Trump’s Vacuous West Point Address and the Revolt Against It
Robin Wright / The New Yorker
(June 15, 2020) — President Trump has enraged the U.S. military—from top to bottom. On June 11th, an angry and mournful letter signed by hundreds of graduates of West Point—spanning from the Class of 1948 to the Class of 2019—was posted on Medium.
It addressed the Class of 2020. It cited the current “tumultuous time” in America: more than a hundred thousand deaths from a new disease with no known cure, forty million newly unemployed people, and a nation “hurting from racial, social and human injustice” after the murder of George Floyd. “Desperation, fear, anxiety, anger and helplessness are the daily existence for too many Americans,” the signatories wrote. They warned bluntly of leaders who “betray public faith through deceitful rhetoric, quibbling, or the appearance of unethical behavior.”
They reminded students of the cadet honor code, which dictates not to “lie, cheat, or steal,” and not to tolerate those who do. Without naming names, they cited their fellow-graduates who are now in senior government positions and failing to uphold their oath of office. (The Defense Secretary, Mark Esper, and the Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, both graduated in the West Point Class of 1986.) They wrote that their appeal “is not about party; it is about principle.” And, after welcoming the newest class to the Army tradition of the “Long Gray Line,” they concluded, “Our lifetime commitment is to the enduring responsibility expressed in the Cadet Prayer: ‘to choose the harder right instead of the easier wrong, and never to be content with a half-truth when the whole can be won.’ ”
The letter was timed to Trump’s commencement address at West Point, on Saturday, Donna Matturro McAleer, of the Class of 1987, told me. She was one of a half-dozen co-authors who talked for weeks — on social media and Zoom — about the many issues that intersected with Trump’s first graduation appearance at the hallowed institution, which is formally known as the U.S. Military Academy.
The pandemic forced West Point to send cadets home in March; they completed the semester online. After Trump announced that he would speak at commencement, more than a thousand cadets had to return to campus two weeks beforehand to quarantine, so that the President, who has not worn masks in public and often does not observe social distancing, would be safe.
In their letter, the West Point graduates assailed Trump’s use of the military to clear protests that erupted in Washington, D.C., after Floyd’s death. Esper and General Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, accompanied Trump on his controversial walk to St. John’s Episcopal Church, where he waved a Bible, briefly, for a photo op.
“Sadly, the government has threatened to use the Army in which you serve as a weapon against fellow Americans engaging in these legitimate protests,” they wrote. “Worse, military leaders, who took the same oath you take today, have participated in politically charged events.” The letter to the cadets warned against the “disgrace” of making a “Faustian bargain” to please leaders or advance their own careers. “Loyalty is the most abused attribute of leadership,” they wrote, and appealed to the Class of 2020 to “right the wrongs” and to hold one another accountable to ideals instilled at West Point.
McAleer told me that the drafters of the letter had worked hard to reach a consensus. “This letter is the collective voice of many graduates—spanning over eight decades and serving in the Army through thirteen Administrations—speaking as one. We have a hymn at West Point about gripping hands, and we felt it was time to grip hands,” she said. “Given how intergenerational we are, we don’t agree on much, but we all came together without reservation on this.”
Much like the protests across America, the letter quickly gained traction. “We didn’t post this and say, ‘Sign on,’ ” McAleer said. “They came one by one as they heard about it from classmates or friends who went to West Point. We knew we were right on this issue. We all went to the same school that had the same mission. Even for those of us not in uniform, that oath does not expire.” By Monday morning, more than a thousand alumni had signed on. “We’re a little overwhelmed,” McAleer, the author of “Porcelain on Steel: Women of West Point’s Long Gray Line,” told me. “It’s been kind of cool.”
West Point, which is on a commanding plateau above the Hudson River, an hour from New York City, has been a seminal American institution since the Revolutionary War. General George Washington counted on it as “the most important strategic position” in the land. He used it to prevent the British Army from seizing the Hudson River and isolating the colonies. American soldiers have been there ever since.
In 1802, Thomas Jefferson created a formal institution — to teach the science of warfare — to future military leaders. Abraham Lincoln visited West Point to consult on military strategy during the Civil War (which had West Point graduates leading on both sides). Teddy Roosevelt outlined the military challenges of the twentieth century on West Point’s hundredth anniversary, in 1902. Since then, more than a dozen Presidents have announced new policies, military strategies, and diplomatic breakthroughs at its commencements.
In 1955, Dwight Eisenhower, of the Class of 1915, outlined America’s global goals as the Cold War heated up and told cadets that mankind must find ways to use nuclear technology other than for the world’s deadliest weapons. In 1962, John F. Kennedy warnedcadets about a new type of warfare “by ambush instead of by combat; by infiltration, instead of aggression, seeking victory by eroding and exhausting the enemy instead of engaging him.”
It proved an apt description of what became the Vietnam War — America’s first major military defeat. In 1987, Ronald Reagan chose to detail from West Point a historic nuclear deal with the Soviet Union — requiring Moscow to give up four times as many nuclear warheads as the United States — and to invite the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to visit the United States. Less than six weeks later, Gorbachev was in Washington, to sign the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty.
In 1991, George H. W. Bush’s commencement address focussed on race, three months after Rodney King’s brutal beating by police in Los Angeles. “Our Armed Forces have shown what Americans can do when they see themselves not as white and black and red or brown but as one people united in common purpose,” he said. Bush also noted that West Point was graduating its thousandth black cadet, its thousandth female, and its first Hmong student.
“America’s task is to achieve nationally what we celebrate today at West Point,” he said. “To reach that end, we must destroy the racial mistrust that threatens our national well-being.”
In 2002, George W. Bush outlined a new, post-9/11 U.S. policy in Afghanistan. “The war on terror will not be won on the defensive,” he told the cadets. “We must take the battle to the enemy, disrupt his plans, and confront the worst threats before they emerge.”
In 2009, Barack Obama chose to outline the surge of thirty thousand troops to Afghanistan — after years of the war moving “backwards” — in an address at West Point. He vowed that the surge would last only 18 months — long enough to seize the strategic initiative, strengthen Afghan military capacity, and allow a “responsible transition.” As was the case after other Presidential addresses at West Point, reality took a different turn. The United States is now negotiating a peace deal with the Taliban so that it can bring all forces home from America’s longest war.
In contrast to the tradition of big ideas and new initiatives, Donald Trump’s first graduation address at West Point was vacuous — or, as Slate put it, in a headline, “West Pointless.”
Danny Sjursen, of the Class of 2005, who is a veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and also a former West Point instructor, noted that Trump said nothing to heal a fractured nation. He didn’t address the protests over racial injustice which are taking place in more than two thousand America cities. He didn’t address his own deepening strains with the military, including with Esper and Milley, who publicly disavowed the President’s use of federal forces against protesters.
“He didn’t mention a single theatre of U.S. military operations—not Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, or the many places where special forces are deployed or U.S. warplanes have bombed,” Sjursen, who has chronicled Presidential appearances at West Point since Kennedy, told me.
Trump also offered no words of comfort about the coronavirus pandemic — or thanks to the cadets for the most complicated commencement address ever held at West Point. It was a stark and lonely graduation, because family and friends could not attend. The cadets paraded onto an empty field, in white face masks and their famed gray jackets, to sit on white folding chairs more than six feet apart. Instead of marching onstage to get their degrees, they exchanged salutes with Trump from a distance. It was another Trump photo op — writ large. (Ten of the White House’s “Photos of the Week,” released on Sunday night, were from West Point.)
Trump talked briefly and vaguely about the durability of American institutions “against the passions and prejudices of the moment. When times are turbulent, when the road is rough, what matters most is that which is permanent, timeless, enduring, and eternal,” he said. As he often does, Trump pledged an end to endless wars but offered no details on how to do it. In a silly aside, he noted that his birthday, on Sunday, coincided with the Army’s birthday.
“I don’t know if that happened by accident,” he told the cadets. During Trump’s talk, protesters on several boats in the Hudson River flashed signs. Seven people on kayaks lined up together, each holding a large letter, to spell “R-E-S-I-S-T.” A sailboat used its mast to hoist a protest sign bearing Trump’s face. “He is a threat to our constitution,” it said. There were others.
Over all, Trump’s speech was a recitation of military history, with a heavy focus on his favorite generals—Grant, MacArthur, and Patton. McAleer called it a “mashup of old war movies about places he doesn’t know or he’s never been. Any of the cadets could have schooled him more thoughtfully.” Barry McCaffrey, a retired four-star general from the Class of 1964, who taught at West Point, called Trump’s address “a collection of awkward, badly delivered bromides. It was dead, disjointed. The good news is that it’s over.”
Andrew Bacevich, a retired colonel from the Class of 1969, who also taught at West Point, dismissed as nonsense the President’s claim to have rebuilt the U.S. armed forces after years of devastating budget cuts. “No such budget cuts have occurred since the immediate aftermath of the Cold War,” Bacevich, who is now the president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, said.
Infuriated by Trump’s use of the military at St. John’s Church, Bacevich was among the early supporters of the letter to the West Point Class of 2020. He told me, “The fact that you can get more than 700 signatures that quickly reflects the extent of the anger permeating the Long Gray Line.”
Robin Wright has been a contributing writer to The New Yorker since 1988. She is the author of “Rock the Casbah: Rage and Rebellion Across the Islamic World.”
Posted in accordance with Title 17, Section 107, US Code, for noncommercial, educational purposes.