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…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.