IN 1969, fearing violence from student protestors during a period of unprecedented unrest over the Vietnam War, the Faculty effectively banned the U.S. military's Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) from Harvard's campus. This year, however, the efforts of students who participate in the program at MIT to gain University recognition for a "Friends of the ROTC" club has sparked renewed debate over the training program's role at Harvard. The ROTC's club appeal, and the resurgent student interest in military training that it represents, makes now a good time for the Faculty to address the real issue behind the recent controversy: It should reconsider the decision it made amidst the stormy emotions of 1969, and invite ROTC back to Harvard's campus.
There are, no doubt, a few would-be Green Berets who see ROTC as a chance to play soldier for four years. Most participants, however, are motivated by a genuine sense of patriotic duty. And almost all cadets join at least in part out of financial necessity. The program provides scholarship money and monthly stipends. The University should not require patriotic and needy students to suffer the inconvenience of taking the courses at MIT--or to endure the sense of second-class citizenship that this semi-exile promotes. By accepting ROTC because it offers financial aid, Harvard would in no way endorse the Reagan Administration's cutbacks in civilian sources of aid. The University's disapproval of these reductions is entirely consistent with support for expanding students' range of aid options through programs like ROTC.
Much of the opposition to ROTC stems from feelings that association with the Pentagon puts a moral stain on the University. This view, based largely on the original impetus for ROTC's expulsion--its association with the United States' morally bankrupt adventure in Vietnam--presupposes that there is something ineradicable corrupt and oppressive about the American military. It overlooks the potentially salutary influence that liberal arts students may exert on the armed forces. Broadening America's officer corps to include graduates of schools like Harvard will make the military more representative of society as a whole, and will have a leavening effect on military attitudes and practices. It is not at all farfetched to suppose, for example, that an officer who has been exposed in his undergraduate studies to a Marxist analysis of Third World revolution will take a different, and probably more thoughtful, view of possible U.S. involvement in El Salvador than would a graduate of West Point or The Citadel.
No one should be complacent in today's complex and dangerous world about the need to pursue arms control and international amity. But precisely because it is a complex and dangerous world, military national defense is likely to remain necessary for many years to come. In 1969, ROTC's banishment from the Harvard campus was a potent symbolic gesture of opposition to a cruel misconception of national defense. Today, however, it simply prevents young people from reaching worthy goals of national service and personal betterment, and closes the door on potentially humane developments within the military itself.