West Point: America’s Power Fraternity
Defeated: Inside America’s Military Machine
On the table at which I write is a small silver mug with a square handle; it is inscribed to Eugene L. Vidal, Jr., October 3, 1925—a gift from the West Point football team to its mascot, which that year was not a mule but me. I drank milk from the cup for a good many years and from the look of the rim did a bit of teething on it, too.
I have no early memory of West Point. Apparently I was born in the cadet hospital on a Saturday morning because my mother had decided to stay on the post and go to a football game. I was delivered not by an obstetrician but by one Major Snyder who happened to be officer of the day at the cadet hospital. Later, as Surgeon General of the Army, he looked after President Eisenhower (“Just indigestion, Mamie,” he was reported to have said when she rang him in the middle of the night with news of the Great Golfer’s first tussle with the Reaper. “Give him some bicarbonate”). More than thirty years later I visited General Snyder at his office in the basement of the White House. He recalled my birth; was still angry at my mother for not having gone to a civilian hospital; was most protective of his old friend the President. “Though South German peasant. There’s nothing at all wrong with him, you know, except this really nasty temper. That’s what’ll kill him.” Then the inevitable question, “Why didn’t you go to the Point?” A member of a West Point family had chosen not to join the Long Gray Line. Something wrong there.
At the time of my birth Eugene L. Vidal, Sr. was known as Gene Vidal to the world of jocks—and to just about everybody else in the country, for in those days college athletes were like rock stars (Scott Fitzgerald’s apostrophe to Princeton’s Hobe Baker is plainly tribute to a god). Class of 1918 at West Point, G.V. was an All-American quarterback; he is still regarded as the best all-around athlete in the history of the Academy, moving with equal ease from track to basketball to football to rugby (learned in one afternoon); a master of every sport except the one invented by Abner Doubleday (West Point 1842). “Baseball is the favorite American sport because it’s so slow,” G.V. used to say. “Any idiot can follow it. And just about any idiot can play it.” After graduation, he came back to the Point as football coach; he was also the first instructor in aeronautics.
Shortly after I was born, G.V. resigned from the army (he found it boring) and went into civil aviation. But as with most West Pointers of his generation the links between him and the Academy proved to be unbreakable. Although his disposition was ironic, his style deflationary, his eye for the idiocies of the military sharp, he took some pride in being not only a part of the history of the Point but also a sort of icon for those graduates who came to prominence in the Second War.
The Eisenhowers, Groveses, Stratemeyers, Ridgways, and Maxwells created the American empire; they also gave us the peace-time draft, a garrison state, and the current military debacle in Southeast Asia. With the best will in the world (and with the blessing of their civilian masters to whom the cold war was good business), these paladins have in the quarter century since Hiroshima wasted lives and money while treating with contempt the institutions of the republic. Now the game is changing—the army, too. Currently the West Pointers are fighting for a permanent draft. Otherwise, they tell us, we will have an “unrepresentative” (i.e., black) military establishment. But these same officers never objected to the prewar army, which was redneck and every bit as unrepresentative of the nation—that is to say, every bit as dumb as the coming black army because nobody smart (black or white) is going to be an enlisted man in the American army if he can help it.
I was less than a year old when my parents moved into the Washington house of my mother’s father, Senator T. P. Gore (where I was put to bed in a bureau drawer). Like a number of high-powered cadets Gene Vidal was hypergamous. Yet, as a boy growing up in Madison, South Dakota, he was not particularly ambitious, as far as one can tell—which is not much: he had no memory for the past, his own or that of the family. He was so vague, in fact, that he was not certain if his middle initial “L.” stood for Louis, as he put on my birth certificate, or for Luther. It was Luther. At fourteen I settled the confusion by taking my grandfather’s name Gore.
As it turned out, the congressman from South Dakota was ambitious enough for two; after watching G. V. play football at the University of South Dakota, the congressman said, “How would you like an appointment to West Point?” “And where,” answered my father with his usual charm and inability to dissemble, “is West Point? And what is there?” He was promptly appointed; thus ended his dream of becoming a barber because barbers seemed to have a lot of free time. Apparently in a town like Madison there was no one very interesting to emulate. Certainly G. V.’s father Felix was no model. Felix had been an engineer on whatever railroad it is that goes through South Dakota; for reasons unknown, he got off at Madison one day and went into the coal business.
Felix’s father had been born in Feldkirch, Austria, of Romansh stock (descendants of the Roman legionnaires who settled Raetia in the first century). A hypergamous adventurer and phony MD, Eugen Fidel Vidal married Emma von Traxler Hartmann of Lucerne, Switzerland—an heiress until she married him and got herself disinherited. “A real countess,” my aunt used to say with wonder. In 1848 the unhappy couple came to Wisconsin where the Grafin was promptly deserted by her husband. She brought up five children by translating American news stories for German, French, and Italian newspapers. She had every reason to be bitter; and was bitter. I go into all this family history because it has a good deal to do with the kind of men who went to West Point in those days.
Athlete. Lapsed Roman Catholic. The meager prairie background, somewhat confused by a family tradition of exciting wars (the Traxlers and Hartmanns had been professional soldiers for several hundred years). Then West Point and the companionship of men like himself. In the class three years ahead of G. V. were Bradley and Eisen-hower (Ike was known as the “Swedish Jew”—my father as “Tony the Wop”); while in the class of 1918 were Mark Clark, Leslie Groves, and Lucius Clay (who once persuaded me to write a speech for his friend President Eisenhower on the virtues—if any—of integration: the speech was not delivered). Among those my father taught was the grand architect of our empire’s Syracusan adventure in Southeast Asia, the Alcibiades of counterinsurgency, Maxwell Taylor.
These men had a good deal in common even before they were put into the pressure cooker on the Hudson. Most came from rural backgrounds; from lower-middle-class families; certainly they were not representative of the country’s ruling class: in this century our nobles have not encouraged their sons to go to West Point. There were also no blacks at the Academy and few, if any, Jews or Roman Catholics. West Point was a very special sort of place.
According to K. Bruce Galloway and Robert Bowie Johnson, Jr. (West Point: America’s Power Fraternity), “The Military Academy offers an ideology, not an education, and because of this and the uniform, the graduates find themselves annointed with access to America’s ruling elite.” The authors take a dark view of the Academy and its graduates, and they tend to see conspiracy where there is often only coincidence. For instance:
By 1933 President Roosevelt had created the position of Director of Aeronautics … and appointed Eugene L. Vidal (W.P. 1918) as first director. Vidal had to deal immediately with the controversy over the place of aviation in—where else?—military affairs. He survived that problem, only to be faced with the airmail scandals of 1933 and 1934. … In the years following, West Point control of civil aeronautics lapsed only temporarily.
Actually, it was civil not military aviation that pushed for my father’s appointment, while the decision for the army to fly the mail was Roosevelt’s. After a series of aerial disasters, Roosevelt turned to my father one evening and said, “Well, brother Vidal, we seemed to’ve made a mistake.” Ever a good (if sardonic) soldier, G.V. took the rap for the President. “I liked that ‘we’ he used.”
Galloway and Johnson would be more nearly right if they simply said that all West Pointers tend to look out for one another. In 1943 (aged seventeen) I enlisted as a private in the army and was assigned to a much-publicized Training Program, which promptly collapsed. Aware that I was about to be shunted off to an infantry outfit that was soon to contribute a number of half-trained eighteen-year-olds to be butchered on the Rhine, I signaled to the nonexistent but very real West Point Protective Association. I was promptly transferred to the Air Force. I do not in the least regret this use of privilege and would do it again; but privilege comes from the Latin words meaning “private law,” and even in a would-be canting democracy like ours there ought to be only public laws.
Duty, Honor, Country. That is the motto of West Point. It is curious that no one until recently seems to have made much of the ominous precedence that makes the nation the third loyalty of our military elite. Duty comes first. But duty to what? Galloway and Johnson are plain: the officer class. Or as a veteran instructor at the Point puts it, “In my system of values West Point comes first, the Army second, and the country comes third.”
Honor. Galloway and Johnson are particularly interesting on the origins of West Point’s honor system. The Academy’s true founding father, Sylvanus Thayer, was a passionate admirer of Bonaparte; he also found good things in the Prussian system. Although the United States did not seem to have much need for an officer caste when he took charge of the Academy in 1817 (of course the British had burned down Washington a few years earlier but that sort of thing doesn’t happen very often), Thayer set about creating a four-year hell for the young men sent to him from all over the country. They were kept constantly busy; treated like robots; given an honor system which, simply put, required them to spy on one another, to police one another.