- Historic Sites
West Point In Review
The old school is alive with the memory of men like Lee, Grant, Pershing, and Eisenhower
April 1988 | Volume 39, Issue 3
Eleven years later, on the same site, Cadet Ulysses S. Grant lay in his room reading with intense interest newspaper reports of the debates in Congress on whether to abolish the military academy. He rooted unashamedly for the abolishers; “Sam” (for Uncle Sam, his West Point nickname) hated everything about the place, from the discipline to the food to the endless drilling, at which he was particularly inept. Yet it was on the Plain that Grant had a first premonition of future greatness. Gen. Winfield Scott, “Old Fuss and Feathers,” was inspecting the cadet corps. Watching the tall, striding Scott, the epitome of regality in his full-dress uniform, the short, dumpy Grant was seized with a certainty that someday he, too, would review the corps as commanding general of the Army.
On Moratorium Day in 1969 the sally ports and barracks areas were the scene of numerous confrontations with two hundred young women from Vassar, who marched up Thayer Road to preach a message of Peace Now to the cadets. The women left several hours later, baffled and confused. A Vassar reporter admitted in her school paper that the “confrontation was unsuccessful.” The West Pointers were so well informed about the war that the coeds were “unable to respond to or contradict cadet arguments…. The girls had no such well-organized facts with which to reply.”
Some Vassar protesters felt they had been ambushed by cadets who had memorized set-piece defenses of the Vietnam War. One young woman said she had met a cadet who told her he had been up since six-thirty, boning up on the war. A cadet commentator on her letter, which was reprinted in The Pointer, the cadet magazine, noted that cadets ate breakfast at six-fifteen. The remark was one of many put-ons the Vassarites did not get. Among others: a cadet who ate the flower that was offered to him; another who excused himself saying he was late for his poison-gas class.
Nevertheless, the Vietnam era was an experience West Point has no desire to repeat. It created severe turbulence in the cadet corps and the faculty. One lone graduate, Lt. Louis Font of the class 1968, declared himself a conscientious objector to the war and refused to obey orders sending him to Saigon. In 1969 a cadet tried to publish a newsletter of anti-Vietnam activities on other campuses. Severely reprimanded by the superintendent, he realized he had no future in the Army and soon resigned. There was a steep rise in such “motivational resignations.” It is perhaps significant that the academy’s modest memorial to the graduates who died in Southeast Asia, a bronze plaque on a stone pillar and five granite benches, is tucked away on a hillside off the road to Fort Putnam, while monuments to our victorious wars are on prominent display.
Particularly visible on the south side of the Plain are larger-than-life statues of Douglas MacArthur, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and George S. Patton. The first two statues stand in front of the Eisenhower and MacArthur wings of the newest cadet barracks, additions that were built in 1974, when Congress voted an increase in the cadet corps from twenty-five hundred to forty-four hundred. Patton, wearing his helmet and full battle gear, confronts the library. Irreverent cadets are prone to wisecrack, “There’s George, still outside the building he never visited in the five years it took him to graduate.” The remark is not entirely fair. Patton failed math and French and had to repeat his plebe year, but he was by no means the only famous general with a mediocre academic record. Sheridan, Grant, Custer, Pershing, and Eisenhower all fell into this category; only a few, such as Robert E. Lee and MacArthur, combined military aptitude with high grades.
The intimate cadet corps of the nineteenth century seldom numbered more than three hundred men.
Not far from MacArthur’s statue is the entrance to the immense cadet mess hall, where the entire corps eats three meals a day. It is a spectacular sight, unfortunately closed to visitors. Dominating the enormous room is a huge, vividly colored mural depicting famous warriors and battles of the past. On the poop deck, a platform in the center of the hall where the cadet adjutant reads orders and news of athletic victories, MacArthur gave one of his great oratorical performances. He came to West Point on May 12, 1962, to receive the Sylvanus Thayer Award, given to distinguished Americans. He was in poor health, and no one expected him to make a speech. But when the superintendent, Maj. Gen. William C. Westmoreland, asked MacArthur if he would honor them with a few remarks, he ascended to the poop deck and, without referring to so much as a note, proceeded to give a superb address, ending with an unforgettable peroration:
“In my dreams I hear again the crash of guns, the rattle of musketry, the strange, mournful mutter of the battlefield. But in the evening of my memory I come back to West Point. Always there echoes and re-echoes: Duty, Honor, Country.