President-elect Joe Biden announced on Tuesday that retired four-star General Lloyd J. Austin III will be nominated to serve as the 28th United States Secretary of Defense. If confirmed by the Senate, Austin will be the first African American to lead the Pentagon.
In his remarks accepting the nomination of Wednesday, General Austin drew upon the rich history of African Americans in the U.S. military. “Back in 1877, a young man from a small town Thomasville, GA—Henry Ossian Flipper—became the first African American to graduate from the United States Military Academy at West Point,” Austin said. “And after his commissioning, he was assigned to one of the army’s all-Black regiments. And he became the first non-White officers to lead the Buffalo soldiers of the 10th Cavalry.
“Fast-forward to today, nearly 150 years later, another native son of Thomasville, GA, stands before you as the Secretary of Defense-Designee. Many people have paved the way for me and countless others over the years … And I am supremely grateful for their courage, for their determination, and for the example they set throughout.”
Austin went on to cite the Tuskegee Airmen, the first African American military aviators in the U.S. Army Air Corps; the Montford Point Marines, who were the first Black soldiers to serve in the U. S. Marine Corps.; and former Secretary of State Colin Powell. Today, over 40% of U.S. active military members are People of Color.
History-making aside, Biden’s choice of Austin is not without controversy. Because Austin retired from the military in 2016, the House and the Senate would have to vote to waive the law that requires former military brass to have been out of the service for a minimum of seven years. The law was waived twice in U.S. history, most recently with retired Marine Gen. James Mattis under the Trump administration.
Some in the Democratic Party, including Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), have objected to the nomination over concerns that Austin’s nomination jeopardizes civilian oversight of the military.
However, Biden, who shares a history with Austin, defended his choice and touted Austin’s four decades of service and character. “General Austin shares my profound belief that our nation is at its strongest when we lead not only by the example of our power but by the power of our example,” Biden said in a statement. “Throughout his lifetime of dedicated service—and in the many hours we’ve spent together in the White House Situation Room and with our troops overseas. General Austin has demonstrated exemplary leadership, character, and command.
“He is uniquely qualified to take on the challenges and crises we face in the current moment, and I look forward to once again working closely with him as a trusted partner to lead our military with dignity and resolve, revitalize our alliances in the face of global threats, and ensure the safety and security of the American people.”
Noted as an accomplished and trailblazing figure in U.S. military history, Secretary-designate Austin retired from the Army in 2016 following more than 40 years of service in America’s defense. The first African American to serve as Commander of U.S. Central Command, he is known as a crisis-tested leader who has overseen some of the most complex and impactful operations in the history of the armed services—including serving as the chief architect of the effort to defeat ISIS in Iraq and Syria, and working closely with President-elect Biden to bring nearly 150,000 American military personnel home from Iraq.
His awards include the Silver Star, two Legions of Merit, three Distinguished Service Medals, and five Defense Distinguished Service Medals. Born in Alabama and raised in Georgia, General Austin received his bachelor of science degree from West Point, his masters in education from Auburn University, and his masters in business administration from Webster University.
If confirmed, Austin will be tasked with implementing the military and defense priorities of the president-elect, including keeping the nation safe and secure, playing a key role in executing the logistics associated with COVID-19 vaccine distribution; restoring America’s alliances; supporting and equipping servicemembers and caring for them and their families; addressing the accelerating security threat posed by the climate crisis; and modernizing America’s armed forces and preparing for the conflicts of the future.
Vice President-elect Kamala Harris said, “A seasoned, highly decorated, and trailblazing commander, General Lloyd Austin reflects the very best of our nation. General Austin will modernize our Armed Forces and make sure the United States is prepared to overcome the new threats and new challenges of the future. And President-elect Biden and I will work closely with him—and our entire national security and foreign policy team—to keep the American people safe, support our troops and their families, and rebuild and renew global partnerships and alliances.”
—Information provided, in part, by the Biden-Harris transition team.