President Donald Trump told a socially distanced 2020 West Point graduating class Saturday that they were joining a military committed to staying out of "endless wars" and remaining steadfast "against the passions and prejudices of the moment."
The new Army second lieutenants were now "officers in the most exceptional Army ever to take the field of battle," Trump said to the 1,017 members of the class on the mostly deserted West Point campus. "I am here to offer America's salute. Thank you for answering your nation's call."
"This premier military academy produces only the best of the best, the strongest of the strong, and the bravest of the brave," added. "West Point is a universal symbol of American gallantry, loyalty, devotion, discipline, and skill."
The U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York closed in March as a precaution against the COVID-19 pandemic and continued classes virtually. Technically, Trump did not address cadets, but rather second lieutenants who had received their commissions on May 23, the original date set for graduation, an Academy spokesman said.
About 1.5% of the graduating class, or at least 16 individuals, had initially tested positive for the novel coronavirus. But all had recovered as of commencement, an Army spokesman said.
Upon returning to West Point, the members of the class were isolated for two weeks and all tested negative, the spokesman added.
Before Trump arrived, they marched onto the storied "Plain," the parade ground where cadets have trained since 1802, wearing their face masks. But they removed them as they took their seats in socially-distanced folding chairs.
In his remarks, Trump praised the role of the active-duty military and the National Guard in combating the "invisible enemy" of the pandemic. "We will vanquish the virus, we will extinguish this plague," he said.
He also noted the contribution of the National Guard to "ensuring peace, safety and the constitutional rule of law on our streets" in the civil unrest amid protests against racism and police misconduct following the May 25 death of Minneapolis man George Floyd under the knee of a police officer.
In another reference to the unrest, Trump said that what had "historically made America unique is the durability of its 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.
Trump said the West Point class was entering a transformed military committed to swift victories with the weapons buildup provided by his administration.
"It is not the duty of the U.S. troops to solve ancient conflicts in far-away lands that many people have never even heard of," he told the graduates.
"We are not the policemen of the world" looking to be mired down in "endless wars," Trump said. He warned enemies of the U.S. to be on notice that "when we fight from now on, we will only fight to win."
The military buildup included creation of the Space Force as a military branch.
"It's a big deal," Trump said. He also noted work on the development of hypersonic weapons.
"We are building new ships, bombers, jet fighters, and helicopters by the hundreds. New tanks, military satellites, rockets and missiles, even a hypersonic missile that goes 17 times faster than the fastest missile currently available in the world," Trump said.
He said the hypersonic missile in development could hit a target 1,000 miles away with stunning accuracy, striking within 14 inches of center mass.
In his half-hour address, Trump also encouraged cadets to follow the example of past commanders whose statues ring the Plain, including the general who commanded the Union Army during the Civil War.
"We need you to carry on the spirit of the great General Ulysses S. Grant," Trump said.
To keep social distance, the graduates did not go to the reviewing stand to receive their diplomas, Instead, they approached two-by-two to within about 15 feet with diplomas already in hand, and saluted Trump, resulting in Trump returning salutes more than 500 times.
Trump arrived at West Point shortly before 10 a.m. aboard Marine One, where he was met by Lt. Gen. Darryl Williams, the first black superintendent of the Academy.
Before his remarks, the president was ushered into "Quarters 100," the superintendent's residence, by Williams, who had earlier sent a message to all cadets to live up to their oaths to serve the Constitution during troubled times.
"As you are aware, our country is experiencing civil unrest," Williams said in his June 4 message. "During these unsettling times, I want us to recommit to eradicating racism from within our ranks by treating all people with dignity and respect."
The military's response to the protests also came into question in an open letter to the graduating class signed by more than 400 West Point alumni and posted to Medium.
The letter, published Thursday, warned that the military was straying from its duty to remain apolitical, and singled out Defense Secretary Mark Esper, a West Point graduate.
"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, Honor, Country," the letter said. "Their actions threaten the credibility of an apolitical military."
Esper has come under criticism for participating in a photo opportunity on June 1 with Trump in front of the fire-damaged St. John's Episcopal church after streets near the White House were forcibly cleared of protesters by law enforcement backed by the National Guard.
Two days after the incident, Esper said at a Pentagon briefing that he regretted being in the photo. On Thursday, Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley also said it was a "mistake" for him to be seen in battle fatigues walking with the president on June 1, although he was not in the photo.
The ceremony Saturday was in marked contrast to the West Point graduation in 2019, when Vice President Mike Pence accompanied by Esper and Milley gave the main address in Michie Stadium before a crowd of about 20,000 families and guests.
The families were not permitted to attend Saturday's ceremony, and neither Esper nor Milley were present among the small contingent of honored guests that included Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy and Army Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville, a West Point graduate.
Esper sent a brief videotaped message that aired on the West Point livestream, in which he urged the graduates to remain committed to core values, including "integrity and personal courage."
"These principles will serve you in challenging times and in the face of new and emerging threats. I look forward to watching you lead," Esper said.
In his address, Trump made no mention of the current tensions between his administration and the top leadership of the Defense Department over the response to the protests or the growing controversy over military bases named for Confederate leaders.
Earlier this week, McCarthy and others said the military was open to a discussion on changing the names. But Trump immediately voiced his adamant opposition in a series of tweets Wednesday.
"My Administration will not even consider the renaming of these Magnificent and Fabled Military Installations. Our history as the Greatest Nation in the World will not be tampered with. Respect our Military!" he said.
In what could be seen as a challenge to Trump, the Republican-controlled Senate Armed Services Committee approved an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act on Thursday to require renaming the bases as well as streets and buildings now named for Confederates.
Should that bill pass and be signed by Trump, the Academy would have to rename "Lee Barracks," honoring Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, a former West Point superintendent.
The class of 2020, whose motto was "With Vision We Lead," was one of the most diverse in the history of the Academy.
In a release, the Academy said that about 85% of the 1,302 cadets who entered four years ago had graduated.
The class included a total of 229 women, 132 African Americans, 103 Asian/Pacific Islanders, 102 Hispanics and 10 Native Americans, the Academy said.
At the end of the ceremony, in the time-honored West Point tradition, the class of 2020 was called to attention for the last time at the Academy Daine Van de Wall, of West Friendship, Maryland, the First Captain of the Corps of Cadets.
Van de Wall barked out "Dismissed," and the graduates broke into cheers and threw their caps into the air. Many also exchanged bear hugs, despite the social distancing mandate.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.