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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 12

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
MacArthur Close‑Up
William Addleman Ganoe

published by
Vantage Press
New York, 1962

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Chapter 14
This site is not affiliated with the US Military Academy.

 p102  Bucking Traditions of a Century

These academic ailments, though stubborn and cantankerous, were by far not the only ones Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.MacArthur recognized as eating into the cadet body. Deep-seated maladies within the Corps, which had been accepted for decades as healthful, he descried in their real harmfulness. To cure them he had not only to run the gauntlet of the zealots of the old order but to compete against time. In a year and a half, the old setup of four classes would be back again, and whatever regime then existed would stick. He girded himself to waste no minute and overlook no symptom. I have seen no one push himself more. Aside from rapid excursions to various spots of the Post, he plied with quick steps between Headquarters and a hollow house without wife or children to greet him. Rarely did he leave the reservation, but devoted himself like a celibate to a vision of redemption.

"Chief, I've just come from observing the work of the cadets," he said as he sat down at his desk and I walked in with a sheaf of papers. "There is something radically wrong with the handling of the plebe."

We had just had a mild hazing investigation by the War Department, which had resulted from a former régime. It had brought into focus the harsh, rude and even cruel methods used by yearlings especially in keeping Fourth Classmen "in their place."

"I don't object to the overstrained postures," he went on, "the Dumjohns, the Ducrots, the general disdain shown by upper classmen. I don't object to the deprivation of certain liberties. We went through all that, and it probably did us some good. But the manner of address!" He shook his head slowly. "It's a difficult thing to approach without striking at the heart of discipline and Corps honor."

 p103  "May I relate something that happened to me?" I asked. "Maybe it might help."

He gave me that gracious side glance which said, "Why ask?"

"Just before I was graduated from the Academy," I told him, a friendly Tac advised me about what to do when I joined my outfit. He said I should do my first job better than I knew how. Such first impression I gave my superior would stand me in good stead for a long time.

"My first task after joining was officer of the day. During the early morning hours of my tour, the Sergeant of the Guard, a soldier nearing thirty years' service, did something contrary to the letter of the Guard Manual. Immediately, I was filled with the holy zeal of West Point practice and a desire to overlook nothing in my reproof. The only kind of correction that came to me naturally was the barking, hissing and goldering of the upper classmen. I went to work on the Sergeant with my best imitation, feeling a pride of righteousness.

"The Sergeant was unimpressed. He leaned forward after the explosion and said gently, 'Lieutenant, I was wrong all right. I'm sorry. But I should tell you that isn't done in the Service.'

"I suppose it was his age, and the way he said it, that kept me from getting angry. Instead I resolved I wouldn't utter a correction until I had seen how the older officers acted. I found their manner was far from that of the snarling yearling. Right then and there, the iron entered my soul that the finest military academy in the world should have taught me wrong."

I can see MacArthur's reaction as if it were only yesterday. He brought his fist down on the desk and sang out, "That's it! That's it! That's an example of what I've been sensing all along. Officer and gentleman! Officer all right, but not quite a gentleman. This training to be brutish in manner is wholly inconsistent with the true objectives of the Academy and the Army. Thank God we have the best opportunity in our history for correction. We have upper classes who have had comparatively little exposure to the old type of crawling. Most of them  p104 haven't had much more than a year to be ingrained in the practice. The habit will be easier to break than in normal times, with the three upper classes set in their ways."

He rose and paced. "Chief, I am sure there were officers overseas shot in the back by their own men simply because they had been brought up with the mistaken idea that bullying was leadership."

Probably the most salutary coincidence to promote onward-looking customs at the Academy occurred when, shortly afterward, Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Danford, without knowing of the foregoing conversation, told the Supe he felt there should be a new Plebe system. He pleaded his case as if he had a lot of convincing to do. He rehearsed with different words and illustrations the substance of what MacArthur had uttered to me, and offered an example.

"General," he said, "at Fort Riley, Kansas, early after my graduation, Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Eli D. Hoyle had turned me out over sixty raw recruits. He carefully watched me for about three days; then at Officers' Call he touched me and said, 'Come into my office, Mr. Danford.' When we got in there, with me standing stiffly at attention and saluting, he said, 'Sit down, Mr. Danford.' As soon as I was seated and relatively at ease, he looked me straight in the eyes and, shaking his head from side to side, said, 'Mr. Danford, we do not handle the American soldier the way a Yearling handles a Plebe at West Point.'

"General," said Danford earnestly, "I feel very strongly about this."

MacArthur jumped up. "No more than I," he boomed. "go to it!"

Danford has since told me he never felt more surprised and electrified. Here, separately, the two men, hitherto distant from each other, had arrived precisely at the same conclusions. He had been prepared to overcome resistance when there was no resistance to overcome.

They fell to reminiscing about harmful personal cruelties during their cadetships.

Said MacArthur, "I was hazed more brutally than some  p105 other members of my class, probably because my father held high rank. The animosity engendered in me against some of the hazers, who seemed to take delight in being cruel, can never be erased. It's a sad result for them and me."

Probably no tougher assignment had been handed an officer in peacetime than was handed Danford — that of uprooting pernicious weeds of tradition grown fast and deep for over a century, and replacing them with cultivations so novel that many felt them absurd and harmful.

The most immediate decision was over the treatment of plebes in "Beastsº Barracks," the three weeks of hell for the entering cadets. Danford feared entrusting the training there to upper classmen, who in reality were not much more than plebes, and were apt to continue the snarling, crawling and other pernicious inheritances inviting personal cruelties. So he suggested only commissioned officers of the Army to be placed over the plebes. The move would mean not only a riddance of the particularly offensive treatment but would immediately indoctrinate the newcomer in the proper attitude and action appropriate to the enlisted man. It would also give the committee more time to convince and convert the Corps and furnish it with actual examples of what was desirable.

MacArthur approved the idea without taking a breath.

Danford struggled to set up a Plebe System, with only his imagination, resourcefulness and indefatigable effort with the help of his Tactical Officers. There was neither precedent nor formula. Behind him lay the shadow of a hazing investigation shortly after the arrival of MacArthur as Supe, and before him, the specter of malign practices by upper classmen throughout the next year.

On the other hand, his daily huddles with MacArthur, who gave a few suggestions, hearty encouragement and the thanks of a beneficiary, were a boon. He had no hesitancy or timidity in entering the sanctum of a commander, but rather the anticipation of a refreshing visit with a brotherly mentor. He now says: "MacArthur had a unique way of inspiring me to the limit of my capacity and ability. His magnetism set his subordinates afire."

 p106  Following MacArthur's principles, he took his Tactical Officers into his confidence, got on all fours with them, had talks with each one, and held weekly meetings, calling for suggestions. He explained in detail the practices to be retained and abandoned. As of old, the plebe must be made to "brace" in order to develop military bearing, say "Sir" to upper classmen and be called "Mister" to imbue him with respect for authority. He must still not be "recognized" or have social or equal dealings with the upper classes for a whole year, because familiarity during that formative period would undermine discipline and training.

However, any custom or offshoots of tradition which invited bullying, personal cruelty or treatment other than that properly accorded an enlisted man, must be abandoned. Severity, yes, but administered in the manner of a proud gentleman rather than of a common thug.

The Tactical Officers, who had had lengthy service with troops, responded with approval and enthusiasm. Danford said to me, "I never again expect to find such wholesale, splendid loyalty."

It was different with cadets. All too many felt they were being minimized, not trusted, and deprived of using the old, harsher ways. The resistance was fanned into flames by the DOGs in oral and written communications with them.

Danford had to resort to unprecedented means. He gave informal, explanatory talks in the Mess Hall, had General Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Lincoln C. Andrews write a special leadership book for cadets, obtained permission from the Academic Board to have classes on the subject Saturday mornings, and, of course, had his able Tactical Officers use personal influence with individuals of the Corps.

In 1922, he called in some outstanding cadets and said to each, "I have you on my list to be appointed a Cadet Captain in June. You know that the Superintendent and I are deeply interested in handling plebes in the same way as to teach you and them how to handle the American soldier with firmness, kindness and justice. I have talked to all of you a good deal about  p107 this matter. Now I want to ask you a question, and I know you will answer me honestly. Do you believe in what we are trying to accomplish, or do you believe in the old arrogant system of crawling and bawling out plebes? If you are loyal to what we want, I shall make you a captain. If you cannot be loyal to it, I shall appoint a lower-ranking cadet officer."

Only one of them believed in the old order.

If that was an indication of progress, it was not so elsewhere. The Corps was permeated with friends and relatives of graduates who had preached the gospel of utter perfection of the Academy. It was a bible, a beatitude and a benediction. Change one jot or tittle, and you committed a blasphemy and heresy that would destroy all the adherents.

This group of cadets, in contrast to the calmer, solid believers, was shot through with the fanaticism of defenders of the faith. Like all overzealous youth, they struck for support in every possible direction, the chief one being correspondence. They wrote reports and denunciations of the changes to the far‑off worshipers of the erstwhile Academy.

The news spread and the DOGs howled to high heaven and the Administration Building. Graduates came and pounded my desk. My office got letters denouncing the Supe as the wrecker of West Point. Someone should have the authority and courage to rise and save the place from ruination before this shameful babying of the plebe went further.

The complaints went: Beastsº Barracks made a man of me. A soldier should early learn to take hard knocks. Besides, the Supe was producing a soft, spineless discipline which would yield graduates incapable of meeting the rigors of a soldier. Altogether, the Supe was allowing the cadet to become a flabby caricature of those stalwarts of former times.

I answered nearly all the gripes by explaining how the Supe wasn't permitting any letdown but was fostering a build‑up of a more suitable training. Times had changed. The type of American soldier had changed. The type of treatment had to be changed accordingly.

They would come back with, "You can't make a soldier by  p108 being namby-pamby. I got my best training under that old S. O. B., Colonel Legree. He didn't spare me. Gave me hell all the time. I learned how to take it. If these cadets can't learn to take it, God help them when they get out."

I didn't retort, "God help them if they crawled enlisted men when they got out." The DOGs were as set as iron hitching posts.

There were a few communications which I had to refer to the Supe, because of the high rank or station of the writer. He answered them judicially, with full recital of the facts. He had just finished dictating one of them when I entered. He studied me with that wide-eyed, reposeful contemplation just short of a smile.

"Proves we are right," he said slowly. "If there were no dissenters, we wouldn't be accomplishing anything. It's only with retchings that a noble institution gives up a bad habit."

He met the onrush of clamor and denunciation like an expert swimmer battling tide and wind with precise strokes and triumphant face. No force was too strong and no distance was too great.

In contrast to this spirit of attack on a problem, was his ability on principle. He's the only leader I ever encountered who enjoyed perfect subordination. Others might have realized the Com was directly responsible for the workings of the Corps, but would they have withdrawn immediate control altogether? It must have taken tremendous force of will to relinquish to another a pet project so crucial to him and the Academy. Yet he unvaryingly abided by his keen analysis which told him any reaching down or meddling would cause delay and disunity. At no time did I know of his entering Danford's realm, except to observe — an action seldom necessary because the Com kept him constantly and thoroughly informed.

However, there came a time when he did step in.

The Secretary of War had just pointed out to the Military Affairs Committee that there must be emphasized at West Point "the inculcation of a set of virtues admirable always but indispensable in the soldier"; and had gone on to state:

 p109  "Men may be inexact or even untruthful in ordinary matters, and suffer as a consequence only the disesteem of their associates, or the inconveniences of unfavorable litigation. But the inexact and untruthful soldier trifles with the lives of his fellow men and the honor of his government; and it is, therefore, no matter of idle pride, but stern disciplinary necessity that makes West Point require of her students a character for trustworthiness which knows no evasions."

But the authorities at West Point dared not "require" the cadets to be honest, any more than laws could keep people from drinking during Prohibition. Any force, rule or regulation from above would be putting the Academy on the same level as a reformatory, where efforts of restraint set a premium on getting away with everything possible without being caught. Honesty would be placed on the same plane as smiling in ranks. The cadet must be molded by another cadet who should be brought to embrace straightforwardness as a religion. Heretofore, he had been habituated by men who had for four years upheld the old honor code jealously and zealously.

How could it be restored as it was? The new Plebe System was already ripping up deep-seated, long-standing habits of young men. How could it keep from tearing apart the rest of the delicate fabric so closely intertwined with the honor code, without which West Point would find itself on quicksands? Might not the cadet consider the abolition of the hard-boiled crawling to be a softness and letdown which would endanger the code? How would the Supe and Com proceed to generate a holy zeal in cadets who would in turn generate it in others? It was a long, thin, delicate line, and there was little time before cadets would have a permanent set in their thinking and actions — if they hadn't one already.

It was probably the toughest and yet most intangible problem MacArthur and Danford had to tackle. The inauguration of a new Plebe System, desirable as it had been, was not indispensable to the life of the Academy. Without it, there could be turned out excellent products as of yore. But without the  p110 old, effective honor code, West Point would be sounding brass. It would be not only without essence, but might breed a dangerous offspring.

The Plebe System could be effected by authorities within the gates of the Academy. The Supe and Com had full power. But with the establishment of the code, there had been the voice of the War Department, calling directly upon MacArthur. He must initiate and enact.

After a conference with Danford, he said, "Com, select a few cadets of the highest, all‑round character, who are most respected and influential in the Corps. Let them be called an Honor Committee. Bring them here to my office where we can start things off."

The move was pleasing to Danford. There was no more awesome spot on the reservation than the Supe's august seat in headquarters, and there was no more inspiring and magnetic personality than MacArthur. The cadets would have a rare privilege of meeting him personally and listening to his persuasive eloquence.

Prospects didn't look favorable when the Committee arrived. From the beginnings of the Academy, a cadet had entered the Supe's office rarely, and mostly by summons. Many a graduate had not been inside it during his entire course, at least while the Supe was present. It was a place of punishment and investigation, a Bridge of Sighs to and through the East Sallyport, never to return. It was the haunt of the Grand Inquisitor who was rarely met face to face, and was saluted from afar as he stalked from his mansion to his chamber in the castle, or was eyed skeptically, if not hostilely, as he stood pompously taking a review while those in ranks braced and sweated.

So the committee entered, rigid in body and starey-eyed. They saluted like engines with driving rods and relapsed into their imitations of robots. When he asked them to be seated in his off‑hand way, as if they were at dinner together, they sat on the varnish of their chairs with hands tight on their stomachs.

 p111  It was going to be tough for him to get those diaphragms down and brains relaxed. I knew, because I had already found out in my academic classes that it took about six weeks for a plebe over being scared of me and to act like a human being, so that we could have the natural relationship of pupil and teacher. And I hadn't been Supe in a chamber of horrors, where the galaxy of thirty former Doges glared down at us.

He didn't greet them with the humdrum, such as, "Now let's all settle down and be comfortable." He knew such an approach would be as futile as cautioning a woman who had dropped into a nest of rattlesnakes not to worry. He went into his bland questioning, not so rapid as usual, asking about their homes, their parents, their general backgrounds. Two of them were football players, and they exchanged views on types of forward passes and the end‑running game instead of line plaus.

They began sitting back in their chairs and getting the jack-knife stiffness out of their knees by pushing their feet forward. It was at that point he rose, paced and explained the reason for their presence. They were selected because of their outstanding record as leaders, and for probably the most important task in the life of the Academy. He went over the history of the honor code in the Corps, how it had been the life and soul of the institution. He paraphrased the statement of the Secretary of War and showed how there couldn't be any little bit of cheating or lying. Copying a sentence from another cadet's paper or blackboard was as great an offense as betraying the Corps. Dishonesty was in the man's soul, and therefore the man could not be tolerated. He showed graphically that which is so hard for an outsider to understand the need for reporting a fellow cadet who commits any sort of dishonesty. For if he does not report it, even if the cadet is his best friend, he has committed a dishonesty himself. Nothing was paramount to cadet honor.

"Gentlemen," he said, "you have before you the greatest exchange and responsibility I have ever known for men of your age. You can accomplish something neither the Commandant nor myself has the opportunity to do. You know from  p112 inside the Corps the possibilities and limitations of your sacred mission. Think over what I have said, talk among yourselves and keep the substance of this meeting confidential. Let us know your proposals at the next meeting."

He took each cadet by the hand as if he were blessing him. Each one of them went out with his eyes shining.

Patience, determination, tact and objectiveness all packed together in a brilliant mind. It couldn't be true. It wasn't a commanding general speaking, but rather a fatherly preceptor gently advising. He somehow metamorphosed scared automatons into human beings charged with a challenging purpose.

At the next meeting, they offered a number of suggestions which he graciously accepted for future study, and it wasn't long before he turned the matter over to the Com. The whole idea, workings and success of the Honor Committee, in building afresh an honor code without benefit of tradition, were MacArthur's.

Shortly after the last meeting, he said to me, "These talks, this rare direct touch with individual cadets, has opened my eyes to their state of mind. I would otherwise never have realized how naive they are and we were. When I left here with my diploma, I felt quite worldly wise and self-sufficient. Between then and now, there came many buffets over my inexperience in dealing with the everyday life of the average citizen. I would not have recalled them, had I not had close dealings with this committee. Their actions bore witness to their habit of just going along by rote, of being withdrawn in their formative years from society. As I kept questioning them, I was struck with the picture of my classmates and myself after we were sent off from here as gullible youths. There were missteps we shouldn't have made, and danger we could have overcome, had there been a tapering off of this prison life. You noted these cadets when they first came in here. They were tongue-tied, self-conscious, almost helpless. They talked without real comprehension of the dog‑eat‑dog life of a city like New York."

I wanted to tell him of what was on my mind about this  p113 same greenness, but he was pacing and facing the wall. I held my peace. He continued:

"Chief, I asked myself, why shouldn't they feel and act that way, immured as they are here normally for four years, conversing in their own language of cadet slang with a vocabulary of about a hundred words, talking occasionally in puerile phrases with young women at the hop, doing their chores in the classrooms with only a parade and study period at night to look forward to? And this regime keeps up for months and even years without a break. At one end, we boast about a cadet's truth and honesty; and at the other, we don't trust him to go out the gates of this medieval keep. I have been unable to discover the need for this combination of a cloistered monastery and walled penitentiary."

He stopped pacing and looked out the window overlooking the Hudson.

"We cause the life here," he went on, "to be so abnormally confining that on graduation day the cadet shouts, 'Never again!' with as intense relief as the prisoner down the river getting out of Sing Sing. I am not contending the life should not be Spartan, formidable, even inexorable, but we need not do the cadet the disservice of treating him as a criminal without letup, and deprive him of certain inductions into what he will have to meet when he faces the world.

"There are other bad ramifications. It is common knowledge that some cadets persistently run it out at night, despite the severe punishment for those who are caught, so overpowering is the urge for a few hours out of their cells. They go to the lengths of leaving dummies in their beds to deceive the inspecting Tac, a flagrant deception thoroughly inconsistent with the honor system. To some extent, we have forced them into these escapes. Under such unrelenting restraint, man has rebelled from time immemorial. We cannot fly in the face of human nature and banish normal freedom for unnecessarily long stretches without reaping certain types of outbreaks.

"It's a flagrant contradiction for the cadet here to be held in a vise-like honor code on the one hand and to be held in  p114 bondage largely because he can't be trusted on the other. There's been all along a fear by the authorities that he might in some way give the Academy a bad name. His freedom might lead him to burst out in all directions. So the potential criminal has to be kept in jail."

He turned on me fiercely. "Why, in the Service we give the lowest private weekend passes to go wherever he likes and to do whatever he likes, so long as his record is good. Are the cadets' record and character so bad they can't be given the same privilege?"

The questions to the wall were not questions at all, but rungs in his ladder of logic. MacArthur had about convinced MacArthur that more leaves should be granted to more cadets. At this point, he was nearing his conclusion and decision.

I had been heartily in support of such a change for years. In my heart, I had a strange mixture of cheer and fear. If the rage of the DOGs and Old Guard rose at the internal treatment of the plebe, how it would fulminate at the external freedom! I could hear the cry: "The gates have been opened. Cadets are free to do as they please. Discipline has gone to hell."

"Not only," he went on, disregarding fears like mine, "will such leaves allow a cadet to mingle freely with civilians with whom he must work later on, but yield him probably the most important liberty of all — handling his own money. During four years here, he receives a salary he never sees. Cash is only a mark in a book, and money is something in the hands of a far‑off treasurer. The cadet puts in for a razor or coat by writing his wants on a paper. Pretty soon he is handed the articles through a wicket. As the weeks and months pass, he gets the feeling all he need do is perform tolerably well in his work and Uncle Sam will forever provide.

"When he leaves here at graduation, maybe with a young bride, he soon receives the awful shock that Uncle Sam doesn't provide, that his salary has a surprising limit. Before he realizes it, he has bought all sorts of expensive articles and is uncomfortably in debt — sometimes so much that he becomes the subject of discipline.

 p115  "Coupled with this delusion about the use and value of money is a peculiar gullibility which makes him careless and an easy prey to sharpers and imprudent schemes. Why? Because through four years he has lived as an anchorite with other anchorites, walled off from the world, where every anchorite can believe and trust every other anchorite to the man, else this dishonest anchorite is expelled never to return. He gradually derives the sensation that all people are honest and he can trust anybody. At least he's generally more ready to believe than disbelieve, and has less protective armor than most people against liars and crooks."

He had paused briefly. I said, "I think I can give you an example — something that happened to me. After my graduation, my whole class went to the 'Murray Hill' in New York for their smoker that night. In the afternoon we milled around from room to room. I left my coat hanging over a chair. It had in it my wallet containing my entire equipment fund of some four hundred dollars.​a Trustingly, I went to the floor below with some classmates. That night, when I came to pay the check for the dinner, there was —"

"No wallet."

"Yes, sir, the pocket had been neatly picked."

"And you never saw the money again?"

"No, sir."

"And you had had four years of bumping against the world in college before you entered?"

"Yes, sir, and partially earned my way through. So I had known the value of money."

"And even with all that experience, your four years of monetary irresponsibility here knocked it all into a cocked hat. If they did that to you, what must they do to the young high-school lad who has been shielded and supported by his parents?"

He came close to me and leaned over, "Chief, we're going to rewrite the Blue Book [cadet regulations]. We'll erase and insert to meet the times."

Thayer's Note:

a This is a huge sum of money. Our author graduated in 1907; $400 then was the equivalent of $10,261 in 2016, according to Morgan Friedman's Inflation Calculator. The calculator at the Bureau of Labor Statistics only goes back to 1913 but confirms the ballpark figure.

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