June 12, 1919: The arrival of Douglas MacArthur as Supe

By Sherman Fleek USMA Historian

June 13th, 2019 | News, News and Features
 A photo of Douglas MacArthur near the end of the Great War, World War I. MacArthur would soon come to West Point to become the superintendent in 1919 to bring the U.S. Military Academy into the 20th century. As superintendent from 1919-22, despite the challenges, his reforms, ideas and vision brought the academy back on course to produce leaders of character to the Army, especially the next generation that became important to winning World  War II.  Courtesy Photo

The Centennial of the Great War was recognized and commemorated during the last two years with the grand finale of the re-dedication of Pershing Barracks at West Point.
It was a great moment to remember both the man, General of the Armies John J. Pershing, USMA Class of 1886, and the Great War that the United States entered rather late to help the Allies defeat the Central Powers led by Imperial Germany.
As celebratory as this local event was last fall, few people  associated with the U.S. Military Academy today realize the utter chaos and confusion that permeated the academic halls, cadet barracks and the general community of West Point in November 1918, that continued through the spring of 1919.
In roughly 18 months, April 1917 to November 1918, the War Department in Washington D.C., ordered the accelerated graduation of five classes and a change of the four-year curriculum to two years. The U.S. Army on the Western Front needed officers to lead and command the citizen soldiers, mostly draftees and National Guardsmen, some four million in total with half that number serving in France.
The accelerated graduations may seem reckless today to graduate several classes early, but it happened in the early spring of 1861 as the secession crisis turned to war; two classes graduated that year, May 1861 and June 1861. Yet, the class of plebes who arrived in the summer of 1917, that traditionally would have graduated in 1921, did in fact graduate and were  commissioned on Nov. 1, 1918, only 18 months later.
The superintendent during the war was Col. Samuel Tillman, USMA Class of 1869, who was 70 years old when the War Department recalled him out of retirement. Tillman did his best, but Congress cut the curriculum to two years and under-funded much of the academy’s programs and training.
Groups of cadets reported between June and November causing more confusion for study schedules and class groupings. Also, the two classes that finished on Nov. 1, 1918, the later class that arrived in June 1917, remained behind to take more instruction as commissioned officers/students. By June 1919, when the new superintendent was to report, the academy was in shambles.
West Point was at one of its lowest points in its long and proud history. Not only was the war time disruption a critical problem, but the academy itself, the curriculum, environment, the austere discipline and the entrenched traditions had caused the school to develop a paternalistic and monastic regimen that caused it to fall behind other institutions of higher learning. In other words, West Point was mired in the past.
The disorder caused by the World War and the stagnation needed a major reform, “a resuscitation,” to breathe life and hope back into the academy and resurrect the poor morale of all assigned. This mission would require a special leader, a West Pointer with the vision and clarity to reform, instill a positive spirit and to lead entrenched department heads who were ensconced in their scholarly chairs for decades to a new culture.
The officer chosen to bring West Point into the 20th century was Douglas MacArthur, USMA Class of 1903. On June 12, 1919, it will be a century to the day that he assumed the office as 31st superintendent of the U.S. Military Academy.
MacArthur was top graduate in his class of 1903 and also served as First Captain. He served as superintendent for only three years, 1919 to 1922, but those three years rocked the academy though, as the previous two years during World War I had nearly destroyed it.
For a graduate of only 16 years earlier and the youngest general officer in the Army, MacArthur would face tremendous challenges, namely, from professors who taught him as a cadet. Lance Betros, former head of USMA Department of History, in his seminal book “Carved from Granite,” listed briefly many of MacArthur’s reforms, ideas, his vision and ended by saying, “These heady accomplishments, any one of which would have stood out by itself, represented a body of reform unprecedented since (Sylvanus) Thayer.”
On that June day in 1919, Brig Gen. MacArthur’s first command decision he made was to challenge a long-held tradition of a parade by the Corps of Cadets in his honor as the newly appointed superintendent. MacArthur cancelled the parade.
MacArthur returned from the war in Europe in May 1919, after a year and a half of combat on the Western Front. His entire perspective on training, leadership and especially West Point’s educational and training programs had changed. Army Chief of Staff Gen. Peyton March told him that his mission was to reform the academy because it was “40 years behind the times.” MacArthur often referred to the culture and institution as “the monastery on the Hudson.”
One of the first major tasks that Gen. MacArthur faced was to convince the War Department and Congress to restore the four-year curriculum. The chaos and uncertainty of class organizations, courses changed and dropped, curriculum was a huge morale problem for West Point during these years for the cadets and the faculty. It required a leader with vision, stamina and political finesse to win the day. By time the new cadets of the class of 1924 arrived, the four-year program had been restored.
The reforms Douglas MacArthur instituted were across all the domains of the academy.
The uncertainty caused by the changes during the war may have assisted MacArthur in his quest to improve the academy in all areas—the Four Pillars of today. MacArthur met with other college leaders and developed some ideas. First, he sent newly-assigned instructor officers to graduate school before their arrival to teach.
He also saw the value in the academy receiving accreditation for the newly re-established curriculum and to present formal baccalaureate degrees in science, not just a diploma. He added modern history, economics and government courses. Seeing the importance of air power early-on, MacArthur established aeronautics classes for specialized training of future aviators.
From his experience in the Great War where he saw many American soldiers who were physically weak, MacArthur established the slogan “Every Cadet an Athlete.” This meant that every cadet would be involved in some type of athletic program or team.
This birthed the intramural program for most cadets and many played on intercollegiate sports teams. Intercollegiate sports had greater emphasis than ever before. Summer training, or “Beast Barracks” completely changed with commissioned officers, not cadets, conducting the training on campus.
The upperclassmen trained at Camp Dix for several weeks in modern warfare with tanks, machine guns and aircraft as combined arms tactics. Also, Tactical offices were moved into the barracks for closer supervision over the Corps. MacArthur encouraged some interaction between enlisted soldiers and cadets, so the cadets could adjust to the men they would soon lead.
MacArthur sought to treat the cadets as future officers and leaders and not as objects of abuse and sub-human derision. He liberalized privileges with passes and weekly allowances of a few dollars, so cadets could learn responsibility and leave the “monastery” at times to gain an appreciation of the outside world. But, he also demanded strict attention to values that instilled the proper character, namely honor. He established the cadet run Honor System and nearly ended hazing.
Of course, these reforms were met with great resistance especially from the long-serving academic board members—the heads of departments. Some of MacArthur’s reforms were reversed after his departure such as plebe and summer training returned to the Plain. But most of them survived and are still vibrant with the modern school.
MacArthur’s three years as superintendent set a standard of reform and vision for others to follow during the next century. Perhaps William Ganoe, USMA Class of 1907, and MacArthur’s chief of staff said it best, “if Sylvanus Thayer was the Father of the Military Academy, then MacArthur was its savior.”