US president Donald Trump has highlighted the diversity of West Point military academy’s graduating class as he appealed for America’s newest military officers to uphold the country’s core values.
Mr Trump’s speech emphasised unity at a time when the US leader’s relationship with military leaders has become strained and questions have arisen about the role of soldiers in a civil society.
Mr Trump said in prepared remarks to the graduates at the academy in New York state: “You have come from the farms and the cities, from states big and small, and from every race, religion, colour, and creed.
“But when you entered these grounds, you became part of one team and one family, proudly serving one American nation.”
Mr Trump’s commencement speech to the 1,100 graduating cadets during a global pandemic comes as arguments rage over his threat to use American troops on US soil to quell protests stemming from the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer.
The president told the class of 2020 that “you became brothers and sisters pledging allegiance to the same timeless principles, joined together in a common mission: to protect our country, to defend our people, and to carry on the traditions of freedom, equality and liberty that so many gave their lives to secure”.
He said they “exemplify the power of shared national purpose to transcend all differences and achieve true unity. Today, you graduate as one class, and you embody one noble creed: duty, honour, country”.
Tensions between the White House and the military have escalated since nationwide protests began over the death of Mr Floyd, a black man who was pinned by the neck by a white police officer for several minutes despite saying he could not breathe.
Mr Trump seemingly alluded to the protests, saying in his prepared remarks: “What has historically made America unique is the durability of its institutions against the passions and prejudices of the moment.”
In the past two weeks, Mr Trump has denounced defence secretary Mark Esper for publicly opposing his call to use active-duty troops to crack down on the demonstrations.
Mr Trump then shut down Mr Esper’s attempt to open a public debate on removing the names of Confederate Army officers from military bases.
Gen Mark Milley, the US joint chiefs of staff chairman, further risked Mr Trump’s ire on Thursday by declaring it had been “a mistake” for him to accompany Mr Trump on a June 1 walk through Lafayette Square in Washington DC.
The trip ended with the president holding up a Bible and posing for the news media outside St John’s Church, which was damaged by fire during the unrest.
Gen Milley’s comments amounted to an extraordinary expression of regret by Mr Trump’s chief military adviser, who said his appearance led to the perception of the military becoming embroiled in politics, which in his view – one shared by Mr Esper – is a threat to democracy.
The events have stirred debate within the military and among retired officers.
More than 500 West Point graduates from classes spanning six decades signed an open letter reminding the Class of 2020 of its commitment to avoid partisan politics.
The letter, published this week on Medium, also alluded to the problems Mr Esper and Gen Milley encountered at the White House after Mr Floyd’s death.
They wrote: “Sadly, the government has threatened to use the Army in which you serve as a weapon against fellow Americans engaging in these legitimate protests.
“Worse, military leaders, who took the same oath you take today, have participated in politically charged events. The principle of civilian control is central to the military profession. But that principle does not imply blind obedience.”
They added: “We are concerned that fellow graduates serving in senior-level, public positions are failing to uphold their oath of office and their commitment to duty, honour, country. Their actions threaten the credibility of an apolitical military.”