The profiteering of the Korean War, bribery in college basketball, the fur coats and deep freezes of the Truman administration had all shaken the nation, but they all paled beside the cheating at the Military Academy.
—STEPHEN AMBROSE, Duty, Honor, Country: A History of West Point
A half century ago, in the spring of 1951, when the U.S. was at war in Korea—the troops there under the command of Gen. Douglas MacArthur—most members of the Army football team were regularly cheating on schoolwork. Some of them felt they had to, so they could stay in the academy and play for Army, which was, at this time before the NFL mattered much, the most esteemed team in all the land.
The cheating ring had been growing, becoming almost brazen. So it was that two members of the yearling (sophomore) class, Gil Reich and Ned Braun, both varsity athletes who loved West Point, learned of this activity. Reich, a starter on the football and basketball teams and an outstanding cadet—a "make" in academy parlance, someone special who had it made—discovered in his study group that a football teammate, one of his closest friends, was cheating. He agonized about what he should do, then approached his buddy. "You've put me in a difficult situation," Reich said. "You violated the Honor Code, and if I don't turn you in, then I've violated it too."
The Honor Code was comprehensive and unyielding. "A cadet will not lie, cheat or steal or tolerate those who do," it declared. "The Honor Code," wrote Col. Paul Harkins, commandant of the cadets, who reported directly to the superintendent, the academy's highest ranking officer, "is constantly dinned into the ear of every cadet from the day he enters the Academy."
Although there was no ambiguity in the code, "It's human nature to be loyal to your friend," says Reich. So he told his teammate, "If you promise you'll never do it again, I'll forget all about this." Grateful, the other cadet swore that he would stop, but Reich soon realized he was still cheating. Nevertheless, Reich could not find it within himself to do what he knew he was supposed to do—turn in his teammate.
As for Braun (which is not his real name), he was on the Army swimming team and struggling with math when another athlete, a fencer, told him he could learn beforehand what was on tests. "You don't know what's going on around here, Ned," the fencer said.
"I was living in a fool's paradise," Braun says now. Although he acted noncommittal with the fencer, "I was furious," he continues. "I was thinking, You son of a bitch. How could you do this to this place? How could you compromise West Point?
"Remember, too, this was a time when so many of our national heroes were military men. I even thought of our teachers-young captains who had risked their lives for us driving tanks across Normandy."
Even more wrenching was the fact that the previous year's graduates had been coming home dead. The West Point class of 1950, rushed to the front, was decimated in Korea. Regularly came word that autumn that another of MacArthur's finest second-lieutenant shavetails had met death retreating pell-mell from the Yalu. Just before the '50 Navy game, the Army football team had learned that its captain of the season before, John Trent, had been killed.
On April 2,1951, shattered by what he had learned from the fencer, Braun returned to his room, where he talked to his roommates. Both were appalled by the revelation, so Braun went to see an upperclassman on the Honor Committee. That cadet carried the news up the chain, to Colonel Harkins, a cold, distant officer who was known as the Ramrod. He was a polo player, always creased and snappy. Harkins took pride in going by the book, and he hated how football had come to be glorified at an academy for soldiers.