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Marshall Scholars Alumni Dinner Reception
British Embassy, Washington, D.C.
May 28, 2008

Stephen Breyer
Associate Justice
Supreme Court of the United States

Sixty years ago, speaking at Harvard just after the terrible winter of 1947, General George Marshall pointed out that Europe "must have substantial additional help." He added that "the United States should do whatever it is able to do to assist in the return of normal economic health in the world." The Marshall Plan was born.

Six years later Great Britain, with the help of two of its Ambassadors, Roger Makins and Oliver Franks, established the Marshall Scholarships. Those scholarships were intended both as a tribute to George Marshall and as a thank you for America’s Marshall aid. Marshall wrote to the first group of twelve Marshall Scholars

"These scholarships point the way to the confirmation and growth of the understanding which found its necessity in the terrible struggle of the war years."

Along with more than 1000 other Americans, I have benefited from that tribute, that generous gesture of goodwill from Great Britain to the United States. And, like those others, I should like in return to say thank you for the Marshall Scholarship. It made an enormous difference to my life.

You must remember that in 1959, we young American students did not know all that much about foreign places, about history, even about the English language. My idea of an exciting foreign visit was my father taking me with him -- on the Southern Pacific’s Daylight Special or overnight on the Lark -- from San Francisco to Los Angeles.

History? I was like the young boy walking with his father past the statute of Wellington on horseback in Hyde Park. "Who is that?" "What? You don’t know Wellington, Wellington who led our victory against Napoleon, Wellington the defender of our island, Wellington the savior of our liberty?" "Oh, I’m so sorry, father. Wellington, I shall never forget you. Never. I promise." "Any more questions?" the father asked. "Yes, one," said the boy, "who’s the man on Wellington?"

Education? I remember George Bernard Shaw’s advice to a friend who asked, "How can I tell that audience all that I have learned in twenty minutes." "Speak very slowly," Shaw replied.

So we learned.

Not everything. Despite being married to an English wife, not even to this day have I fully learned the English language. I still am puzzled when, in London, I see signs on the subway, I mean the tube, that say "mind the gap." What does that mean? "Take care of a well known clothing store?" "A hollow space between the ears?" And I still fall victim to differences in English manners. A friend, a British judge, showed me how he encourages lawyers to end a lengthy argument. He turned to the lawyer before him and said, "I’ve understood your point, counsel, to the best of my ability." The lawyer replied, "Very good, my Lord," and he sat down. So I tried it in America. "I’ve understood your point, counsel, to the best of my ability." The lawyer looked up. "Well then, your honor, I guess I’d better repeat it."

But we young American students nonetheless did learn and learn and learn. In part we learned what we were formally taught, in my case philosophy, politics, and economics. But more than that. There was all that history. The buildings themselves spoke history. They helped us place ourselves in time. They helped us understand that the individual’s struggle to lead a decent, civilized life began long before our own country was born.

There was tradition, in particular a tradition of well-functioning, democratically responsible government. Richard Neustadt told me years later that President Kennedy and Prime Minister MacMillan, meeting in Bermuda about the Sky Bolt missile, were talking informally after their business meeting. MacMillan described his plans for the next budget. Kennedy, aware of his own struggles with Congress, asked, "But what will Parliament do?" "Parliament?," said MacMillan. "But we have a majority, so they will just pass whatever the cabinet recommends." "You recommend it; they pass it?" said Kennedy. "My God, anyone could run a country like that."

Not quite. But the British, we found, without a written Constitution had internalized the underlying principles of democratic government -- a rule of law, protection of individual freedom, participation in public life -- giving them life by embodying them in the community’s shared expectations of proper public behavior. My job on the Supreme Court teaches me daily how important those expectations can be.

There was also the opening of our eyes to the world, a dawning realization that even beyond Los Angeles people lived, many in ways quite different from our own. There was the sense of freedom, the chance to travel, to explore, to spend those vacations in London, in France, in Russia, in Morocco. There were those long conversations, in farmhouses, pubs, cafes, classrooms, everywhere, those challenging conversations that kept us up so late at night.

There was too the idealism of that time, the sense of common history, shared values, shared objectives. That sense of common objective has not been lost. It comes to mind when I speak, as I often do, with judges of many different nations who are seeking to create systems of law that will embody our shared ideals.

There was, above all, the friendship, with the Americans, with the British, with many others -- that reduced to human terms so much of what I learned. It was, of course, a time of life as well as a place. I understood then, and I am still amused by, the epitaph at Winchester of a young boy who died at an early age: "Thomas Blakely," it said, "is now in heaven, where he went instead of Oxford."

Of course, I might have found all that in many different universities in many different countries. There are many places where I might have begun to understand that commitment to clear critical thought, to public service, to traditions of human liberty that run back, at least, to the Great Charter signed at Runneymede. But in my own case those things appeared at a particular place, in England, at a particular time, among the teachers, fellow students and friends I made there.

The sentiment remains. It explains why I felt that tug at my heart when the Prime Minister of Great Britain appeared in Congress after 9/11 and why I was so pleased when the members of all three branches of our Government stood and applauded. It explains why George Marshall’s words about the Marshall Scholarships still resonate: "A close accord between our two countries is essential . . . in the turbulent world of today and that is not possible without an intimate understanding of each other."

The Marshall Scholarships still helps achieve that purpose and others besides.

I think I can speak for the scholars here when I say, thank you for mine.



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