It is the oldest continuously operating Army post in the United States. And it is unquestionably the most important training ground for American military leaders.
When Thomas Jefferson set in motion the establishment of a national military academy in 1801, he did so to solve a problem. America was about to begin its westward expansion and needed to train an army of engineers. And it was armies that trained and developed the engineering talent of the day. It didn’t take long for Congress to act, passing a bill authorizing the establishment and funding of the school with the Military Peace Establishment Act.
Thus was born the United States Military Academy at West Point on March 16, 1802. No one, not even the greatest prognosticators, could have predicted the impact this single institution would have on American history — and on world history.
“Much of the history we teach was made by people we taught” is the unofficial motto of the academy’s history department. It is, if anything, an understatement. Since its birth, West Point has turned out a mere 65,000 graduates — but they have gone go on to lead American soldiers in every major American war effort.
It’s a who’s who of American military leaders, the graduates of West Point — who refer to themselves as “The Long Gray Line.” The academy has produced two presidents of the United States: Ulysses S. Grant and Dwight D. Eisenhower. And one president of the Confederate States: Jefferson Davis.
But it is in the area of military leadership that West Point’s contribution is most astounding. The United States Military Academy produced nearly all of the great Civil War generals: John Bell Hood, Stonewall Jackson, Robert E. Lee, William Tecumseh Sherman, George Armstrong Custer, and George G. Meade among them.
World War I and II were no different. Can you imagine those wars without John J. Pershing, Omar Bradley, George S. Patton, James M. Gavin, and Simon Bolivar Buckner Jr., who just happened to be the highest ranking general to be killed in combat in the Second World War?
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Can you imagine our fighting forces in the intervening years without the likes of John Abizaid, Stanley A. McChrystal, Barry McCaffrey, Norman Schwarzkopf Jr., and David Petraeus?
But West Point produces more than military leaders. The Academy boasts 18 NASA astronauts, five of whom went to the moon. Countless CEOs in America can trace their leadership roots to West Point, and some of our nation’s best athletes and leaders in sports, too, can do the same, including three Heisman Trophy winners: Glenn Davis, Doc Blanchard, and Pete Dawkins.
Great coaches, too, hailed from West Point, including Earl Blaik, under whose tutelage a young Vince Lombardi learned the game of football.
And then there’s the class of 1969 varsity basketball team captain Mike Krzyzewski — he played at West Point under the leadership of a young coach named Robert Montgomery Knight. Coach K has done his share of leading men ever since, leading his Duke Blue Devils to five NCAA championships, and a record-breaking 1,000-plus wins. He also guided the U.S. Olympic basketball team to three gold medals.
But of all of the remarkable leaders mentioned, and all of the records and achievements, no single fact about West Point is more impressive than this one: 75 graduates have been awarded the Medal of Honor. 75!
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One of them was General Douglas MacArthur. He won the Medal of Honor for his defense of the Philippines, and he graduated first in the West Point Class of 1903. Courage, it turns out, ran in the family: His father won the Medal of Honor for bravery in action, serving the Union Army in the Battle of Missionary Ridge during the Civil War. MacArthur was nominated on two other occasions for the Medal of Honor and also won three Distinguished Service Crosses, five Army Distinguished Service Medals, and an astounding seven Silver Stars.
In 1962, two years before his death, Douglas MacArthur gave one of the most beautiful speeches about all of the things that West Point teaches its young cadets. He gave the speech at, of all places, the Point itself. And about, of all things, the Point’s motto: “Duty, Honor, Country.”
He started out the speech by talking about a conversation his doorman had with him in New York City’s Waldorf Astoria, where MacArthur lived: “As I was leaving the hotel this morning, a doorman asked me, ‘Where are you bound for, General?’ And when I replied, “‘West Point,’ he remarked, ‘Beautiful place. Have you ever been there before?'”
MacArthur, it turns out, wasn’t just a graduate. He ran the place in the 1920s, serving as West Point’s superintendent. And he was now being honored with West Point’s highest recognition — the Thayer Award. He continued the speech:
This award is not intended primarily to honor a personality, but to symbolize a great moral code — the code of conduct and chivalry of those who guard this beloved land of culture and ancient descent. For all eyes and for all time, it is an expression of the ethics of the American soldier. That I should be integrated in this way with so noble an ideal arouses a sense of pride and yet of humility which will be with me always.
Then it was onto those three words, which serve as more than a motto or a mission statement. It is something much deeper. MacArthur continued:
Duty, Honor, Country: Those three hallowed words reverently dictate what you ought to be, what you can be, what you will be. They are your rallying points: to build courage when courage seems to fail; to regain faith when there seems to be little cause for faith; to create hope when hope becomes forlorn. Unhappily, I possess neither that eloquence of diction, that poetry of imagination, nor that brilliance of metaphor to tell you all that they mean.
MacArthur then scolded the cynics and critics of the West Point motto:
The unbelievers will say they are but words, but a slogan, but a flamboyant phrase. Every pedant, every demagogue, every cynic, every hypocrite, every troublemaker, and I am sorry to say, some others of an entirely different character, will try to downgrade them even to the extent of mockery and ridicule.
He then went onto describe what those words do for the men who swear to live by them:
They build your basic character. They mold you for your future roles as the custodians of the nation’s defense. They make you strong enough to know when you are weak, and brave enough to face yourself when you are afraid. They teach you to be proud and unbending in honest failure, but humble and gentle in success; not to substitute words for actions, not to seek the path of comfort, but to face the stress and spur of difficulty and challenge; to learn to stand up in the storm but to have compassion on those who fall; to master yourself before you seek to master others; to have a heart that is clean, a goal that is high; to learn to laugh, yet never forget how to weep; to reach into the future yet never neglect the past; to be serious yet never to take yourself too seriously; to be modest so that you will remember the simplicity of true greatness, the open mind of true wisdom, the meekness of true strength.
They give you a temper of the will, a quality of the imagination, a vigor of the emotions, a freshness of the deep springs of life, a temperamental predominance of courage over timidity, of an appetite for adventure over love of ease. They create in your heart the sense of wonder, the unfailing hope of what next, and the joy and inspiration of life. They teach you in this way to be an officer and a gentleman.
This remarkable speech just kept getting better, as MacArthur began to talk about military service in mystical, even religious, terms.
The soldier, above all other men, is required to practice the greatest act of religious training — sacrifice. In battle and in the face of danger and death, he discloses those divine attributes which his Maker gave when he created man in his own image. No physical courage and no brute instinct can take the place of the Divine help which alone can sustain him. However horrible the incidents of war may be, the soldier who is called upon to offer and to give his life for his country is the noblest development of mankind.
MacArthur then pointed out that the soldier, above all other people, “prays for peace, for he must suffer and bear the deepest wounds and scars of war.” He then closed this remarkable speech that bordered on the poetic with a lamentation of his own mortality:
The shadows are lengthening for me. The twilight is here. My days of old have vanished, tone and tint. They have gone glimmering through the dreams of things that were. Their memory is one of wondrous beauty, watered by tears, and coaxed and caressed by the smiles of yesterday. I listen vainly, but with thirsty ears, for the witching melody of faint bugles blowing reveille, of far drums beating the long roll. In my dreams, I hear again the crash of guns, the rattle of musketry, the strange, mournful mutter of the battlefield. But in the evening of my memory, always I come back to West Point.
If there is one speech you can read to understand the importance of this absolutely American institution that changed America — and the world — it is MacArthur’s at West Point.
There is no better way to celebrate the birthday of West Point.
And no better way to understand why it has managed to produce such remarkable graduates. Such amazing public servants.
Lee Habeeb is VP of content for Salem Radio Network and host of “Our American Stories.” He lives in Oxford, Mississippi, with his wife, Valerie, and his daughter, Reagan. This piece originally appeared in LifeZette last year and has been updated.