College Challenges Rigor of ROTC

In the wake of the Korean War, Harvard re-evaluated the role of ROTC on campus

Courtesy OF The harvard university archives

Members of the Class of 1954 sign up for ROTC as the University, dissatisfied with the program’s academic standards, pushed for reform.

The conclusion of the Korean War the summer before the Class of 1954 began its senior year led to heavy budget cuts at the Defense Department, which reduced the size of the nation’s standing army as well as its reserves. 35 seniors in Harvard’s Air Force Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) program were among 4,000 nationwide who faced the loss of the rights to their titles and other benefits.

George S. Abrams ’54, the first marshal of his class and a member of Air Force ROTC, led a delegation to Washington to discuss the matter with military officials.

“I think people got very upset with the Air Force...for changing an agreement and arbitrarily deciding they weren’t going to give people commissions,” says Abrams, who was also managing editor of The Crimson. The government conceded, granting the 4,000 “non-flight” seniors status as second lieutenants in the Air National Guard, exemption from the draft, and benefits nearly equal to those of members of the Air Force Reserve, in exchange for six years enrollment in the Guard.

The fight with the Defense Department over benefits Harvard seniors thought they had earned occurred at a time when the College was reevaluating the role of ROTC on campus.

Whereas Princeton and Yale established committees and policies in 1950 to facilitate mobilization of their students as troops in the event of war, Harvard instead pursued normalcy. While the campus’s ROTC programs saw sharp increases in enrollment, the College sought to more closely integrate the ROTC experience with that of the rest of the student population.


With the Korean War well underway in their first year at Harvard, members of the Class of ’54 were more eager than ever to participate in the ROTC—either because of a sincere interest in armed service training, or as a chance to avoid the draft.

“Some people might say it was patriotism, but I think it was more of a concern of being drafted,” says Desmond R. LaPlace ’54, an economics concentrator who participated in Army ROTC.

“I think most freshmen were looking at ROTC because it...allowed them to finish college as an officer rather than as an enlisted man,” Abrams says.

Whatever their motivation for joining, a Pentagon campaign to increase ROTC enrollment—featuring a comic book and film touting its advantages—was apparently successful: 25 percent of the Class of 1954 applied for one of the three programs in 1950, a total that rose to 40 percent the following year. The Air Force unit saw applicant interest increase to about 120 first-years—almost double the tally from 1949, a greater increase than either the Army or Navy programs.

Another draw might have been the relatively minimal commitment which ROTC entailed: participants were expected to spend a few hours every week in a class usually devoted to military science or tactics, a few more outdoors practicing technique, and a brief summer training period.

But in 1953 Harvard turned its attention to the program, which many saw as below its academic standards.


Though the University had just recently reduced the value given for ROTC courses from one credit to three-quarters, the intellectual rigor of the military courses was still questionable.

A Crimson editorial in February 1954 expressed concerns about the rote memorization common to ROTC classes, charging that “In the place of ideas, the services offer only masses of fact....[While] the memorization of these facts in many cases requires as much time each week as other courses...even the staunchest advocates of a ROTC program do not claim that the military courses contribute much toward a student’s intellectual growth.”

Harvard’s criticism reflected a more widespread dissatisfaction with the educational rigor of ROTC. Princeton President Harold W. Dodd, for example, believed that its ROTC program was too segregated from civilian instruction.

In the March 1953 issue of The Atlantic, Dodds wrote, “The general objection of educators is that the emphasis of ROTC is so exclusively on practical details of the ‘know how’ to the neglect of the complimentary ‘know why.’”

LaPlace says he remembered the academic disparity, characterizing the ROTC courses as “not very challenging.”

“The academic experience of the normal Harvard undergraduate program was certainly very stimulating, but [ROTC] was perhaps a more practical aspect of the real world,” he says.

In 1953, Lt. Colonel Trevor N. Dupuy, professor of Military Science and Tactics, presented the College with a three-pronged proposal to reform ROTC. He suggested that summer training extend to at least 12 weeks, that the campus four-year program be whittled down to three years, and that the College institute “an expanded program of civilian instruction in ROTC classes,” The Crimson reported.

In response to Dupuy’s concerns, the College’s Committee on Educational Policy convened a subcommittee in the spring of 1954, composed of a group of seven University faculty members, to address the issue of the role of ROTC at Harvard.

In an 18-page report, the subcommittee advocated adopting all of Dupuy’s recommendations. Leaving the mechanical aspects of Army training to an extended summer period would free up the academic year for more rigorous ROTC courses, thus allowing for the elimination of a year of ROTC instruction in the college. This in turn would allow students to choose whether or not to enter the program after a year of study, when “the advantages...might be more apparent.”


While the plan earned Faculty approval in May of 1954, the proposal didn’t reach Washington until a year later. The Pentagon ultimately rejected two of the three major points, approving only the integration of the liberal arts and military curricula. According to the Department of the Army, the prolongation of the summer training period would overtax Army resources—and without that extended summer period, an additional year remained necessary.

In a letter to The Crimson in September 1955, Dupuy expressed satisfaction with the “substantial progress” made, contending that the goal of bringing about “a closer integration of the civilian and military subjects” was “the fundamental aspect of the Harvard proposal.”

And while the program failed to get completely off its feet, it did score a success in influencing similar changes in many other colleges throughout the nation. According to the Crimson, Yale, Princeton and Ohio State Universities and Kenyan College similarly planned “to integrate ROTC courses into a liberal arts curriculum,” and other colleges considered doing so.

Captain Bryan K. Pillai, Assistant Professor of Military Science at M.I.T.—where Harvard students have travelled since the College removed the program from its campus in 1969—says that the revision was adopted “in part to better align the cadets’ required leadership and technical training to academic environments.

“This then allowed them to spend slightly less time on military courses in order to permit them the ability to focus more of their attention on other (traditional) academic requirements,” he writes in an e-mail.

The effects of changes set in motion 50 years ago are still felt today. Under the current ROTC program, according to Pillai, students can choose among a two, three, or four year program, a “key aspect” of which is a summer training program that lasts around four weeks.

—Staff Writer Margaret W. Ho can be reached at