Today is April the 10th, Monday, April the 10th. We’re at the Center…9th.
Monday, April 9, 2012.
You’re just throwing me a curveball already?
At the Center for Oral History at West Point, the studios, and we’re delighted to have Colonel Lance Betros, here with us, to talk this time about his brand-new book, “Carved from Granite—the Story of West Point, the United States Military Academy.” I’m going to ask you to give us a state of the state address here now about the Academy—healthy, unhealthy? Where do we stand with West Point 2012?
What I say in my book, and I’ll say it now, is that in general West Point’s a very healthy institution. It’s a strong institution that’s very important for the nation. So, at the outset I want to—I just want to say flatly that I’m—in writing the book I was never out to do a hatchet job on the Academy, or to, you know, raise false issues. I really put all the issues that I raised in the book in the context of a strong institution.
But people like Tom Ricks, for instance, the Washington Post correspondent, called for West Point to be closed.
A provocative point of view—
But that it’s antiquated, that we should be grooming officers in other ways, and you don’t subscribe to that, I take it.
Well, I believe we should groom officers in a lot of ways, but West Point is an essential way. And I in no way would subscribe to Tom Ricks’ call to disestablish these institutions.
And why? What is it about the Academy itself that is so important to the United States Army, to the country, and to the grooming of officers?
Well, West Point is important not just because of the thousand or so graduates that it delivers to the Army every year. It’s really important because of what it stands for. It’s really the—as Colin Powell put it a few years ago when he received the Thayer Award [in 1998], West Point is “the wellspring of the profession.” It’s where the professional values are debated, are discussed, are internalized in many of those young men and women who will become senior leaders later on.
So, you know, West Point is where—is kind of the storage place, the place where these values are discussed and actually inculcated. Now, this is not to say that there aren’t marvelous officers who are produced from the other commissioning sources—of course there are. It’s just that West Point is designed to—designed to impart to the cadets who come here the essence of an education that we think is ideal for young officers.
And people may think that when you say that, you mean tactical standards. You don’t.
Not at all.
It’s through your book, what you mean is standards of character and intellect—
And leadership. Can you explain what that means?
Well, you just hit on the thesis of the book, really, and that is that throughout its history, West Point has elevated above all other developmental goals for cadets the development of character and intellect. Those two qualities are what distinguish West Pointers as a group, and what has distinguished West Pointers as a group for as long as the Academy has existed.
They don’t teach character at Harvard? They don’t teach character at UCLA? People don’t get character from their families, from their churches?
Oh, I think that everybody arrives at their undergraduate institution with character that they’ve developed somewhere. But at West Point we’ve designed a curriculum that enables cadets to think deeply about issues of character, and then we give them on almost a daily basis opportunities to refine and hone that character, and to make it stronger over time. Now, character and intellect are difficult to develop. It takes a long time. So West Point is a four-year undergraduate institution in the context of where—everything we do here is in the context of building character and intellect.
And if we go all the way back to Sylvanus Thayer, who was the fourth superintendent, but really the father of the Academy, he created what we—the systems that we use today, the educational systems that we use today. And everything he did was all about character and intellect.
I want to come back to him, but first I want you to tell me why character and intellect are so important to the profession of arms. What is it about this profession that makes us think that we need to build character, first and foremost, when we’re grooming officers?
Well, when I say “character,” when I use the term “character,” I use it in the sense that officers need to have a high level of personal integrity. In other words, you need to have confidence—if you are a soldier in an officer’s unit—you need to have confidence that that officer is trustworthy. And only if you believe that, only if you believe that that officer is telling you the truth and that will not—he will not order you to do things that he wouldn’t do himself, and only when you can trust him do you have the bonds of affection and respect that will enable a unit to be effective militarily.
I mean, imagine if the soldiers don’t trust their commander, and then the commander gives them an order to do something that’s dangerous. It just won’t work. So character is really an essential ingredient in effective leadership, especially in the military.
Which is why, as you discussed—you and I discussed in an earlier interview, the Honor Code is so important. It’s not just because we want people to be good people.
It’s because there are real life-and-death stakes involved—
In the profession of arms.
Who was Sylvanus Thayer? Tell me his background, how he arrived here, and what he contributed to the Academy.
Well, he was a graduate of West Point. He went here for a year, graduated in 1808, and that was at the time when West Point really didn’t have a structured four-year program like he created when he became the superintendent.
It was established under the Presidency of Thomas Jefferson [in July 1802], right?
And for more of kind of people in the engineering profession, am I right?
Well, initially, yeah. The idea was to create first of all a professional class of military officers who could lead an expandable Army in the event of a national emergency. But of course national emergencies are few and far between, at least the military type; so in the in-between times those officers would be trained as engineers, and be able to do the work of the nation in expanding across the continent.
I focus on the engineer part of it because we don’t usually think of President Thomas Jefferson as being a fan of a standing Army.
I mean he was quite suspicious of a warrior class, and—
So it’s ironic that, of all presidencies, it is Thomas Jefferson’s that the Academy is born to.
Right. Well, I should also mention, though, that there may have been an ulterior motive. Of course, Jefferson was concerned about practical scientific knowledge to be able to help the nation. But he was also a Republican—an early Republican, a Jeffersonian Republican—and he was concerned about the fact that the officer corps at the time consisted primarily of Federalists. So by creating a Military Academy and opening it up to all classes, but especially the good Republican boys, he could de-Federalize the Army. So historian Theodore Crackel advances this argument, and I think it’s pretty—a pretty convincing argument.
That there was a political motive as well.
Yes, there was.
He wanted to make sure that the arms didn’t go to the wrong side, or exclusively to one side.
What was the Academy like when Thayer was a cadet here, then?
Well, it was nothing like it is now, that’s for sure. Very, very small—I mean it was really just an isolated outpost in a geographically isolated place.
Still in the same place where it is today, though, right?
Oh yeah, the same place. And there was no four-year structured curriculum. You went to West Point for as long as you wanted to—for as long as you felt you needed the whatever math and French that was being taught there.
You didn’t graduate with a degree then? There was no curricular program to follow?
You just came here and left?
That’s right. They instructed in math and French, primarily, and then a little bit of military engineering and so forth, but it was really very little. And then there was also some drill—a lot of military drill that they would do, mostly for physical fitness, and then for the tactical aspects of it too.
When did Thayer come back, then, to become the superintendent of such legend?
Well, he came back in 1817. Now, prior to that, though, for the two years prior to when he returned to West Point, he had been sent overseas to France, actually, to study the military schools in France. And while he was there he was given a credit account, and said [told] to pick up a lot of books that could come back to West Point and populate the library there. So he did. He went there and purchased about a thousand volumes and brought them back.
Of course, the vast majority of them were in French, and that’s the reason why cadets were taught French, because otherwise they couldn’t understand the textbooks. So he came back in 1817, and there was some trouble with the previous superintendent [Alden Partridge], but he finally straightened that out. And then for the next 16 years [1817-1833], Sylvanus Thayer went about creating an incredibly powerful educational experience for these young men at the time, just all men.
Who appointed Sylvanus Thayer, then? Whose inspiration was it to make him the new superintendent?
Well, [James] Madison was the President at the time that he sent Thayer overseas, and very soon it became clear that he was going to return to be the superintendent. So it’s really Madison who had this brainstorm idea.
What was Thayer’s dream for the Academy during that period of time when he was in charge here?
It was to create an institution that would be modeled something like the French schools, the French military schools. But it would be a combination of—it would be an institution that would combine the tactical elements of officership with the intellectual aspects of officership.
Was this the French model?
Yes, it was. It was actually—the French actually focused quite a bit on the intellectual dimension of officership, and especially on engineering. So, he liked that. He brought it back and he created a four-year institution—four years—that was very heavy in math, science, and engineering.
How did this compare—I guess [Britain’s Royal Military Academy] Sandhurst was up and running at the time, right? I mean—
It would’ve been at that time, I believe so, yeah.
I mean how does this compare with other military academies around the world? Was the French model unique, or was it something that had come into vogue and was being followed?
Well, you know, Thayer used the French system as a model, but he really created something that was unique in the United States, and it was an undergraduate experience that would become comparable to undergraduate experiences at other colleges—colleges at that point; there were no universities yet. But he—and he focused so heavily on math, science, and engineering, whereas in many other parts of the world the officer corps was not really expected to be technical experts at various things.
They were meant to have character, and they were meant to lead soldiers in combat, and oftentimes these officers came from the aristocracy, or the landed class. But at West Point we were going to take—we were going to reach out and take young men from all across society and bring them here and give them a technical education, and build character.
So it was representative of the American ideal of democracy, essentially.
Yes, absolutely, absolutely.
And you know what underscored that was the method of selecting cadets. They came—after a little bit of experimentation—they came one cadet from each of the Congressional districts around the country. So, that ensured that you got both parties and you got all geographical areas of the nation represented at West Point.
Was there a feeling in other parts of the world that in the elite military academies that only the landed gentry could produce men of character? And, by contrast, was Thayer essentially saying, “No, here, given our ideal of all men are created equal, we are going to show you that character can come from any human source?”
Well, that was certainly Thayer’s idea.
And around the world, in the advanced nations of the world, usually the officer corps was heavily represented by the aristocratic element. But that was changing. I mean in 1817 the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars had already played out, and France had shown that men of talent did not necessarily have to come from the aristocracy. So this was not a new idea, but certainly, you know, certainly it had been around and had been developed in Europe.
How did Thayer imagine he was going to teach character at his West Point?
Well, there were some very distinct ways. For one thing, he thought that developing character relied on—that there were two main focus areas, and one, the first one, was on moral rectitude. In other words, you need to be a person of high moral values—we’re talking about integrity, trust, loyalty, obedience—all of those things we would normally associate with high moral character.
And to do that, there were expectations that you lived the life of a gentleman, and you would subscribe to an unwritten honor code. You know, your integrity was the most important thing. So that was the first part of it—this idea of moral rectitude, integrity being a very important part of that. And then the other part was self-discipline, both mentally and physically.
Now, the mental part of it, the mental discipline, came through a very structured and rigorous curriculum, and it was relentless. The cadets studied hard every day, and they came to class having read the material the night before. And then, the first thing they do when they come in is they get graded on it the next day, without even the instructor helping them. So it was very much focused on the discipline of you, the student, going out and reading it and coming to class prepared.
And reading it in French, sometimes, too.
In French, that’s right, that’s right—at least in the early years—
Sure. So character, and then self-discipline, both intellectual and also physical—they lived a Spartan lifestyle, and that was part of it as well.
But this gets at the question that’s—one of the questions that’s at the heart of your book. Particularly because it plays out not only in Thayer’s West Point, and not only the nineteenth century, but in the twentieth century and twenty-first century. Can you teach character, or do you need to choose character? In other words, do you need to choose people who come here fully formed as men of character—
And then you’re going to just groom them to take their—on to the profession of arms? Or do you need to take this raw material and actually infuse it with character in the way that you—
Develop young cadets here?
Well, you—the assumption was that you cannot teach character. Their assumption was that the young men—
You’re born to it, in other words, yeah.
You’re born to it, and by the time you get to West Point, or by the time you’re of the mid-teenage years, your character is formed.
You either have a strong character or not.
And when you come to West Point, you were offered opportunities to refine the character and to make it better. But, if you’re already flawed, sooner or later that flaw would be, would manifest itself. And if necessary, they would weed you out. So your character—again, moral rectitude and the self-discipline, mental and physical—if you failed in any of those areas, the Academy leaders had no problem with separating—with expelling those cadets. Now, most of them left for academic reasons. But then again, intellectual self-discipline is part of the character-building process.
Thayer’s term ends when and how?
Well, it ends in 1833. He had issues with President Andrew Jackson.
A kind of falling out, right?
Oh, they did not like each other at all. Jackson felt that Thayer was an autocrat, and he—in some cases, Jackson would reinstate cadets that Thayer and the Academic Board had expelled for various reasons. And this, of course, infuriated Thayer, and it made his authority untenable at West Point. So finally, by 1833—I mean he had been in the job for 16 years, so I guess I can excuse the fact that he wanted to retire—or not retire, but move on at that point.
Is there in the record any pertinent comments from Thayer about Jackson? I would think Jackson is somebody Thayer would—could not abide, right?
It depended on what he was doing to him at the Academy here. He seems to represent the very things that Thayer would not have been impressed by.
Well, Jackson was a man of great passion, and he was mercurial. And Thayer was everything just the opposite, and they just had a different chemistry altogether, and a different attitude toward discipline and character. And Jackson was going to—
Yet Jackson was a man of arms himself, obviously—
And felt he had—this was his—he was not meddling out of territory here. This was something that he thought he knew better than Thayer, I’m sure.
That’s right. That’s right.
Yeah. And Thayer then goes off to find another career, doesn’t he?
He does. He stays in the Army for quite a while, and he will continue to be an engineer. And then later on—I mean eventually he’ll retire from the military. And ironically, late in his life, in the 18—late ’50s and early ’60s—he will make—or he will actually write to his colleagues back at West Point and remind them that, “Yes, we created a great system, but it does—it’s not susceptible—or it’s susceptible to improvement. And over time, we need to look at it and make sure that it’s still meeting the needs of the nation and the cadets.”
And I think there was some frustration on his part. The Academy and the system that he and the others on the Academic Board had created was certainly a very good one, but by the time of the Civil War, things were changing. And the nation no longer needed West Pointers to be engineers because there were engineering schools in the country, but the curriculum wasn’t changing. So Thayer realized this, and tried to influence change, but by that time, he was long—had long left the Academy.
But he goes up to Dartmouth, too, doesn’t he, and helps found the Thayer Engineering School there?
No. What you’re referring to is Alden Partridge—
Who was Thayer’s predecessor as the superintendent at West Point.
Thayer—oh, I’m sorry, yeah. Now I’m getting confused. I’m sorry. Partridge will found Norwich University, or Norwich College, and they had a falling out, but you’re right. Thayer will found the Thayer School of Engineering at Dartmouth College—you’re correct.
So his contribution to the academic history of this country is rich, isn’t it?
Yeah, very much so. He’s a true American hero, for sure.
I feel like we should leave West Point during the Civil War for another conversation, for another interview.
And jump instead to the bulk of what the focus of your book is, which is the Academy in the last hundred years, really going forward from the Centennial in 1902 to the present day.
And give me a quick contrast, then, between the West Point of the twentieth century and West Point that Thayer led in the nineteenth century.
Okay. Well, at the early—in the early twentieth century, the continuities are mostly evident. The academic curriculum still focuses heavily on math, science, and engineering. The cadets still live a very Spartan, isolated, almost monastic lifestyle. There really aren’t many things that cadets do away from West Point. They still spend their first two years entirely at West Point with no breaks until finally their junior—as they’re rising juniors, they get what’s called a furlough, and they get to go home for almost three months.
So there—oh, and the military training is still really rudimentary. So there are a lot of continuities, really, at the very early twentieth century. But then almost—I mean the changes come quickly after that, and I think the Spanish-American War has a lot to do with that. And the change in the focus of the U.S. Army from being a constabulary force to one that now has to police an empire. So the recognition that things were changing animates the commandants and the superintendents at West Point to make things different—to start changing the way that we develop cadets.
Change is what you say the theme of the Academy [is] in the 20th century.
I’m thinking now of what happens to the Academy as the First World War approaches, and then finally United States’ commitment to the First World War.
Which you speak of as one of the radical turning points for the Academy. Can you describe what happens during that time?
Well, sure. In the intervening years between the Spanish-American War and World War I, there are a lot of changes. The curriculum begins to open up to include not just math, science, and engineering, but the humanities and social sciences. The cadets begin to take trips away from West Point—they’re for sports and for academic trips and military training and so forth. But still, it’s not—I mean the pace is still very slow. It’s still just a backwater. And then World War II comes along, and—
World War I.
I’m sorry, World War I.
And things have to change then. Department of the [Army]—or the War Department, excuse me, is trying so hard to man the force with qualified officers that it basically strips West Point of the upper three classes and sends them off to war. Turns out the war ended before really that third class was engaged, but it really brought home to Army leaders and Academy leaders the need to update everything.
Update the curriculum, update military training, the way they train and prepare officers. The turning point was the assignment after the war of Douglas MacArthur as the superintendent [from 1919-1922]—a young, brash, bold, incredibly intelligent officer, who was not afraid to take on the establishment.
Was he the next most important superintendent after Thayer, you think?
In terms of—not in terms of their external career, but in terms of their impact upon the Academy. I know [General Robert E.] Lee was here [from 1852-1855] and others with certainly fabulous resumes.
But I mean in terms of the impact on the Academy—MacArthur the next most important?
I would say up to that point—
Yeah, that’s what I mean.
Yes—absolutely yes. I would say if you look at the whole 20th century—
There are others, right, yeah.
There are others, too, who probably rank about the same.
But certainly up to that point, MacArthur was the most historically significant superintendent.
When does this happen in MacArthur’s career? He’s pretty—he’s pretty young, right, at this point?
Oh, he’s very young. As a matter of fact, well, he graduated in 1903, and the person—
So he’s really born to the 20th century, in a sense.
Yes, very much so. And the military history that he took was taught by a guy named Fieberger—his last name was Fieberger—and Fieberger was still on the Academic Board when MacArthur came back as the superintendent. So just imagine the chagrin of the elder statesmen on the Academic Board when this whippersnapper, Douglas MacArthur, comes in, and now he’s the superintendent. And—
Was he known as a whippersnapper when he’s a cadet? Did he have a reputation even during that time?
Oh no. MacArthur was the number-one-ranking cadet. He graduated at the top of his class, and he was the First Captain of his class, so there’s no doubt that he had a stellar career, both as a cadet and as an officer. And they knew that, but therein lies the problem in that they realize that this is a force to be reckoned with, and he’s not going to be a pushover. He’s not going to be a caretaker superintendent.
Who appoints MacArthur? What is the political situation that makes that possible at the time?
Well, the President [Woodrow Wilson], ultimately, appoints him, but the Secretary of War and the Chief of Staff of the Army are the ones who recommend, and then the President will appoint.
Was it seen for MacArthur as a stepping stone to what they knew was going to be a grand Army career?
Well, the Chief of Staff certainly wanted—it was Peyton March during World War I—was a West Point graduate, and was then leading the War Department effort, from at least the military side of it, during world War I. And he recognized—well, he recognized that there were many changes that were needed in the academic curriculum and in training in general at West Point. But he was frustrated. The Academic Board was so conservative that they found it difficult to make the changes that were needed to update the curriculum.
Explain for people what the Academic Board was, because it’s critical, I know, to your story—
Of West Point.
Yeah. Well, the—
It’s unusual, too, to West Point, with terms—in terms of the way that colleges and universities function.
Right. Well, the Academic Board was the representation of shared governance at West Point, and it was created by Sylvanus Thayer. And it worked beautifully during the time that Sylvanus Thayer was there because he and the senior professors, the department heads of all the departments, thought very much alike. But then Thayer left—
But wait now. It’s composed of faculty members—how many?
The heads of departments.
Heads of departments—again, how many are we talking about there?
Oh, roughly 10 to 12, depending on when we’re—what part of the history—
So you say that they think—when they’re making decisions about curricular requirements—
Policy decisions for the Academy as well, in terms of behavior?
That wasn’t initially the intent. However, Thayer had very—really a minuscule staff. So when he—he required staff studies, however, so he would lean heavily on the Academic Board. So very quickly, the Academic Board did more than just academics.
They became involved in policy issues. So—
They were really sort of the governing council then for the Academy—
They were without a doubt the most important governing body at West Point. And there was a good thing about the Academic Board in that—because they all had one vote—even the superintendent only had one vote on that Academic Board—when they made a decision, it was a collective decision. And even if it was a controversial decision, the superintendent could always say, “I did it as a part of the Academic Board, and collectively we came to this decision. You have to respect it.” So the Academic Board, in a way, protected the superintendent from outside influence, and it protected him from making, you know, grossly bad decisions.
Did he appoint the members of the Academic Board? He’d choose departmental heads?
Yes, he would. Well, that would be a joint decision between the Academy leadership and the Army leadership.
But those permanent professorships were highly coveted positions, because they could stay their entire career at West Point, and eventually they would rise to the rank of Colonel, which was, at the time, an exalted rank.
Now you’ve showed me this—the chairs in the room, right, have the—those are the same chairs that the Academic Board sat in.
You’re speaking about the Academic Board room—
In our Headquarters building here at West Point.
The chairs around the table—it’s a huge table of oak that sits under what looks like an altar, and there are these 100-pound chairs that are all around it. And that building was created in 1910, or ’08 or ’09, somewhere in there, and the tables and chairs were original to the building; so on the back of each of those chairs is like the apostolic succession. It has all the department heads from the present all the way back.
So you can’t sit there without being aware of the weight of history.
Absolutely—it’s all around us.
So the Academic Board is looked upon when MacArthur gets here as something of a conservative and sort of burdensome influence—stultifying, resistant to change.
Well, remember I said that in the 1860s, Sylvanus Thayer will look back and will try to influence his colleagues, many of whom are still on the Academic Board, and say, “We really need to change. There are some things that need to change.” Well, now fast-forward 40 years, and now we’re into the twentieth century, and still the Academic Board is really not—has not changed very much.
So men like Peyton March, now the Chief of Staff of the Army, is one of a growing number of critics of West Point. “You guys are behind the times. You need to update the curriculum. You need to, you know, do things differently to accommodate or recognize the fact that we’re not living in the nineteenth century anymore.”
Well, there’s nothing wrong with the math, science, and engineering that they were teaching. I mean they were perfectly good disciplines. But most of the cadets, the large majority of cadets, would never be engineers, and they would never need the level of detail and theory that was being taught in these textbooks. And I’ve actually done—I’ve actually looked through some of those textbooks. I mean I’ve been through West Point. I’ve taken all the calculus and all the other high-level math. And I look at some of these books, and the level of detail and the theory that it goes into is mind-boggling, especially if you’re never going to go into the Corps of Engineers or do things of a technical nature.
So the thought was that they were learning things that they didn’t need to know, and not learning things that they did need to know.
Well, first of all, let me just mention that they were learning—the Academic Board explained away what they were doing—they explained away the continuity, the lack of change—by saying that mathematics and the quantitative sciences or disciplines instill mental discipline, which is part of character building. So that mental discipline will give them not only character, but will give them the ability to think though any problem in the future. Now you know, educators disagree on this point—what’s the difference between learning a hard science versus learning a rigorous course in history or English or whatever.
But the assumption on the Academic Board was that quantitative disciplines were best. Now, alternatively, there were others who were looking at what West Point was doing and saying that it’s not preparing them for the real world they’re going to experience when the leave West Point. And chief among them was Peyton March the Chief of Staff of the Army. And he was very close to MacArthur. They had—Peyton March had known MacArthur as a young boy, had seen him grow up, had kind of mentored him though his Army career, and the MacArthur ends up being the most decorated Army officer—U.S. Army officer—during World War I.
So March reaches out and gets MacArthur and says, “I want you to go to West Point and straighten it out and rebuild it and make it—create a curriculum that really is beneficial and relevant to what these young officers are going to be facing.” Now he was able to do that because during the war—I think I mentioned earlier—the War Department had gutted West Point and made it basically a glorified officer training camp. So after the war they were rebuilding the four-year curriculum, and this is when—this was the opportunity they had to make a lot of changes. And MacArthur pushed hard.
During this time, the class of 1915, the “class the stars fell upon,” which is the phrase, which includes Dwight Eisenhower, Omar Bradley—
They are there during one of the weaker moments of the Academy’s history, it sounds like, then, right? The sort of period around the First World War, where the Academy had been sort of gutted to deal with the urgencies of that war in terms of ramping up—
The numbers of officers produced.
You know, I don’t mean to take anything away from the class of 1915. They are—it was a fantastic class. But if you do the math, you realize that if they graduated in 1915, then, you know, five, ten, fifteen, twenty-five years later, World War II is upon us. And in any officer’s career, at the 25-year mark, you’re about ready to become a general. I mean somewhere between 20 and 25 years. So, chronologically, they were in the right place to leverage the national conflicts that we had. So they gained a lot of experience during World War I, and then those who stayed in had the opportunity of advancing their careers and doing, you know, great things, great contributions during World War II.
So in some respects you’re saying it was an accident of history, or chronological accommodation of history.
But nonetheless, what I was focusing on is that it seems as though they were here during a time—despite the fact that they are, you know—I forget what the percentage is that become generals, and certainly some of the most notable generals in American history are in that class. They were not here during a time that one would say is a stellar moment for the Academy.
Well… True… They were here prior to the great reforms of the MacArthur years. But I still wouldn’t sell West Point short. It was still a very important and invaluable experience for those cadets who went through.
So what are the reforms that MacArthur institutes?
Well, there’s—there are a handful that are pretty impressive, and I’ll start with athletics. “Every cadet an athlete,” MacArthur said. So it’s not that cadets had never done intramurals before MacArthur got there, but they weren’t mandatory. So there were some cadets who just decided that, you know, they’ll nap after class instead of going out and doing physical fitness. Well, MacArthur changed that. He required competitive athletics of every cadet; so that’s where we get the words today, “every cadet an athlete.”
And he believed athletics were an analog, right, to war.
He did. He believed—in World War I, he believed that sports developed soldiers very, very well, and instilled in them self-confidence and physical fitness and all those great things. And, those who led sports—in other words, the NCOs and the officers—use sports in a very good way; so sports were a vehicle to build cohesive units. So for a lot of reasons, sports were really good.
So that was the first thing. He made mandatory competitive athletics. Another big area is the honor system. Up to this point, certainly there was an unwritten Honor Code, and the cadets enforced it through informal mechanisms such as what we call the “Vigilance Committee.” But as you can imagine, in any informal system like that, it’s almost tribal.
What was the Vigilance Committee?
It was an informal group of cadets, mostly first classmen, seniors, who would take it upon themselves to investigate alleged violations of the Honor Code, and then recommend to those offenders that they leave West Point.
So was the Honor—had the Honor Code been articulated before this?
Not in a one-sentence Honor Code that we’re familiar with today. No, that—
That came—comes out of the MacArthur years, then.
Yes, it does.
Who penned that? Who wrote, “A cadet must not lie, cheat, or steal, or tolerate those who do?”
Well, I mean those words don’t actually appear until a little bit later.
But the essence—I mean all those ideas are in the Honor Code. What MacArthur will do is gather the senior class together—actually, he’ll take selective representatives out of the senior class—and he will charge them with coming up with a rationalized system for investigating honor offenses and then recommending what’s to be done. And also there’s an—
By “rationalized” you mean a set of procedures that are dependable—
Precisely. In other words, to move it from being a tribal justice system to being an official justice system that has rules and regulations.
To civilize it, in a sense—yes, yeah.
And it has protections and other things. So he goes about doing that, and the cadets rise to the challenge and they offer him a program that is, or a system, that works. So he creates the official Honor Committee—the Cadet Honor Committee. It has rules, regulations, and the cadets now will educate the Corps of Cadets on honor. They will investigate violations, and they will recommend to the superintendent punishment for those who are found guilty. Now, it’s only a recommendation, and in the meantime, they will recommend to the offender that now is the time to leave, you know, to voluntarily take yourself out of West Point.
If the offender decided that he didn’t want to do that—that he wanted to fight it, because for whatever reason—he could take that case to a Board of Officers. If the Board of Officers convened and sustained the recommendation of the Cadet Honor Committee, then the cadet would be gone. The superintendent would just expel the cadet.
But there were occasions when the Honor—when the Officer Board got together, and of course they are dealing or they are operating under the Rules of Military Justice. They might find the cadet to be innocent, and then return the cadet to the Corps of Cadets. From the standpoint of the Corps of Cadets, however, the original finding of the Cadet Honor Committee still prevailed, and therefore the cadet would be silenced by his peers.
And silenced meant silenced—they do not—well, you explain what silenced means.
No social intercourse.
With the exception—with the only exception—being for official duties.
And this would go on for the rest of his time at West Point, right?
For the rest of his career in the military.
Now, that’s according to what was supposed to happen. I’m sure there were exceptions to that, and I’m sure that over time, people warmed up, and so forth. But it’s a very—
But there were cadets silenced up until I think the 1970s or so, weren’t there?
Oh yes. The silence continued to be a very important part of the Honor Code, or the honor system, rather, until right up into the early 1970s. And you know, if you’re going to have an honor system that is cadet-based, and you want the cadets really to take charge of that system, there has to be some kind of lever, some kind of enforcing mechanism. And the silence was that mechanism. Now, as you can imagine, a system like that is rife with potential abuses, and that’s why in the 1970s, in the early 1970s, after a series of lawsuits and very bad publicity for the Academy, the Corps of Cadets voted to end the silence.
Mm. Alright, what else did MacArthur do?
Yeah, the other things.
Come back to MacArthur, what other things he—
Sure. MacArthur believed that we were treating cadets like children, and yet we were expecting them to act like adults immediately upon graduation. So MacArthur changed a lot of the rewards and incentive mechanisms at West Point to encourage cadets to act more responsibly, and then hold them accountable for their mistakes—in other words, to treat them like adults while they’re cadets. So he did such things as let them carry money in their pockets.
Up to this point, cadets weren’t allowed to carry money, because the idea was that every cadet was going to be equivalent, and if you allowed some cadets—or if you allowed cadets to carry money, then those who came from better backgrounds would have more money than others. Well, MacArthur said, “This is ridiculous. Cadets don’t even know how to balance their own checkbook.” So he let them carry money. He gave them more privileges, especially the first class. In other ways, too, he tried to treat them like adults, and one of the ways was to improve military training to put them more in charge. And he changed the—
In charge of their own training, or is that what you meant?
Well, both that, and to give them better training.
So I’m really kind of veering over now into military training. Up to this point, summer training consisted primarily of the cadets on that wide-open field down where they parade—it’s called The Plain—and they would set up a summer camp. And for three months they’d be out there, two and a half, three months, doing whatever training you can do on a small post that we have here at West Point.
And MacArthur got here, and he said, “You know, this is not preparing them for war—the kind of industrialized mass war that we’re going to fight in the future.” So the first thing he did was to say, “We’re not going to do the encampment anymore. Instead, we’re going to send the cadets to a real Army base, where they’re going to interact with enlisted soldiers and get great training.” So he sent them—for the two years that he had during the summer—he sent them to Fort Dix, New Jersey—Camp Dix back then.
How much of this was—how much—MacArthur’s come out of his experience in the First World War—
With an Army, American Army, that was notoriously untrained.
How much do you think this was his response to what he saw the American Army to be in that conflict?
Well, he saw all of the same things you just described. He was appalled by the lack of training, by the prolific waste of lives because of the poor training that they’d—and not just training, but physical fitness as well. So when he got to West Point, that’s what animated him—was the idea that we need to create officers who can stand up to these challenges. If you read his annual reports, they’re these lucid, incredibly deep-thinking reports that just stand out from all the rest.
He wrote his own, I’m assuming.
Well, he had some help. But still, the ideas are his.
The ideas were his. And they talked about the need for a new kind of leadership that can adapt to the changing circumstances of the world, and he described what those circumstances are. You know, the new industrial warfare, and the likelihood that we’re going to tap our citizenry to fight mass war.
Was there fear, though, among critics of MacArthur at the time—I assume there must’ve been—that if we prepare for war, we’ll go to war?
In other words, that we’re kind of willing ourselves into the conflict, and maybe there was a kind of lust for it that was part of his personality?
Well, of course, during that era, the first couple of decades of the twentieth century—epitomized by Teddy Roosevelt—the idea that there are manly virtues, and war is pretty good, you know, to bring out those manly virtues. But I think by the time that MacArthur takes over as the superintendent, there’s pretty much an understanding that war is inevitable, and we really need to prepare our cadets, especially our cadets, for the likelihood of wars in the future. And those perceptive military leaders—and civilians, too—recognized that the outcome of World War I raised the chances of another world war, or some type of war, you know, in the not-too-distant future.
What was MacArthur’s relationship with the Academic Board?
Well, it was not cordial, but it was professional. He would interrogate the Board. I mean he was on par intellectually with the old graybeards on the Academic Board, and if his adjutant is to be believed—who was in the Board proceedings and wrote memoirs about all this—then MacArthur would listen to the elder statesmen of the Academic Board.
But then would just probe with his own questions—questions that had leading—or leading questions that would require the Academic Board really to understand that their positions are weak. And so there was a back-and-forth bantering, and of course he had no choice because he only had one vote on the Academic Board. So he had to use the force of intellect to try to—
Of persuasion, you mean.
I’m sorry—the force of persuasion—
To get the other—enough votes on the Academic Board to change things.
And did he? Did he make changes using the Academic Board?
Oh, he did.
Or he sidestepped them?
He did, and this is perhaps the last major area of reform that MacArthur is responsible for. That is, under MacArthur, the Academic Board proposes—and the War Department accepts—a four-year curriculum that brings the curriculum back to a normal time period. You know, during the war it had been truncated; now it’s back to four years. And in that four-year curriculum, now we have economics, history, geography, politics, and there’s a new department that’s created.
Eventually it will be called the Department of Social Sciences. Back then, it’s Economics, Government, and History—or something like that. And a scholar from Yale—his name is Lucius Holt—is the head of that department. This is going to be a department that will just grow and flower, and this is where the cadets really learn about the things that will be of great relevance to them as they become our Army officers.
Was the opposition in the Academic Board to the broadening of the curriculum based upon the thought that teaching cadets the gray area of human experience? In other words, the non-quantitative study might weaken their resolve, and might weaken their ability to be strong officers, because you need to see the world in quantitative ways in order to make tough decision in tough situations?
Well, there’s still the belief that the quantitative disciplines are the best way to build mental discipline.
During the debates in the Academic Board, with MacArthur and the others, MacArthur would like to see a course in psychology be introduced into the core curriculum.
Wow. That’s interesting, because it was an infant science at the time, wasn’t it?
Absolutely, but he had just come from war, and he realized the importance of officers understanding the psychological motivations for behavior. But the Academic Board would have none of it: “Psychology is a squishy science. They’re a squishy pseudo-science, and how can we really expect the cadets to gain from this subjective”—
It would’ve been wonderful to have sat in and listened to those debates, wouldn’t it?
And we only know what happened—I mean did MacArthur write any notes about what happened from those arguments with the Academic Board, or was it just this adjutant you referred to before?
William Ganoe. Ganoe, I think it’s pronounced—G-A-N-O-E—who wrote a book, a very flattering portrayal of MacArthur. I mean they were very close. And therefore when one reads this book, one has to be—
Keep that in mind.
Careful about this—
Yeah. But still, even if half of it is true—
It gives a very enlightening—
But it’s such an interesting clash of past and future—
Of sort of one form of—one philosophy of military training against another one, right? I mean it’s really it’s a real crucible.
Well, one form of intellectual development over another.
MacArthur was astute enough to realize that cadets needed preparation on both sides of their brain. You know, in a variety of different ways, and he in no way would’ve done away with the math, science, and engineering. He just wanted—
A better balance.
And I should also say as maybe corrective that there were allies of MacArthur on the Academic Board. I mean there were some who saw it just like MacArthur did, so I don’t mean to paint all of them—
Well, did it break down generationally? Did it tend to be the younger ones that were—
Yeah. Yeah. Or Lucius Holt, for example—
Was very influential.
He had been a long-time member of the Board, and he was pushing very hard for the non-quantitative disciplines.
What did the cadets make of MacArthur? Was he an authoritarian superintendent, or was he liked?
He was generally liked. Certainly anybody who was going to let them go play sports and give them more freedom and that sort of thing. He was popular in that regard, but he was considered aloof. It was his personality. He just didn’t interact easily with other people. So even his admiring biographer, William Ganoe, commented on this, that he just—he didn’t go to the socials. He [was] kind of just stiff and hard to talk to, and you know, today we really have to wonder if the influence of World War I—or what influence that had on him. You know, was he suffering from any kind of post-traumatic syndrome? We don’t know.
But certainly it must’ve affected him somehow.
Yeah. How long was he superintendent?
For three years [from 1919-1922].
And when he left, everybody said, “Good riddance.”
He was very unpopular with the Academic Board.
There’s also some evidence that he was unpopular with the spouse side of West Point. He was not married, and he sent all the cadets off to Camp Dix to train during the summer. Up to that point, the summer encampment had been half training and then half social life; so he basically did away with all that. There were dances and social events and all sorts of nice things. West Point was a pretty nice place to be around during the summers, and he did away with that.
So when he finally left, there were people who just wanted to get back to normality, and as soon as he left, his successor moved training back to West Point. That wouldn’t last for long, because they realized the limitations of that. But MacArthur gets credit for setting the precedent in a lot of different areas. Some of his reforms stuck. Others didn’t. But later on, they would come back and be resurrected.
Who’s the next great superintendent at West Point, then, following him?
Well, there are a lot of very fine men who are superintendent. And I don’t think any of them are duds, by any stretch. But if you are really looking for someone who stands out, it’s Garrison Davidson [from 1956-1960].
Who arrives after the Second World War, right?
That’s right. He’s a 1927 graduate of West Point. He’s the number two cadet in his senior year, as a first classman. An engineer officer who—really the first thing he does after graduation is coach the football team, and he played on the intramural, and then also the varsity squad, and he was asked to be the ends coach for the—I think the plebe team, initially, and then he moved up. And by the early 1930s, he was the head coach of the football team and had an illustrious record for about five years. Even today, [he] is one of the most winning coaches in West Point history.
This focus on football, which we today associate as being synonymous with West Point, really began with MacArthur, right?
Well, football began in 1890 here at West Point, and it was popular from the very beginning. So, MacArthur was a great fan of football—he loved it.
But he ratcheted it up another level with the focus on sports as a cadet obligation, right?
He loved sports in general, and he made all cadets play competitive sports of some type, but first, in his mind, was football. Football was the top.
And by the time Garrison Davidson becomes the head football coach here, it’s a big deal.
It’s a very big deal.
And Douglas MacArthur, by the way, happens to be the Chief of Staff of the Army at that time [from 1930-1935]. And there are some wonderful stories about MacArthur requiring Garrison Davidson to send him, personally, a report after each game, to give him a rundown on what happened and what the forecast is for the future.
The history you write focuses on the changing relationship of the Academic Board with the superintendent—
And the decision-making here.
To the point where today, you believe it’s become something of a loose formality to put things before the Academic Board, right?
Well, the Academic Board is impotent today. It’s gone a long way. You asked about the next great superintendent. Well, Garrison Davidson was still in the mode of shared governance. He was still only one of, you know, however many, 13 or 14 votes, on the Academic Board. So it required him to—all the magnificent changes he made, all the very impressive changes he made came as a result of interaction with the Academic Board, and convincing them of the wisdom of his arguments. And he was very successful.
But there we had close votes in some cases that benefitted from strong arguments on each side. So in that kind of an environment, you can be pretty sure the resulting decisions are going to be good, because there’s a lot of interplay, intellectual interplay back and forth. So the decisions that Garrison Davidson is able to accomplish are long-lasting, significant changes, that we’re still—
Can you tell us—we have other history to go back to—
Between the two wars, but tell me what Garrison Davidson was able to accomplish during his tenure. I know you believe him to be really a very significant force in the history of the Academy.
He and MacArthur—and one more that we’ll probably talk about in the future—I would rank as equals—the top three superintendents of the 20th century, second only to Sylvanus Thayer in the entire history of the Academy. But the things that he got accomplished—first and foremost, academics. He was a great proponent for broadening the curriculum, downplaying math, science, and engineering more, and then bringing those other non-quantitative disciplines up, and having rigor across the curriculum.
So he essentially extended the reforms that MacArthur had initiated.
Yes, yes, he was a great believer in the MacArthur view of expanding the curriculum to broaden cadet minds. But more than that, he believed that it was finally time to allow cadets to take electives—to enable them to go a little deeper in the areas that interested them. So in a very tumultuous—deliberations, negotiations in the Academic Board in late, in ’58 and ’59—finally they took the vote in early 1960.
He was able to get the Academic Board to agree to finally end the prescribed curriculum, the all-prescribed curriculum. Now, in the beginning, cadets only had the choice of one or two electives, but in the 1960s, the wisdom of that decision was so apparent that within a few years cadets were able to take now four, then six; and pretty soon they were taking a number of electives that approximated an academic major.
Well, now, what was the opposition to that based on? Why would you not want to have a cadet have the opportunity to study something in greater depth that really interested him?
Well, the prescribed curriculum had been refined over 150 years, or roughly 150 years, and there was a strong feeling on the part of Academic Board members that this represented our best guess of what young men—still men at the time—had to master to become great Army officers. So why would we want to dilute that? Why would we? If we think these are so important, why would we want to, you know, substitute part of this great program for something else that the cadet just wants to do because he wants to do it? So—
Was there also, though, a feeling that you needed—cadets needed to be told that—they needed to be told what to study rather than choosing what to study? That part of the rigor of this character development was that there—you needed to be in the program?
Right. Yeah, there’s a longstanding assumption that goes very deep at West Point—an assumption of paternalism—that cadets are developed best in an environment that we, the Academy leaders, decide for them. And that goes back to the idea of treating cadets like kids. You know, you want to—we know best what’s good for the cadets.
We know best what they need to be officers. And we’ve structured this program for it, and doggone it, they need to take it. Everybody needs to take every single course, because if they don’t, they’re going to miss some key element. So the idea of paternalism goes really deep at West Point, and it took a lot of effort on the part of Davidson to finally break the Academic Board of that assumption being in effect all the time.
Have we already seen benefits, by this time? I mean, really, Davidson is there in the mid-’50s, so—
No, the late ’50s—’56 to ’60.
Late—okay, so really 30 years had passed since MacArthur was the superintendent there.
And one would presume you’d had a whole generation all the way up to senior officer here to see what the progress was of those reforms, in terms of—
Its impact on the Officer Corps. Did they see the effects of MacArthur’s approach to—
Yeah. I don’t mean to imply that nothing happened from the time of MacArthur to Davidson. The curriculum during those years expanded and improved dramatically. And it was during these years, during the 1920s and ’30s, that West Point became recognized throughout higher education as being a first-rate academic institution. Now, every cadet had to take every course, and it was a prescribed curriculum, but nonetheless, the quality of instruction and the quality of the education was very high.
But it sounds like it was a reinforcement of what MacArthur had instituted. It wasn’t that there was a shift of doctrine, so to speak.
It reflected the MacArthur view that cadets needed a balanced curriculum. It was still prescribed, but it was a balance between math, science, and engineering on the one hand, and the humanities and social sciences on the other.
So let me come back to my question earlier, then. So did they see, though, in the quality of the officers they were getting in the Army, and finally in the Second World War, a difference from what they might’ve been grooming in the decades preceding that?
Todd, I don’t know how to measure that.
And I don’t think they could’ve measured it, either. But in general, the War Department and—well, from the evidence that I could glean, there seemed to be a high level of confidence that the academic and physical and military program at West Point was doing a good job preparing officers for leadership. And you know, if we just look at the—if we just look at the history of how West Pointers have done in these conflicts, they typically rise to the top—and they did in World War II. So I don’t know how to measure it. That’s a very hard question.
Well then what about the Academic Board? I mean MacArthur arrives with a sort of stiff, conservative, traditional Board that he fights with.
By the time [of] Davidson, is it more now peopled by this generational shift we talked about, so that even though Davidson’s having to go through some of the same arguments, he’s finding the Board more receptive to change?
Well, the Board takes as a given that we now have a balanced curriculum, so I mean they’ve evolved in their thinking, too. And again, Davidson has allies on the Board. There are some who think exactly like Davidson.
Where is Lucius Holt at this point?
Well, Lucius Holt is long retired by this point, but his successor at this point is going to be—well, Herman Beukema is there for a while, and then a guy named Lincoln comes in after that. So those are the Department of Social Science leaders. But then there are others, too, who are like-minded, and they have to be, because for Garrison Davidson to achieve success, he has to persuade at least a majority to come his way.
Now, the vote of the Academic Board on the issue of the curriculum and electives did not go the way Davidson wanted. I mean he would’ve wanted a larger number of electives right away. They voted for a smaller number, and he was—he viewed that as only a partial victory. But in fact, what he had done was to break the logjam, and it was very quickly after that that we realized the wisdom of all of this.
We’ve talked about curriculum, and a little bit about policy. We’ve not talked about admissions. How does the admissions program work from this point early in the 20th century forward through Davidson? Give me a history of that.
Okay. Well, admissions is primarily a function of Congress. Through the twentieth century, each member of Congress will gradually get more and more nominations to make to West Point, as the size of the Corps expands. But the large majority of cadets who come to West Point get there because they’ve been nominated by a congressman, and then in some way or other, the congressman will determine how that person will get in. And usually what the congressman will do, will say, “This is my primary nominee.”
As long as that person can pass the entrance exam for West Point, that’s the guy who’s going to go. And then they’ll number their alternates after that, so that if the top guy doesn’t make it, then we’ll go to the next guy, and if he passes the test, then he gets in, and so forth, all the way down. That’s generally how it was done. Now, there was a small number of cadets who were allowed to enter with a different type of nomination, and these were called “competitive” nominations.
The President had a few. The Secretary of War had a few. It was but a small number, you know, maybe 20 or so. And those nominations were given to primarily soldiers, or the sons of officers, because the officers moved around a lot, so they didn’t have an opportunity to cultivate friendships with the members of Congress—so there was a way for those folks to get in as well. At any rate, those were the primary ways to get in—congressional nominations, and the competitive nominations.
Why I say competitive is because that small number took a test and West Point would admit the very top person on the test, and they would just go right on down the list with whoever scored the highest, and those people would get in. With the congressional nominees, if a congressman picks somebody who’s not very well qualified as the top nominee, and somehow that person passes the test, that person’s in.
So, clearly, the Congressional nomination system did not bring to West Point in every case the most qualified people, and that was a big problem. So through the entire history of West Point, superintendents had been trying to find ways to increase the quality of the candidates. Finally, Garrison Davidson comes along, and he is able to convince Congress—or many members of Congress—to let the Admissions Committee at West Point find the top picks within that set of nominees.
Within the set of the competitive nominees—
Or the Congressional nominees?
Give it—any particular congressional—or any particular member of Congress—has maybe five nominees. Just turn those names over to the Admissions Committee, and let the Admissions Committee decide.
Rank them, who’s going to get in, right. And that way, at least we’ll get the best candidate among the five or six that this particular congressman nominates. So Garrison Davidson is able to get a fair percentage of members of Congress to agree to that, and over the next few years, the majority of members of Congress will agree to that. And today, about 85 percent of Congress goes by that system.
So it’s still a voluntary process, though, it sounds like. If the congressman wants to make his own rankings, he can.
But most of them tend today to turn that over to the Admissions Committee.
Most of them do, that’s right.
And don’t—when—the superintendent has a few he can nominate on his own.
When did that come about?
That’s relatively recent. I think that was part of the legislation in the early 1960s that expanded the Corps of Cadets from about 2,500 to its current 4,400. And there were a lot of—in that legislation, there were a lot more nominations given to the competitive category, so we had—that was a big victory for those who wanted to improve the quality of the Corps of Cadets. So in general, Davidson takes a lot of credit for creating these reforms, or pushing these reforms, that leads to a better quality Corps of Cadets.
So essentially the electives and the admissions reforms.
Other reforms—what else makes Garrison Davidson such a good Superintendent?
Well, he was really a stickler on good training, and he wanted to ensure that cadets—now, he’s in the shadow of World War II, right after that—he wanted to make sure that cadets were very much prepared for joint warfare and for all the complexities of modern warfare. So one of the things that he pushed was the program that today we call “cadet troop-leading training.”
You send out the cadets to real units, to active Army units, and you let them simulate being a second lieutenant for three weeks or a month, and then bring them back. So these cadets get to deal with NCOs and with soldiers. They get real, live missions, and that kind of experience—I remember my own—was a fabulous experience. Back then, they called it AOT, for Army Orientation Training, and today it’s CTLT [Cadet Troop Leader Training]. So that was a big change in training that he put in place.
You said there was one other really important Superintendent in the twentieth century. Who are you thinking of there?
Dave Palmer, superintendent from 1986 to 1991. Palmer is—he’s still alive—he’s a historian, a very good historian, who wrote a book—he’s written several books—but one in particular was on the history of West Point during the Revolution, called “The River and the Rock.”
He’s quite an intellectual, and knows the history of West Point very well; so when he was selected to be the superintendent, he had about eighteen months from the time of notification until the time that he took over, to really study, to reflect on what he wanted to get accomplished. So he came to West Point probably better prepared than any other superintendent, next to Sylvanus Thayer, and was able to get a lot done as a result of it.
What are some of the things he accomplished?
Well, again, the list is long. But the two things in particular stand out. He was intent on changing the culture of leadership at West Point. Now, up to this point, you know, all the way through the late twentieth century, the idea of attrition was very much part of the Academy’s leader development system.
By that you mean that you weed out those who are not—
Really capable of keeping up the standard.
Remember I said we had this cult—this assumption of paternalism? We create the environment. We create the gauntlet through which the cadet will go through, and if the cadet makes it through, then he has shown the ability to—character and intellect, and will be a great officer. But any misstep along the way, and we’re going to get him out of West Point. So, paternalism and attritionalism are like two sides of the same coin, and it was a rather challenging environment in which to—in which to be as a cadet.
And… You’re not really learning the right lessons. If we want West Point, if we want to consider West Point as being a leader development institution, then it’s got to be more than just an attrition that dictates who makes it through and who doesn’t. So Palmer was very sensitive to this, and he leveraged some of the thinking that was evolving over this time on the topic of leader development. But he decided when he got here—he did a study, got the opinions of a lot of people across the Academy, and came up with what is called the Cadet Leader Development System.
Instead of having just a Fourth Class system in which everybody pounces on the plebes, he now has a system where all four classes have expectations for progressively developing their leadership skills. So when you’re a plebe, the mission is to learn follower-ship. When you’re a third classman, or a sophomore, now you begin to assume responsibility for one or maybe two cadets—you’re a team leader. And then the following year, as a junior, you’re a squad leader, and you have maybe ten or twelve cadets that you’re responsible for.
As a first classman, now you’re part of the officer corps, you know, the cadet officer corps, and you have major responsibilities. So your responsibilities increase over time, your privileges increase over time, and the accountability for any mistake you make increase over time. Now, this seems so—this seems so wise. I mean why would it take so long for West Point to come up with something like this? Well, West Point is an institution that has a lot of tradition, and it’s hard sometimes to make those changes.
Well, it sounds like it goes right back to the question we talked about earlier, which is do you arrive here ready to demonstrate that you’re—
Someone of character, and then get weeded out if you don’t, or do you come here capable of learning—
And then learn.
Well, that’s the sea change that takes place at West Point.
That’s Palmer’s contribution to it.
That is—now, Palmer, I would give him most credit for it. Obviously—
He’s building on something…
He’s building—that’s exactly right, yeah. And I would say the big—maybe the catalyst for the change in the leader development culture is the cheating scandal of 1976. That’s when West Point goes through an extraordinary amount of self-assessment and external assessment, primarily external. And every corner of the Academy is looked at, and that’s when we actually have the opportunity to make bold changes in the way—[Crosstalk]
Well, the cheating scandal, it strikes me, brings this very question to the center stage, right?
Which is: are these bad apples that we somehow tolerated, you know, to get here? We choose them wrong? The attrition did not weed them out? Or have we set up a system whereby we did not encourage the development of the right character in order to be able to rely upon—
These principles as being front and center?
Well, I think it’s a little bit of all of those things. And on top of that, I think there were external factors, societal factors that played into the specific thing that happens in 1976 with the honor scandal. But the consensus as we did all these studies afterwards was that we needed to make West Point less of—we needed to develop cadets less on a model of attrition and more on a model of development.
And this comes from the Borman group as well as from internal assessments?
Well, there were—
Frank Borman being—heading up this study group, right, that happens.
Right. There were internal studies going on, but the important external studies were the ones—the first one was by Frank Borman and his commission; Borman being a 1950 graduate of West Point and an astronaut, and famous American businessman and all that. He—his group focused on the Honor Code and the honor system, and then he delivered that report in December of 1976—delivered it to the Secretary of—or I guess the Secretary of War… the Secretary of the Army.
The Army then turned around and did a much deeper study, and collectively—there were a number of different studies, three different committees—collectively, it was called the West Point Study Group, and they worked for the first six months of 1977, and delivered their report actually in July of that year. That was the report that just dove deep, and there were 152 recommendations that came out of that, and—
Who led up that group—who headed up that group?
There were three general officers, either one- or two-stars, and they together then reported to the Chief of Staff of the Army, General Bernard Rogers. Now, the guy that was given the mission of implementing all of these things had been an advisor to the West Point Study group; and his name was Andrew Goodpaster.
Who had a famous professional life well before this.
Can you describe that briefly?
Well, retired four-star general, had been the Commander of NATO, had been an advisor to presidents, especially President Eisenhower. He was, as the name implies—he was just this font of wisdom and virtue, and he truly was a very impressive man. He was the person that West Point needed at this time, according to the senior leaders, to lend stability and to shield the Academy from the attacks that were coming its way as a result of the honor scandal and other issues.
So, a man of Goodpaster’s stature protected West Point. So he took a one-star downgrade, just temporarily, of course, to become the superintendent of West Point. One of the reforms that came out of the West Point Study Group was that henceforth all superintendents would be three-star generals, by default.
And what was the thinking behind that?
To give the superintendent more authority. The West Point Study Group did a lot of—made a lot of recommendations, but foremost among them was to change the governance structure at West Point. No longer would West Point be under a shared system of governance. From now on, the superintendent would have absolute authority, and the Academic Board would be constrained only to academic matters, meaning—well, curricular matters—and it would be advisory only. So starting with General Goodpaster, the three-star commanders at West Point have been as—have had every ounce of authority that any three-star commander would have out in the Army. And they’ve used it. They’ve used it very aggressively.
I’m wondering if we should pause here and come back, because I think this is a good point to—I know when we come back to this subject we’re going to talk about the good intentions of that decision led to some unexpected developments that you regret. But I thank you for coming in. We’ll pick it up next time.
Thank you, Todd.
|service dates||1977 2012|