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.