Westpoint: 1978

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No monument or institution has more power to stir the patriotic emotions of Americans, or evokes more poignintly the martial virtues of self-sacrifice and discipline, than the United States Military Academy at West Point. In the view of General George S. Patton, Jr., of the class of 1909, whose statue now belligerently confronts the academy library, West Point was “a holy place and I can never think of it without reverence and affection.” A general less given to extravagant speech or gestures, Lucius D. Clay, who commanded United States troops in Europe in the late 1940’s, said he regarded each trip back to West Point as “a pilgrimage to seek inspiration which renews faith.” In times of domestic disarray, academy graduates have gone so far as to suggest that if Americans were to be saved from themselves and their enemies, they would have to look to West Point for their salvation. “The time has come when … only the military virtues hold the key to national and governmental authority and obedience to law,” an elderly alumnus, Abbott Boone, told a West Point founder’s dinner in 1969. “We do not know when the great fountain of honor, duty, and love of country as stored in the hearts and minds of the some twenty-five thousand graduates of West Point … will be the granite strength which will preserve this country from the evil forces now seeking to undermine it.” In the film MacArthur Gregory Peck tells the cadet corps that “the Long Gray Line has never failed us,” and adds, “Were you to do so, a million ghosts in olive drab, in brown khaki, in blue and gray, would rise from their crosses thundering those magic words—Duty—HonorCountry.” The voice, vibrant with feeling, is Peck’s, but the words are Douglas MacArthur’s own.

Graduates of West Point are not alone in regarding it with awe and patriotic pride. Even in the early 1970’s, when the Army and the academy were buffeted by perhaps the most powerful wave of antimilitarism in the nation’s history, some two and a half million people visited West Point each year. Obviously they did not come to sneer or demonstrate. Rather, as they wandered among the granite-faced Gothic buildings massed on a shelf of land high above the Hudson River, or entered the cadet chapel, which dominates West Point like an impregnable ecclesiastical fortress, and looked up at the battle flags that hang along the nave, or watched the cadets marching on the enormous parade ground called the Plain, it is safe to assume that many were stirred by evidence that there is more to America than political rancor and tawdry commercialism. As one visitor, the Harvard political scientist Samuel Huntington, has written, West Point is “a different world. There is ordered serenity. … Beauty and utility are merged in gray stone. … a gray island in a many colored sea, a bit of Sparta in the midst of Babylon.”

But the cadets parading in their long-tailed, gray dress coats, fashioned after those worn by General Winfield Scott’s troops at the Battle of Chippewa in 1814, are not simply actors in a patriotic pageant. From their ranks are expected to come a significant fraction of the Army’s company and battalion commanders and, in time, most of its three- and four-star generals. And so Congress reacted with predictable bafflement and outrage when it was disclosed in 1976 that there had been an epidemic of cheating at West Point—not the first by any means—in which several hundred cadets might have been infected. Many congressmen, and some generals, understandably wondered how good a job West Point could be doing. They had reason to wonder even more when an investigating commission headed by Prank Borman, the president of Eastern Airlines, and a former astronaut and West Point graduate, filed its report. Noting indications that many cadets habitually cheated on examinations, the commission suggested that the academy’s leaders were partly to blame because they allowed cadets too little time for study while forcing them to take courses that most of them found boring and irrelevant.

The Army, no doubt with an eye to heading off a full-scale investigation by Congress, thereupon set in motion an investigation of its own. Three generals, two of them graduates of West Point, were named to head a body designated as the West Point Study Group and were told to take a long, hard look at the academy. When their findings were made public in September, 1977, it was clear that the generals had been disturbed and even outraged by much of what they had seen. To be sure, they chose not to pursue one possibly important line of inquiry. They said nothing about the implications for West Point, and its cherished honor code, of the moral lapses which many of America’s military leaders—West Pointers not excluded—were guilty during the Vietnam War. Indeed, Vietnam and its lessons were nowhere mentioned in the 181 pages of the study group’s report. But within the limits they set for themselves the generals were wide-ranging and tough in their criticism.