Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Robert E. Lee at West Point

A Memo to the ‘Supe’

(Note to readers: Colleges and universities have presidents. Military units have commanders. At the nation’s service academies, the Superintendent—known colloquially as the Supe (rhymes with “soup”)—combines both functions. At my alma mater West Point, the current Superintendent, the 59th since the academy’s founding in 1802, is Lieutenant General Robert L. Caslen, USMA Class of 1975.)

Dear General Caslen:

No doubt you get plenty of unsolicited advice from crotchety Old Grads and I apologize if this missive should prove annoying. It is not my intention to add to your burdens.

I write concerning our fellow West Pointer, Robert E. Lee, Class of 1829. From 1852 to 1855, Lee preceded you, serving as the 9th Superintendent. He subsequently achieved renown while commanding the Army of Northern Virginia from June 1862 until its dissolution in April 1865.

Back in my own cadet days during the now-distant 1960s, I readily imbibed the line that assigned Lee a place of prominence among West Point’s most illustrious and revered graduates. He had, after all, graduated near the top of his class, served with distinction in the Mexican War, and during the Civil War won a series of spectacular victories against the larger and better equipped (but ineptly led) Army of the Potomac.

As a compliant young Catholic, I had learned to recite a Litany of the Saints, soliciting the favor of Joseph and John, Peter and Paul, Andrew and James, and so on, all the way to Cosmas and Damian. As a compliant young cadet, I had embraced a secular equivalent, a litany that included Grant and Lee, Pershing and MacArthur, Eisenhower and Patton, Omar Bradley and Matthew Ridgway. No one in that hierarchy of honor and accomplishment outshone Robert E. Lee.

That the West Point campus (in our lingo, the “post”) should, therefore, feature a Lee Gate, Lee Road, Lee Hall, and Lee Barracks seemed not only unobjectionable but entirely appropriate. So too with various Lee portraits on prominent display in the Cadet Mess, the Supe’s quarters, and elsewhere. As for the Robert E. Lee Memorial Award for excellence in mathematics, my only complaint was that I never came within a mile of winning it.

Lee embodied the values that West Point seeks to inculcate in its graduates: Duty, Honor, and Country. So I was taught and so I believed.

It is my fate to be a quick study and a slow learner. Not until I was in my thirties, therefore, did I begin to wonder how it was that West Point should elevate to the status of role model a serving officer who had abandoned his country in its time of maximum need.

My complaint about Lee—I admit this to my everlasting shame—was not that he was a slaveholder who in joining the Confederacy fought to preserve slavery. It was that he had thereby engineered the killing of many thousands of American patriots who (whatever their views on slavery and race) wished simply to preserve the Union. At the beginning of the Civil War, Lee famously remarked that he could not bring himself to take up arms against his home state of Virginia. This obliged him to take up arms against the very nation that as a serving officer he had sworn to defend?

No less than Benedict Arnold, Robert E. Lee was a traitor. This became, and remains, my firm conviction.

As a result of recent events in Charlottesville, our fellow graduate has now returned to the limelight. General Lee has suddenly become a controversial figure. Proponents of white supremacy venerate his memory and the cause for which he fought. Others are keen to banish Lee (or at least his image in granite or marble) from public view. In this dispute, little space for compromise exists.

I’m guessing that you are already reflecting on what all of this might mean for West Point, where Lee remains an inescapable presence. If not, you ought to. Indeed, for the academy’s sake, you need to get in front of this controversy. That requires preemptive action. Don’t wait for the proponents of changing political fashion to come after you, especially given the fact that their case is unimpeachable.

Here’s my suggestion: Keep the portraits. Nobody looks at them anyway. Truth to tell, the standards for having your image hanging on a wall at West Point are not terribly high. The Supe who presided over my graduation in 1969 was Samuel Koster, soon thereafter reduced in rank and forced into retirement for his role in covering up the My Lai massacre Yet Koster’s portrait remains in Washington Hall alongside the rest of your predecessors.

Elsewhere, however, quietly expunge Lee’s name from gates, roads, halls, barracks, and awards handed out to cadets. To put the matter kindly, he doesn’t deserve the recognition. As with General Koster, there’s no way to excise Lee from the Academy’s history. That he should occupy a place of honor in the Long Gray Line is something of an obscenity, however.

Far better, it seems to me, to remember West Pointers who do exemplify Duty, Honor, and Country. That said, please suppress any inclination to replace Lee Gate with David Petraeus Gate or Lee Road with Raymond Odierno Road. You get the picture: Enough with memorializing generals.

It’s time to honor lieutenants and captains. Consider, for example, the graduates who have given their lives in the preposterous and utterly thankless wars that our nation has waged since 9/11. Far better than Robert E. Lee—far better than the various generals who have presided over those wars without achieving success—they model the values to which West Pointers should adhere. Don’t you agree?


Andrew J. Bacevich
Class of 1969

P.S.: Just one more thing. According to press reports, you were on the short list of candidates interviewed to serve as President Trump’s national security adviser. Congratulations on having dodged that bullet!