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Sea Change at AnnapolisThe United States Naval Academy, 1949-2000$

H. Michael Gelfand

Print publication date: 2006

Print ISBN-13: 9780807830475

Published to North Carolina Scholarship Online: September 2014

DOI: 10.5149/9780807877470_gelfand

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(p.213) Conclusion
Sea Change at Annapolis

H. Michael Gelfand

University of North Carolina Press

Abstract and Keywords

This book outlines the transformations that have taken place at the Naval Academy between 1949 and 2000. It describes how the Academy embraced some of the changes, such as the use of popular media for recruitment, and how it struggled with other changes, such as the integration of minority and women within the Brigade of Midshipmen. After several protests or resistance by midshipmen as exemplified by the Anderson v. Laird case, Academy officials became more open minded and were able to lead the Academy through changes in the institution's culture.

Keywords:   Naval Academy, popular media, minority, women, Brigade of Midshipmen, Anderson v. Laird

When plebes stand in the corridors of Bancroft Hall and in the course of daily announcements recite, “Time, tide, and formation wait for no one,” they are not just politely telling the upperclassmen to hurry up. They are inadvertently proclaiming a fundamental truth: change is inevitable and forthcoming. This book has outlined changes that the Naval Academy underwent between 1949 and 2000. The Academy embraced some of the changes, such as the use of television for recruitment, and has struggled with other changes, such as the full and complete integration of women within the Brigade of Midshipmen. Some members of the Academy community were convinced that changes, such as the adoption of the Honor Concept, would not only positively alter life at USNA but would become crucial components of the institution's culture. They were correct. Other members of the community argued that some changes, including the arrival of minorities and women and the end of mandatory chapel attendance, would quickly deliver the Academy “to hell in a handbasket,” irretrievably ruining USNA culture for all time.1 They were incorrect. One of the Academy's great strengths, ultimately, is its ability to adapt to changes, whether sparked by the federal government, the American public, or members of its own community, and to continue to meet its mission.

However, the Academy's adaptation to some issues has not been complete. It is quite easy to look at the current Academy recruiting and admissions process, for example, and be impressed by the intense devotion of recruiters, Admissions Board members, and Naval Academy Preparatory School staff to the goal of bringing the highest caliber youth to Annapolis. Similarly, any cursory observation of the role of USNA chaplains and their relationships with many midshipmen indicates the fundamental spirituality of those midshipmen (p.214) even when attendance at religious services is not required. At the same time, it is quite apparent that issues related to gender and race have not been fully resolved. As has been the case with U.S. society at large, many Americans remain unwilling to accept the fundamental equality and capabilities of persons who are not white, Protestant, and male. It is clear that all midshipmen, due to the disciplined military tenor of the Annapolis environment, feel pressure and tension. As Superintendent James Calvert explained in 1972, that type of stress is part of the midshipmen's training and development and is deliberate.2 But when midshipmen who are African American or female face constant racial or gender isolation five decades after the graduation of the first African American midshipman and three decades after the arrival of the first female midshipmen, it becomes clear that the Naval Academy is falling short of its own ideals and of society's democratic expectations.

The spring 2000 Forrestal Lecture by Secretary of the Navy Richard Danzig is a revealing case in point. Danzig spoke of how the Navy itself had changed over the course of the twentieth century and distributed to the Brigade a photograph of a 1949 ship's crew. The black sailors, rather than standing in ranked order as did the rest of the crew, stood behind everyone else. Danzig's point was to suggest that midshipmen should exercise moral courage in dealing with the changes they were likely to face during their careers. After Danzig's remarks, a midshipman stood and asked, “Sir, after hearing you speak about the importance of morality over discrimination of race and gender, what are your views on gays in the military, and their place in the Navy?” The midshipman touched on a subject with which the Academy has fundamentally not dealt, but Danzig responded,

My own view about this is that it is really much more an issue for society at large than it is an issue for the military. It's a problem in the military whenever the military gets very far from society at large. We can be a little ahead of it, or a little bit behind it, in the evolution of an issue, but the military isn't essentially a testing ground for a variety of propositions about social existence. It needs to be reflective of the consensus in that society. I think the problem on the issue about gays is that society hasn't reached that consensus. It's going through a variety of kinds of transitions, and difficulties, and arguments back and forth. My own sense is that this issue will continue to do that, and that it will get resolved—as I think it should appropriately get resolved—in Congress over these years. In the end, the military itself and its viewpoints about these things shouldn't be so much a (p.215) driver of the issue as a follower of that larger societal consensus. That's my view, in a nutshell.3

The secretary, while formulating his comments in a forthright and well-versed manner, overlooked the fact that midshipman Wesley Brown was accepted to and attended the Naval Academy before President Harry Truman integrated the United States armed forces and graduated five years before the Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education decision and over a decade before equal opportunity legislation. Most serious social change in the United States has occurred as the direct result of action by the federal government, not society's sudden acceptance of groups previously discriminated against. Had the Navy waited for society to form a consensus on the equality of African Americans, as Danzig suggested the military should do in the case of gay Americans, ships' crews may well have remained segregated for decades.

Even when it has not been ahead of the curve in terms of bringing about substantial changes, the Naval Academy's leaders have committed to implementing changes as the federal government has mandated them. As both Anderson v. Laird and the integration of women into the Brigade of Midshipmen demonstrate, after a period of resistance, administrators fulfilled their charge and obligation to lead the Academy through fundamental alterations in the institution's culture. Alumnus John Bodnar has noted that

Changes in military culture parallel changes in American culture in a curious way because the military is simultaneously one of the most conservative and most progressive cultures in America. It is conservative because those who choose to make the military a career are upholders of traditional values and are usually politically conservative. On the other hand, the military is progressive because once the Commander in Chief or Congress decides by policy or by law that any of those values need to change, the military is usually the first to implement those changes. When a significant change in social values has enough popular support to cause a change in law, the military will go through a period of upheaval in which the most progressive social values are implemented in an organization led by some of its most conservative individuals.4

What has happened after the “periods of upheaval,” however, has been inconsistent. After the Washington, D.C., Federal Appeals Court rendered its decision in the Anderson v. Laird case, for example, there was little for the Academy (p.216) to do other than cancel mandatory chapel attendance. Midshipmen, of their own volition, sought out religious and spiritual guidance and comfort. Yet, after the initial attempts to increase minority enrollment and to integrate female midshipmen, the Academy's administrators largely ceased to concern themselves with those issues; the various groups were at Annapolis, so what remained to be done?

This is not to suggest that USNA officials never addressed the issues of race and gender again. As specific incidents have arisen, and as USNA has complied with Navy and Defense Department sexual harassment and equal opportunity regulations, Academy leaders have in fact dealt with such topics. However, the Academy's culture, like American culture at large, remains one that permits the existence of differing personal opinions. As a result, racist and sexist attitudes, behaviors, and postures continue at the Academy in spite of training and instructional efforts to eliminate them. Unlike the USNA zero-tolerance policy on drugs, the presence of which can be physically tested, it is virtually impossible to police midshipmen's attitudes and difficult to police attitudinal-based actions in Bancroft Hall. After several years of training in character and integrity development, which has frequently focused on issues related to minorities and women, unenlightened attitudes persist. Some midshipmen have argued that the Academy's constant harping on these topics has a cumulatively detrimental impact on the midshipmen's willingness to accept the precepts being promoted.

A seemingly obvious method of demonstrating the capabilities of minorities and women would be to assign more of them to powerful high-profile positions at the Academy. However, as USNA leaders are quick to point out, the dearth of such individuals makes them highly desirable in a multitude of Navy and Marine Corps positions. Few women or minorities have served in the Academy's highest administrative positions, including superintendent, and only in June 2005 did an African American, Bruce Groom, assume the position of commandant, the second-highest rank at USNA. One remedy has been to bring successful female and minority officers to the Academy to address and interact with the midshipmen. Two cases demonstrate, however, the limits of this approach. In 1999, one of the Academy's most successful female graduates, astronaut Wendy Lawrence, returned to Annapolis to speak before a combined group of midshipmen and cadets from other service academies. Beyond the primary conferees, the remaining audience members were midshipmen whose professors had “suggested” they attend the address. Many midshipmen slept, read, or did homework, although Lawrence imparted the enlightening message that part of what helped her to achieve (p.217) astronaut status was the behavior of “individuals who, along the way, did not make being female an issue for me.”5 Also in 1999, astronaut Charles Bolden, among the most accomplished minority alumni of the Naval Academy, spoke before the Midshipmen Black Studies Club for Black History Month. The audience was made up almost exclusively of minority midshipmen, and so the majority of the Brigade was not present to hear the general's counsel on an extraordinary variety of topics, including his charge to “make a difference. You can't solve the problems of the world, but you can make a difference in the world.”6 Academy administrators missed the chance to invite such notable alumni as Lawrence and Bolden to deliver its prestigious Forrestal Lecture, and the entire Brigade of Midshipmen thus lost the opportunity to learn from two highly accomplished alumni, one of whom happened to be female and another African American.

A somewhat larger group of midshipmen assembled in 1999 for an address by former Army helicopter pilot Hugh Thompson. In a moving speech, Thompson recounted how he landed his helicopter in a remote Vietnam village and, after standing up to a superior officer, brought an end to what historians now refer to as the My Lai massacre. He told the midshipmen that “the lesson I want to give to you is to do the right thing, to make the right decision. You are responsible for every decision you make.”7 Similarly, Admiral William Mack's remarks on the Anderson v. Laird case bear reconsideration. When asked if he regretted the involvement of the American Civil Liberties Union in the case, Admiral Mack replied that “that was one of my regrets, why did we not have the moral courage to do this ourselves rather than have it forced on us by the courts. That was terrible. That's what I was saying while I was in the Defense Department. I was told, no, we're going to [fight to keep mandatory chapel], you make the argument and we'll fight it. I said, why do you fight it, we'd be better off to do it of our own volition, but I was told to fight it so I had to fight it, not with good grace, I must admit.”8 Thompson and Mack speak to an ideal of leadership, commitment, and personal obligation: to do what is right. Not only do these accounts provide midshipmen with an ideal for their own careers, but they can serve equally as a guide for Naval Academy administrators who are in a position to utilize their leadership to create an environment in which the unequivocal acceptance of all midshipmen will prevail.

In addition to the fundamental truth of the inevitability of change, another constant is the remarkable character of the individuals who make up the Naval Academy community. As the previous chapters have shown, some of the men who have served as superintendent and commandant have done so with verve (p.218) and a keen desire to set a leadership example for the midshipmen. Whether it was Harry Hill's inspirational speeches to the Brigade, Robert Coogan's willingness to listen to midshipmen, William Lawrence's supportive words during athletic practices, Leon Edney's playful dressing up as a detective during football pep rallies, or James Calvert's determination to steer the Academy through the troubled late–Vietnam War era, the Academy's administrators have frequently served as fitting role models in the Annapolis “leadership laboratory.”9 Taken as a whole, the superintendents and commandants between 1949 and 2000 represent an astonishing variety of leadership styles, talents, and approaches for leading the institution and educating and training midshipmen. The solid commitment of the entire USNA staff—including coaches, faculty, librarians, and mess hall workers—has been a vital component of the administrations' successes.

Yet it is the midshipmen themselves who remain the center of Naval Academy culture and the most notable component of the Annapolis community. Characterized by a dichotomous yin/yang of cynicism and activism, drawn to both conformity and individualism, midshipmen represent a fascinating and diverse group of youth from around the United States who opt to spend their college experience in one of the most challenging and yet inspirational environments in American higher education. They are equally comfortable strumming their guitars on the sea wall rocks as they are marching in formation on the parade ground or stroking in synchronicity in their shells on the Severn River. While the Brigade members can impress even a pundit with their exceptional military bearing and their marching, the ultimate embodiment of personal control and commitment, they also readily enjoy the sordid tales of the LOG's “Salty Sam,” the melodramatic mockery of Academy life in Eighth Wing Players skits, and the quick quips of WRNV disc jockeys. These humorous actions are perhaps not surprising among midshipmen living under the rigors of Brigade life, yet they fail to reflect how the same midshipmen, while gazing from the balconies of Bancroft Hall's lighted rotunda, can find inspiration in the great Navy and Marine Corps leaders who crossed the marble floors before them or in Oliver Hazard Perry's Battle of Lake Erie flag with its emphatic message, “Don't give up the ship.”

The U.S. Naval Academy's culture was transformed, along with that of American society as a whole, between 1949 and 2000. When the public began to embrace television for its entertainment, USNA used television as the forum for its recruiting. When Americans decided to permit minorities and women to play a fuller role as citizens, minorities and women came to Annapolis as midshipmen. When college students began to question governmental (p.219) and institutional authority, midshipmen challenged required religious services and demonstrated activism by expressing their opinions on a variety of topics important to them. These factors fundamentally altered the Academy and its culture, but the commitment of administrators and staff to educate and train midshipmen and the midshipmen's determination to challenge themselves and to succeed have remained constant. This book has shown what the U.S. Naval Academy was in the past, described what it is today, and offers ideas about what it can become in the future as it continues to meet its mission to prepare leaders for the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Marine Corps. (p.220)


(1) Reminiscences of Rear Admiral John F. Davidson, 363.

(2) James Calvert to Parents, 21 May 1972, CR, Sec. 5400/19, Folder “1972.”

(3) “Edited Remarks as Delivered by The Honorable Richard Danzig, Secretary of the Navy, Forrestal Lecture Series, U.S. Naval Academy, Annapolis, Maryland, 17 April 2000,” USNW (〈www.chinfo.navy.mil/navpalib/people/secnav/speeches/forrestal0417.html〉, 30 June 2000), 9. For commentary on homosexuality and homoeroticism at USNA, see Fleming, Annapolis Autumn, 131, 147–50, 272.

(4) John Bodnar, “How Long Does It Take to Change a Culture?: Integration at the U.S. Naval Academy,” Armed Forces and Society 25, no. 2 (Winter 1999): 290.

(5) Wendy Lawrence, Address before the Combined Service Academy Study Group, USNA, Annapolis, Md., 19 Oct. 1999.

(6) Charles Bolden, Address before the Black Midshipmen Study Group, USNA, Annapolis, Md., 9 Feb. 1999.

(7) Hugh Thompson, Address before Midshipmen Enrolled in Ethics Courses, USNA, Annapolis, Md., 8 Apr. 1999.

(8) Reminiscences of Vice Admiral William P. Mack, 814.

(9) “Leadership laboratory” is a common term that members of the Academy community utilize to describe USNA's role in educating midshipmen and then allowing them to develop their leadership skills.