Gen. William Knowlton; former West Point superintendent; 88
By Patricia Sullivan
THE WASHINGTON POST August 26, 2008
William A. Knowlton, a retired four-star general who during four decades of military duty was superintendent of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, died Aug. 10 at Virginia Hospital Center in Arlington, Va. The cause was intracranial bleeding as a result of a fall. He was 88 and had Parkinson's disease.
Gen. Knowlton, a graduate of West Point in January 1943, was the 49th superintendent of the academy, a post he held from 1970 to 1974. At the time, he was the longest-serving superintendent since World War II.
His tenure there reflected the uproar of the culture as the Vietnam War was coming to a close. A cadet was discharged for lying about his marital status, and Gen. Knowlton's attempts to tighten discipline and enforce rules were met with the filing of several lawsuits.
He described his job there as “the commander of a stockade surrounded by attacking Indians,” in Rick Atkinson's 1989 “The Long Gray Line,” a history of West Point. In 1974, the U.S Supreme Court supported the school's ability to set and enforce high standards.
Gen. Knowlton admitted the first South Vietnamese person to the cadet ranks at West Point. Although the academy had graduated more than 100 foreign cadets since 1889, most were Latin American or Filipino. After Congress created four all-expenses-paid slots for Asians, South Koreans and a Thai took the first three.
“Everybody kind of forgot about the Vietnamese,” Gen. Knowlton told journalist Christopher Scanlan in 1992. Tam Minh Pham won the slot; he later spent six years as a prisoner of war in his native country. By the time he retired in 1980, Gen. Knowlton was the Army's second-highest-ranking four-star general, The New York Times noted then.
Gen. Knowlton, a native of Weston, Mass., began his career as a second lieutenant in the Armored Cavalry and fought in four campaigns during World War II, beginning in Normandy. In the last weeks of the war, he was awarded a Silver Star for leading a reconnaissance mission deep behind German lines to make one of the first contacts with the Soviet forces north of Berlin.
His later commands included battalion and brigade armored cavalry and armor units, the 9th Infantry Division's multi-brigade force in South Vietnam and the Allied Land Forces Southeastern Europe in Izmir, Turkey.
He also served on the staffs of Dwight D. Eisenhower and Omar Bradley at the Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in the early 1950s.
Gen. Knowlton was on the staff of the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, from 1966 to 1968, where he oversaw civil operations on William Westmoreland's staff and served as assistant division commander in the 9th Infantry Division. His work in Southeast Asia resulted in the award of a Distinguished Service Medal, Distinguished Flying Cross, Bronze Star and 10 Air Medals. He also received two more Silver Stars, one for gallantry at a fire support base that came under sudden attack and the other in a battle on the Plain of Reeds.
He was on the general staff of the secretary of Army for the next two years until he went to West Point, where his daughter Hollister met and married Lt. David Petraeus, now a four-star general and commander of the multinational forces in Iraq.
Gen. Knowlton, a soldier-scholar, also taught social sciences at West Point while working on a master's degree in political science at Columbia University, which he received in 1957. He also graduated from the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College and the National War College.
After West Point, Gen. Knowlton became chief of staff of the European Command and for his last three years of active duty was the U.S. representative to NATO's military committee in Brussels, the highest military authority in the NATO alliance.
After his retirement, he was a senior fellow at a defense studies institute at the National Defense University at Fort McNair for 15 years. He also served as an adviser for the Defense Nuclear Agency and was a member of the Defense Intelligence Agency Science and Technology Advisory Board.
In the private sector, he became a director of the Chubb Corp. and served as a trustee for Davis and Elkins College in West Virginia.
In 2004, the Association of Graduates of the United States Military Academy gave him its Distinguished Graduate Award, calling him “a living embodiment of the values enshrined in the Academy's motto: Duty, Honor, Country.”
Gen. Knowlton's military honors also included a Defense Distinguished Service Medal, two awards of the Legion of Merit and two awards of the Army Commendation Medal.
Gen. Knowlton is survived by his wife of 64 years, Marjorie D. “Peggy” Knowlton of Alexandria, Va.; daughter Hollister Petraeus of Fort Myer, Va.; three sons, retired Army Lt. Col. William A. Knowlton Jr. of Burke, Va., Davis D. Knowlton of Manila, Philippines, and Timothy R. Knowlton of Mill Valley; seven grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.