Lt. Joseph Collins, director of national security courses, recalled that students used to practically chant dogmatic answers about Soviet authoritarianism. "Now so much is up for grabs, all we can do is equip them with theoretical tools, keep up with current events and hope they can think their way through it all," he said.
At a social science class about developing nations, an instructor told upperclassmen recently about how Third World countries had manipulated U.S.-Soviet rivalries for economic aid. Now, the Third World will be less able to win such help, said Ron McMullen, a visiting teacher who is a State Department officer. "The world has changed since you were plebes," he declared.
Such geopolitical shifts prompted Matt Blitch, who also graduates this spring, to sign up for a light infantry division at Ft. Ord in Northern California, which he believes will increase his chances of serving in a Latin American or Asian conflict. He decided against an assignment in Germany.
"Personally for me, it's easier to motivate men if you can say you might go to war one day," the 21-year-old from Tustin said during an interview in a formal reception room filled with portraits of famous alumni like Dwight D. Eisenhower and MacArthur. "In Germany, it'd be harder to say, 'You guys need to do this because we may be going to war right here.' It's harder because there is no threat anymore in Germany."
Just after the Vietnam War, West Point was supplying about 8% of new Army officers, compared to the current 24%, a new study by the congressional General Accounting Office (GAO) suggests. To roll back the officer stream from West Point, the GAO says, enrollment might have to be limited to 2,500 cadets, a 40% drop from today.
The relatively high proportion of academy graduates in the officer corps is partly due to reforms at the schools that have lowered attrition rates, GAO officials say. Although some alumni think those changes equaled the fall of Saigon, the admission of women 15 years ago reportedly helped humanize the academy, as did the elimination two years ago of the most onerous plebe rules at West Point. New cadets no longer must remain silent during meals or walk robot-like in 90-degree angles around any obstacle, even sneakers on the floor. Upperclassman no longer can scream in a plebe's face for petty violations.
With its 10% enrollment cut under way, West Point must trim $16 million from its current $250-million annual operating budget by 1995. But U.S. Sen. John Glenn, the Ohio Democrat who is chairman of the Senate Armed Services subcommittee that oversees academies, said in a telephone interview that he would strongly oppose any larger drop in enrollments.
"We cannot keep an artificially large military. But at the same time we are going to need a really professional army and no doubt, on the average, the most professional people come from the academy," said Glenn, a former Marine officer and astronaut, who did not attend an academy but came up the ranks via a Navy pilot school.
Ironically, talk of cuts comes as the academy is experiencing a surge in applicants, a contrast to the years of the unpopular Vietnam War and cheating scandals in the '70s. Initial applications for the Class of 1996 now total 13,641, about 1,500 more than last year and reportedly the third-highest in history, according to Col. Pierce Rushton, admissions director.
Officials attribute the rise in part to the success of the Gulf War--which was led by 1956 West Point alumnus and former instructor Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf. In addition, a free college education, a stipend for books and uniforms and a guaranteed job after graduation look good to some young people during a recession.
Despite the upturn in applicants, West Point leaders are concerned that some excellent students might not apply if Army careers are perceived to be as shaky as jobs in the American auto industry.
By tradition, academy graduates automatically become second lieutenants, or its equivalent, with regular Army, Navy, Marine Corps or Air Force commissions. In general, that meant they were on paths for long military careers. As a result of congressional action, academy graduates starting with the class of 1997 will be on active duty with reserve status commissions. That means they must compete with Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) graduates from civilian colleges for the more secure regular commissions needed for 20- or 30-year careers.
The commission change partly reflects longstanding national concerns that the academies may foster undemocratic cronyism. Some founding fathers strongly opposed a professional military school, saying that a people's army in reserve best served a republic. Throughout today's Army, officers who came up through the ranks grumble about an alleged "West Point Protective Assn.," a supposed Old-Boy Network that dominates high command. West Pointers deny that such a network exists.