Michael Henderson Starz

   Cadet Captain, USMA


Post Office Box 3587

United States Corps of Cadets

West Point, New York 10997

Phone (914) 515-1831


Email: x02131@exmail.usma.army.mil



The Non-Toleration Clause: The Bedrock of the USMA Honor Code


To sin by silence when they should protest makes cowards out of men.

 - Abraham Lincoln


I.  Introduction.


            Professional responsibility is an essential trait in the profession of arms, and therefore each service academy should focus great energies on developing it in their graduating cadets and midshipmen.  One universal method of developing professional responsibility in the service academies is the implementation of an honor code.  All service academies have an Honor Code or Honor Concept that forbids lying, cheating, and stealing.  However, through a fourth tenet, the United States Air Force Academy (USAFA) and the United States Military Academy (USMA) also mandate that their cadets do not tolerate such actions in others.  If one truly believes in the value of the first three prohibitions, then one ought to believe that the rest of the members of their Academy ought to hold these standards as well. 

The non-toleration clause asserts that, as professionals, we must enforce standards of ethical behavior in our fellow cadets.  An Honor Code without this clause is ineffective because it puts the onus on the officers and staff to enforce the three prohibitions rather than on the cadets or midshipmen of the Academy.  I will argue that this reduces the legitimacy and effectiveness of the code, as measured by its capacity to produce men and women of character.  This paper presents the development of the USMA Honor System and argues for the importance of the inclusion of a non-toleration clause and the implications of not having one.

People motivated to follow rules only because of an external sanction come to see the rules as something to follow only when the sanction is present.[1]  For someone to develop character, he or she must come to see such rules as a partial description of the kind of person he or she should become.  Thus, if the code is to have the greatest chance of being internalized, then the inclusion of a non-toleration clause is essential. 

Important in our discussion of honor is to understand West Point’s definition and framework for viewing “honor” and the history and evolution of the Honor System at West Point.  The USMA Honor Committee publication entitled Honor System and SOP defines honor as “the quintessential virtue marked by a fundamental understanding of and commitment to integrity, dignity, and social responsibility, manifested in behaviors which conform to the standards of honesty, sincerity, respect and corporate regulation.”[2] The following statements provide the essence of how West Point perceives and assists in developing a deeper sense of honor in the Corps of Cadets[3]:

·      Honor is the quintessential value of members of the profession of arms.

·      Character, of which one’s honor is the foundation, is a developmental process formed by


·      Honor is not a zero-sum concept with people easily categorized as either honorable or  

              dishonorable; there exists a spectrum of ethical behavior.

·      Even the smallest of ethical transgressions is a reflection of one’s character.

·      Adhering to the Honor Code is the minimum standard of ethical behavior for a cadet.

·      There is no distinction between “personal honor” and “professional honor.”[5]


The USMA Honor Code states that “[a] Cadet will not lie, cheat, steal or tolerate those who do.” All cadets are charged with knowing and adhering to the Honor Code from their first day at the Academy, but must learn to believe in and lead by the principle of honor during their time as cadets. 


II.  Argument for the Development of the Non-Toleration Clause.


“The Honor Code belongs to the Corps of Cadets.  Therefore each cadet is responsible for upholding the standards of the Code.  Every cadet is a custodian of the Honor Code.”

-          Honor Instruction for New Cadet Barracks, Cadet Honor Committee, 1968



            A good person strives to always perform good acts and to avoid doing bad acts.  Furthermore, a good person prevents bad acts from occurring.  Standing by and letting evil occur constitutes a bad act.  The profession of arms exists because it is necessary for a defenseless society to train a military force capable of defending its territory and promoting its legitimate interests abroad.  It becomes beneficial for this society to acquire and train a corps of officers who believe in and adhere to the principles on which the society is founded.  The Constitution establishes the principles of our society and subsequently the principles of our military.[6]  The American military forces have developed a code, called the professional military ethic (PME), that upholds these principles in the application to the profession of arms.  Fundamental to this ethic is the requirement for members of the profession to self-regulate.           Holding peers, subordinates, and seniors to these principles requires a deep sense of professional responsibility and moral courage that often conflicts with personal loyalties. The non-toleration clause fosters and instantiates the sense of professional responsibility required of American officers.  It fosters in cadets the ability to allow moral requirements to supercede personal loyalties.


III.  The Corps’ Development of the Non-Toleration Clause.

“Men may be inexact or even untruthful, in ordinary matters, and suffer as a consequence only the disesteem of their associates, or even the inconveniences of unfavorable litigation, but the inexact or untruthful soldier trifles with the lives of his fellow men, and the honor of his government; and it is, therefore, no matter of idle pride but rather of stern disciplinary necessity that makes West Point require of her students a character of trustworthiness which knows no evasions.”[7]

- Newton D.  Baker, Secretary of War following World War I, 1920

            The concept of non-toleration of unethical behavior has always existed within the Corps of Cadets.   The Cadet Honor Committee defines toleration as a “[failure of a cadet] to report an unresolved incident with honor implications to a proper authority within a reasonable length of time.”[8] The Honor Code’s fourth prohibition of non-toleration differs greatly from the other three because it involves taking a morally correct action rather than not carrying out a morally incorrect action.  The first recorded incident of cadets engaging in non-toleration occurred in 1871 when several First Class Cadets (Seniors) confronted two Fourth Class Cadets (Freshmen) who had lied about their failure to perform their guard duty.  The First Class Cadets told them that their behavior was incompatible with life at West Point and encouraged them to resign, which they soon did.  There was no written Honor Code in 1871, but the Corps of Cadets, as it had since its inception in 1802, lived by the code of honor that existed within the Officer Corps of the Army.[9]  The Posvar Commission that assessed the Honor System in 1989 asserted that “[e]arly in the 19th Century there was fostered an officer’s Code of Honor – ‘A gentlemen’s word is his bond’ – stemming from European values and customs, but distilled through the experience of the American Revolution and the Frontier.”[10]

The Corps of Cadets soon began enforcing these ethical standards through an unsanctioned Vigilance Committee that inquired into allegations of unethical conduct and encouraged violators of this code of honor to resign from the Academy.  One notable Chairman of the Vigilance Committee was the famed World War II and Korean War hero General Matthew Bunker Ridgway, who later served on the Posvar Commission that restructured the Honor System 72 years after his graduation.  His yearbook entry in the Howitzer notes “Matt was Chairman of the VC – he kept the rest of us in line.”[11]  On the larger scale, the Honor Code, through the non-toleration clause, fosters an environment that encourages cadets to keep each other in-line.  It was and continues to be the Corps of Cadets that consciously chose and chooses to live by this principle of non-toleration. 

The principle of self-regulation and enforcement of ethical standards continues today through a formal process within the Honor System.  The tradition of officially sanctioning these efforts began with the man that General Ridgway would eventually replace as Supreme Allied Commander of the Far East: General Douglas Macarthur.  As the 1922 Superintendent of USMA, then Brigadier General MacArthur authorized the recognition of the efforts of the Vigilance Committee and created the Cadet Honor Committee.  One elected First Class Cadet from each Company served on the Honor Committee and the First Captain serving as an ex-officio member.  During the era of General Maxwell Taylor as Superintendent, the first formal Honor Code came into existence in 1947.  It stated that “A cadet would not lie, cheat, nor steal.”  It was simply understood that a cadet would not tolerate violations of the Honor Code as clearly evidenced by the cadets separated for their toleration of cheating in the 1951 cheating scandal.[12]  In one of the early editions of Bugle Notes, the handbook issued to the Fourth Class, the new cadets read that “The high standards for which this institution is famous cannot be maintained if toleration for such is known.  A thief, a liar, and a coward cannot be extenuated in the eyes of the Corps.”[13] The Corps of Cadets formally added the non-toleration clause in 1970; the Cadet Honor Code now states, “A cadet will not lie, cheat, steal, or tolerate those who do.”[14]


IV.  The Importance of Non-Toleration to the Professional Military Ethic.


“Toleration is the basis for corruption.  No organization can be corrupt if the majority of its members report unethical conduct.”

- Captain Charles Stone, USMA Values Education Officer[15]


The ultimate charge for cadets and midshipmen is to prepare themselves for the profession of arms.  Most essential in this preparation is the responsibility to commit themselves to a continually developing understanding and adherence to the American professional military ethic (PME).  The Cadet Honor Code is the key developmental tool for introducing cadets to the professional military ethic.  The Honor Committee’s publications of the 1970s state that, “The Honor Code is a training vehicle to ingrain in the cadet the fundamental basis for a code of professional ethics.”[16]  Cadets must live by the four prohibitions, which comprise the letter of the Code, and by the principles of truthfulness, fairness, respect for others’ property and most importantly professional responsibility, which comprise the spirit of the Honor Code.  Cadets are challenged to know and adhere to the Honor Code and to believe and lead by the spirit of the Code.  However, there exists no corresponding succinct code of honor for Army soldiers.  Colonel Anthony Hartle, one of the leading scholars on the PME wrote, “The American PME has not been formally and systematically codified.  The formal aspects of the code are found primarily in the oaths of enlistment and commissioning, the wording of the commission actually awarded to officers, and the codified laws of war, though a variety of official publications contribute to the accepted guidelines for conduct.”[17] Colonel Hartle further argues that a vital element of any profession is its ability to self-regulate its members.

Graduated cadets must use the framework of the Honor Code and the Spirit of the Code to quickly adapt to their new responsibilities executed according to the professional military ethic.  The PME has far more detailed and complex proscriptions than does the Honor Code.  The PME is less defined than the Honor Code, but it demands more of its soldiers than the Honor Code does of its cadets.  Yet one cannot dispute that the toleration clause with its undeniably clear wording poses a difficult standard to maintain for anyone at any age in any profession.  A cadet who masters the lessons of the non-toleration clause gains great insight into the heart of the professional military ethic. Cadets learn that it is their solemn duty to enforce ethical standards in their organization.

From the earliest days at the Academy, all USMA new cadets begin to learn the concept of professional responsibility from the memorization of a passage called Worth’s Battalion Orders. The passage begins, “But an officer on duty knows no one.  To be partial is to dishonor both himself and the object of his ill-advised favor…”[18]  The Honor Code’s non-toleration clause correspondingly teaches all cadets to be impartial in the execution of their duties by placing institutional loyalties above personal loyalties.  The Honor System and SOP further explains that:

“the non-toleration clause codifies the concept of "policing the ranks" within the profession.  In any profession, it is the responsibility of its members to maintain the standards that have been set.  A cadet or officer is not limited to maintaining merely his/her personal integrity.  Professional responsibility includes maintaining the integrity of the profession.  When another member of the profession compromises his or her integrity, it is imperative that it be dealt with in order to restore the integrity of the Army.  America has not and will not tolerate "cover-ups" of ethical misconduct within the Armed Forces, and she demands that her soldiers enforce ethical standards within their ranks.”[19]

The non-toleration clause creates an environment where cadets expect each other to enforce ethical standards.   When properly implemented, an Honor System with the non-toleration clause  promotes a sense of ownership within the group.  Each cadet owns the Honor Code and expects others to do the same.


V.  Different Approaches to the Issue of Non-Toleration.


"All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing."

- Edmund Burke, 18th Century British Statesman


            Each of the five federal service academies have developed unique Honor Systems according to their service culture, leadership from their Academy personnel, input from their respective services and key events in their history.  Each of these academies have honor committees that interact on a semi-annual basis to exchange ideas, challenges and concerns in developing effective honor systems.  The issue of non-toleration and each Academy’s respective approach to it has been a consistent theme in the interaction over the years.  Due to the constantly evolving nature of an honor system and the sentiments and actions of those charged to live by it, any source outside of an academy finds difficulty in accurately assessing the respective honor system.  I will, however, address my basic understanding of the different approaches taken on non-toleration.  In brief, the Army and the Air Force academies include a specific non-toleration clause within their Honor Code while the sea-going services (Navy, Coast Guard and Merchant Marine) do not include one in their Honor Concepts.  The academies are philosophically similar in their goals and desired ethical endstates for their graduates, yet have honor systems based on dissimilar notions about ethical development.  In considering these honor systems, it is critical to analyze how the Academies define toleration, their different methods of teaching professional responsibility, and the effect that their teaching method has on the relationship between officers and cadets or midshipmen.

            All members of the profession of arms would agree that officers (both commissioned and non-commissioned) ought to live according to a moral code with truthfulness as the foundation of their character.[20]  Furthermore, it seems self-evident that an organization that expects its members to possess high moral character ought to discourage its members from being liars, cheaters and thieves.  If the members collectively agree that these principles benefit the organization, then they ought to be willing to enforce the standards in themselves and in the people around them.  The history of USMA demonstrates just such an agreement.  In 1928, the USMA Superintendent officially approved the functions that the Honor Committee had submitted for its mission.  One of the four primary functions was: “To inquire into irregularities of conduct, personal or official, with a view to bringing them to the attention of higher authority, if the circumstances warrant such action.”[21]  This mandate also applies to the entire Corps of Cadets through the non-toleration clause.

The Corps of Cadets determined that if a cadet ever has cause to question the ethical implications of the actions of another cadet, he ought to approach the other cadet to clarify the situation.[22]  The Honor System only highly recommends following this procedure, but it is standard practice among the Corps.  One of three events will transpire during the approach for clarification:  the cadet will be satisfied that the cadet in question did not violate the Honor Code and will drop the issue, the cadet will not be satisfied and will encourage the cadet to report themselves, or the cadet will not be satisfied by the explanation and will report the cadet to the Company Honor Representative.  A similar procedure exists at USAFA.  Neither Honor Code allows a cadet to overlook a perceived violation or suspicion.

  The true power of this approach for clarification derives from the trust that it promotes in a unit and the lessons it teaches both parties.  If a cadet suspects that another cadet lied, cheated, stolen or tolerated those who have, then the cadet has cause to question the honor of the other cadet.  The trust that the cadet has in the cadet in question is tarnished if not destroyed.  If the cadet leaves the issue unresolved, then he will most likely have cause to distrust the other cadet throughout their personal and professional relationship.  By having the personal courage to confront the issue directly, then cadets can be certain in their assessment of the character of their fellow cadet.  This teaches cadets a difficult and required skill for all leaders: directly addressing issues of integrity within the organization. 

At the Naval Academy, midshipmen have developed a system in many ways similar to the non-toleration clauses from USMA and USAFA.  A midshipman is regulation-bound to take one of four options if he suspects a fellow midshipman to have lied, cheated, or stolen. 

·   Discuss the incident with the midshipman in question and determine that no honor offense has


·   Discuss the incident with the midshipman in question and counsel the person if the violation is

          admitted and the appropriate steps are taken to correct the situation.

·   Counsel the cadet, and if the cadet does not admit to the infraction, then report it to the Brigade

           Honor Chair.

·   Submit a direct formal accusation to the Brigade Honor Chair.[23]


The two main differences between the systems are that USMA and USAFA cadets are honor-bound to take action against a perceived honor violation while Naval Academy Midshipmen are regulations-bound to address the situation and that midshipman have the option of not officially reporting the situation. The difference occurs in the level of emphasis that each Academy places on toleration.  A USMA or USAFA cadet that tolerates unethical behavior faces potential separation, while a USNA midshipman would ordinarily expect a far less severe punishment.

The first honor education lesson in the academic year 1999-2000 for First Class midshipmen at the Naval Academy states, “Doing nothing is not an OPTION!”[24]  While this principle is identical to the principle of the non-toleration clause, the Cadet Honor Code stands alone as a complete developmental ethic for the Corps of Cadets. The USMA and USAFA honor systems do not need to put such an imperative in bold since non-toleration already exists within the ethic. The procedures that govern the USMA and USAFA Honor System merely implement the basic ideals of the Cadet Honor Code.  The addition of the non-toleration rules in the Naval Academy Honor System help to define the ethic itself and are not directly implied within the Honor Concept.


VI.  Peer Counseling Won’t Improve A Character Flaw.

“There is no Honor Code without the non-toleration clause.”[25]

- Colonel Frank Borman (USAF Ret.) in an address to the Cadet Basic Training Regiment, 1999


            Much of the approach that each academy takes to their honor program naturally stems from their respective opinions on how to best instill virtue in their cadets and midshipmen.  At the Naval Academy, the current belief is that, in some cases, individual midshipman can effectively deal with an honor violation by a fellow midshipman through peer counseling.[26]  The Honor Systems of USMA and USAFA do not support this policy.  As stated previously, USMA professes that an honor violation is a reflection of one’s character and calls into question the potential for a cadet to graduate and earn a commission. 

A substantiated allegation or a confession to having violated the Honor Code initiates a process that lasts many months.  A minimum of six fellow cadets will investigate the events, then the cadet is subject to an Honor Investigative Hearing convened by the Commandant of Cadets and held by 10 more cadets that determines whether the cadet violated the Honor Code.  Following the hearing the cadet will meet with every level of his officer and cadet chain-of-command to explain their actions and answers questions about his character. The Superintendent then decides whether to separate the cadet or grant discretion.  An intensive six month mentorship program with an officer from the Academy staff or faculty accompanies every case of discretion. Furthermore, the Superintendent may decide that the cadet needs additional time at the Academy to develop character.  While these many months of difficult questioning, explaining, learning, and developing of the cadet’s character are not 100% effective, they certainly are more effective than a one time session of peer counseling.


VII.  Non-Toleration: A Defining Trait in a Professional.


“As long as a man acts honorably, he should never have to worry about the Code.”[27]

- Cadet Patrick Finnegan, Honor Committee Chairman, USMA ’71

Each Academy values honorable living and seeks to instill it in their graduates.  Each Academy further recognizes that tolerating unethical behavior is not conducive to creating effective military organizations.  This article merely proposes that certain methods of developing professional responsibility are more effective than other methods.   All of the Academies also recognize that Aristotle’s notion of habituation is a critical concept in their leadership development programs.  Therefore, each Academy has its own indoctrination program for new cadets and midshipmen, has high standards of personal appearance and living conditions, and challenges its students with rigorous academic, military and physical programs.  USAFA and USMA go one step further in their ethical development programs by placing tremendous emphasis on professional responsibility through their non-toleration clauses.  The concept of professional responsibility is too important a virtue to leave to a changing set of rules governing its existence and application.

            Leaving midshipmen or cadets to think that one peer counseling session can properly develop a fellow soldier with a character flaw has potentially dangerous consequences.  The USMA and USAFA experiences impart to their cadets three notions about ethical transgressions: the egregiousness of such an action, the enormous efforts required to correct such a transgression, and the threat that such an action has for the proper functioning of a unit.  The USNA experience, however, allows more flexibility for individual methods of dealing with such a situation.  This flexibility, admittedly, is more akin to what graduated cadets and midshipmen will possess if they witness an ethical transgression during their service.  Honor Systems, however, are developmental in nature and there is a danger that USNA midshipmen will learn to handle honor violations through the method of least resistance even if such an act will not rectify the situation.  For example, a one-time counseling session would not generally be sufficient to effectively deal with a subordinate’s stealing.

A graduated cadet may arguably learn to respond with too severe a response to a case of witnessing a relatively petty act of lying.  Yet I would argue that cadets learn by witnessing the different sanctions imposed by the chain-of-command on cadets who violate the Honor Code that there are varying degrees and methods for dealing with ethical transgressions.  Such actions range from entry in the mentorship program to delaying graduation to sending a cadet to serve in the Army for a period of time to outright separation.  The most difficult lesson that the USMA and USAFA non-toleration clause teaches is the value of personal courage in confronting an ethical violation of a subordinate, peer or superior.  Such an action requires a deep understanding of conflicting loyalties to the individual, the institution and the Constitution.  No cadet conducts an approach for clarification with ease.  It requires a maturity and a deep understanding of one’s professional responsibilities because of the potential repercussions to one’s relationship and the severity of the action that will correspond to the recognition of such an event.  In reality, our profession cannot tolerate unethical behavior and many such actions warrant a separation from service. Knowing that one need only verbally counsel the peer makes confronting such an act much more palpable.  The midshipman is obligated to report the ethical transgression to only the midshipman that committed the offense.

If individual cadets and midshipman leave their academies without a commitment to the principle of professional responsibility, then they are leaving unprepared to assume their commission and responsibilities for military service.  Maintaining, promoting and enforcing ethical standards is one of the key components that makes our service a profession. The American people expect a military to defend the nation according to the democratic principles of our founding.  They expect the profession of arms to regulate itself.  To train an officer corps committed to professional responsibility, service academies must develop an Honor System that inculcates the value of non-toleration.




[1] Paul Christopher, The Ethics of War and Peace: An Introduction to Legal and Moral Issues, 2nd ed., (Upper Saddle River: NJ: Prentice Hall, 1999), 109.

[2] USMA Honor Committee, Honor System and SOP, 1999, 6.

[3] These concepts derive from my experiences as Chairman of the Honor Committee and as a member of the Corps of Cadets.  They stem from the concept of honor held by the Corps, but can be understood by reading The 1999 Honor System and SOP.

[4] In Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle states, “Virtue, then, is of two sorts, virtue of thought and virtue of character.  Virtue of thought arises and grows mostly from teaching, and hence needs experience and time.  Virtue of character [i.e. of ethos] results from habit...” Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Book II, 1103a2.1 (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1985) translated by Terence Irwin, 33.

[5] Robert Wood stated in 1929 in The Pointer in an editorial entitled “On Honor”  that “We cannot separate honor, in its true sense, from the individual.”

[6] Colonel Anthony Hartle states “… I suggested that the Constitution serves as the documentary statement of our nations’ values and that the interpretations of the Constitution, most formally through the rulings of the Supreme Court, serve to reconfirm its status as a bearer of national consensus concerning values.” Anthony Hartle, Moral Issues in Military Decision Making, (Lawrence: University of Kansas, 1989), 85.

[7] Newton D. Baker, 1920 in Honor System and SOP, 1999, 6.

[8] USMA Honor Committee, Honor System and SOP, 1999, 13.

[9] USMA Honor Committee, Honor Instruction for New Cadet Barracks in 1968, Lesson 2: Annex D, 1968. 

[10] The Posvar Commission, Final Report of the Special Commission of the Chief of Staff on the Honor Code and the Honor System at the United States Military Academy, May 1989, 5.

[11] The Howitzer, 1917.

[12] Report from the1983 Superintendent’s Honor Review Committee, C-6.  The report stated, “Before the toleration clause was added in 1970, toleration had been an implied violation of the Honor Code since at least the turn of the century.  No statement by any former member of the Corps has been found which indicates that toleration has not always been an implied part of the Honor Code.”

[13] Bugle Notes, 1908.

[14] The Borman Commission, Report to the Secretary of the Army By the Special Commission on the United States Military Academy, December 15, 1976.  The addition of the non-toleration clause in the formal Honor Code serves to make the issue of professional responsibility clearer to the Corps of Cadets.  The Corps considers these four offenses (lying, cheating, stealing, and tolerating) to be honor violations.

[15] Charles Stone, speech at conference, 1999

[16] The Borman Commission.

[17] Anthony Hartle, Moral Issues in Military Decision Making, (Lawrence: University of Kansas, 1989), 37.

[18] Bugle Notes, 1996.

[19] Honor System and SOP, 13.

[20] Our nation trusts its military with no less than its defense.  The military as led by the officer corps must commit itself to being worthy of this trust. For a further discussion, refer to the quotation by Newton Baker and Melville Drisko’s An Analysis of Professional military Ethics: Their Importance, Development, and Inculcation (Carlisle Barracks, PA: U.S. Army War College, 1977), 4.

[21] Honor Book, entry by 1928 USMA Chairman.

[22] For ease of reading, this paper was written with only one gender specified.  The reader should assume that any reference to a specific gender refers to the other gender as well.

[23] Midn 1/C Ostwind and Midn 1/C Dunlap, “The Honor Concept of the U.S. Naval Academy,” Joint Services Conference on Professional Ethics, 1998.

[24] USNA Honor Committee, “Honor Education Lessons for 1999-2000,” Lesson 1-1: The Role of the First Class, 1999.

[25] Frank Borman, in an address to the Cadet Basic Training Regiment, July 1999.

[26] Midn 1/C Ostwind and Midn 1/C Dunlap state, “[b]y using the option to counsel, the accuser is informing another of their mistake and allowing the person to learn from their mistake without threat of separation from the Academy.”

[27] Patrick Finnegan, Honor Book, Chairman entry for 1971.