'E pluribus unum!'

P. J. Wingate

May 16, 1991|By P. J. Wingate

COLIN Powell and Norman Schwarzkopf have reversed an academic trend of 40 years.

That is to say, they have caused American colleges and universities to become eager, once more, to have Army generals speak at graduation exercises and receive honorary degrees -- something which has not been the case since Dwight Eisenhower, Douglas MacArthur and George Marshall were pelted with offers of honorary degrees after World War II.

Powell and Schwarzkopf have both received "two or three dozen" offers from colleges and universities, although their offices admit that no firm count has been made, and it is still not certain how many, if any, either general will find time to accept. This nonchalant attitude has been displayed rather consistently by military heroes throughout history, despite the fact that the colleges have blown both hot and cold on the subject.

George Washington got Army generals off to a good start in the matter of honorary degrees when he accepted five of them -- from Harvard, Yale, Brown, the University of Pennsylvania and Washington College in Chestertown. And while this number may seem small in comparison with the 93 honoraries awarded to Herbert Hoover, the five accepted by the father of his country represented nearly half of the nation's colleges then in existence.

The next full-blown American military hero was Andrew Jackson, whose victory over the British at New Orleans was just about as spectacular as Schwarzkopf's defeat of Saddam Hussein. Nevertheless, Old Hickory received only one honorary degree -- from Harvard -- and it created a storm of resentment and amusement that nearly cost the Harvard president his job. John Quincy Adams, a Harvard graduate, wrote in his diary that Harvard had disgraced itself by honoring "a barbarian who could not write a sentence of grammar and could scarcely spell his own name." (The barbarian had defeated Adams in his bid to be re-elected president a few years earlier.)

The amusement over Jackson's one honorary degree came from a newspaper story written by Seba Smith, working under the name of Maj. Jack Downing. Smith wrote that Jackson's diploma had been written in Latin and read to him in that same language. According to Smith/Downing, Old Hickory, obliged to reply in kind as he accepted the award, "roared out" all the Latin he knew: "E pluribus unum! Sine qua non!"

The story is probably apocryphal, but it may have been one reason Harvard and all the other colleges skipped right over the next great American military hero, Zachary Taylor, "old rough and ready." Taylor did get elected president of the United States, but died without a single honorary degree, a failure which never seemed to bother him.

Ulysses S. Grant was the next full-blown military hero, and he received two honorary degrees -- from Harvard and Bowdoin -- but he did not seem impressed by them and never mentioned them in his autobiography or other writings. The Civil War's second great military hero, William Tecumseh Sherman, received number of offers of honorary degrees but accepted only one -- from Yale in 1876, when his son, Tom, was a member of the graduating class there.

But even an honorary degree from Yale did not seem to impress the author of "War Is Hell," because he became bored during the long academic program and left the podium. When he failed to return by the time his own honor was scheduled, the Yale authorities dispatched a posse. The posse found him behind the auditorium happily talking with a black janitor while the two of them smoked cigars provided by the general.

The war with Spain produced no really great military hero, although Teddy Roosevelt later made much of his charge up San Juan Hill. Even World War I, while it made a modest hero of John Pershing, produced no one with the glamour of the heroes of World War II or Desert Storm.

Eisenhower set what is still the record for honorary degrees for Army generals, accepting 36, many of which came after he was elected president. One of these came from Washington College, where Ike charmed his hosts with his knowledge of American history and his sense of humor.

Harvard offered degrees to both Marshall and MacArthur, and while Marshall delayed accepting his for a year, MacArthur never did find it convenient to go to Cambridge to receive his in person. Since Harvard does not award honorary degrees in absentia, MacArthur never got his.

Offers of honorary degrees to military men slowed during the war in Vietnam, although Gen. William Westmoreland did receive one -- from the Citadel, a military college in his home state of South Carolina.

This drying up of honorary degree offers never seemed to bother the military, and there is no case on record of a general who wanted to be called "doctor" after he received an honorary degree. In fact, the title of general is so well liked by Army men that Ike had his golf bag labeled "General Eisenhower" after he left the presidency.

So it is likely that Powell and Schwarzkopf would rather have one extra star than a dozen or two honorary degrees.

P.J. Wingate is the author of "Before the Bridge," a book about the Maryland scene. He writes from Wilmington, Del.

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