Academies, Service

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Academies, Service OverviewU.S. Military AcademyU.S. Naval AcademyU.S. Air Force AcademyU.S. Coast Guard Academy
Academies, Service: Overview The primary function of the military service academies is to educate and train professional officers for the nation's standing armed forces.

With the development of modern standing armies and more complex military technology, the modern military academy originated in Western Europe in the eighteenth century, established by royal governments to train younger sons of the nobility or veterans as line officers. Other academies trained middle‐class officers for the technical services: artillery, military engineering, and logistics. In the nineteenth century, preparation of naval officers shifted to shore‐based naval academies, and in the twentieth century, air force academies were established.

Unlike those in some other nations, U.S. service academies are not narrowly vocational, but offer a broad education in the liberal arts and sciences, as well as engineering, management, and the military sciences, while emphasizing, of course, leadership, duty, responsibility, and loyalty. The requirements for admission are similar to those of other undergraduate schools, although the academies stress physical ability, character, and leadership potential.

Appointments to the service academies (except for the Coast Guard Academy) are made by members of Congress, a requirement designed to ensure a representative geographical distribution of the officer corps. In return for the government‐provided college education, the newly commissioned graduates are required to serve five years of active duty.

From the early republic, some Americans partly viewed national military academies and the regular officer corps as potential aristocratic threats to democracy. Consequently, Congress has periodically adopted measures to ensure the representativeness of the academies and the officer corps. For example, blacks were admitted to West Point beginning in the 1870s (although only in token numbers at first); women were admitted to all the service academies beginning in the 1970s.

The officer corps in the United States is prepared at public and private military academies (the latter including such state‐supported institutions as Virginia Military Institute and The Citadel in South Carolina) as well as at Officer Candidate School and in the campus‐based Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC). However, although only a minority of U.S. military officers graduate from service academies, their connections, training in military technology, and leadership qualities have promoted their careers, including selection for positions of high command.
[See also Education, Military; Leadership, Concepts of Military.]

John Whiteclay Chambers II

Academies, Service: U.S. Military Academy The U.S. Military Academy (USMA) at West Point, New York, located fifty miles north of New York City on the west bank of the Hudson River, originated as a Revolutionary War fortress. After the war it became a military stores depot. George Washington, however, advocated a military academy to train professional officers, and Thomas Jefferson saw an academy as a way to create a “republican” officer corps. On 16 March 1802, Jefferson signed the act establishing a military academy at West Point, the first American school of engineering.

West Point's existence remained tenuous until Sylvanus Thayer arrived as superintendent in 1817. Thayer studied European military academies after the War of 1812 and modeled USMA on the French Ecole Polytechnique. Under Thayer, the “Father of the Military Academy,” West Point became the nation's premier school for civil engineering. Thayer established a four‐year curriculum and annual examinations. The books he secured in Europe became America's first technical library. His insistence upon strict discipline, integrity, small classes, and daily recitations placed the burden for learning upon cadets. Thayer's “system,” copied throughout the United States, survives at West Point today.

West Point was criticized by many during its early years as being wasteful and aristocratic. Alden Partridge, an 1807 graduate and later superintendent, became an unrelenting critic of both USMA and Thayer, who had replaced him. Instead, Partridge advocated regional military schools like Norwich, which he founded after leaving the army. Other critics included Congressman Davy Crockett of Tennessee, who claimed that West Point taught undemocratic values and was too expensive. Fortunately, West Point enjoyed support from other influential Americans, including President Andrew Jackson, who declared it to be “the best school in the world.”

The critics were mostly silenced by the performance of the academy's graduates. When American expansion demanded engineers for internal improvements, West Point provided them. Most railroad lines built before the Civil War involved academy graduates. Others mapped new territory, and supervised roadbuilding, canal construction, and harbor improvements. However, West Pointers mainly achieved fame in battle, beginning with the Mexican War, where junior officers like Robert E. Lee, Ulysses S. Grant, and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson practiced what they had studied under Professor Dennis Hart Mahan, a disciple of the Swiss war philosopher, Antoine Henri Jomini.

Despite its superintendents' efforts, including those of Lee, the growing rift between North and South disrupted West Point life. When the Civil War began, most Southern cadets resigned and most Southern alumni sided with their native region. West Point graduates dominated in the Civil War, commanding both sides in fifty‐five of the sixty major battles and one side or the other in the other five. West Pointer Jefferson Davis served as president of the Confederacy; the contesting armies were commanded by the likes of Lee, “Stonewall” Jackson, Joseph E. Johnston, Grant, William Tecumseh Sherman, Philip H. Sheridan, George B. McClellan, and George Gordon Meade.

West Point stagnated after the Civil War, as the army was reduced to frontier constabulary duties. But America's colonial expansion after the Spanish‐American War and entry in World War I returned USMA graduates to prominence. Col. George W. Goethals supervised the building of the Panama Canal. John J. Pershing led the American Expeditionary Force in France and Chief of Staff Peyton C. March mobilized and trained the army. March also revitalized the academy by appointing Douglas MacArthur superintendent in 1919. MacArthur introduced curricular and other reforms, liberalizing USMA's course of study for the first time in a century and insisting upon every cadet being an athlete.

The Reserve Officer Training Corps and Officer Candidate Schools bolstered the army's officer corps in World War II, but West Point continued to furnish many of the highest ranking officers for the army and air force. Four of the five men promoted to five‐star General of the Army rank—MacArthur, Dwight D. Eisenhower, “Hap” Arnold, and Omar Bradley—were West Pointers. Over 85 percent of living West Point graduates served in the armed forces during World War II, 10 percent as general officers, including George S. Patton, Joseph Stilwell, and Mark Clark.

The advent of nuclear weapons and the Cold War limited warfare in scope and resources. Difficult conflicts tested West Pointers MacArthur, Matthew B. Ridgway, and Maxwell Taylor in Korea, and William C. Westmoreland and Creighton Abrams in Vietnam. These experiences also changed the academy's curriculum, broadening cadets' education in humanities. Reform superintendents, like Taylor and Garrison Davidson, pointed to military governors such as Lucius Clay in Germany and Douglas MacArthur in Japan to justify requiring more history, languages, economics, political science, and international relations. A 1960s building program supported doubling the Corps of Cadets, to over 4,000.

Although Henry O. Flipper, the first black graduate of West Point, graduated in 1877, black cadets were not treated well generally and only three African Americans graduated from West Point before 1941. These attitudes began to change following the integration of the armed forces after World War II, and minority recruitment increased significantly in the 1960s. After much controversy, USMA also admitted its first women cadets in 1976. Since the end of the Cold War, graduates have participated in expeditionary warfare, as in the Persian Gulf War, where Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf commanded Coalition Forces against Iraq.

The U.S. Military Academy's mission remains essentially as in 1802: to provide leaders of character, imbued with the academy's motto, “Duty, Honor, Country,” to serve the common defense. In 1994, the academy produced its 50,000th graduate.
[See also African Americans in the Military; Education, Military; Leadership, Concepts of Military; Women in the Military.]


Stephen E. Ambrose , Duty, Honor, Country: A History of West Point, 1966.
Dave Richard Palmer , The River and the Rock, 1969.
John P. Lovell , Neither Athens Nor Sparta? The American Service Academies in Transition, 1979.
James L. Morrison, Jr. , The Best School in the World, 1986.
Theodore J. Crackel , The Illustrated History of West Point, 1991.
George S. Pappas , To The Point: The United States Military Academy, 1802–1902, 1993.

Steven C. Gravlin

Academies, Service: U.S. Naval Academy The U.S. Naval Academy is a four‐year undergraduate institution whose mission is to educate and train officers for the U.S. Navy and U.S. Marine Corps. The academy was founded in 1845 by Secretary of the Navy George Bancroft. He overcame years of congressional opposition to a naval school by transferring Fort Severn, an old army post on the banks of the Severn River in Annapolis, Maryland, to the navy for a naval school. Earlier, American naval officers were trained on shipboard by schoolmasters or chaplains, but the inefficiency of this system led to appeals for a naval school ashore. The Naval School opened 10 October 1845 with fifty‐six midshipmen and seven faculty members under the direction of the first superintendent, Franklin Buchanan. Five years later, with a new four‐year curriculum, summer cruises, and major improvements to the physical plant, the school became known as the U.S. Naval Academy.

Over its 152‐year history, the U.S. Naval Academy has expanded from the original 10 acres and antiquated buildings of Fort Severn to a modern, 338‐acre campus designed by Ernest Flagg in 1894. His French Renaissance buildings, including Bancroft Hall and the Naval Academy Chapel, were completed early in the century, but complemented in the 1960s by the addition of three classroom buildings, the Nimitz Library, Halsey Auditorium, and recently a Brigade Activity Center.

The Naval Academy program is supervised by a board of visitors and administered by an academic board composed of the superintendent, commandant, academic dean, and division directors. Once called “naval cadets,” since 1902 students have been referred to as “midshipmen,” a name originating in the days of sail. A need for more junior officers just prior to World War I prompted expansion of the student body to a regiment of 1,240 men. Today, the Brigade of Midshipmen numbers about 4,600, including women, who were first admitted in 1976 and now comprise about 10 percent of each class. Three African Americans entered the academy in the 1870s, but the first to graduate was Wesley A. Brown, Class of 1949. The number of minorities was increased from 9 midshipmen in 1965 to 178 by 1974; today, minority midshipmen compose about a fifth of each entering class.

Applicants to the academy must qualify scholastically, physically, and medically, and obtain an executive nomination. Once admitted, midshipmen are educated at government expense in a four‐year program taught by a civilian‐military faculty. In the 1960s, Superintendents Charles C. Kirkpatrick and James F. Calvert expanded the core curriculum with the Trident Scholar independent study program, elective majors, and more professional courses. Midshipmen are under military discipline and are bound by the honor concept, which states: “A Midshipman may not lie, cheat, or steal.”

Athletics, first encouraged as intramurals by Adm. David Dixon Porter, superintendent after the Civil War, remain important to the academy program, and all midshipmen are required to participate in year‐round sports. A navy football team was organized in 1882 and played the first Army‐Navy football game at West Point on 29 November 1890. Blue and gold colors were chosen in 1893 and a navy team mascot, Bill the Goat, was first adopted by Commandant of Cadets Cmdr. Colby M. Chester (Class of 1864) in 1890.

U.S. Naval Academy graduates are awarded a bachelor of science degree, first given in 1933, and commissioned as ensigns in the U.S. Navy or as second lieutenants in the U.S. Marine Corps. Because their education is paid for by the government, they are required to serve five years on active duty following graduation. Although the academy provides only a fraction of the navy's officers, many senior naval officers have been or are Annapolis graduates. Distinguished graduates include Admirals George Dewey and William Sampson; Fleet Admirals Ernest J. King, Chester Nimitz, and William F. Halsey; Nobel Prize winner Albert Michelson; historian Alfred T. Mahan; inventor Bradley Fiske; Adm. Arleigh Burke; and President Jimmy Carter.
[See also Education, Military; Leadership, Concepts of Military.]


Jack Sweetman , The U.S. Naval Academy: An Illustrated History, 1979. United States Naval Academy Catalogue, 1988–89.

Barbara Brooks Tomblin

Academies, Service: U.S. Air Force Academy In 1947, when the Air Force was established as a separate service, the question of how to educate potential career Air Force officers was one which followed immediately. It seemed to Air Force leaders that since there was a clear distinction between the challenges of an Army career and an Air Force career, it was also important to create a distinct education process for an Air Force officer. In 1948 the Stearns‐Eisenhower Board, studying military education, recommended the creation of a separate Air Force Academy, but not until the Korean War was over was legislation for an Academy presented in Congress. On April 1, 1954, President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who had been an early supporter of the idea, signed the bill that created the academy.

Colorado Springs, Colorado, was chosen as the academy's home. Availability of land and water, a supportive community, an aesthetic environment, weather, flying conditions and real estate value were important factors considered. While the new institution was being constructed, the Class of 1959 began their Academy education at Lowry Air Force Base in Denver, moving to the permanent site for their final year.

Much planning went into the curriculum of the institution, and many of the principles behind a West Point education were adapted at the Air Force Academy. A military faculty was deemed important, as well as a core curriculum providing a strong concentration in the sciences. An introduction to flying was considered crucial. Development of character, intellectual and physical development, and professional military development form the basis of an Air Force Academy education; the second lieutenant graduated by the Academy is expected to meet demanding standards in each of these areas.

In 1965 Congressional action increased the size of the cadet wing to 4400, almost doubling it. In 1976 the first women entered the cadet wing; their numbers have steadily increased in the succeeding decades.
[See also Academies, Service: Overview; Air Force, U.S.: Overview.]


John P. Lovell , Neither Athens Nor Sparta? The American Service Academies in Transition, 1979.
George V. Fagan , The Air Force Academy: An Illustrated History, 1988.

Elizabeth A. Muenger

Academies, Service: U.S. Coast Guard Academy The U.S. Coast Guard Academy located in New London, Connecticut, was founded in 1876. It educates young men and women for a career as Coast Guard officers. Admission is based upon academic competition without congressional appointment. In the 1995–96 school year 862 cadets were enrolled. The student body included 24 percent women, 21 percent minorities.

The curriculum is designed to meet the needs of the service. In addition to teaching professional skills, providing practical seagoing experience, and ensuring that cadets learn integrity, maritime law, and the importance of public service, the curriculum provides humanistic, scientific, and technical knowledge. An emphasis on interactive learning assures that tomorrow's graduates will have the analytical skills needed to cope with a changing international maritime world.

The faculty consists of a mix of permanently assigned commissioned officers, rotating officers, and civilians. They provide a stable base of academic excellence and continuous interaction with the operational Coast Guard.

Cadets concentrate in one of eight majors (civil, electrical, mechanical, or marine engineering; government; management; operations research; or marine science) and graduate with a bachelor of science degree and a commission as an ensign in the U.S. Coast Guard.
[See also Coast Guard, U.S.; Coast Guard Reserve.]


Paul Johnson and and Bill Earle , U.S. Coast Guard Academy, The Bulletin, Centennial Issue (1976).
Irving H. King , The Coast Guard Expands, 1865–1915, 1996.

Irving H. King

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