At West Point Commencement, Kamala Harris Says Military’s Strength Lies in Diversity

Vice President Kamala Harris on Saturday became the first woman to address a graduating class at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, and used the opportunity to extol the diversity of the American armed forces at a time of struggle over the military’s identity.

In an 18-minute speech, Ms. Harris noted that the nation’s military had evolved in the last 75 years from an institution once dominated by white men to one more open to women and minority groups. While she did not mention the significance of her own historic appearance, her presence at the microphone on the field at West Point in New York spoke for itself.

“To the class of 2023 and to all the cadets here today: You stand on the broad shoulders of generations of Americans who have worn the uniform, including many barrier breakers and trailblazers,” Ms. Harris told the graduating cadets in their gray-and-white dress uniforms. “In fact, this year, you celebrate the 75th anniversary of the integration of women in the military, as well as the desegregation of our military.”

“These milestones are a reminder of a fundamental truth: Our military is strongest when it fully reflects the people of America,” she continued.

Her address came at a time when the armed forces have sought to forge a new identity. Army bases in the South named for Confederate generals are being renamed, and President Biden nominated Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr. this past week to become the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to serve alongside the defense secretary, Lloyd J. Austin III, meaning that for the first time, the top civilian and uniformed leaders at the Pentagon will be Black men.

Some conservatives like Senator Tommy Tuberville, Republican of Alabama, and former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have complained about what they call a “woke military” that is too fixated on the narrow prisms of race and gender. Mr. Tuberville, who is holding up the promotion of senior officers over a new abortion policy at the Pentagon, said this month that the Biden administration’s efforts to promote diversity were hurting recruitment and complained that Democrats were “attacking our military, saying we need to get out the white extremists, the white nationalists, people that don’t believe in our agenda.”

Ms. Harris made no direct reference to those complaints, although her defense of diversity in the ranks sounded like a kind of rebuttal. West Point, founded in 1802, reflects the changes in the broader military. When the class of 2023 entered four years ago, 23 percent were women and 34 percent were members of minority groups.

West Point and the other service academies have traditionally been addressed at commencement by the president, the vice president or a senior military officer. Until Saturday, the Army’s premier educational institution had never had a woman as its main speaker at graduation. Mr. Biden plans to address the Air Force Academy’s commencement in Colorado Springs on Thursday, and Mr. Austin spoke at the U.S. Naval Academy’s commencement in Annapolis, Md., on Friday.

Much of Ms. Harris’s speech contained the usual tributes to the graduates and warnings about the dangerous world they would face as newly minted officers.

“You graduate into an increasingly unsettled world where longstanding principles are at risk,” she told them, citing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and China’s aggressive moves in the Pacific, among other challenges.

“Our military is the strongest in the world,” she added. “Our military is a force that underwrites global stability and our national security. And it is this pillar of our strength where you, cadets, have dedicated yourself to lead. Essential to our strength is the role, then, that you will play in defending our nation’s highest ideals.”

Peter Baker is the chief White House correspondent and has covered the last five presidents for The Times and The Washington Post. He is the author of seven books, most recently “The Divider: Trump in the White House, 2017-2021,” with Susan Glasser. @peterbakernyt Facebook

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