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CHAPTER FIVE - The Going Gets
CHAPTER FIVE - The Going Gets Tough
Earl "Red" Blaik - Chapter 5
The Going Gets Tough
By Hugh Wyatt
Spring practice behind him, Earl Blaik looked forward eagerly to the 1951 season. With a talented squad led by his own son, Bob, at quarterback, he believed that the 1951 team might prove to be the equal of the great Blanchard-Davis Army teams.
Then in late May, as Coach Blaik walked across campus to watch a baseball game, he ran into one of his football players, who told him that he had heard that some sort of honor code investigation was under way. He didn't think it was anything serious.
Blaik gave the conversation no further thought until shortly after ten that night, when he received a call from one of his third-class (sophomore) players. The player told him that he and several of his classmates needed to meet with Blaik; something serious had come up.
Blaik arranged to meet with the players within 15 minutes in the football film room, where he listened as, one-by-one, the young men - 12 in all - told him a chilling story.
That day - May 29 - a "tactical board" of junior officers had begun questioning cadets suspected of academic cheating. Most of the players in the film room had yet to be questioned, but it was clear to Blaik why they had contacted him - they were suspects.
The investigation itself actually had been under way since early April, when two cadets had asked to meet with the Superintendent, claiming knowledge of widespread violations of West Point's Honor Code.
The particular form of violation they referred to would seem, in retrospect, to be a predictable consequence of an almost unbelievably lax system.
For at least five years, the Corps of cadets had been divided into two regiments, both taking identical classes, but taking them on alternate days. Perhaps out of sheer laziness, instructors commonly administered identical daily tests to every section, despite the fact that they met on different days.
So long as the regiments remained separated, such a system might work. But in those situations where men from the two regiments mixed, such as the football training table, it was not unusual for those having taken today's test to discuss it with those due to take it tomorrow - a practice, it would be revealed by investigators, dating well back to the time the Corps was first divided into regiments.
At any other college, one of the most-asked of questions has always been, "what was on the test?" Students nowadays legitmately prepare for SAT's by studying questions from previous tests. Military people gather advance information and call it intelligence. Football people call it scouting.
But at West Point, where lazy instructors took advantage of the honor code by administering the same tests to all classes, it was called "cribbing" - a form of cheating.
Meeting with the Superintendent, the two cadets had reported what they knew, and to enable them to gather iron-clad evidence, they were authorized to pose as "conspirators." (Becoming "stool pigeons," Blaik later observed, was "in itself a form of conspiracy which violated the spirit of the honor code.")
Blaik knew the 12 youngsters in the film room well. He knew them to be fine young men. But as he listened to them, he also realized the seriousness of the accusations they faced. He was well aware that West Point's Honor code called for - still does - dismissal of cheaters, defined as anyone giving or receiving assistance. But it doesn't stop there. I goes even further, calling for the dismissal of anyone who has knowledge of cheating and fails to report it.
Blaik's advice to them was to play straight with the board.
After the players had left, he realized, as he recalled later, "I had been in many a tough game, but this was not a game. This was a catastrophe."
Blaik next headed for the home of the Superintendent, awakening him by throwing pebbles at his bedroom window.
Once inside, Blaik related what he had learned in his meeting with the 12 players, and urged the Superintendent to turn the investigation over to the Academic Board, rather than leaving it in the hands of young tactical officers. "This may be a catastrophe," Blaik told the Superintendent, "and it demands the most mature judgment."
The very next day, Bob Blaik and his roommate, who was president of the second (junior) class, came into the coach's office and told him that their class was involved, too - and so were they, personally.
"My God," Blaik recalled saying. "How could you? How could you?"
They explained what had happened. They said they hadn't yet been called before the tactical board, but, once called, planned to tell the board everything it wanted to know. About themselves, that is. But they would not implicate other cadets.
Blaik, only now becoming fully aware of the enormity of the situation, returned to the Superintendent with an even stronger plea to place the investigation in the hands of a more mature board made up of professors. The Superintendent took no such action.
On May 31, with graduation nearing, the first-classmen (seniors), who had been away on leave, returned to the Academy. Three of them, knowing what Blaik had told the two underclasses, came to him for advice, but for once, he gave none. "You are going to graduate next week," he told them. "Some of you are going to be married. Your parents are here. Either look to them for advice or make your own judgment."
On June 8, the tactical board concluded its investigation and submitted its report to the Superintendent. The report stated that there were 90 cadets, guilty either by their own admission or by solid evidence against them, and recommended they be dismissed.
Blaik had never been consulted. "At no time during the investigation," Blaik remembered, "was I called on to appear before the tactical board. Nor was my request granted to appear before the Academic Board. I had requested that I be permitted to place all the information in my possession before this Board. This I was never permitted to do."
(Blaik had reason to suspect a certain amount of vindictiveness - a certain anti-football bias - on the part of the tactical board: it was related to him that one officer serving on the board was overheard saying, "They probably threw the Navy game.")
Over next two months, Blaik made numerous trips to Washington, pleading with Pentagon higher-ups to reconsider the dismissals.
The Secretary of the Army, meanwhile, appointed a three-person review board, consisting of respected Judge Learned Hand, Retired General Robert Danford, and General Troy Middleton, President of Louisiana State University. The Board's purpose, according to General Middleton, was merely "to look into the cadets' handling of the inquiry. We were not to take over the investigation, but to oversee what the cadets themselves did in the case."
Questioning the thoroughness of the Hand Board, Blaik noted that it had interviewed only certain cadets hand-picked by the authorities - cadets who did not, Blaik would maintain until his death, reflect the majority opinion of the Corps.
(Clear evidence that not everyone at West Point favored dismissal was the resignation of one cadet from the Cadet Honor Board.)
But any tight-knit bureaucracy such as the army has its own stifling effect on dissenting opinions. On this matter, dissenting Cadets - and dissenting West Point graduates as well - were effectively silenced, fearing for their careers. "It is not wise," Blaik observed as a man well-acquainted with the ways of the military, "for men still in service to express public opposition to the chain-of-command point of view."
When the Hand Board's findings confirmed the tactical board's recommendation for dismissal, Blaik considered it something of a betrayal, maintaining that he had been given "strong reason" to believe that it would call for something short of expulsion.
Years later, Blaik would visit with General Middleton at Louisiana State, where he took the opportunity to ask the General why the Board had seemingly changed its mind. Middleton told him that the seniors (first-classmen) the authorities had selected for them to interview had stated that if the accused cadets were not dismissed, the entire Corps would resign!
This was ridiculous, Blaik knew, because at the time in question, nobody could possibly have claimed to speak for the entire Corps of cadets. It was summertime, and the Corps was dispersed. The first class was on leave and the second class was away; only the yearling (sophomore) class was even at the academy.
The tactical board's recommendation, ratified by the Hand Board, was passed all the way up the line for action by President Truman himself, asking for a presidential order to dismiss. Dismissal by presidential order would cover every Army man from the Chief of Staff on down, relieving them of having to make - and defend - the decision. A further safety factor for the Army brass in a presidential order is that there is no appeal from one. And an appeal - and the resultant court martial - could have resulted in much of the evidence used against the dismissed cadets being found inadmissible, and possibly the introduction of evidence embarrassing to West Point and the Army itself.
The presidential order which Truman signed called for dismissal from the Academy with an administrative discharge - somewhere between honorable and dishonorable - for each of the 90 cadets. 37 of them were football players. Many of the young men had neither given nor received information, but were guilty of having known of it and not reported it
Granted a meeting with the President to discuss the dismissals, Blaik said Truman told him that he was not satisfied with the way the matter had been handled, and that he sympathized with the boys, but it was too late for him to change anything.
(Author's note: It is embarrassing for supporters of Harry Truman, the man who had made the decision to drop the bomb on Hiroshima, the man who only months before had faced the wrath of a nation after relieving war hero Douglas MacArthur of his command in Korea, to think that he would declare himself powerless to rescind an order that originated with junior officers at the United States Military Academy. Perhaps, remembering the public outcry over MacArthur's firing, Truman decided this time to defer to the Army brass.)
Meantime, nothing had yet been publicly announced. At the Academy, the situation festered: from early July, the guilty cadets were incarcerated in barracks, kept segregated from their classmates.
The news was finally released to the world at noon EDT on Friday, August 3, timed to coincide with the announcement to Congress by the Army Chief of Staff.
The "cribbing scandal" as it came to be called, pushed the usual Korean War headlines off the front pages. One headline, in the New Orleans Times-Picayune, attempted to make light of the tragedy that had befallen the 90 young men: ARMY FOOTBALL TEAM SEVERELY PENALIZED FOR ILLEGAL PASSING.
The seniors themselves first heard of their expulsion from a radio news broadcast Friday night. Not until the next day were they officially notified by the authorities. "Apparently," Blaik noted bitterly, "no thought was given to permitting the cadets to apprise and consult with their parents before the story was released."
On Saturday, August 4, the day after the expulsions were made public, Blaik drove to New York to meet with General MacArthur, whose advice he had often sought. He told the General the whole story, wondering whether he ought to resign as coach, but MacArthur advised him, "Earl, you must stay on. Don't leave under fire."
In those first few days, Blaik received numerous letters and telegrams of support, one of the most encouraging coming from New York's Roman Catholic leader, Francis Cardinal Spellman. (For the rest of their lives, whenever the two men would meet, Cardinal Spellman would never fail to ask the coach about Bob Blaik and the other young men dismissed.)
Earlier that summer, Blaik had written a letter to the Chief of Staff that, in the event of the cadets' dismissal, would serve as Blaik's public statement to the press. So on the day the dismissals were announced, Blaik was contacted indirectly by the Chief of Staff in an attempt to gag him. Through the intervention of General Robert Eichelberger, who had hired Blaik as West Point's coach back in 1941, the Chief of Staff asked Blaik not to make any public statement on the matter.
But Blaik would not be silenced. Because of his reputation for personal integrity and honesty, he had always enjoyed excellent relations with the news media, and he was not going to take part in a cover-up. He called a press conference in New York for the following Thursday.
There, in front of a huge crowd of reporters, he gave a side of the issue unheard until then, drowned out as it had been by the accusations of cheating and special privileges for football players. Defending the young men, Blaik said it would be an indictment of West Point itself and of its leadership, if they continued to be portrayed "as no better than common criminals."
"I know them," Blaik said. "I know they are men of character. No man in Washington has the right to send them out of West Point with anything other than an honorable discharge. I consider an administrative discharge a gross injustice. My entire endeavor from now on shall be to see that these boys leave West Point with the same reputations they had when they came in."
To illustrate the sort of reputations they had brought to West Point, Blaik read from their personnel files the recommendations written by their high school principals and teachers:
"...his type of combination athlete-student crops up only occasionally..."
"...considered by many the outstanding boy ever to attend our school..."
"...one of the finest all-around boys I have ever known; an outstanding example of American youth..."
"...A very fine young man, excellent leadership qualities, very well thought of by faculty and students..."
"...He is respected for his integrity by teachers and students alike..."
"...I consider him to be the best qualified candidate for West Point who has attended our school..."
When Blaik concluded the press conference by announcing that he would not resign, as most of those present had thought he might, the reporters cheered.
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