HOW ROTC Got Started . . .

The Amazing Story Of Military Training at Harvard

(This originally appeared as a two-part feature last March.)

American colleges and universities have trained men for war since 1819, when a former West Pointer went up to Vermont to found a college (now Norwich University) where military instruction would be part of the curriculum. The idea gained popularity. During the Civil War, Congress voted to provide free land for civilian colleges that agreed to offer military instruction to their students. In 1916, this "land-grant" system of military training was transformed into the present-day Reserve Officer Training Corps.

Until recently, the function of ROTC remained similar to what it was in 1916. The Corps was created in the spirit of the civilian army; it has long reflected the view that a nation's best defense is a prepared citizenry. As it name suggests, the military training that ROTC brought to the college campus was designed to create a vast body of reserve officers. The Regular Army could use these reserve officers to provide additional leadership in times of national peril. Congress assumed that the military academies could provide the officers for the small peacetime army.

Between the wars, the United States kept the ROTC-trained reservist as the key figure in the nation's defenses, maintaining the tradition of the civilian soldier dating back to the Minute-men of 1775. But the ROTC system was not merely romantic; it was also reasonably successful. When war came in 1941, a reserve of over 56,000 ROTC graduates was available for active duty to permit a more rapid mobilization of the nation.

The reserve officer, however, is basically amateur; his usefulness has decreased with the phenomenal post-1945 growth in military technology. The modern officer is a highly-trained specialist, and to an ever-increasing degree, he is a career soldier.

The advent of nuclear weapons has also minimized the importance of vast and cumbersome reserve armies, and the accompanying huge corps of reserve officers. At the same time, America's lonely policy of worldwide containment of Communism requires the maintenance of large active forces which can be quickly deployed in any part of the globe.

These developments are causing a fundamental change in the nature of ROTC. The emphasis of the program is shifting from the training of reserve officers to the selection and preparation of professional career officers. It takes over three years to train an officer for a Polaris submarine, ROTC must doesn't have the time to do it.

The present basis of the nation's ROTC programs is the Reserve Officer Training Corps vitalization Act of 1964. The Vitalization Act is a strange mixture of nostalgic patriotism and modern defense planning. Although Congress voted to increase aid to high school ROTC units against Pentagon opposition, most of the bill reflects the changing function of the postwar ROTC. The bill provides for increased scholarship assistance to ROTC cadets planning to enter active service after graduation, as well as $40-$50 monthly allowances to all cadets in the advanced program. It also allows students to enlist in ROTC as late as their junior year of college. Supporters of this change argued that ROTC units would attract more potential career officers if students could defer their decision until after their second year.

In the last several years, moreover, the services have used sophisticated public relations techniques to sell military careers to the nation's college students. ROTC literature today appeals less to the student's sense of patriotism than to his desire for prestige and security.

Thus the ROTC system -- nearly 500 units on over 300 colleges campuses--is becoming a recruiting organization through which the armed services can compete with the corporations for educated manpower. While many educators are not wholly satisfied with an arrangement that includes full professorships for military personnel on their campuses, centralized military control over the content of ROTC courses, and academic credit for such activities as weekly marching drills, there is every prospect that ROTC in the nation's colleges is here to stay.

It might not stay, however, in its present form. As the Vietnam was has intensified political activism in American colleges and universities, anti-war students and faculty have become increasingly sensitive to the status of the military on their campuses. A number of anti-ROTC campaigns have begun at schools across the country.

Until recently, opposition to ROTC has been concentrated in those institutions--mostly land-grant colleges--where the program is compulsory for all male freshmen and sophomores. Since the Pentagon no longer pushes compulsory ROTC, opposition to it has been highly successful. Compulsory military training on college campuses will probably disappear almost entirely within the next few years.

But in the last eighteen months, opposition to ROTC has spread to universities such as Boston, St. Lawrence, and Columbia, where the program is entirely voluntary. Opponents of voluntary ROTC base their case on broad issues of educational integrity.

Although a large-scale move by American colleges to abolish ROTC appears unlikely, it is possible that many colleges will adopt a policy of dissociation similar to the one approved by the B.U. faculty this winter. This possibly arises partly from the increased sensitivity to the military presence on the campuses since the beginning of the Vietnam war. But that is not the most important factor, and even without the war it is quite conceivable that many colleges would soon be trying to reduce the official status enjoyed by ROTC on their campuses.

The basic fact behind the growing opposition to ROTC is the increasingly inescapable realization that ROTC now wants to recruit college students for mainly military careers. The implication of this is that the presence of ROTC can no longer be justified by the old arguments about the need to maintain a civilian army. As the emphasis of ROTC shifts from training reserves to recruiting career officers, the view that ROTC "civilianizes" the military--the rationale by which educators have long justified their uneasy relationship with the armed service--becomes untenable.

ROTC is becoming, therefore, a recruiting agency similar to that of any large corporation. As such, many educators feel that it should no longer have its special status on the campus to aid its recruiting of college students. Even if ROTC programs lose this status, however, the result would not be an elitist officer corps, as opponents of "dis-crediting" ROTC often charge. Today's army requires highly educated college graduates. The military academies alone cannot provide them. The nation no longer needs special ROTC programs to "civilianize" the military, if only because many of today's career officers are technicians in uniform.

For these reasons, it is possible that many of the nation's colleges and universities will soon tend to change their relationships with the military by abolishing academic credit for ROTC courses and by generally withdrawing official university sanction from ROTC activities. Certain aspects of ROTC's position on the campuses are now specified by law (e.g., the full professorships for the militarily-appointed commanders of ROTC units), but these requirements could likely be lifted under pressure from the colleges. The armed forces need the skilled manpower provided by the colleges more than the colleges need ROTC money.

Of course, even though our educational institutions can curb ROTC, they will not necessarily do so. Many universities are more than satisfied with the present arrangements. More than 100 institutions continue to maintain compulsory ROTC in the freshman and sophomore years, despite actual discouragement from the Pentagon, which views compulsory programs as inefficient. The B.U. faculty's uneasiness about the relationship between the education and the military is evidently not shared by many American educators.

If the Reserve Officer Training Corps does succeed in retaining its special status within American higher education, it will be largely because the nation's most prestigious universities continue to support that special status. The ROTC units at most of the country's best liberal arts colleges are little more than tokens. Harvard's Army ROTC unit, for example, failed last year to produce even the minimum number of commissions normally required to remain in existence. The requirement, of course was waived, because the prestige derived from a long-established unit at Harvard is at least as valuable to the Army as the small number of short-term officers which that unit produces. The services, in short, are more sensitive to the significance of ROTC at such schools as Harvard and Yale than the schools themselves appear to be.

Today's ROTC is a complex and changing institution. It still uses the purposed for which it was founded 50 years ago to justify its status in American education, but the modern ROTC little resembles its ancestor of 1916. Thus, it is likely that American colleges will continue to re-examine their relationship with ROTC.

ROTC at Harvard

The Reserve Officers Training Corps is not very visible at Harvard. There were the cheerful letters from Aerospace Studies in the summer before your freshman year, and at registration there was a display with military things on a clean white table-cloth, with a tidy-looking officer standing nearby. Later, looking for your Math 21 section in Shannon Hall you might have wandered along one of the pale green corridors lined with recruiting posters and framed prints of bombers and medals. And trudging up to your room one fall afternoon, you happened to meet the guy across the hall on the way down, incredibly transformed into a uniformed soldier, and you were both a little embarrassed by the formality of your hello's.

But as America's land war in Asia enters its fourth year, what was once merely strange now becomes somehow menacing. To many anti-war students, the quiet presence of ROTC on the Harvard campus appears as a recent and insidious intrusion of the warmakers, an ill-conceived alliance between the University and the war in Vietnam. Thus even when the students in Mallinckrodt began to compose a list of demands one night in October, someone suggested that they include the abolition of ROTC at Harvard. But although the suggestion seemed in keeping with the theme of the sit-in, it was quickly voted down: there was a general feeling that ROTC wasn't going to be disposed of so easily, and anyway, no one knew much about it.

ROTC does in fact represent an alliance between the University and the warmakers, but the alliance is not a new one. Harvard has had some kind of undergraduate military instruction since the early nineteenth century, and its three ROTC units are today among the oldest in the nation. These units were conceived in the atmosphere of internationalism which for many years was Harvard's political character in an isolationist America. The original Army unit was formed largely in response to widespread student demand when, in late 1915, 1200 men of Harvard enlisted in a new drill unit within a few days of its creation. When ROTC programs were created by the Navy (1926) and the Air Force (1947), the University applied at once for the new units, and today Harvard is one of the few universities in the country to host all three ROTC units.

The largest of Harvard's three units is the Naval ROTC, with a current enrollment of 133 students. Four-year NROTC students must take three-and-one-half full courses from the Department of Naval Science to earn a commission with the Navy or the Marine Corps. Since all of these courses carry full credit, it is possible to earn more than twenty per cent of the credits required for a Harvard degree in NROTC--this is the highest percentage of any ROTC unit in the Boston area. Harvard's NROTC students, however, only count about one half of these courses toward graduation, and carry the remainder as fifth courses.

Seventy-seven of the Naval students are in the Regular NROTC program. These students were chosen for the program in their senior year of high school, and are expected, according to the Navy brochure, to be "reasonably disposed to making the Navy a career." While at Harvard, they receive Government scholarships covering all tuition, books, and room and board. The total value of these scholarships is presently around $230,000, and in an average year, about five borderline students are accepted to Harvard as a result of receiving this stipend. The non-Regular, or Contract NROTC students do not receive scholarships, but they do get the standard monthly allowance of $50 in their last two years, and also have the option of electing a two-year course, with a summer training cruise, in preference to the full four-year course.

The Army unit at Harvard also offers both the two-year and four-year programs, and at present has slightly over one hundred cadets enrolled. The four Army courses (all half-courses running throughout the year) are probably the least demanding of the ROTC offerings at Harvard, and about 90 per cent of them are carried as fifth courses. The unit uses the modified ROTC curriculum, which has reduced the proportion of purely military subjects by about one-third. Army ROTC cadets, however, can still earn thirteen per cent of the credits for their degrees in the Army courses, as compared to a national average of 10.5 per cent. Only seven Army cadets receive ROTC scholarships.

The Air Force unit offers only the two-year course, and has a current enrollment of thirty cadets. The program requires its students to take four half-courses in Aerospace Studies, which, like all ROTC courses, are taught by military personnel. Enrollment in the Air Force program is fairly competitive: last year there were seventy-five applications for about twenty places, and the year before the proportion accepted was even lower.

On the whole, ROTC students get about the same grades as their non-ROTC classmates: about 50 per cent of the Navy students, for example, are in Group III or higher. The ROTC courses can, of course, raise these students' academic standings. But non-ROTC students may also take these courses. The fact that ROTC courses are both undemanding and tuition-free makes them useful for making up a failed course, and most of some 75 non-ROTC students enrolled in such courses (mainly in Nav. Sci. 32, "Marine Navigation") have done so for that reason, according to F. X. Brady, formerly professor of Naval Science.


The actual relationship between Harvard and each ROTC unit is governed by a contract signed by the University and the service concerned. The Navy and Air Force contracts (signed in 1926 and 1952 respectively) have been largely superceded by subsequent informal agreements. But the Army contract was signed only in 1966, and with slight variations, it can be regarded as the prototype for all three of Harvard's units.

Under the 1966 contract, the Army agreed to staff and equip a Department of Military Science at Harvard, which would provide the required Army ROTC courses at no direct expense to the University or its students. It further agreed to offer commissions to successful ROTC graduates, and to pay ROTC cadets a $50 monthly allowance as provided by the ROTC Vitalization Act.

In return, the University agreed to maintain the Department of Military Science "as an integral academic and administrative department of the institution," and to provide to this Department, free of cost, whatever classrooms, office equipment and storage space it might need. Harvard also agreed to grant "appropriate academic credit," applicable toward graduation, for Army ROTC courses.

The 1966 Army contract was little more than a formality, since the arrangement for which it provided has already been in existence here for nearly fifty years. But what is interesting about it is the formal emphasis placed by the Army on the status of the ROTC unit within the University. Like the older Navy and Air Force agreements, the Army contract specifies repeatedly that the Department of Military Science is to be considered an integral part of the University, on full administrative parity with all other Harvard departments. The head of the Department is to be designated as a full professor and voting member of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (this was not included in the contract, as it is already required by the ROTC Vitalization Act). ROTC courses are to be scheduled so as "to make it equally convenient for students to participate in Army ROTC as in other courses at the same educational level," and they are to be given full academic credit toward a Harvard degree.

Most of these requirements are of little practical significance for the ROTC units at Harvard. Academic credit is clearly not vital to the survival of the ROTC programs, as most students do not actually use their ROTC courses for graduation credit. The military professorships give no real additional power to their holders. And while the Departmental status of the ROTC units does entitle them to free facilities and secretarial services at Shannon Hall, Harvard's outlay for these purposes is dwarfed by the nearly $250,000 provided annually by ROTC scholarships. The services' desire for departmental status cannot be explained by financial or academic considerations.

What the services do obtain through departmental status at Harvard is legitimacy and prestige. The prseent status of ROTC in any American college enhances both the program and the prospect of a military career, for it suggests a kind of basic ideological unity between American education and the armed forces: it helps make the military respectable in the college by integrating it with the college. And the present status of ROTC at a prestigious university like Harvard has the further function of helping to legitimize its status everywhere else.

The prestige of ROTC's position facilitates the military's "informational activities" within the university. The more prestigious its status, the more easily will it attract top students into military careers. Thus, given the services' need for a steady inflow of educated talent if huge, swiftly-deployable forces are to be maintained at all times, the value of the present arrangement with the universities becomes, from a military standpoint, quite clear.


But for the universities, it is an arrangement troubled wtih contradiction and compromise. While the University has ostensibly integrated ROTC into its administrative structure, the ROTC departments are necessarily unable to adhere to the standards and norms of Harvard -- and indeed, of civilian higher education in general.

The conflict shows through in the problem of ultimate control over academic decisions. The Faculty of Arts and Sciences is Harvard's highest academic authority, but unlike every other department, Harvard's three military departments are not ultimately bound by its decisions. The ROTC departments do work closely with Faculty representatives and the Faculty has theoretically retained some control over ROTC curricula. However, in such basic matters as the exclusion of ROTC students before they have received their commissions, the unit commander, and not the Faculty, must have the final word.

Another problem stems from the fact that the military departments--unlike any other Harvard department--are parts of larger formal organizations which need college-educated men. This, of course, is the whole problem of recruitment: the armed services, through their ROTC departments, have a kind of special access to the University and to its students which is denied to every other organization.

The commanders of Harvard's ROTC units appear to recognize these problems, but they are not really ROTC's problems. The armed forces which they represent were invited to come to Harvard by the University, and until Harvard tells them differently, they can assume that they are still welcome.

"I have two masters," Col. R. H. Pell, Harvard's current Professor of Military Science, has said. "I'm proud of the fact that I am a part of Harvard, right along with the larger master I have been serving for twenty-eight years." But the long partnership of he two masters is an increasingly uneasy one, and the smaller master is beginning to feel the strain