Al Hunt's Top 10 West Point Alumni
The ghosts of historical legends are omnipresent at West Point. Few colleges have such illustrious alumni.
I spent a weekend at the United States Military Academy recently with an invaluable resource: A 500-page book titled, "West Point Leadership: Profiles of Courage." The book offers short biographies of the cadets who went on to shape the world.
Here's my list of the 10 most important Army alumni. Many are obvious, but it's subjective, so feel free to compile your own counter rankings.
1. Dwight D. Eisenhower: The 1915 graduate is one of the two West Pointers to become U.S. president. His two terms, from 1953-61, initially were seen as mediocre, though in recent years scholars are more likely to rank him more favorably, as a near-great president. He was the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe during America's most important foreign war, and organized the historic D-Day landing. At the Academy, he graduated 61st out of 164. He was on the football team, and after an injury became a cheerleader and helped coach the team. This is a well-rounded resume arguably more suited to presidential skills than the valedictorian. Today, cadets who live in Eisenhower Barracks often say they reside in "Ike."
2. Ulysses S. Grant: Grant was the other cadet to occupy the Oval Office. America's top general in the Civil War, Grant was a mediocre student in the class of 1843 -- graduating 21st out of 39. In the Civil War, Grant's success in the Western theater attracted President Abraham Lincoln to the general who would "make war." In 1864 Lincoln made Grant the Commanding General of the Union Army and over the course of the next year the Confederate Army was defeated. He was elected president in 1868 and left office in 1877 as an internationally acclaimed hero though his presidency would be judged soon after he left as a failure; recent assessments have been more generous.
3. Sylvanus Thayer: Thayer was the 33rd graduate from the Academy, receiving his diploma in 1808. More importantly, Thayer molded the United States Military Academy as the school's superintendent from 1817 to 1833. He's known as the "father of the United States Military Academy." Along with military discipline, he demanded an emphasis on academics and ethics. The Thayer statute on the Plain overlooks the parade field, and the campus's historic hotel is named for him.
4. Douglas MacArthur: This 1903 graduate was first in his class and is America's most controversial military man. His father won the Medal of Honor in the Civil War; MacArthur was awarded the same honor 80 years later. Historians still debate his performance leading the Allies in the Pacific theater during World War II, though his service as military governor of post-war Japan won universal praise. He returned to command the U.S.-led forces in the Korean War, and his bold amphibious landing at Inchon was lauded as genius. Later in the war, he was fired by President Harry Truman for demonstrable insubordination. He was superintendent of the Academy in the early 1920s, and his farewell speech at West Point in 1962, two years before his death, still brings tears. Egomaniacal, he would deem my ranking of him too low.
5. John Pershing: Pershing was the First Captain and the president of the class of 1886. He served in five wars and directed American forces in World War I, where he insisted his troops remain under U.S. command rather than join the ranks of the British and French forces. Celebrated for his successes, Pershing was given the title, "General of Armies," a rank held by only one other American: George Washington.
6. Omar Bradley: A graduate of the 1915 West Point class, often referred to as the "class the stars fell on," which produced 59 generals -- more than one third of the class achieved the rank. Eisenhower's classmate and military confidant, during World War II Bradley commanded the First Army and devised the post-Normandy invasion siege of Europe. A five-star general, he later was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Bradley was personally popular in the ranks and was known as the "soldiers' general."
7. Matthew Ridgway: The class of 1917 graduate led the 82nd Airborne division in World War II, personally jumping with his paratroopers into Normandy. When MacArthur was relieved of his duties in Korea, Ridgway was given command and credited with strengthening the American-led United Nations forces prior to the 1953 truce. In retirement he became a critic of the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War.
8. William Tecumseh Sherman: Other than Grant, this 1840 West Point graduate was the most important Union general in the Civil War. After successes at Vicksburg and elsewhere, he gained fame -- and notoriety in the South -- for his "March to the Sea" in which, after taking Atlanta, he cut confederate communication and supply lines and devastated property along his way to the coast. Many historians believe this brutal assault hastened an end to the war. This ranking won't be popular in Georgia.
9. George S. Patton: This 1909 graduate is probably more controversial than any U.S. General, save for MacArthur. A Pershing aide in World War I, afterwards he worked with Ike to champion a buildup of armored forces. In World War II he was a brilliant tank commander and boldly led the Third Army to deal crushing final blows to the Nazis. He almost lost the opportunity when he slapped two hospitalized GIs and was suspended. Unfortunately for the Germans, Eisenhower restored his command.
10. Norman Schwarzkopf: A 1956 graduate, "Stormin' Norman" served in Vietnam. But his acclaim derives from directing "Operation Desert Storm" in 1991, which after 40 days of air attacks and fewer than 100 hours of a ground assault, forced the surrender of the Iraqi Army. The Iraqi casualties were estimated at 100,000, the Americans lost 145.
There are two caveats to my list. I have omitted General Robert E. Lee, second in his 1829 class, superintendent of the Academy and a much heralded general. However in the most important decision of his life -- resigning from the American Army in 1861 to join his home state in the confederate cause -- he got it wrong.
The other caveat to my list is that it's all men; women weren't admitted to the Military Academy until 1976 and only comprise 16 percent of the Class of 2016. There are prominent women rising in the Army ranks today, and the current Captain of the Corps of Cadets at West Point is Lindsey Danilack, who plans to start piloting Apache helicopters next year.
There also are prominent Academy graduates in Washington today, including Rhode Island Senator Jack Reed; General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and General Ray Odierno, the Army Chief of Staff.
Finally, the playing fields are central to the West Point culture and an Army all-star starting five is easy to name: The great running backs, both Heisman Trophy winners on national championship squads in the World War II era, Felix "Doc" Blanchard, "Mr. Inside," and Glenn Davis, "Mr. Outside"; the other Heisman winner and Rhodes scholar, Pete Dawkins of the class of 1959; and two coaching legends, "The Colonel" Earl "Red" Blaik, who led those Heisman winners and championship teams, and Mike Krzyzewski, captain of the West Point basketball team and later head coach, whose fame derives from his decades as coach of the Duke University basketball team. First off the bench on this mythical team might be Civil War Major General Abner Doubleday -- who went on to invent the game of baseball.
(Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg View columnist. Follow him on Twitter.)