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An Effulgent Galaxy of Past Luminaries

Harvard's Past Commencement Speakers

As Chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, Paul A. Volcker has grown accustomed to the instant impact his public statements have on the world's economic markets. But when Volcker takes center-stage for today's Commencement ceremony, he will be only an average-sized star in an effulgent galaxy of past luminaries.

The speakers who have graced the Tercentenary Theater's podium over the years constitute an illustrious group, ranging from poets to presidents--and their remarks have occasionally changed the course of history.

Since Harvard began holding Commencement exercises in 1642, the event has been a parade of pomp and circumstance. In 1797, a live elephant made an appearance before the assemblage, while the featured entertainment included an archery competition with Indians from nearby Natick.

Until the nineteenth century, when the Fourth of July caught on as a holiday, Commencement was the seasonal excuse for feasts and New England-style bacchanalia, much to the chagrin of past Harvard President Increase Mather.

But from Revolutionary times, Commencement has also been a forum for serious debate, epitomized first by the "Thesis and Question" and more recently by the featured speech. As Samuel Eliot Morison shows in his Three Centuries of Harvard, speakers invariably chose to exploit their moment in Harvard's unique spotlight by addressing one of the burning issues of the day.

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Alongside the elephants and Indians, men like Governor Elbridge Gerry and John Adams, Class of 1775, held forth on subjects like the Stamp Tax and the balance of powers.

Modern technology and America's emergence as a major world power since the 1930s has converted Commencement into an international media event, making it appropriate for statements of global import.

Perhaps the most famous event occurred in 1947, when Gen. George C. Marshall unveiled what came to be known as the Marshall Plan, the United States' proposal for the rebuilding of post-war Europe. Marshall's speech proved a harbinger of Cold War diplomacy.

However, not everyone who witnessed the general's address came away impressed. "Marshall's plan meant nothing to me at the time," says Mason Hammond '25, Pope Professor of Literature and Languages Emeritus. Hammond serves as "caller" on the platform at Commencement and has seen almost every ceremony since his own graduation.

David A. Aloian '49, Executive Director of the Harvard Alumni Association--the official sponsor of the afternoon exercises--missed Marshall's speech by two years. However, he recalls an equally famous address by Russian defector and author Alexsandr I. Solzhenitsyn in 1978.

Solzhenitsyn's polemical essay, read by a translator as a light drizzle fell on the crowd, made enormous waves in the intellectual community. The Nobel Prize-winning writer who built his reputation declaiming the evils of communism stunned the world with a diatribe on the evils of capitalism, leaving Harvard seniors and their parents with a chilling forecast or Western Civilization's demise.

"It was a great occasion," Aloian says of Solzhenitsyn's appearance, adding, "It was exactly what a Harvard Commencement should be, a wonderful and profound individual dealing eloquently with a major issue."

But David Riesman '31, Ford Professor of Social Sciences Emeritus, believes Commencement has become too political.

"A good address should be reflective, invitational to thought," says Riesman. He considers Solzhenitsyn's speech an abuse of Harvard's influence and institutional neutrality.

"My main interest is in the human prospect of survival," says Riesman. "Anything that feeds the mindless rhetoric of anti-Soviet activism is detrimental."

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