It could have been worse.
President Donald Trump’s Saturday morning commencement speech at West Point was merely dull rather than abhorrent, incendiary, or flagrantly self-aggrandizing, except for a couple of passages and—significantly—the fact of the speech itself, which was designed entirely as a video clip for an upcoming reelection campaign commercial.
Other military academies, like every other college in the country, have had virtual graduation ceremonies this year, with speakers delivering—and the class members watching—their addresses in safety online.
But Trump demanded, against the wishes of Army leaders, that the cadets of West Point—who’d been sent home in March to avoid the coronavirus—return to campus and quarantine themselves for two weeks, then assemble in tight formation (no social distancing), without any friends and relatives in attendance, to hear his words and salute his presence in person. (At least 15 of the cadets who returned tested positive for the virus. In one nod to public health, the cadets wound up sitting what looked like 6 feet apart from one another.)
So the Trump campaign got its photo-op of the Army’s newest commissioned officers standing at attention before the incumbent commander in chief. What did the cadets get out of it? Not much.
Trump drably read a long, gray speech, with little that was stirring, much less poetic. He stuck to the teleprompter’s text with uncharacteristic fidelity, departing only twice—and then, as is typical, to tout himself. After congratulating West Point’s football team for beating the Navy Academy for the first time in several years, he added, “I happened to be there,” then said it again, then again. A bit later in the speech, he noted that Sunday would mark the 245th birthday of the U.S. Army, then added spontaneously, “Unrelated: It’s going to be my birthday also. I don’t know if that happened by accident. Did that happen by accident?”
Again, in the annals of Trump’s self-glorification, it could have been worse.
The speech came in the week of growing tensions between Trump and his top officers over his handling of the protests over the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd. Most recently, the nation’s top general, Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, apologized to the graduating class of the National Defense University for appearing alongside Trump at a partisan photo-op at St. John’s Church across from the White House.* Since then, more than 700 graduates of West Point sent an open letter to the Class of 2020, urging them to value their oath to the Constitution above any demand of loyalty from a political official. Trump referred to none of this in his speech.
There was one moment of unintended irony in the speech, and one has to wonder whether it was the work of a subversive speechwriter. “What has historically made America unique,” he said, “is the durability of institutions against the passions and prejudices of the moment”—this, read by a president who has openly sought to destroy the nation’s institutions with unequaled passion and prejudice.
Otherwise, Trump delivered a stream of clichés, capped by occasional falsifications of his own contribution to the national defense. For instance, he boasted, “My administration has embarked on a colossal rebuilding of the American armed forces, a record like no other.” In fact, Presidents Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, John Kennedy, and Ronald Reagan rebuilt more colossally. He said we’re building a hypersonic missile that can fly “17 times faster” than any other missile and land “14 inches” from a target. Actually, as John Pike of GlobalSecurity.org notes, the hypersonic missile (a) is still in development, (b) might fly at 17 times faster than the speed of sound (many current missiles can already fly almost as fast as that), and (c) will need to be tested before any claims can be made about its accuracy.
Trump also falsely contrasted his performance with that of his predecessors, saying, “After years of devastating budget cuts and a military that was totally depleted from these endless wars, we have invested over $2 trillion”—adding, in another departure from script, “trillion, that’s with a T”—“in the most powerful fighting force by far on the planet Earth.” In fact, his two predecessors, Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, substantially increased defense spending. The notion that the military was “depleted” is just nonsense; when Obama left office, the U.S. armed forces, for good or ill, were still firing bullets, dropping bombs, and launching missiles in plenty of countries and training to do so in plenty more.
Trump has certainly boosted the budget still higher, but, as his secretary of defense, Mark Esper, noted last week, this has led to a problem: The nation cannot afford to buy all the weapons that the military plans to buy. Choices will have to be made. New concepts of defense and deterrence may have to be devised. Some members of West Point’s Class of 2020 may be among those making these decisions. Trump did not hint that difficult days, of this sort, lie ahead.
Nor did he lay out any of the strategic dilemmas facing the United States more broadly. Obama discussed some of these dilemmas in his own West Point commencement address in 2014—the tensions between U.S. interests and ideals, between the primary aim of protecting the nation and the secondary but still occasionally vital one of aiding allies and preserving freedom abroad.
Trump touched on this issue but came down hard, as he usually does, on one side. “We are ending the era of endless wars,” he told the graduating cadets. “In its place is a renewed, clear-eyed focus on defending America’s vital interests. It is not the duty of American troops to solve ancient conflicts in faraway lands that many people have never even heard of. We are not the policemen of the world. … But if our people are threatened, we will never, ever hesitate to act.”
In one sense, this is laudable—though it’s not news: It’s a repetition of the “America First” slogan he’s been hawking since running for president. But it raises awkward facts. First, Trump himself is still embroiled in some of these distant wars: sending arms to Saudi Arabia, which are then used in Yemen; killing Iranian military leaders in Iraq; and there are still troops fighting in Afghanistan.
Second, perhaps without knowing it, Trump echoed the words of British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain in 1938, when, setting the stage for his “appeasement” policy, he opposed the idea of fighting off the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia, dismissing it as “a quarrel in a faraway country between people of whom we know nothing.”*
Earlier in his speech, Trump invoked the proud tradition of West Point graduates-turned-generals, leading brave troops to battle in Normandy, the Pacific Islands, and other theaters of war. Yet the Trumps of those days scorned Roosevelt for sending American men to places that “many people have never heard of.” Can an Army be raised, inspired, sustained solely on protecting the homeland—or at least without some discussion of how to define “vital national interests”?
If the only task of a military is to defend our borders (and an honest debate can be had on this point), we don’t need to spend trillions of dollars on defense; we might not even need to graduate 1,107 cadets each year from a place like West Point.
Certainly, the cadets could easily have heard this speech from the comforts of their homes before being sent out to the hard world to fight wars or maintain a peace of which their current commander in chief has no understanding.
Correction, June 13, 2020: This article originally implied that Gen. Mark Milley had apologized to the graduating class at West Point for appearing at a photo-op with Trump. He apologized to the graduating class of the National Defense University.
Correction, June 15, 2020: This article originally misspelled Neville Chamberlain’s last name.