- Historic Sites
The United States Military Academy turns 200 this year. West Point has grown with the nation—and, more than once, saved it.
October 2002 | Volume 53, Issue 5
When the United States entered World War I, John J. Pershing, commander in chief of the American Expeditionary Force, announced that the standards for his troops would be the standards of West Point. No one was ever more the complete USMA product, or more acted the part of the tac he had once been, than Pershing. Commanders got men forward not half an hour early or half an hour late while keeping them closed up on the march, or commanders were gone. (In one day Pershing relieved as the heads of their divisions two of his '86 classmates.) He snarled at the chief of staff of the 42d Division that the troops needed discipline and order. “I’m going to hold you personally responsible for correcting measures with the officers at fault. It’s a disgrace.”
“Yes, sir,” replied Col. Douglas MacArthur, a former 1st captain of the Corps of Cadets.
The war over, MacArthur was named Superintendent. He was aghast at the accumulated stagnation. “How much longer are we going to go on preparing for the War of 1812?,” he asked. MacArthur ordered the first sweeping changes since Thayer’s time, having cadets read a newspaper daily and take classes in psychology, economics, and political science. He set up intramural sports activities to replace the deadly calisthenics and permitted upperclassmen six-hour leaves to New York City for the spending of cash from their pay. The DOGS of the day and the faculty whose members had for the most part held their posts for decades howled, and when MacArthur finished his tour of duty, his reforms were instantly repealed. West Point settled back into its former ways. So did the Army, which dwindled to the nineteenth-ranking force in the world.
Such officers as remained in uniform largely went through the motions of being soldiers while generally having a pretty good time at horse shows, balls, and dress-uniform dinners, playing polo on cavalry-regiment mounts and spending evenings at the officers’ club bar. A large number of them had the financial means to pursue whatever pleasures appealed, for West Pointers possess a startling ability to marry well: Lee’s wife owned three plantations and a thousand slaves; Pershing’s wife was the daughter of Wyoming’s richest citizen; the first Mrs. MacArthur was heir to $150 million; Mesdames Mark Clark and Jonathan Wainwright had money; and Mamie Eisenhower had come to her marriage with an eventual inheritance of a couple of million. Mrs. George S. Patton’s situation was such that her husband was the service’s richest man, all his career able to contribute every cent of his pay to Army charities.
A few men rose above torpor and studied for a war that might or might not come. When it did, they performed brilliantly, their names today in all the books and on schools, boulevards, institutions, and monuments, several on the grounds of their alma mater. How did they rise successfully to command millions, conceive and utilize all sorts of new technologies and new techniques, conquer great swaths they then ruled over wisely, become diplomats?
It has to do with something else taught by old Thayer. West Point calls it leading with character. That concept is embodied in and exemplified by what is printed on USMA stationery and the plaques affixed to Academy lampposts, this 200th anniversary year, and in the hearts of those young and old of the Long Gray Line: Honor. Duty. Country.
The purest distillation of this is the Point’s Honor Code: “A cadet will not lie, cheat or steal or tolerate those who do.” Eisenhower said, “I profoundly feel that in its perpetuation is one of the best assurances of our nation’s future security.” Without it, others have declared, the Academy might as well be abandoned in favor of officers manufactured by college ROTC programs or the Army’s officer candidate schools. The Code, with its implied message that a soldier of the USMA must possess a core of courage and dedication unknown to others, has at times produced in the larger society ironical and dismissive smiles, although perhaps fewer in the light of events of not so long ago.
The Code lives on today in the vastly changed, yet fundamentally unchanged, institution that began to emerge in the 1960s. The women who came in 1976, the multitude of black and brown faces, the elective courses permitting cadets to major in selected fields of study, the 100 clubs for dance, chess, white-water canoeing, theater arts, plus backstage work and handling the lights for such as Billy Joel and Elton John and for touring companies of Cats and West Side Story and A Chorus Line in the 4,400seat Eisenhower Hall: Yes, it’s very different from what it used to be. And they don’t give out demerits like they used to. It’s not so hard to graduate without getting a single one, a remarkable achievement when Robert E. Lee did so. (Grant accumulated 290, and Phil Sheridan so many that he was suspended for a year. Even Pershing got 200.) The brutal hazing is gone, but to be “put on the wall” and told off by an upperclassman still can reduce plèbes to tears.