Copyright 2013 by John T. Reed

My undergraduate alma mater West Point has an alumni magazine. The spring 2013 issue feature the four graduates of whom West Point is most proud; Robert E. Lee, Ulysses S. Grant, Douglas MacArthur, and Dwight Eisenhower—and a phrase they dreamed up after I graduated but which they now often use:

At West Point, much of the history we teach was made by the people we taught.

Actually, that is a bit of an exaggeration. West Point grads are surprisingly underrepresented in the history they teach at West Point, even the course on military history.

First, a couple of iconoclastic comments on the four.

Robert E. Lee, the earliest of the four (class of 1829). He had a successful career in the U.S. Army giving a good account of himself as a general’s aide in the Mexican-American War. He was a superintendent of West Point, a job that was often a prelude to later distinction as a career officer. When the Civil War began, he was offered command of the entire Union Army. Instead, he became a traitor taking the same job in the Confederacy. And of course the cause of the Confederacy was to preserve slavery.

After early successes on the battlefield in the Civil War, he led a disastrous, ill-advised action at Gettysburg and subsequently lost the war. One would not have thought that the salient features of his career—being a traitor to his country, trying to preserve slavery, treating Union Prisoners of War in the horrible way that the British did in the Revolutionary War and the way the Japanese did in World War II, and losing general in a war against that country—would make him one of the top four graduates of a 211-year old military academy.

I think Robert E. Lee’s claim to fame is not military leadership, it is as an image consultant. The guy did what he did, should have been fired by the Confederacy and shot by the Union as a traitor, and reviled by history for salvery as would any Grand Dragon of the Ku Kux Klan, yet he is admired, respected and lionized. Apparently, if you have a sufficiently dignified demeanor and just look like Mr. Respectable, you can get away with anything. If he were alive today, he would be a widely respected TV news anchor reading a teleprompter like Walter Cronkite was.

I have complained that in the Army as in most bureacratic orginazations, results don’t matter. All that matters is looking the part and talking a good game. I started to notice that when I was a cadet at West Point, then I really saw it in the Army. They haven’t won a war in 68 years, but they look real good at parades and testifying before Congress. No wonder Lee is on the cover of the alumni magazine. He is one of the all time greats at looking the part and thereby avoiding responsibility for what he actually did—and failed to do.

Do not write and tell me his traitorous behavior doesn’t count because he was just being loyal to his state. He and I took the same oath on the Plain at West Point, to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States. We also were both taught on that same day that henceforth we had three answer: “Yes, sir. No sir. And No excuse, sir.” Being a Virginian is no excuse for violating his oath. He knew he was a Virginian in 1825 when he took the oath.

It is a bit of a wonder that he and Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy and West Point Class of 1828, were not shot for turning against their country. Indeed, their not being punished was probably a result of being members of the Long Gray Line of West Point graduates who had great feelings of affection for fellow grads throughout and after the Civil War, and because of Lincoln’s unusual-in-history decision to heal the wounds rather than mete out justice.

The next grad in order of graduation year (1843) was Ulysses S. Grant. Wikipedia says of him,

Grant later recalled that his departure from West Point was of the happiest of his times, and that his intent had been to resign his commission after serving the minimum term of obligated duty.

My kinda guy. One of the happiest days of my life was the day I got out of the Army. Grant said, “a military life had no charms for me.” For me, that would be a gross understatement.

Of course, his main claim to fame is he defeated Lee. He also was president of the U.S. for two terms. He had a checkered past and a checkered presidency but seems to have been a genuinely good guy if not always sober throughout his life.

Did Grant, like Lee, jsut look the part? No. Grant was 5'2". He succeeded by winning battles and the war, not by looking the part. He defeated the guy who only looked the part.

MacArthur was apparently a great officer in World War I, also served as superintendent of West Point like Lee. But in Word War II, he made some extremely selfish decisions that cost a lot of men their lives unnecessarily. When the Japanese invaded the Philippines, MacArthur retreated to Corregidor Island where his men were defeated and put on the Bataan Death March. MacArthur sneaked out of the Philippines with his wife and son during the battle. And he was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for that!!!!!

His next selfish decision was promising “I shall return” to the Philippines. A. that was not necessary and was very costly in lives and treasure when he did it and B. who the hell was he to make such a promise about how the war would be fought and who would die where for his ego? He insisted on, and got, a costly invasion of the Philippines apparently solely so he could claim he kept his theatrical promise.

He otherwise did a good job in the Pacific war and as occupation commander of Japan. He had mixed success as top commander in the Korean War, asked to use nuclear weapons, was turned down, publicly said it was the wrong decision, and got fired for saying that publicly. For what it’s worth, I agree with his recommendation. But I also agree with firing him once the president said no to the request.

It strikes me as more that passing odd that one of West Point’s top four graduates in the eyes of its alumni association is a traitor who lost a war against his own country and another an insubordinate egomaniac.

Eisenhower was class of 1915, the “class the stars fell on” because so many members became generals in World War II. That is nothing but a function of the age they were when the war broke out in 1941 (about 48).

When I was a plebe at West Point in June 1964, Eisenhower and his class returned to West Point for their 50th reunion. I was standing on the corner when his staff car, complete with a red, five-star general plate approached. I saluted him and got a one-on-one salute back.

His claim to fame was command of all allied forces in Europe during World War II, which we won, and being a two-term president during a time of prosperity and peace. Such a person should be one of any college’s top four graduates. But I must note that we did not study him much at West Point. Military people generally considered him to be a popular diplomat/bureaucrat, not a great combat leader or military strategist. During World War I, when he might have been a platoon leader, company commander, or battalion commander, he was in the U.S. training troops.

What has West Point done for America lately?

But I want to make a general comment about these four guys. Their birth dates are respectively 1807, 1822, 1880, and 1890. So by putting these four on the cover the alumni magazine, West Point is implicitly saying they have no graduates born since 1890 worthy of the honor. At the time Eisenhower graduated, the cumulative total of West Point graduates was precisely 5,476. I am the 27,716th graduate. The precise total as of 2010 was 67,128. Since about 1,000 now graduate per year, it should rise to about 70,000 with the class of 2013.

So we got four great grads out of the first 5,476 grads and none out of the more recent 70,000 - 5476 = 64,524!? Talk about not having a good answer to the question, “What have you done for me lately?” The Class of 1915 graduated almost a century ago. Perhaps someone should look at the Academy to see if the training needs to be changed to produce better results from the post-1915 classes?

Good at becoming generals when mostly West Pointers became geneal

Also, note that these four guys all succeeded in the military. Being president is a political success, but it is fairly clear that Grant and Eisenhower rode to the presidency on their military celebrity and the victories of their troops, not because they were political strategy geniuses. In the days when these guys rose to military prominence, the U.S. military was quite tiny. Furthermore, West Point grads had a lock on the top ranks.

Essentially, you already knew in the early 1800s that West Pointers were going to command in an 1861 Civil War and that one of them would win. You also knew that West Pointers would command a 1941 World War before either MacArthur or Eisenhower entered West Point.

Putting names on which West Pointers would end up commanding generals in those wars was less significant that creating West Point in 1802 (by Thomas Jefferson at the suggestion of George Washington) or allowing it to almost monopolize general positions for the next 160 years. In other words, that four West Pointers would be on the cover of the Spring 2013 alumni magazine for wars of the middle 1800s and middle 1900s was preordained by the uniqueness of West Point as of the early 1800s and the lock West Pointers had on general jobs until the 1960s. To put it another way, these four greats were only competing with other West Pointers for the appearance on the 2013 magazine cover. So it is kind of tautological. (saying the same thing twice: Four West Point grads were the top generals in two great wars in the 19th and 20th centuries, a time when West Point grads had almost a total lock on the top general jobs.)

Why so little success in civilian life?

It’s not like West Point grads have no chance to show their stuff outside of the Army. Contrary to popular image, the typical living West Point graduate is not in the Army. He, or she, is a civilian who got out of the Army after five years of service or retired from the Army in their early 40s. With the average life span being in the 70s these days, the typical person spends over 50 years of their life as an adult and the typical West Point graduate spends 30 to 45 of those years as a civilian. They have plenty of opportunities to shine as civilians. So name the top West Point grads of today. Never mind, I’ll do it for you.

John T. Reed