personal history.
At a Harvard commencement, speakers and other distinguished guests are assigned escorts, known as marshals, appointed from the ranks of previous graduates. The marshals are primarily background decoration, but they have a good view.
General Marshall's marshal was a member of the Class of 1936, a decorated combat veteran of both the Pacific and European theaters of the war. He had never been an active alumnus, and was astounded when he was asked to participate in the commencement exercises. He was just a little grumpy about it as well, as he was farming in Maryland at the time and hadn't really wanted to make the trip to Boston. But he accepted anyway. His name was Peter Jay.
It sounded like a speech
In talking about the event for years afterward, he would often say, with some embarrassment, that when he heard the speech delivered he didn't realize that he was hearing history being made. It sounded, well, like a speech. He didn't learn until he read about it in the newspapers that it had been something more.
But there was no need for Pop to be embarrassed, Harvard historian John Bethell makes clear in a new Harvard Magazine essay about that famous commencement day. General Marshall and the State Department, not wanting to awaken opposition in Congress to the Marshall Plan, had gone to great lengths to soft-pedal the significance of the speech. As a result, it took most of the press several days to realize what had happened.
One reporter who wasn't fooled was one of Pop's classmates, Stephen White of the New York Herald Tribune. He attended the ceremony largely because he was friendly with J. Robert Oppenheimer, who he had heard was going to receive an honorary degree. (Another honored that day, in addition to Marshall and Oppenheimer, was the poet T.S. Eliot, Class of 1910.)
White went to the Harvard press room on the morning of June 5 and asked for a copy of Marshall's speech, which was furnished to him. He asked if it contained anything of significance. No, he was told. It was ''a routine commencement speech.'' But when he read it, he realized otherwise.
A loss of interest
He called his editors and offered to file the full text, with a story to follow on Marshall's proposal to rebuild Europe. The editors said they'd consider it, and to call them back. When he did, they'd lost interest, having talked to the State Department and having been assured by Mike McDermott, the press spokesman there, that the speech was routine. White had to raise the roof to get a story in the paper at all.
The New York Times correspondent in Boston had a similar experience to White's. And the initial Associated Press dispatch on the Harvard exercises didn't even mention General Marshall until the third paragraph, which simply observed that he was one of the speakers. In Europe, however, the British Broadcasting Company was all over the story.
Times change. It's a safe bet that when the time comes for Secretary Albright to deliver her own remarks at Harvard this spring, and whatever her topic, neither the White House nor the State Department will be calling it ''a routine commencement speech.'' But of course that's exactly what it will be.
Not everyone can be Hamlet, as General Marshall's co-honoree T.S. Eliot observed, and not every secretary of state can be George Marshall. Not every so-called leader can be a hero, and not every era can be heroic.
And of course not every commencement speech can contain a blueprint that will change the world. As there are thousands of commencements and as many thousands of speakers, most who graduate are doomed to hear only banalities, if they happen to be listening at all.
Mr. Eliot once wrote of an earnest fellow who was ''Deferential, glad to be of use,/ Politic, cautious and meticulous;/ Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;/ At times, indeed, almost ridiculous --/ Almost, at times, the Fool.''
In a few more weeks you might run into that very gentleman at a college commencement, making a forgettable speech and picking up an unearned degree. George Marshall he's not. He's J. Alfred Prufrock, Ph.D.
Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.
Pub Date: 5/01/97