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VP Harris becomes the first woman to give a West Point commencement speech

Vice President Harris delivers the keynote speech at Michie Stadium during West Point's graduation ceremony Saturday in West Point, N.Y.
Spencer Platt
Getty Images
Vice President Harris delivers the keynote speech at Michie Stadium during West Point's graduation ceremony Saturday in West Point, N.Y.

Updated May 27, 2023 at 1:08 PM ET

Vice President Harris delivered the keynote speech at West Point's graduation ceremony on Saturday, making her the first woman to give a commencement address in the military academy's 221-year history.

The watershed moment comes amid the 75th anniversary of two major turning points in the U.S. military — the beginning of women having a permanent place in the armed forces and the end of racial segregation in the military.

"These milestones are a reminder of a fundamental truth," Harris told graduates on Saturday morning. "Our military is strongest when it reflects people of America."

Traditionally, vice presidents have delivered the commencement speech to graduating classes at U.S. military academies. Last year, Harris gave the commencement address to U.S. Coast Guard Academy graduates, and in 2021, she became the first female commencement speaker at the U.S. Naval Academy.

Harris sees threats to global stability: Russia, China and climate change

Harris warned that graduates are entering an "unsettled world" where longstanding international norms are no longer followed.

"Russia's aggression is an attack on the lives and freedom of the Ukrainian people and an attack on international rules and norms that have served as the foundation of international security and prosperity for generations," she said.

She went on to speak about China's presence in the Indo-Pacific, calling the country a threat to the "freedom of the seas" and the "rules of international commerce."

"At the same time, autocrats have become bolder, the threat of terrorism persists, and an accelerating climate crisis continues to disrupt lives and livelihood," Harris said.

AI and other cyber technologies will play a bigger role in war tactics

At West Point, cadets are trained in cyber, robotics, artificial intelligence and systems engineering. In her speech, Harris described those skills as the hallmarks of the graduating class.

"To protect our ideals in the 21st century, the United States military must remain the most innovative fighting force in the world," she said.

She painted a future portrait of warfare where artificial technology is used to predict enemy moves, autonomous cars are sent into battlefields and virtual reality is deployed to train soldiers.

Women weren't allowed to attend West Point until 1976

When asked why it's taken so long for a woman to serve as commencement speaker, a West Point spokesperson only said that the role usually rotates among senior leadership within the academy's chain of command, which includes the president, vice president, secretary of defense and the chairman of the joint chiefs.

Historically, men have largely held those senior positions in government. Although deputy secretaries of defense have delivered commencement addresses at West Point in the past, Kathleen Hicks — who became the first female deputy defense secretary in 2021 — has not yet spoken at the school's commencement.

Women didn't start attending West Point until 1976 — a year after Congress passed legislation that allowed women to enroll at the federal service academies. In 1980, Andrea Hollen became the first of 62 pioneering women to graduate from West Point. Since then, more than 5,000 women have graduated from the military academy.

President Biden, meanwhile, is set to speak at this year's U.S. Air Force Academy graduation. Earlier this month, he spoke at Howard University's commencement ceremony.

As vice president, Biden delivered West Point's commencement speech in 2016.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Juliana Kim
Juliana Kim is a weekend reporter for Digital News, where she adds context to the news of the day and brings her enterprise skills to NPR's signature journalism.

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