Harmon was 'ideal man' for 1st superintendent

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Don Branum
  • U.S. Air Force Academy Public Affairs
Lt. Gen. Hubert Harmon is not one of the best-known names in Air Force history, but he was one of the most important, a Class of 1970 graduate and author of a book about General Harmon said during the 52nd-annual Harmon Memorial Lecture at the Academy's Arnold Hall Theater March 2.

"I think (General Harmon) is a largely forgotten figure, even here," Dr. Phillip Meilinger told an audience of about 1,500. "I guess the average cadet probably knows little about the man, other than that his name is on the building where the superintendent's office is located."

Dr. Meilinger, a retired colonel who published "Hubert R. Harmon: Airman, Officer, Father of the Air Force" in 2009, talked about General Harmon's personal and professional history, including how he came to be installed as the Academy's first superintendent and what qualified the general for the job.

General Harmon graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 1915 but quickly came to believe West Point's academic curriculum was lacking.

"The military training and academic curriculum were mired in the previous century. The curriculum was a single list of courses that all cadets took," Dr. Meilinger explained. "The classroom environment consisted of rote learning and cadets reciting their lessons for the instructor." Moreover, most of the instructors were West Point graduates who had little education beyond what they had learned at the institution.

"Harmon's entire career had convinced him that military officers needed a broad education," Dr. Meilinger said. Two tours in London had shown General Harmon the breadth of education that Royal Air Force officers received, and the general later broadened his own education by taking courses in journalism, architecture and the arts at George Washington University.

"He wanted greater emphasis on the social sciences and the humanities," Dr. Meilinger said. "He got his wish. The Air Force Academy's curriculum in 1955 consisted of 53 percent math and sciences and 47 percent humanities and social sciences."

One of many challenges facing General Harmon upon establishing the Air Force Academy was creating the Honor Code, Dr. Meilinger said. When General Harmon attended West Point in the early 20th century, no written honor code existed.

"Harmon later commented that 'Things were simple back in 1915. If a cadet overstepped the bounds, a group of his peers would get together and discuss it with him. If the group decided the man had violated his honor, he was told to leave,'" Dr. Meilinger said. "In Harmon's words, 'We took up a collection, gave the guy a hundred bucks and told him to beat it.'"

General Harmon chose the wording for the Honor Code -- "We will not lie, steal or cheat, nor tolerate among us anyone who does." Dr. Meilinger referred to the second half of the code as the Toleration Clause.

"Many youngsters were taught that they should not 'rat out' their friends, but the Toleration Clause required cadets to do precisely that: to inform on friends they saw committing an honor violation," Dr. Meilinger said. "For Harmon, the Toleration Clause was the heart of the Honor Code: it made the code self-policing."

Class of 1959 cadets readily adopted the proposed Honor Code just as they were beginning their academic classes. In 1969, the Academy added the concept of "discretion," which allowed the Honor Committee to consider possible mitigating factors -- the violator's age, the severity of the offense, whether the violation was self-reported -- when determining whether to disenroll a cadet or give the offender a second chance.

Another challenge facing General Harmon and the fledgling Academy was its athletics program.

"Harmon's stance ... was, frankly, subject to misinterpretation," Dr. Meilinger said. "He wanted quality athletes at the Academy, not only because he wanted respectable athletic teams but because his own experience convinced him that athletics nurtured qualities that were highly desirable for future officers," Dr. Meilinger said. "His career had taught him this. Recall that his two most illustrious classmates were fellow athletes (President) Dwight Eisenhower and (Gen. of the Army) Omar Bradley."

Initially, it seemed the Academy found that balance. Its 1958 football team went 9-0-2 and earned a Cotton Bowl berth, in which the Falcons fought TCU to a 0-0 tie. However, cheating scandals in 1965 and 1967 largely involved athletes, leading some to blame the scandals on a subtle overemphasis toward athletic recruitment, Dr. Meilinger said.

Cadet 2nd Class Chris Cassidy, a military history major with Cadet Squadron 08 and native of Buffalo, N.Y., said cadets talk about many of the same challenges today.

"We often talk about the Honor Code," Cadet Cassidy said. "People have different opinions on how it should be enforced."

But the most important challenge facing General Harmon, and one that the Academy continues to face, is the institution's mission, Dr. Meilinger said.

"As early as 1948, Harmon wrote that the first and most important goal for an Academy was articulating its mission statement," he said. "As superintendent, he devised a statement that will sound familiar to all of you; it is not dramatically different from the Academy's mission statement today: 'The mission of the Air Force Academy is to provide instruction, experience and motivation to each cadet so that he graduates with the knowledge and qualities of leadership essential to become a junior officer in the United States Air Force, and with a basis for continued development throughout a lifetime of service to his country, leading to a readiness for responsibility as a future air commander.'

"This is important. These words are important. But too often, we memorize them without internalizing them," Dr. Meilinger said. Faculty members base success on grades; air officers commanding on the success of military and airmanship instruction; and coaches based on team records.

"All of these are valid measures of merit, but for the Academy to be successful, much more is necessary," he said. "Ultimately, the success of the Air Force Academy must be measured by its ability to produce military commanders -- specifically, combat commanders. This is why we exist. Harmon understood that, and indeed, so did his entire generation."

Several traits made General Harmon uniquely qualified to become the Academy's first superintendent. The general was inclined toward education, having spent nine years taking college-level courses, Dr. Meilinger said. General Harmon also understood the political environment and counted President Eisenhower among his close friends.

Finally, General Harmon succeeded because he loved his people and the Academy. Dr. Meilinger recalled a tale General Harmon's wife had told about the relationship between General Harmon and his cadets.

"When (General Harmon) left the office, he had walked out onto the sidewalk, and there were two cadets walking along," Dr. Meilinger said. "When they saw him, they stopped, came to attention, popped a salute, then smiled and said, 'Hi, General Harmon!' It made his day, and it summed up his life."

Cadet Cassidy said the information about General Harmon made an impression with him.

"He looks kind of severe in portraits, but he was really admired and loved," he added.
Dr. Meilinger said the combination of respect and affection says much about General Harmon and his impact on the Academy.

"Hubert Harmon, the father of the Air Force Academy, was the ideal man for the job," he concluded.