In “A Black Cadet at West Point” in our August issue, John F. Marszalek, Jr., claimed that a recent history of the Academy by Thomas J. Fleming failed to give a full account of the case of Johnson Whittaker, the black cadet who was investigated and court-martialled for alleged self-mutilation, among other charges. In West Point: The Men and Times of the United States Military Academy (1969), said Marszalek, Fleming “goes into some detail on the court of inquiry, but says nothing of the subsequent court-martial”; and Fleming was quoted as writing that although “the definitive truth will probably never be known,” nevertheless, “any fairminded examination of the case would find the evidence heavily against him [Whittaker].” This, Mr. Marszalek implied, is not a balanced view.
Mr. Fleming, who is a frequent contributor to this magazine, has sent us the following answer:
I did not discuss the court-martial of Cadet Whittaker in my book on West Point because, as Mr. Marszalek himself points out in his article, it was essentially a rehash of the court of inquiry. I am not at all impressed by the fact that Mr. Whittaker’s court-martial decision was reversed. This was a political necessity for the Republican administration in Washington, who held office thanks to the slim majority provided by Negro votes. The Judge Advocate General may have “riddled the prosecution’s case” —although I note Mr. Marszalek does not give us any details on this point. But the verdict was overturned on two technicalities, the lack of authority to call a court-martial and the introduction of Whittaker’s letters.
Mr. Marszalek’s article suffers from a severe lack of historical perspective. Nowhere does he tell us that Negro cadet Henry Flipper had already graduated from the Military Academy when the Whittaker case exploded. Nor does he mention James Webster Smith, another Negro cadet, who even Flipper admitted was a despicable character, who invited newspaper reporters to the Academy and told them malicious lies about his treatment. In short, there is no understanding of the glare of publicity on Negro cadets at West Point at this time, which makes the argument for Whittaker’s self-mutilation much more plausible than the argument for an attack on him, which even the most prejudiced cadet knew would rebound on the Academy and bring the reporters swarming onto the Plain again. The whole theory of a cadet attack, in the light of the details, makes no sense. If they merely wanted to scare Whittaker into leaving, why did they tie him to the bed? Why not just beat him up a little, threaten to kill him, maybe clip off a little of his hair —but why tie him up so the tactical officers were certain to find out about it, and start a hue and cry? Anyone who has read my history and seen the innumerable anecdotes I collected of cadet ingenuity in evading tactical officer surveillance and rules, would scoff at such an idea.
I think Mr. Marszalek has been carried away by sympathy for Whittaker because of his treatment at the Academy, sympathy which, as I make clear in my book, I share.