The Return of the Military


This month marks the 10th anniversary of the return of the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) as an extracurricular option for Harvard students, but the program has had a long, tumultuous connection with the University that goes back more than 70 years.

Created by the National Defense Act of 1916, national defense planners envisioned ROTC as a small, peacetime army composed of citizens. Congress designed it to train a vast body of reserve officers which would be able to provide leadership in a time of national crisis.

In response to student demand, the first Army unit on campus was created in 1915 when 1200 students joined an extracurricular drill team a few days after its creation. The Navy soon followed with its own ROTC program in 1926, and the Air Force established ROTC at Harvard in 1952.

The relationship between Harvard and each ROTC unit has since been governed by a contract signed by the University and the particular service concerned. With slight variations, the Army contract of 1966 has served as a prototype for all three branches of the armed forces. Under the terms of the 1966 contract, the Army agreed to staff and fund a Department of Military Science which would offer courses at no cost to Harvard or its students. It also promised to commission successful ROTC graduates, and to pay ROTC cadets a $50 a month allowance.

For its part of the bargain, Harvard agreed to maintain the Department of Military Science "as an integral academic and administrative department of the institution" and to provide classrooms and office space. Harvard also agreed to give credit to ROTC courses that could be applied towards graduation requirements.

Protesting Military Force

But all that changed amid the anti-Vietnam war, anti-establishment, student protests throughout the '60s when many undergraduates and faculty members demanded that ROTC get out of Cambridge. The strong feelings against ROTC resulted in the arrest of hundreds of protesters, sitins at Harvard buildings, and finally, the bloody takeover of University Hall in 1969.

Several organizations, including the activist Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), and the student government, attacked ROTC courses as being of "inferior intellectual quality" and the field for being unqualified as "an academic discipline." Many felt ROTC courses were too easy and that funding could be diverted to more novel areas, like the Afro-American Department, which was founded that year.

On February 4, 1969, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences voted 207-125 to strip ROTC courses of any academic credit and to rescind the appointments of all ROTC instructors. At the time there were 133 midshipmen in the Navy program and more than 100 in the Army unit.

However, the SDS linked campus ROTC units to the U.S. military and the unpopular Vietnam War, and demanded that Harvard break off all ties with the military training program as part of a list of demands made during the University Hall takeover in April 1969. The University responded the next day by sending in state and local police units to forcibly remove protesters, an action which resulted in the arrest of 250 activists and dozens of injuries.

But anti-ROTC sentiments remained high on campus, and on the night of May 6, 1969, a first floor Marine classroom in Shannon Hall was fire-bombed by unknown arsonists.

Responding to the overwhelming condemnation of ROTC by students and faculty, the Harvard Corporation decided later that month to phase out ROTC by 1971 and to permit students already enrolled in the program to finish their training.

In the wake of this ruling, ROTC did not make an appearance on campus for the next seven years. Students entering Harvard who had been accepted by an ROTC program were forced to choose between the two, although the Office of Admissions and Financial Aid promised to match any ROTC scholarship money lost.


In the last decade, however, ROTC has made a comeback of sorts on campus, gaining growing numbers of recruits and semi-official recognition from the University.