Dr. Margaret A. Hamburg Baccalaureate Speech

Story posted August 08, 2003

Margaret A. Hamburg, M.D.
Baccalaureate Address
Bowdoin College
May 23, 2003

Following is the complete text of Dr. Margaret Hamburg's May 2003 Baccalaureate address. This version contains updates from the earlier version available here.

President Mills, Members of the Board, members of the faculty, alumni, parents, friends, and above all - graduates of the Bowdoin College class of 2003.

We gather on this beautiful campus to celebrate a very special time in the lives of all who will receive diplomas and in the lives of all who have given love, inspiration, and support to these graduates.

For generations, Bowdoin College has stood as an important center of academic life, scholarship and cultural achievements. It is a place where great teachers and great students have come together to learn, to create and to contribute. It is a place of both history and of hope for the future. I am certain that tomorrow's graduates will proudly carry this spirit and these values forward as they embark upon their new and exciting lives

It's an honor to be here with you today, but also a challenge. I have been invited to join you at this most memorable time to participate in what may be its least memorable moment - the baccalaureate address.

I recognize that this is not a moment that commands student attention. There are no more tests. The grades are in. The diplomas are signed. For the Class of 2003, they can't do anything to you anymore. But beginning tomorrow, you start playing for higher stakes than grades and graduation. Tomorrow you inherit the world. It's not your parents or your professors' world any more. It's yours. You've got to live in it, work in it, likely get married in it, and raise children in it - so you've got to make it safe.

It is a daunting task to think that about how to make a difference in this challenging world...how can the graduating students use their energy and their education as a force for good? And how can all of us, in the various thing we do and lives we lead, strive to make sure that the world of the future is safer, healthier and more secure? For this is a challenge we all must share.

During the past four years, you have witnessed historic and often tragic changes in the world. You have seen terrorists take the lives of people in our country and destroy the World Trade Center and a part of the Pentagon. Our country's military has undertaken two difficult and costly wars abroad. With the rest of the nation, you have struggled to adjust to a new and very uncomfortable feeling of vulnerability.

These events, though they happened at a distance from Brunswick, Maine, and the Bowdoin campus, have touched all our lives. They have been a distressing wake-up call about many aspects of the world we live in. These events have also significantly changed what it means to graduate from a prestigious American College such as this one. I know that some of you lost friends and loved ones, and for you the lessons are especially poignant. But even if you did not know anyone who was killed in the 9/11 attacks, anyone in the path of an anthrax-tainted letter, or anyone who served with U.S. forces fighting in Iraq or Afghanistan, any notion that your life might be insulated or protected from world events is gone, forever.

Over the years - through the jobs I've held and the work I do - I have come to understand that we really are all in this together. Our world is getting more interdependent every day. Our health and security and prosperity depend more and more on events that may happen halfway around the world.

The job market you're facing is the toughest in years. Will our economy pick up? That depends in part on what happens with the down economies of Germany and Japan and other nations, where people now have less money to buy our products. It depends in part on what happens with SARS, which has disrupted economies in Asia and already caused more than $30 billion in damage. It depends in part on terrorist actions, because terrorism leaves people skittish about traveling and investing. How safe are we from terrorism? That depends in part on the skill of security forces in places like Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. It also depends on the conditions of life in places all over the world. How safe are we from disease - that depends in part on the skill and reach of health officials in South Africa, China, and India.

We live in a nation whose history was launched by a declaration of independence. But our future depends on accepting -and acting on--our interdependence.

This lesson is not always obvious, and sometimes it takes a while to sink in. Let me tell you some of the ways I've come to see this. In 1994, when I was working as New York City Health Commissioner, we were concerned with an outbreak of a plague in Surat, India. It was a pneumonic form which - like SARS - can be spread person to person with relative ease. We were worried that, with international travel, someone infected with the plague could slip into our urban center, go unrecognized and untreated, and spark a serious outbreak of disease. We knew just how explosive such things could be.

So, naturally, we took some precautionary steps. I called over to City Hall and offered to brief them on the situation. Some staffer in the Mayor's office sent me back a terse message saying, "We don't need your briefing about something happening in India; we can read the papers." I sent a message back asking if they were aware that more than 30 flights a day came into JFK Airport with passengers from India. Shortly thereafter, the phone rang in my office, with Mayor Giuliani on the other end asking if we should shut down Kennedy airport. That was not exactly the solution, but he had gotten the message. He understood that a disease in a remote part of the world could be in our backyard tomorrow.

Some years later, I left New York and accepted a Presidential appointment as Assistant Secretary in the Department of Heath and Human Services in the Clinton Administration. I was working hard there on developing defenses for the threat of biological terrorism. It was not easy. Again, the first step was to convince people that the threat was real. Then to convince them that public health and medicine had a critical role to play.

Early in my tenure there, I was part of a small group charged with briefing the President on this issue. This was at a time when a lot of people wrote off the threat of bioterrorism as the stuff of science fiction. Clinton listened intently. He asked sharp questions. At the end, he walked around the big cabinet table and took a seat next to me and Secretary Shalala. He laughed and said, "I know a lot of people are going to accuse me of reading too many bad novels, but this stuff is real and we have to do more." He gave us the go-ahead to put together an emergency appropriation request and he would take it to Congress. It became the first program specifically targeted to the medical and public health aspects of bio-terrorism - and it was this work that laid the foundation for the response to the terror attacks in fall 2001 and put in place many of the programs that have now been greatly accelerated following the anthrax attack.

But not everyone understood the new world, the new threats and our interdependence as well as President Clinton and Mayor Giuliani. When I showed up for the White House meeting to develop the budget President Clinton requested, an official from the Office of Management and Budget was presiding. He greeted officials from the National Security Council, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Central Intelligence Agency, Department of Defense, then looked at me, did a double take and said: "What is the Department of Health and Human Services doing here?" I explained that I really did belong there; that biological weapons unleash disease and that doctors and the public health system will be the ones to recognize and respond to that disease.

Believe it or not, an FBI representative told me later that if there were a biological event, not to worry, their agents would defuse the pathogens. Of course, pathogens are the biological organisms that cause disease. He might as well have said "we'll arrest the germs." You can't defuse pathogens as if they were a bomb; you contain them with surveillance and quarantine and care; you prevent the disease they produce with vaccines, and kill them with medicines. But many people still don't understand. They assume that a national security issue can't be a health issue and a health issue can't be a national security issue.

Even some of the health people didn't buy it in those early days. I remember well a meeting with the top scientists at the National Institutes of Health in the pre 9/11 and pre-Anthrax letter days, trying to engage them on our biodefense activities. One of those scientists -- a good friend, former boss and mentor who is now among the most visible government scientists working on bio-terrorism defense -- patted me on the arm and said, "You know, you should really be working on real world issues."

These were some of the smartest people in the world - but they did not yet realize that their world had changed.

I am now working as Vice President for Biological Programs at NTI - an organization founded by Ted Turner, co-chaired by Mr. Turner and former Senator Sam Nunn, and committed to reducing the dangers from nuclear, biological and chemical weapons. I began my work there nine months before September 11, and it was still quite hard to get attention to these issues. Senator Nunn and I wrote an opinion piece on the threat of biological weapons and submitted it to a major national news magazine a few weeks before September 11 and the subsequent anthrax attacks. They said: "Nice piece, but we're not doing much on that now."

It's too bad it took an attack to get us to mobilize and pay attention. Sadly, it's in the nature of much of life, including national security and public health, to respond to a threat only after it happens. We have to find some way to take the threat as seriously before it happens as we would after it strikes. Unfortunately, though, until a big threat strikes, the disbelief and denial and a reluctance to change often keeps us two or three steps behind where we ought to be.

When the times change, our perspectives must change. I think of my beloved Aunt Winnie - actually my grandmother's sister. In a world of change, she didn't budge. When I was admitted to Harvard Medical School, Aunt Winnie said: "How Wonderful!! Now you can marry a doctor!" When I was appointed New York City Health Commissioner, she said: "Why couldn't you be a real doctor?" I loved my Aunt Winnie, but I never would have wanted to see her in a policy-making role in the 21st century. Those jobs belong to you. The world is changing fast and you may be in the best position to keep up.

The fact is - we need you involved now. We can't afford to wait until you're forty, or fifty, and getting a little gray to feel your influence. Why? Because everyone in positions of power today in business and government grew up during a different era. A lot of us learned from an old set of ideas. Many of enduring value, but we've been trying to unlearn others ever since. Here are a few of the old ideas that hold us back and are slow to go away:


  • Russia and China are enemies of the United States.
  • If we're friends with a nation's leaders, we don't need to worry about its people.
  • What happens over there doesn't affect us here.
  • A strong military is all you need for strong security.
  • It doesn't matter if people like us as long as they fear us.
  • Our security requires that we keep thousands of nuclear weapons ready to fire within minutes.
  • National security is a matter of armies and borders, not poverty or disease or resentment.

These ideas had a large following during the Cold War. Today, they are provably flawed. Yet these ideas still underpin many of our policies and attitudes. Russia and China are important partners of ours. Yet important security cooperation is still undercut by old suspicion. We're friends with the leaders of Saudi Arabia, yet fifteen Saudi nationals hijacked our planes on September 11 - and we have no effective efforts underway to diminish that hatred. The United States still pays the least of any advanced country in foreign assistance, even though what happens abroad clearly affects our security, our prosperity and our health here at home. A strong military could not prevent the attacks on September 11, nor can it help defuse the hatred that gave rise to the terrorists - yet the response to September 11 was to dramatically increase funding to the military and homeland defense, but pay little to reduce the conditions that breed terrorism or improve the perception of our country abroad. Today, the United States and Russia still have thousands of nuclear weapons on hair trigger alert ready to fire within minutes - even though we are no longer enemies, we have no incentive to incinerate one another, and chances remain of an accidental or an unauthorized launch. We still fund global health issues very sparsely - even though diseases like AIDS, TB and malaria cut through the military forces in nations we rely on as partners in the war on terror.

These dangerous policies are proof of how hard it is for people to change their views AND change the old habits inspired by those views. The world has changed. We have moved from an era in which our security depended on confrontation to an age in which our security depends on cooperation. It's a new age that features new problems and old problems with new urgency.

I believe three specific problems threaten our survival.

First, the persistent and growing gap between the haves and the have-nots. There is some debate over whether the disparities are growing, shrinking or stable, but there can be no denying that in our globalized world, these disparities are easier to see and harder to accept and breed greater resentment - which terrorists are eager to exploit.

Second, the intractable conflicts that fester around the globe. These conflicts - such as those between India and Pakistan and between Israel and Palestine - take many lives, destroy families and communities, and create deep grievances which - again - terrorists are eager to exploit.

Third, nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons, materials, and know-how are becoming more widely available to both rogue states and terrorists. Based on what we saw September 11, if terrorists had these weapons of mass destruction, they wouldn't hesitate to use them - and against us.

These are crucial problems. They can be solved. But they will not be solved with the old policies and old approaches that got us into this trouble to begin with. We need to give up some old ideas, and embrace important new ones. Here are some ideas that I think can guide us to a safer world.

  • National security is much more than guns and guards.
  • The ability to inspire fear is less valuable than the ability to diminish hatred.
  • Hatred is a serious national security threat.
  • If people are free and prosperous, they will not fund or support terror.
  • National security depends on healthy and wealthy partners; disease undercuts both. What is more, disease does not recognize national boundaries so we must address it wherever and whenever it occurs.
  • It is essential to have good relations with a nation's people - not only diplomatic relations with its leaders.
  • We can't win the war on terror without massive international cooperation.
  • We can't get nations to cooperate with us on our concerns, unless we cooperate with them on theirs.

Your future, and the safety of the world you will live in, will depend upon the world's ability to remodel the old ideas and embrace the new. Yet, as I said, most of the people now in power in business and government developed their mindsets and many of their strategies in the Cold War world - and then the world changed drastically.

This is why we need you. You didn't grow up with the old thinking. You see the new realities more quickly. How many of you graduates have parents who know more about computers than you do? How many of your parents are quicker to access information or download music from the Internet? Your young fresh minds take in new lessons more easily - and you aren't burdened by having to unlearn the old lessons. Let me offer just one example of the old way versus the new. As I said earlier, the United States pays the least money on a percentage basis of any advanced nation to fight poverty and disease in the developing world. You still have members of Congress boasting on their websites about how much they cut foreign assistance. They can get away with that boast, because global health has not been a big priority in the minds of many Americans. Many politicians complain it's a waste, and the average citizen doesn't have the facts to prove they're wrong. Yet, consider what our stinginess in global health means for public health here in America. In the past decade, the impact of infectious diseases on the United States has increased significantly. Illnesses unknown here a few years ago - such as West Nile virus - have emerged to kill hundreds of Americans, and old diseases such as measles and tuberculosis have reappeared, sometimes in epidemic proportions. SARS is a current and frightening example of a newly emerging infection that threatens us all.

One approach to preventing disease is to limit exposure. But in the global era, we are, in fact, increasingly exposed. Every year, tens of millions of people visit the United States from other nations; billions of tons of food and other products enter the United States from other nations. We cannot expect to stop travel and trade. We cannot expect to isolate disease at customs. We have to stop it where it starts.

This has everything to do with our health, wealth and our future. If we understood it that way, we could easily generate the spending and effort it would take to make a major difference. And many people do understand it that way, but it is so hard to change. We can't get our spending on global health to the high levels where it ought to be - because of the low levels where it used to be. It doesn't matter that we've realized we're out of the old era -- we're still stuck in the old habits. I will make a clear exception in the case of President Bush's initiative to fight AIDS. That is a welcome breakthrough. But we still face millions of preventable childhood deaths around the world every year - children who die from diseases for which there are effective vaccines that cost only a quarter. And we are not making the policy changes necessary to stop that. We seem to catalogue that ongoing tragedy in some file labeled "has to do with other people far away; doesn't affect United States." This is crazy. If we don't change that mindset, our world is going to spin ever further out of control.

If you agree and share these concerns, I hope that you will roll up your sleeves and join in. It's your future being shaped. We need every energetic ally we can find. There's an old quote that my mother had up on the refrigerator when I was growing up. You all have probably heard it. It was a quote from Margaret Mead, the renowned anthropologist. It read, "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has."

When I was growing up, I saw only the positive side of that quote. Now I wonder if maybe some future terrorist grew up with the same quote on his/her refrigerator -- certainly a small group of committed people changed the world on September 11. Today, smaller and smaller groups can do bigger and bigger damage. The entire nature of terrorism has grown more deadly. Former CIA Director James Woolsey has said that terrorists used to be seeking a place at the table; now they want to blow up the table. Recently, one extremist Muslim cleric chillingly told a U.S. newspaper: "We don't want to change your mind, we want to destroy you."

I believe that in this age of terror, the only thing that can stop a small group of committed individuals is a large group of committed individuals. Only all of us acting together, with wise policies and sound judgments, can make our world safer.

You're entitled to a world that offers you every opportunity. But it won't be handed to you. You have to take a hand in building it. It's early to ask you to take on the full duties of a citizen, but the world is in a tough spot. More than forty years ago, President Kennedy said in his inaugural address: "In the long history of the world, only a few generations have been granted the role of defending freedom in its hour of maximum danger. I do not shrink from this responsibility. I welcome it. I do not believe that any of us would exchange places with any other people or any other generation."

Today, it's your generation that has that role of defending freedom and defending your future.

In the fall of 2000, my old boss President Clinton - speaking at the United Nations for the last time, to history's largest-ever gathering of Heads of State - closed his remarks with thoughts that are as good as any I've heard. Let me quote him: "The leaders here assembled can rewrite human history in the new millennium... But we must believe the simple things -- that everywhere in every land, people in every station matter. Everyone counts, everyone has a role to play, and we all do better when we help each other."
Let me close with a paraphrase of those remarks to this Bowdoin College graduating class of 2003: "The future leaders here assembled can rewrite history in the new millennium. Study the world. Understand its principles. Write its new laws. And never believe for a moment that you can separate your fate from those far away or from those less fortunate. With this outlook, you will all do very well - and so will your great grandchildren. Congratulations, good luck and godspeed.

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