Douglas MacArthur and West Point

Ah, General Douglas MacArthur, perhaps the most controversial figure in American military history, except for Nathan Bedford Forrest, hailed as a military genius by some, and damned as an arrogant danger to the Republic by others, this is a beginning of a look at the man in a series of posts who biographer William Manchester deemed an American Caesar.  First up is a look at MacArthur and West Point.

As closely identified as MacArthur is with West Point it might be assumed that it was an uncomplicated relationship of adulation by him of his alma mater.  Such was not the case.  When MacArthur was a cadet, due to his being the son of a general, and also, no doubt to a fairly haughty demeanor that followed him throughout his life, he was subject to brutal hazing, the common lot of underclassmen at West Point in his day.  When Cadet Oscar Booz left the academy due to hazing and died from tuberculosis two weeks later, his physical condition having been weakened by the hazing he was subjected to, a national furor arose.  A Congressional committee was called to examine the hazing at West Point.  Cadet MacArthur was called to testify before it.  He spoke candidly about the hazing of other cadets that he had witnessed, but he minimized the hazing to which he had been subjected.  In 1903 MacArthur graduated first in his class and First Captain of the Corps of Cadets.  He had done superbly at West Point, and he had developed a love for the institution, but it was not a blind love, as he would demonstrate sixteen years later.

Fresh from a dazzling performance in World War I, in 1919, 39 year old Brigadier General Douglas MacArthur was appointed the youngest Superintendent of West Point since Sylvanus Thayer, the father of West Point, in 1817.

Morale was rock bottom at West Point.  During World War I it had been reduced to an officers candidate school with five classes graduated in two years.  MacArthur restored the four-year course.  Hazing was endemic at West Point, worse than in MacArthur’s day.  MacArthur attacked the problem of hazing by having officers rather than upper classmen train plebes.  MacArthur formed the Cadet Honor Committee to review alleged Honor Code violations.  MacArthur instituted a new summer camp at Fort Dix where the cadets were instructed on how to use modern weapons, and would march back to West Point with full field packs.  In military art classes he shifted the campaigns studied from those of the Civil War to World War I.

He greatly expanded the sports program and required all cadets to participate.  Upper classmen were allowed to travel off the post.  All cadets were given a small salary and MacArthur allowed the creation of a cadet newspaper.

As mild as these reforms seem today they were considered radical at the time, and MacArthur implemented them in the teeth of fierce opposition from the West Point academic board and West Point alumni.  After he left West Point in October of 1922, most of his reforms were reversed, only to be reinstated in later years as the wisdom of his changes became apparent.  Throughout his career MacArthur would stir opposition due to his reluctance to follow a conventional path when he believed that he had a better idea.  MacArthur always assumed that was the case!

Published in: on June 19, 2013 at 5:30 am  Comments (2)  
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  1. This is part of a cultural change that became clear in all the major armies at the end of and after WWI. The Germans, the British, the French, the Italians, all realized that they had been treating men as machines and that leadership in a modern world involves trying to get the men to understand and share the goals. Hence the pictures which became classic in WWII, of the enemies, Montgomery and Rommel, each walking among the troops, explaining in simple and clear language what they wanted them to do and why, expecting indeed to be obeyed, but not to be obeyed stupidly. Unfortunately, in the Italian army, where General (later Field-Marshal) Diaz had enacted very similar reforms in 1918, contributing mightily to final victory, Mussolini reversed the trend, going back to the notion of officers as demi-gods not to be questioned, and the result is that the Italian soldier of 1940-43 was worse treated, and performed infinitely worse, than that of 1918.

    • The American army that MacArthur joined was miniscule and the enlisted men tended to join the professional army because they had no good options in civilian life. I think MacArthur’s command of the National Guard Rainbow division in World Wa I helped him realize that the wars of the future were not going to be fought using nineteenth century command methods. Ironically as militaries become smaller in the twenty-first century I think one problem that has yet to be solved is that we are still using twenthieth century command methods.


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