West Point In Review

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“Today marks my final roll call with you. But I want you to know that when I cross the river, my last conscious thoughts will be of the corps, and the corps, and the corps.”

Dazzled by this apparently impromptu performance, a faculty member turned to Mrs. MacArthur and exclaimed that it was one of the most remarkable speeches he had ever heard. Mrs. MacArthur replied, “I’m afraid I didn’t find it particularly exciting. This is the twenty-ninth time I’ve heard it.”

As you walk or ride from Thayer Gate along Thayer Road, you will pass the Hotel Thayer, built in 1927 to accommodate West Point visitors. You may wonder how and why the name Thayer gets such prominence at the academy. Again, it is history. Maj. Sylvanus Thayer was the man President James Monroe selected in 1817 to bring order to a chaotic West Point after the disasters of the War of 1812 and to make it clear that a trained officer corps was an absolute necessity. Before then a combination of governmental indifference and inept leadership had left West Point spiraling toward an ever more lamentable mediocrity. In sixteen astonishing years Thayer made the school one of the finest military academies in the world.

 

For a long time a statue of Thayer stood in front of Washington Hall, the cadet mess hall, on the south side of the Plain. It has now been moved to the northwest corner of the field, where it stands in not very splendid isolation. Each year, in what used to be called June Week but is now Graduation Week because it has been moved to the last week in May, visiting members of the Association of Graduates march to Thayer’s statue. They are led by the oldest living graduate present, who is escorted by the first captain of the graduating class. The post band precedes them, playing such old Army tunes as “When Johnny Comes Marching Home.” “Bones that haven’t straightened in twenty years somehow unbend during this march,” one veteran faculty member says. “By the time they’ve gone a hundred feet, most of them are in step.”

At the statue the first captain helps the oldest graduate lay a wreath. In the late sixties, when I saw this ceremony several times, the same OG, who was in his nineties, showed up year after year, stubbornly refusing to get sick or die, exciting not a little hostility among his ancient peers. Even in extreme old age West Pointers remain fiercely competitive. The wreath laid, the cadet glee club sings “Alma Mater” and “The Corps! The Corps! The Corps!” For me, “The Corps” is the heart of the West Point mystique. To hear it sung while members of the long gray line from the age of ninety-five to nineteen are standing there makes the last lines especially meaningful:

We sons of today, we salute you— You sons of an earlier day; We follow, close order behind you, Where you have pointed the way; The long gray line of us stretches Thro’ the years of a century told, And the last man feels to his marrow The grip of your faroff hold.

One senses in the shift of Thayer’s statue a symbolic gesture by today’s administration, which is struggling to combine tradition and progress to keep West Point abreast of a changing world. The engineering school that Thayer created, with its discipline and its enormous doses of mathematics and science, must now graduate officers who can deal with experts in sociology, political science, history, and psychology. Cadets are permitted to major in these subjects. They are also permitted to own cars and take weekends off in their first-class (senior) year. At Eisenhower Hall, the glossily modern student center north of the Plain, rock groups and Broadway shows, such as A Chorus Line, are regularly presented. Any one of these liberalizations would make Thayer spin in his grave; all of them must turn him into a centrifuge.

Change has never come easily to West Point. For long periods, particularly after the Civil War, the school’s curriculum seemed set in concrete. When Douglas MacArthur became superintendent in 1919, he asked the post adjutant, “How long are we going on preparing for the War of 1812?” MacArthur did not get far in his attempt to revise the system; the superintendent’s broad powers do not extend to the curriculum. The chief MacArthur legacy is West Point’s athletic program, which he vastly expanded. On the slopes above the Plain are its two power centers, Michie Stadium, where the brave old Army team plays football, and the new as yet unnamed “sports facility” for the hockey and basketball teams. Its raw industrial architecture is as far from traditional fortress Gothic as a building can get.