Now that Congress has lifted its “don’t ask, don’t tell” (DADT) prohibition on open homosexuals serving in the military, elite colleges will once again embrace the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC), right?
It would be that simple if the campus opposition to ROTC was as simple as Congress’s policy on gays in the military serving as the sticking point. Alas, academics objected to military courses and campus drill from the World War I-era inception of ROTC. The ostensible reason for the campus war on ROTC has shifted over time. But the underlying reason—an undercurrent of hostility toward the military in academia—is constant. That is why nobody should be surprised if some of the campuses blocking student access to ROTC continue their policy of exclusion.
“I look forward to pursuing discussions with military officials and others to achieve Harvard’s full and formal recognition of ROTC,” explained Harvard President Drew Faust after the repeal of DADT. Similarly, Yale President Richard Levin expressed hope for “a new chapter in the long history of Yale’s support of the U.S. Armed Services.” Even before DADT’s repeal, the dean of students at Columbia asked the university community “to consider whether the right question may no longer be ‘How could we ever formally recognize ROTC on our campus,’ but, instead, ‘How can we not welcome them back?’”
But ROTC wasn’t kicked off Harvard, Yale, and Columbia because of the military’s exclusion of open homosexuals. The Vietnam War served as the pretext for ROTC’s campus banishment. When the Vietnam War ended, ROTC tellingly did not return. Another disqualifying rationale, gays in the military, eventually took its place. Now that the ban on open homosexuals serving in the military has been lifted, it’s no guarantee that academia’s ban on ROTC will be lifted, too.
Who knows if the military’s ageism, handicapism, or sizeism will provide new justifications for ROTC prohibitionists, or if the Department of Defense, weary of past hostility, will even attempt a return to unfriendly campuses?
Some opponents of ROTC are honest enough to admit that the repeal of DADT doesn’t change their minds. Colman McCarthy, a monomaniac on the need for “peace studies” programs, took to the pages of the Washington Post to call for ROTC’s permanent separation from academic life. “It should not be forgotten that schools have legitimate and moral reasons for keeping the military at bay, regardless of the repeal of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell,’” McCarthy wrote last Thursday. “They can stand with those who for reasons of conscience reject military solutions to conflicts.” Lest anyone accuse McCarthy of anti-military bias, he assures: “I admire those who join armies, whether America’s or the Taliban’s.”
The important point conveyed by McCarthy’s column is that animus toward the military is more deeply rooted than the seventeen-year-old DADT policy. Opposition to ROTC is as old as ROTC itself. Early objections focused on the compulsory nature of the program, the lack of rigor of for-credit classes, and the intrusion of the federal government in curricular matters. Between world wars, the Fellowship of Reconciliation’s Committee against Militarism in Education (CME), including such Left luminaries as socialist leader Norman Thomas, churchman John Nevin Sayre, and Nation editor Oswald Garrison Villard, led the fight against ROTC.
CME’s victories included several land-grant colleges in the upper Midwest, including the Universities of Wisconsin and Minnesota, making ROTC elective. “The committee helped to focus latent resistance of teachers and students to military training programs,” Charles Chatfield explained in For Peace and Justice, noting that faculties at Cornell, Ohio State, and the University of Washington voted against compulsory military drill.
The battle between ROTC and its CME detractors culminated in Hamilton v. Regents of the University of California. The 1934 Supreme Court case plays as a role reversal of more recent skirmishes over ROTC. Therein, two freshmen sons of ministers sued to opt out of ROTC, while schools—fifteen land-grant colleges joined an amicus curiae brief supporting the University of California—defended the imposition of ROTC courses. “Plainly there is no ground for the contention that the regents’ order, requiring able-bodied male students under the age of twenty-four as a condition of their enrollment to take the prescribed instruction in military science and tactics, transgresses any constitutional right asserted by these appellants,” the High Court held. Unanimously, the jurists sided with the militarist schools against the pacifist students.
The separation of ROTC from such land-grant colleges became problematic because of the written expectation of military instruction present within their charters. Ultimately, just twenty schools, including three land-grant institutions, made ROTC an elective or jettisoned it entirely by the CME’s 1940 demise. Yet, the group planted seeds for later opponents of military education at civilian colleges.
After the CME’s disappearance, their stated reasons for opposing ROTC largely disappeared, too. By the arrival of the Vietnam War, few schools required ROTC and others denied it college credit. New rationales appeared in the place of moot ones. Strangely, the less justifiable the arguments against the program, the more headway critics made.
Whereas ROTC opponents could credibly charge coercion in the 1930s, they employed coercion in the 1960s. With the issue of mandatory ROTC negated by its increasingly voluntary nature, opponents protested the program’s mere existence. In doing so, leftists made a mockery of their professed principles. For instance, Mario Savio, hero of Berkeley’s Free Speech Movement, was arrested in 1966 trying to muzzle the speech of military recruiters. Though Berkeley had abolished its ROTC requirement in 1962, activists wished to forbid their classmates from enrolling in ROTC at Berkeley—a mirror image of Berkeley’s previous requirement that all male students take ROTC.
ROTC became a proxy battle over the Vietnam War. Radicals bombed or burned dozens of ROTC buildings during the spring semester of the 1969-1970 school year. The craze was not confined to hotbeds of radicalism. ROTC outposts at such hardly countercultural institutions as the University of Idaho, DePauw University, the University of Virginia, SUNY-Buffalo, and the University of Kentucky experienced attacks.
By the 1990s, the issues underlying the ROTC ban had changed but the overriding issue continued to wreak havoc on the professed principles of academics. Yale, for instance, accepted millions in research grants from the Department of Defense for its faculty as it prohibited its students accepting ROTC scholarships from meeting in its classrooms or drilling on its grounds. Harvard rejected ROTC while procuring millions from the bin Laden family fortune.
The protest rang hollow for another reason. Student cadets hadn’t drafted the DADT policy; Congress had. Yet, the legislative body’s money was as welcome as the cadets were unwelcome. Why impede just the scholarships tied to the military? Why not go after all student aid deriving from the same Congress that had devised DADT? If that thought had ever occurred to Ivy League administrators, they never vocalized it publically.
DADT provided academics a convenient mask for their odious tic against a noble calling. Rather than snobs against servicemen, they cast themselves as defenders of the liberties of homosexuals. But a sizable contingent of professors has always forged an adversarial relationship with the military. The response of elite schools to DADT’s repeal will show whether their stance has been made in good faith or a ruse to obscure less palatable reasons for ostracizing aspiring servicemen and women.
The upshot of repealing DADT may be that ROTC cadets find life easier at some elite schools. But it’s worth remembering what did and did not happen during December’s lame-duck congressional session. Congress changed its longstanding policy on gays in the military. It did not change academia’s longstanding hostility toward the armed forces. There are limits to even Congress’s power.