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.