United States Air Force Academy

Go to home page

Former NSA McMaster speaks to cadets at Academy Assembly

Story by Ray Bowden, photos by Trevor Cokley, Oct. 15, 2020

U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. — Former National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster encouraged Air Force Academy cadets to set an example for bipartisanship during his keynote speech at the Academy Assembly Oct. 13.

The retired Army lieutenant general was the 26th assistant to the president for National Security Affairs, serving on President Trump’s staff from Feb. 20, 2017 to March 15, 2018.

McMaster’s hour-long speech, livestreamed from California and broadcast from Polaris Hall with a group of cadets, faculty and assembly delegates watching, mirrored the assembly’s theme: “National Security and American Polarization: The Competition for Truth.”

Cadets selected the theme based on the “current state of societal dialogue” in the U.S., said Maj. Seth Cannon, a political science instructor at the school and officer in charge of this year’s assembly.

“It’s an appropriate and timely topic that each [cadet] wrestles with or will wrestle with in the future,” he said.

The former National Security Advisor talked about the damage political polarization causes in an era rife with “critical national security challenges,” he said.

McMaster said polarization “erodes confidence in who we are as a people,” but later said service academy cadets and midshipmen can “all work to understand divisions in our society.”

“We should resist efforts to be dragged into partisanship and reject demagoguery,” he said.

The vocally apolitical McMaster lamented the polarization of U.S politics and the media, saying as both are guilty of rewriting history to fit their own needs.

“The manipulation of history remains an important tool for those who wish to sew dissension,” he said.

At worse, McMaster said, purposeful misinterpretation of history can lead to autocracy, a system of government ruled by one person with absolute power.

“Autocracy is alive and well [across the world],” he said.

McMaster’s presentation was not all doom and gloom. He said he places an extreme value on the service academies and U.S. service members and is confident the U.S. military can help solve the polarization prominent in the U.S. today.

“We are part of an organization where the man or woman next to you is willing to give everything – including their own lives,” he said.

McMaster advocated for the continued study of humanities and other curriculum at the service academies that help cadets and midshipmen with “cognitive pitfalls associated with strategic blunders.”

One challenge is terrorism. McMaster said he views the U.S. to be at a higher risk than it was just before the 9/11 attacks. He said he expects any peace talks between the U.S. and the Taliban to fail and disagrees with any president who believes the militant Islamic group would ever renounce its ties to al-Qaida, responsible for those 9/11 attacks.

“It’s wishful thinking,” he said.

Any deal the U.S. makes with Afghanistan would give the Taliban the chance to expand its territory, establish an Islamic state and continue enforcing oppressive laws, he said.

“What does that look like? Mass executions in the soccer stadium every Saturday?” McMaster asked the assembly’s audience.

McMaster encouraged cadets to work to rebuild trust at the national and international levels, help restore America’s confidence in its elected leaders, and understand how “our past produced our present.”

“Perhaps what is most important is our ability to maintain is our military professionalism,” he said

The retired general said he the “U.S. is a force for good in the world” and said he’s “optimistic.”

“I believe in the younger generation,” he said.

His advice to cadets, midshipmen and student in the audience was “Focus mainly on doing your duty for the nation and the Constitution.”

“I love the Air Force Academy except for the one day a year when we’re playing rugby,” he said with a laugh.

McMaster, a die-hard rugby fan, was a rugby athlete during his four years as a U.S. Military Academy cadet at West Point.

The Assembly

The assembly has been an annual event at the Academy since 1959. Sponsored by the Academy and Columbia University’s American Assembly, the assembly allows prominent academics, business leaders, government officers, non-governmental organization members, cadets and visiting students to speak and lead round-table discussions.

“The assembly is one of the longest-running undergraduate security conferences in the U.S.,” Cannon said. “It’s an Academy tradition that brings together undergraduates with national security practitioners and policy experts.

“Providing our cadets with a diversity of thought and a space to work out those differing ideas is how we create well-rounded leaders,” he said. “It also provides a great leadership exercise for cadets as every year our cadet staff conceives of, plans and executes the assembly from start to finish.”

In all, 24 U.S. universities, including the Academy, participated in the two-day assembly via livestream panels and other sessions.