Westpoint: 1978

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In blunt terms they complained that cadets were being trained in “harsh and insensitive patterns of leadership,” and suggested that upperclassmen exercising their traditional privilege of harassing plèbes might be driving potential leaders right out of the Army. They accused the faculty of “intellectual inbreeding” and of relying far too much on standardized procedures for dealing out knowledge in “lesson-sized bits.” They said cadets were not being taught to think critically, to write clearly, or to cope with problems that have no single correct solution. Cadets, they noted, had been overloaded with busywork and too many courses, and had good reason for feeling that “the system never stops pulling them apart, never ceases making demands, never allows them periods of reflection and consolidation.” The generals also said that the cadets they had met seemed rather grim and humorless, a charge that one group quickly moved to refute by digging a fake grave outside their barracks with the word “Humor” on its headstone.

This is not the first time in its long history that the question of West Point’s proper role has been debated. As early as 1776, General Henry Knox was calling for the establishment of “an Academy … where the whole theory and practice of Fortifications and Gunnery should be taught,” and in the postwar years other Revolutionary War veterans, including Baron von Steuben, Alexander Hamilton, and George Washington, who had seen firsthand the value of skilled engineers and artillerymen, made similar requests. But Congress dawdled, and it was not until 1794 that it established “a School for Artillerists and Engineers” on the site of the New York Revolutionary fort that Benedict Arnold had tried to betray and that Washington had called “the key to America” (it was at West Point that a massive iron chain was stretched across the Hudson to keep British ships from moving up the river).

The new “school” was authorized to train fifty-six cadets, but the military education they actually received was minimal: cadets served as apprentices to troops garrisoned in the fort; one early “cadet” was only ten years old.

It was Thomas Jefferson who officially established the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1802. According to Thomas J. Fleming, a historian of the Point, it was Jefferson’s hope that the academy would produce a corps of engineers better versed in science than in soldiering. But even with presidential backing, West Point was treated by Congress as a troublesome stepchild, and in 1812 the corps for a time actually dwindled to one lone cadet. Five years later President James Monroe visited West Point, and what he found there, one historian has written, drove him into “a towering rage. The place was in poor shape, its curriculum had unraveled, examinations were unknown, and discipline was non-existent.”

Monroe insisted that the academy must have a new superintendent, and that the position should go to a young West Point graduate named Sylvanus Thayer, who had studied European military training abroad. Under Thayer, who stayed on the job sixteen years, and whose West Point monument bears the inscription, “Colonel Thayer, Father of the Military Academy,” West Point flourished. (See box on page 9.) But toward the end of his regime the school came under heavy fire from Jacksonian Democrats. Quoting a pseudonymous pamphlet by a former West Point superintendent, they argued that the academy was “a monarchial, corrupt, and corrupting” institution, unconstitutionally engaged in building up “a privileged order of the very worst class—a military aristocracy—in the United States.” Similar arguments were heard from officers of the state militias, who couldn’t bear, according to New York Military Magazine , to see “the public funds wasted upon a bloated, proud and partial institution, instead of being equally distributed for the better improvement and encouragement of our militia.…”

In time the attacks died down. First the Mexican War and then the Civil War, in both of which West Pointers held many important commands, put an end to the notion that America could get along without a professionally trained officer corps. Critics in this century have been interested mainly in reforming the academy, rather than abolishing it, and they have included a good many Army officers. In 1919 the Army Chief of Staff, General Peyton C. March, noting that West Point was “forty years behind the times,” picked thirty-nine-year-old Douglas MacArthur to be the academy’s superintendent, and ordered him to modernize the place. (MacArthur soon concluded that even March had not grasped the true dimensions of the problem. “How long,” he asked his West Point adjutant, “are we going to go on preparing for the War of 1812?”) Since World War II, there have been several mildly critical in-the-family reviews of West Point performance.

But the report filed by the West Point Study Group in 1977 went far beyond these in the breadth of its findings and the weight of its documentation. Its 152 recommendations touched on almost every aspect of life at West Point, and were based on the kind of research—i.e., massive—that commands respect in the military. (“The Group also interviewed nearly 600 cadets.… Questionnaires were administered to nearly a thousand newlycommissioned lieutenants and over 700 of their commanders and subordinates.”)