History of the The U.S. Military Academy Diploma

History of the The U.S. Military Academy Diploma

Hidden script: See if you can find the name, initials, and date hidden on the diploma by the illustrator.

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For a text version of the USMA diploma, click here.

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USMA Diploma - Top View

The first United States Military Academy diploma was designed by Mr. William Proctor of New York City. His design was accepted on 27 January 1823, and the diploma was presented to graduates for the first time that year. An eagle tops the original USMA diploma, clutching in its talons two draped flags. The flag on the right is the “Stars and Stripes” and the second is an early version of the flag of the United States Army. 

USMA Diploma - Right Side View

The illustrations on the right side of the diploma represent the modern (circa 1823) personal accouterments of battle.

Moving from the top: the shako with the diamond-shaped USMA insignia (1822-1839), a saber, a drum, a sword, two pistols, a musket, and a cartridge pouch with a powder horn.

The image is completed with a saber, a drum, a sword, two pistols, a musket, and a cartridge pouch with a powder horn.

USMA Diploma - Bottom View

The background scene at the bottom of the diploma depicts a cadet encampment with cadets firing a cannon in the hilly terrain of West Point, which is represented by an eagle’s nest atop the central mountain.

From right to left: a cadet with a musket; plans for fortifications overlaying a fascine (field expedient earthworks reinforcement); mortar rounds and a mortar; a theodolite (surveyor’s instrument to measure the angle of fire); and a geometry text.

From right to left: a bust of Pallas Athene (Greek goddess of wisdom in the industries of peace and arts of war); a sketch of the Cadet Monument (now located in the West Point Cemetery); an artist’s palette; laboratory beakers; textbooks; a protractor; a globe and telescope.

USMA Diploma - Left Side View

On the left side of the diploma is a panoply of ancient arms.

The upper left side of the diploma includes a standard bearing Nike, the winged goddess of victory, carrying a wreath and a palm frond.

A sword, breastplate, shield, and helmet of an ancient warrior; as well as fasces (bundle of sticks surrounding an ax) of the Roman Legions.

USMA Diploma - Coat of Arms

The diploma did not change until 1898, when Colonel Charles W. Larned, USMA Professor of Drawing, designed the official United States Military Academy coat of arms. He was assisted by Mr. Stanford White, a noted architect who helped design many West Point buildings and monuments at the turn of the century. The official coat of arms was added to the diploma design by replacing the eagle, and the flag on the left became less distinct.

The next major change in the design of the diploma also concerned the coat of arms. In 1922, Captain George M. Chandler noted that the eagle, the helmet of Pallas Athene, and the Greek sword faced to the “sinister” or left side. He advised the Superintendent, Brigadier General F. W. Sladen of this and in July 1923 the official USMA coat of arms was changed so the helmet, sword and the head of the eagle faced to the “dexter” or right side.

The coat of arms is divided into three parts: the emblem of the United States Military Academy borne on a shield and surmounted by a crest. The emblem is the helmet of Pallas Athene, the Greek goddess of wisdom. Since Homer, her wisdom is especially associated with the arts of war. A Greek sword, the universal symbol of war and symbol of the military profession, bisects the helmet. The shield bears the Arms of the United States of America. The crest is composed of a winged eagle holding 13 arrows representing the original states, an olive branch, and an oak branch. Displayed on the crest is a scroll bearing the motto “Duty, Honor, Country” and the words “West Point, MDCCCII, USMA.”

USMA Diploma - Other Changes

A minor wording change to the diploma occurred in 1909 and reflected the fact that cadets were no longer recommended for promotion into separate branches of the Army, but rather recommended for promotion in the Army of the United States. The basic design of the USMA diploma has not changed since 1923. However, five changes in the wording and style have occurred. In 1925 the U.S. Military Academy received accreditation and in 1933 the Superintendent was empowered by an act of Congress to confer the degree of Bachelor of Science on all graduates from the date of accreditation.

An administrative change was made to the diploma in 1947 by eliminating the handwritten signatures on each diploma and substituting the matching affixed signatures of the Superintendent, Dean of the Academic Board, and Commandant of Cadets. In 1948 a second administrative change was made by changing the font style from Old English to Script.

In 1970, the wording of the diploma was changed again. To reflect the fact that cadets were now commissioned in the United States Army, the words “recommend him to the President for promotion in the Army of the United States” were changed to read “recommend him to the President for appointment as a commissioned officer in the United States Army.”

A significant, but small, change to the wording of the USMA diploma commenced with the Class of 1980, when some diplomas were prepared with the pronoun “her.”

Just prior to graduation, the names of graduates are released to the printing plant on West Point, where, by the process of offset printing, the diplomas are prepared according to the instructions of the Superintendent, USMA. Starting in December 1996 the diplomas were prepared by a computer because the process of offset printing using lead plates for the reproduction of the diploma was no longer available. As part of the Academy’s Bicentennial Celebration in 2002 the Bicentennial Crest was added to the center of the diploma for the Class of 2002.