The roll of speakers through 16 years of the Eugene J. McCarthy Lecture includes U.S. Senators, nationally renowned journalists and a former White House Chief of Staff. But perhaps none of the appearances was ever more timely or important than when 4-star Gen. Paul Nakasone ’86 returned to Saint John’s University on Thursday (Oct. 20).
Addressing a near capacity crowd of almost 500 people jammed into the Stephen B. Humphrey Theater, Nakasone spoke of the conscience and courage he’s seen in public life en route from his commission as a second lieutenant through his duties since 2018 as director of the National Security Agency, chief of the Central Security Service and commander of U.S. Cyber Command. Not coincidentally, several front rows were dominated by red-shirted students – ROTC candidates from the Fighting Saints Battalion, just as he was 40 years earlier.
His speech was part homage to McCarthy, a 1935 SJU graduate who served 10 years as a U.S. representative, 12 as a senator and sought the Democratic nomination for president multiple times, and part ode to Nakasone’s own experience at Saint John’s and the College of Saint Benedict. Perhaps his most important statements, however, addressed the security of the coming Nov. 8 elections and perhaps deserved a much broader audience.
Nakasone cited McCarthy’s courage in opposing the potential re-election of President Lyndon Johnson in 1968. Against the backdrop of the growing war in Vietnam, civil disturbance, the assassination of Martin Luther King, McCarthy went against the will of some in the Democratic party to give the voters a choice. As a result, Johnson withdrew from candidacy for a second term and the escalation of the war ended.
McCarthy was not selected as the candidate to succeed Johnson and, in any case, Richard Nixon took the oval office for the following term. But Nakasone echoed that McCarthy’s stance was not in vain.
“He did not go along to get along,” Nakasone said. “He changed history, as a result. I see the task of our nation’s military in preserving the space for people like Senator McCarthy and each of you to stand on principle when conscience dictates. Regardless of party or creed, that freedom and that space are worth defending.”
McCarthy served in the Army as a codebreaker during World War II. Ironically, Nakasone said the primary responsibilities of the NSA and Cyber Command are to make code and break code, which they are doing in support of allies in conflict around the world and to safeguard democracy in America.
“We know that our democratic policy depends on the free and informed choices cast by millions of voters in regularly scheduled and fairly run elections,” Nakasone said. “This insight drove Senator McCarthy’s stand in 1968, when he put a choice to the voters in his party. We would not be here to commemorate his memory and service if the 1968 primaries had been rigged to favor one candidate or shaped by foreign influence.
“We have seen in recent elections that foreign actors have indeed sought to exert covert influence to convince Americans to distrust election returns. Election security is an enduring, no-fail mission. Although we have not seen foreign manipulation of ballots and vote counting, we remain vigilant for such possibilities. This effort remains our top priority through the elections until the votes are certified.”
Nakasone admitted, however, that adversary states and their proxies are trying to flood social media platforms with fake commentary about our politics. The defense is to work with international partners, the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI to assist state and local authorities to ensure elections run smoothly.
“As a result of this collaboration, our 2018 and 2020 elections ran without foreign interference,” Nakasone said. “And we will ensure that coming elections will not be disrupted.”
Nakasone, a native of White Bear Lake who majored in economics at SJU, holds graduate degrees from the U.S. Army War College, the National Defense Intelligence College and the University of Southern California. He has held command and staff positions across all levels of the Army with assignments in the United States, the Republic of Korea, Iraq and Afghanistan and received the Distinguished Service Medal, the Defense Superior Service Medal, the Legion of Merit and the Bronze Star, among other awards and decorations. He served twice as a staff officer on the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Wearing his dress uniform and a huge array of service ribbons on his left breast, he warned that the rise of technology has brought with it increased threats.
“When I graduated from college and became an officer, our national security focus was on the Soviet Union,” said Nakasone, flanked inside and outside the venue by uniformed law enforcement and plainclothes security detail. “Communist leadership in Moscow controlled a massive nuclear arsenal but ran a second-rate economy and held a moribund ideology. The Cold War ended three decades ago, of course … and the era where America enjoyed unmatched technological, economic and military strength has ended. Our time is defined by strategic competition.”
Nakasone said Russia “is still an acute threat,” and Iran, North Korea and others “continue to threaten lives and liberties in many regions.” He said that makes it tougher to solve issues like corruption, the drug trade, human trafficking, cybercrime, disease and climate change. He identified China as “the only competitor with both the intent to reshape the international order and increasingly the economic, diplomatic, military and technological power to advance that objective.”
He noted the absence of the Internet as we know it when he was in college, and how the students in the audience before him could not remember life without laptops, cellphones, social media and global connectivity – often wirelessly.
“You are living with stuff that was literally science fiction when I was at Saint John’s,” said Nakasone, who added that the most important technological development he knew as an undergrad was the ability of the dorm telephones in Collegeville to sound two short rings to denote a call inbound from the College of Saint Benedict.
After great laughter from the audience, he said “That sound got more attention than a fire alarm.”
Cybersecurity safeguards more than elections
Today, Nakasone said, cybersecurity is as important to society as power lines and water supply – and often controls those and many other aspects of the world in which we live. And that extends to our elections, where foreign adversaries try to divide Americans against each other and sow lingering distrust in democracy.
“They threaten to shake that freedom of conscience that Senator McCarthy defended,” said Nakasone, who leads 40,000 civilian and military personnel in the NSA and another 20,000 in Cyber Command. “As we see in Ukraine, this connectivity is changing the course and character of war.
“Intelligence work carries a reputation of working in the shadows. But with cybersecurity, we’ve had to shift how we think about sharing intelligence. Rather than waiting until an attack happens, we now work with foreign powers to mitigate the potentially catastrophic damage from these attacks. This is why we stay constantly engaged with our partners, to stop attacks before they occur.”
Nakasone, who is married and has four children, was making his second visit to campus in as many years. He delivered a commencement address and received an honorary doctorate degree in 2021. Active with the D.C. alumni chapter, he has commissioned two ROTC graduating classes, and was the recipient of an Alumni Achievement Award from SJU in 2016.
He said he chose Saint John’s in part because everyone he met who attended the school called themselves “a Johnnie,” even after they graduated. He said he’d like to go back and re-live his education, and that his closest friends and associates today still come from his time at SJU.
“I always look forward to a visit here,” said Nakasone, whose visit helped highlight Family Weekend at CSB and SJU. “These halls and grounds are indeed special to me. My years here were a time of tremendous growth for me, and my classmates and friends. They left a lasting and happy impact on us.”
Urges others to follow McCarthy’s example
He closed his remarks by urging the audience to remember McCarthy’s example, who listened to his conscience when it told him that his country ranked ahead of partisanship. He swore an oath to the Constitution, just as all the soldiers in the NSA, Cyber Command, the armed forces and federal government have done.
“Our oath matters,” Nakasone said.
So does “leadership by integrity.”
“It’s the foundational piece of all good leaders,” Nakasone said. “Your word is your honor. You mean what you say and the audio and video match.
I urge you to make every effort to listen to others. Converse with them and make sure everyone is part of that conversation. Public service and civil society are inseparable. Remember that a difference of opinion does not make someone your enemy.”
He cited the Rule of Benedict, adding “no one is to pursue what he judges better for himself but instead what he judges better for someone else.”
“That’s good advice for both a monastery and our own communities,” Nakasone said.
The annual McCarthy Lecture, sponsored by the Eugene J. McCarthy Center for Public Policy and Civic Engagement, carries forward the former U.S. Senator and presidential candidate’s deep commitment to the ideals and principles of democratic self-government. It seeks to inspire a new generation of young people to pursue fresh ideas, to challenge the status quo, to effect positive change in their communities and, like McCarthy himself, lead with honesty, integrity and courage.
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