Last year, the Virginia Military Institute (VMI) in Lexington, Virginia, came under scrutiny for alleged acts of racial discrimination against black members of the corps of cadets. The controversy began with an article in the Washington Post, which was followed by a call by the governor of Virginia for an official state investigation into racism at VMI. Under pressure, VMI’s superintendent, who is equivalent to a college president, resigned and was replaced by a temporary superintendent, who is black. Pending the outcome of the state’s investigation, the school removed a statue of Confederate hero Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson from the parade ground in front of barracks, where it had stood for many decades.
The controversy raises interesting questions regarding independence, discrimination, state financial support of colleges and universities, and the concept of freedom. The controversy has particular interest for me because I graduated from VMI in 1972.
One of the things that surprised me when I got to VMI was how important the Civil War was to many of the students, especially those from Virginia. They knew all about the war. And having had stories about the war passed on from one generation to the next, they were deeply passionate about it. One of the most popular classes at VMI was a two-semester course on the Civil War in the history department.
VMI is an unusual place. Today, almost 50 years after I graduated, I still have mixed feelings about the school. I received a great liberal arts education, for which I am still very grateful. It enabled me to get into the University of Texas law school, one of the best in the country.
VMI also taught me the importance of honor, for which I shall always be grateful. VMI arguably has the strictest student honor code in the country. It’s run entirely by the cadet corps. We elected the members of the honor court, and they had the full authority to accuse cadets of honor violations, put them on trial, and evict them from the school. From the very first day I arrived at VMI and continually thereafter, it was emphasized that no cadet would lie, cheat, or steal or tolerate those who did. The honor code is a centerpiece of life at the Institute.
It was the military side of VMI about which I still have misgivings. Of course, that was several years before I discovered libertarianism, a philosophy based on individualism, liberty, free markets, and limited government, all of which are opposite to the highly regimented, controlled, and regulated way of life that comes with a military structure.
Whenever people ask me about my four years at VMI, I tell them that I learned what it’s like to live in a harsh socialist and totalitarian system. That type of education, ironically, is invaluable for a libertarian because it actually helps to inculcate a deep love and passion for liberty. At VMI, we were awakened and put to bed at set hours. We assembled in military form for all meals and then marched to the mess hall, singing cadence songs in the process. Daily life was strictly regulated, monitored, and controlled. We all were required to wear uniforms, even when we went into Lexington, the small town in which VMI is located. We were not permitted to have cars before our senior year. We had a Marine Corps superintendent who apparently believed that cadet life should be modeled after boot camp at Paris Island. Justice by the VMI administration, if you can call it that, was usually arbitrary and capricious.
I survived VMI’s harsh military environment, but I wasn’t enamored with it. Many cadets responded positively to the highly regimented and controlled environment and even ended up making the military their career. Others were like me — grateful for the education but all too ready to escape the military environment upon graduation.
Founded in 1839, VMI’s mission is to educate and train “citizen-soldiers,” men who will graduate and return to civilian life but who are trained in warfare and are expected to come voluntarily to the assistance of their country in times of peril. It is, of course, a mission that is entirely consistent with the libertarian philosophy and also with the limited-government, anti–standing-army system on which the United States was founded and that remained in existence until after World War II, when the federal government was converted into an all-powerful national-security state consisting of the Pentagon, the CIA, and the NSA.
When I was at VMI, the Vietnam War was in full swing and I fully expected to be sent there. Luckily, the war was winding down by the time I graduated and so I ended up spending eight years in the Reserves as an infantry officer. During my four years at VMI, the VMI administration aligned itself with the U.S. national-security establishment and its intervention in Vietnam. Thus, when an increasing number of cadets began turning against the war in 1969–1971, including me, administration officials frowned upon us as being “unpatriotic.”
Today there is a plaque on barracks listing VMI cadets who “died in service to the nation” in Vietnam from 1961 to 1975. That’s standard Pentagon-CIA propaganda. The truth is that the more than 58,00 U.S. soldiers who died in Vietnam, many of whom were conscripted (i.e., forced to “serve”), died serving their government, not their nation. Or to put it another way, they died for nothing.
There is another plaque on barracks that states that VMI cadets died in the 2003 war in Iraq as part of the U.S. government’s “global war on terror.” That’s sheer nonsense too. The truth is that the U.S. government’s war on Iraq, a Third World nation that never invaded the United States, was an unprovoked war of aggression, a type of war that was declared a war crime at Nuremberg.
Moreover, the concept of a “global war on terror” itself is nonsensical and has proven more destructive to the liberties and well-being of our nation than even the national-security establishment’s Cold War “global war on communism.”
It is unfortunate that the VMI administration still does not understand these basic truths about what former General and President Dwight Eisenhower called the “military-industrial complex” and its policy of foreign wars, foreign interventions, and an empire of foreign military bases.
The rooms in which VMI cadets lived in barracks were exceedingly small. In my freshman year, there were five of us living in one room. We each had a cot and a desk. Each morning, we were required to roll up our mattress and stack the frame of the cot against the wall, which enabled people to have more room to walk around.
One of my four roommates was black. It was the first year that VMI had admitted blacks into the school. I was told that the school was operating under orders or pressure from the federal government. There were five blacks admitted that year. From what I know, there was never any incidence of racial bigotry or discrimination against any of them. On the contrary, everyone got along extremely well. Three graduated. One left after our sophomore year. Unfortunately, the black cadet in our room drowned in an accident the summer after our freshman year.
At the time, VMI was an all-male school. That was normal for Virginia, which was filled with men’s schools and women’s schools. VMI and the women’s schools would often co-host formal balls with each other.
Several years ago, VMI encountered another demand from the federal government. This time, the demand was to admit women into the school. The controversy became heated, not only among VMI officials but also among VMI alumni. I have no way to measure the reaction among the alumni, but if I had to bet, I’d say that most preferred keeping the school all-male.
The question naturally arises: What business does the federal government or the Virginia state government have interfering with VMI’s operations?
In a purely educational sense, no business at all. It’s none of the federal government’s or state government’s business how a college or university operates or conducts its business. In a genuinely free society, people run their lives and their enterprises any way they want, so long as they don’t initiate force or fraud against other people.
That includes the right to discriminate on any basis — race, color, creed, sex, national origin, or anything else. The free society is a society that recognizes and honors the principle of freedom of association, which necessarily entails the right to discriminate against others.
In a free society, people are nudged toward moral behavior through such things as loss of customers or social ostracism rather than through the force of the state. That’s very likely what would have ultimately pressured VMI into admitting blacks into the school. Nonetheless, if the school had steadfastly resisted such pressure and chosen to remain an all-white school, that was its right under the principle of freedom of association.
We have become so accustomed to the federal government’s integration laws that people naturally think that integration would never have happened without federal intervention. That’s pure balderdash. Ask yourself: Why did southern states enact segregation laws in the first place? If everyone in the state of Alabama was a racial bigot, why would the bigots need a law requiring people to segregate? The reason the bigots needed segregation laws was that people were integrating naturally.
Thus, all that should have been done is to repeal segregation laws, which would have preserved the principle of freedom of association while, at the same time, nudging society toward racial integration and harmony.
Of course, it goes without saying that we are talking here about private discrimination. Never should government itself be permitted to discriminate against people on the basis of race, color, creed, sex, or national origin.
The principle is the same with respect to all-male and all-female schools. In a genuinely free society, people are free to establish and attend schools that limit registration to men or to women. My hunch is that given that there is little stigma attached to all-male and all-female schools, VMI would have remained an all-male school had the federal government not forced it to admit women.
The principle is also the same with respect to the statue of Stonewall Jackson on VMI’s parade ground that the VMI administration recently removed. That statue was there long before I was there 50 years ago. Freshman cadets were required to salute the statue on the way out of Jackson Arch, the main arch in VMI’s “old barracks,” where the cadets sleep. Within the arch was inscribed the following quotation by Jackson, which had a profound effect on me: “You may be whatever you resolve to be.” Will state officials now order VMI to remove that quotation as well?
Heck, why not just burn VMI down again, which is what the feds did during the Civil War? After all, isn’t every vestige of the Confederacy expected to be eradicated to show how enlightened people are today?
Virginia’s governor, Ralph Northam, has been leading the charge to conduct an official state investigation into allegations of racism at VMI. Ironically, he too is a VMI graduate. After he was elected governor, someone disclosed a photo of what appeared to be Northam in blackface while attending graduate school. It was then discovered that under Northam’s photograph in the VMI yearbook, the name “Coonman” appeared. Northam was almost pressured out of office but he survived the controversy. His charge against VMI for alleged racial bigotry now has the appearance of trying to redeem himself by showing how enlightened he has become.
In a free society, VMI would be free to keep Stonewall Jackson’s statue on its parade ground. It would also be free to continue commemorating the deaths of the cadets killed at the Battle of New Market, a Civil War battle that took place in 1864 about 70 miles north of the Institute. The battle had reached a stalemate when the VMI cadet corps was called into service. In what angered the feds then and undoubtedly continues to anger them today, the VMI cadets, displaying tremendous courage, ended the stalemate and routed the Yankee forces, causing them to flee the battlefield in fear and humiliation.
What’s wrong with celebrating that military defeat of the Yankee forces? What’s wrong with celebrating the military genius of Stonewall Jackson, who was a military professor at VMI? What’s wrong with remembering Jackson’s famous line at the battle of Chancellorsville when he saw VMI men all around him: “The Institute will be heard from today”?
After all, if people don’t like VMI’s honoring Jackson and commemorating the battle of New Market, they can choose to go to school elsewhere. Anyway, didn’t Gen. George Patton and don’t military historians pay homage to Erwin Rommel for his military genius and prowess, notwithstanding the fact that he was serving the Nazi regime? Don’t military experts do the same with Võ Nguyên Giáp, the North Vietnamese military strategist responsible for defeating both France and the United States in the Vietnam War?
There are those who say that to celebrate and commemorate Confederate war heroes and their military strategies constitutes a defense and support of slavery of the South. That’s pure nonsense. For one thing, the Civil War was never about freeing the slaves. That may have been the outcome, but it wasn’t the aim of the war. Abraham Lincoln himself made that clear at the very outset of the war.
The war was about secession. Did the Confederacy have the right to leave the Union or not? That, not ending slavery, was why Lincoln had his army invade Virginia and wage war against the South.
In other words, if the Confederacy had declared an end to slavery at the moment it seceded, Lincoln would still have invaded the South. It was secession, not slavery, that motivated him to wage his war.
There is no doubt that some people in the South were fighting to preserve slavery. But most of them were fighting for their country, for at that time people considered their respective states to be their country. That’s why, for example, Robert E. Lee refused Lincoln’s request to command the Northern forces and instead, in an act of deep patriotism, returned to Virginia to command the Army of Northern Virginia. It’s also why Supreme Court Justice John Archibald Campbell resigned his lifetime appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court to return to the South to fight against Lincoln’s war of aggression.
Indeed, if Lincoln’s war was aimed at freeing the slaves, then why was his Emancipation Proclamation limited to freeing only some of them? The truth is that it was only after Lincoln had seen the horrible death, suffering, and destruction that his war had unleashed that he decided to use it as an opportunity to end slavery. In that way, he could rationalize the horror he had unleashed by claiming that the war was about ending slavery rather than the more ignoble goal of preventing the South’s secession.
Indeed, is it inappropriate to point out that Lincoln believed that blacks were inferior to whites and that he felt that it would be better to simply “send them back to Africa”?
We also shouldn’t forget about the war crimes that Lincoln, Ulysses Grant, and William Sherman committed in the course of their war to prevent secession. There was, of course, their burning down of VMI to punish the school for defeating and humiliating the Northern forces at New Market. But their war crimes were much worse than that. They also waged a brutal war against women, children, and seniors in the South, burning their homes and crops and destroying their livestock in the hope of killing them and thereby demoralizing their husbands, brothers, and fathers who were fighting the war.
If defenders of the right of the South to secede are to be charged with supporting slavery, then why not charge supporters of Lincoln’s war with supporting war crimes and, for that matter, with supporting Lincoln’s shameful destruction of civil liberty when he suspended habeas corpus, which is the linchpin of a free society, and monetary liberty when he enacted a legal-tender law?
I don’t know whether current VMI cadets have engaged in racial bigotry or whether the VMI administration has knowingly permitted an environment of racial bigotry to exist. I just know that it’s VMI, not the state of Virginia or the federal government, that bears the responsibility for rectifying any wrongs that are taking place at the school.
So why doesn’t VMI simply tell Northam to butt out of its affairs? Two reasons: one, VMI is a state-owned school and, two, VMI receives tax-funded subsidies from the state. It doesn’t have to be that way. The state could divest itself of ownership of VMI and let it go private, and VMI could cease being on the state dole.
We have become so accustomed to state-supported colleges and universities that many people now blind themselves to the highly immoral nature of such tax-funded subsidies. When the state government gives money to a school, it must first secure that money from people. It does that through the force of taxation.
Why shouldn’t VMI and other colleges and universities be required to make it on their own, through tuitions and voluntary donations? VMI might respond, “We couldn’t survive that way because people wouldn’t donate enough to keep us going.”
But doesn’t that just demonstrate the immoral nature of what is taking place? If people refuse to donate enough money to VMI, VMI’s response is to use the state to take their money from them. Thus the dark irony is that while the VMI corps of cadets has a strict honor code that prohibits stealing, the VMI administration, like other state-supported colleges and universities, is engaged in an act of political stealing to fund its operations.
Moreover, it is not at all certain that VMI would go under if it went entirely private. Consider Hillsdale College in Michigan. To maintain its independence from both state and federal control, Hillsdale takes no government funds and will not even permit its students to take government grants. Not only is it totally independent of government control, it is also very prosperous, thanks largely to donations from its supporters.
That’s what VMI should still do. If it fails to survive, so be it. But at least it would be taking the high road — the moral road that is devoid of political stealing — the road of independence from governmental control over the school.
For their part, the people of Virginia should lead the nation out of this statist morass by ending state subsidies for all of Virginia’s colleges and universities.
This article will appear in the April 2021 edition of Future of Freedom.