Political Vicissitudes of rotc in Private Universities

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Political Vicissitudes of ROTC

in Private Universities

Allan Silver

Department of Sociology

Columbia University

601A Knox Hall

New York NY 10027


The Changing Nature of Civil-Military Relations in American Universities
Matthew B. Ridgway Center for International Security Studies
University of Pittsburgh

April 9, 2010
The Reserve Officer Training Corps remains absent from the nine or more selective, private universities from which it departed forty years ago. Fortunately for the nation, these campuses are no longer narrow gateways to power and leadership, often without regard to merit of intellect and character. Nonetheless, ROTC’s absence from these nine campuses symbolizes and magnifies the conspicuous absence from military service of young people whose prospects appear conspicuously bright. Illustratively, at one representative Ivy League college, 400 graduating students went on to military service in 1956. In 2004, that number was nine. The situation is changing, as some press for ROTC’s return and, in modest numbers, students participate in ROTC programs at neighboring institutions. The nation’s cultural, political and military situation has dramatically altered. However, the situation today still reflects the long-term effects of events forty years ago.

We are familiar with the “BadUniversity/GoodMilitary” historical account of that time. In that narrative, radical, narcissistic, anti-intellectual students and faculty rebelled four decades ago both against high culture and their legitimate civic obligations. That disaster’s effects resonate today as identity politics encounters an apologetic, spineless academic liberalism. In contrast, the military is an exemplar of civic virtue, expressing the tradition of the citizen-soldier, and actualizing ideals of obligation and sacrifice in the nation’s service. This account embraces some truths, but it explains too much with too little.

Professor Michael Nieberg’s intricately documented book, Making Citizen-Soldiers, is the definitive history of the long, complex bond between ROTC programs and land-grant universities legally obligated to have them.i This brief paper addresses the situation at selective, private institutions. As the time of troubles known as “the sixties” recedes, it becomes formulaically mythic. Contrary to a widespread impression, the nine or more private universities that parted ways with ROTC did not “ban” it. Rather, they reasserted faculty control over curricula and appointments in terms that the military services, or their civilian superiors in the Department of Defense, could not accept. The ROTC Vitalization Act of 1964 requires that

No unit may be established or maintained...unless (1) the senior

commissioned officer...is given the academic rank of professor...

[and] (2) the institution adopts, as part of its curriculum... [a program]

which the Secretary of the military department concerned prescribes

and conducts.ii

Professor Nieberg’s book shows that tensions and adjustments on curricular issues and faculty appointments were continuous even during the Cold War -- the most consensual phase of ROTC’s history -- not least in institutions which most welcomed and favored ROTC programs. These concerns intensified during the crisis of the Vietnam period, not only as an expression of anti-war sentiments, but also in attempts to legitimize ROTC during that stressful time.

A passage from a Columbia University faculty report in 1969 about its Naval ROTC program, leading to that program’s departure, is a suggestive example.

... [If]...a situation similar to World War II [should arise] we would be willing

to grant again again those exceptions from regular academic practices necessary

for the presence of an on-campus NROTC... We interpret the present period of

change as a cancellation of those exceptions from normal procedures which were

granted to the Navy during or immediately after World War II. We regret that

we did not take such action before the present mood on campuses was created,

but we cannot refuse to take steps to correct an academically-irregular situation

merely because that mood exists. iii

This perspective involves three distinct periods – consensual and intense mobilization for total war, sustained semi-mobilization of the Cold War and the intensely contested time of the Vietnam War. We can extend this framework to the “soft” mobilization of the present – successively named the War against Terror, the Long War and currently overseas contingency operations. Each term points successively toward a more sustained future of military endeavors well short of “war” in the classic sense.

Defining memories of the 1960s have faded except for some older faculty in a few academic subcultures. The parents of today’s undergraduates were children in the fabled year of 1968. If today’s undergraduate politics have a center, it is in identity politics. Disagreements about our wars today do not currently sunder the polity and society. Objections to ROTC have centered on legislation prohibiting military service by open homosexuals, not on political or academic objections. Finally, and significantly, there is no conscription. What interpretive framework is most useful in understanding the situation today?

ROTC programs bear most centrally on undergraduate colleges. Their colleges are the mythic center of selective, private institutions even though they are often top-heavy with graduate and professional schools. That the colleges are usually older than the nation strengthens their claims to distinctive status. Their curricular center, the “liberal arts”, has undergone many vicissitudes. In earlier times, it was suffused by classical and Christian sources, sustaining and legitimating social status and an obligation to lead in war. Corresponding to the logo of the minuteman at Lexington – evoked in 1917 to legitimize the nation’s first extensive conscription

-- is the prototypic figure of Joshua Chamberlain, professor of Classics at Bowdoin College, later its president, whose heroic command of the 20th Maine at Little Round Top was crucial to the outcome at Gettysburg.

Today the liberal arts, even reduced to pastiche, claims to contribute to richer personhood and active citizenship in civil society. In fact, these colleges are hothouses of intense preparation for careers in finance, law, medicine and other professions. For some, however, preparation for the profession of arms is substantively out of place and an intrusion by the state, among other reasons because ROTC scholarships contractually obligate students for service after graduation. Historically, however, the collegiate-liberal arts model was easefully compatible with the nation’s three big wars – the Civil War and the last century’s world wars. These were cultural prototypes for ROTC during the sustained and consensual semi-mobilization of the Cold War. To be sure, much participation in ROTC was draft induced, from the onset of intensive conscription for the Korean War in 1950 until a lottery system, taking effect in the early 1970s, assured many students that their chance of conscription was low to zero.

However, almost seven decades after the “last good war” and four after the sour and rancorous experience of Vietnam, the profession of arms seems for some incompatible with liberal education. The reasons are a mix of intellectual and programmatic considerations. Today, faculties will now be highly alert to their prerogative governance of curricular content, credits and appointments. The liberal arts are often legitimized because politically neutral – a complex illusion that I cannot explore in this discussion – while training for military commissions seems, to some, to serve the purposes of the state rather than the ideal of service to the nation.

Moreover, liberal education exclusively turns on pacific issues in moral philosophy, political theory and literature, to the exclusion of the military dimension. To illustrate, I draw on an essay by a student at Barnard College.iv She points out that in Columbia’s celebrated Core Curriculum, Thucydides is taught mainly as a literary text, without attention to its study of war -- its origins, follies and significance. I teach in those core courses and can expand her observation. The Iliad is widely taught as showing the disillusion and cruelty of war, which it certainly does, but not as also addressing heroism, loyalty, and duty, which it also certainly does. Plato, Aristotle, Machiavelli, Rousseau and others centrally refer to military matters, not least the military obligation of citizens, but these themes are slighted. My own students seem indifferent on learning that the Declaration of Independence is not only a celebrated statement about freedom and equality but, more centrally for its original purpose, a declaration of war and an invitation driven by the imperative of alliances with foreign powers to conduct that war. I prefer to believe that my lack of skill explains their indifference to the Federalist Papers’ discussions of war, to Article I, section 8 of the Constitution awarding Congress the authority to declare war, to textual study of declarations of war in 1941, and of successive authorizations for the use of military force, including the two authorizing wars ongoing at present.

Some lament this posture as a decline in political virtue among the young. However, it reflects powerful currents in the larger society. It is consistent with the mutation of militaries into small, adept voluntary forces in which the semi-skilled, short-term labor of the citizen mass army has no useful place. The nation’s military endeavors after September 2001 do not require extensive mobilization, in terms of taxation, manpower and popular enthusiasm. Indeed, extensive mobilization inhibits flexibility in conducting and concluding them. President Bush was widely mocked for defining citizens’ contributions to the very misnamed War on Terror as continuing to shop and travel, and their sacrifice as suffering in watching television and in long waits at airports. However, the basic point survives his awkward rhetoric. The routine functioning, indeed the flourishing of civil society and the economy is not only compatible with the new form of mobilization for war, but among its central requisites. Our enemies would be the winners if our society, polity and economy were pervasively mobilized to defeat networks of terrorists and religious fanatics. Moreover, historians and sociologists, among others, persuasively depict a long-term trend toward the pacification of civil life and the pursuit of happiness in a privatized sense.

The universities only reflect this broad picture. Students’ sense of citizenship turns solely on voluntary and transitional activity in civil society, and prevailingly they do not know people in military service. At any one time, 2% or less of males of military age are in service, and few of these are from circles overlapping with students at selective, private colleges. Today, students’ distance from military themes is informed more by incomprehension and personal distaste than, as four decades ago, by active hostility. How might we think about restoring the bond between military service and the private universities in the historically new setting of today’s cultural, strategic and military situation?

I begin by rapid comparisons with two European democracies whose experience throws light on the American situation. Historically, the British officer corps was grounded, not always to its advantage, by an upper class sense of duty and obligations, sustained by the culture and symbols of quasi-aristocratic obligation. Resonant echoes of this culture existed in some American private schools and universities, cultivated in a mix of sincerity, public relations and a claim to historical significance and cultural superiority. Some recall that culture fondly, and seek a contemporary counterpart – a sense of duty and obligation that ought to accompany good fortune and high prospects. However, this model has little relevance to today’s America. As Tocqueville understood, equality is an appetite that -- like its aristocratic predecessor, honor –grows by what it feeds on. In democratic America, equality trumps honor. Far more compelling is the ideal of the democratic citizen-soldier.

France has a far stronger claim than the United States to realizing the citizen-soldier ideal in peace and war. The myth of the citizen soldier arises in the Revolution and the regime of Napoleon. However, this lapsed for six decades after Waterloo. In the last quarter of the 19th century, the Third Republic re-created revolutionary and Napoleonic myths to define active and reserve military service as an essential, defining attribute of citizenship. This was driven by belligerent tensions with a powerful and contiguous antagonist, a situation unknown to the United States until the nuclear standoff of the Cold War – and then, remotely and addressed by small, specialized forces. In France, the citizen-soldier was central for personal development of the citizen and to national identity until the disaster of 1940. Later, the citizen-army eroded when deployed in Algeria and then decayed as France, like the United States, moved toward small, mobile, volunteer forces.

The French case makes clear by contrast that the American celebration of the citizen-soldier ideal is realized more in myth than in practice. American memory embraces the myth of the “good war” – waged for an unambiguous moral good, sustained by consent and fought by citizen-soldiers. The Civil War and World War II are exemplary. To the moral passion of ending slavery, patriotic memory adds that of vast and fierce combat by volunteer citizens. So strong is this theme that, twenty-five years after Gettysburg, Lt. Benjamin F. Rittenhouse, 5th US Artillery, Battery D, who commanded devastating fire on Pickett’s charge from Little Round Top, could write: “I felt proud of that charging column of Americans, even though they were rebels... They were citizen-soldiers, American volunteers.”

The Second World War, in which 12% of the American population served in uniform, is the nation’s closest prototype of a war remembered as virtuous in all respects. Our subsequent experience of war has been lived in comparison and contrast with it – whether its myth and memory is misplaced, manipulated, or solemnly and authentically celebrated. Much of the Cold War, with its depiction of the Communist enemy in terms redolent of our fascist and militarist enemies in the “last good war”, and as a defense of American freedoms and their global diffusion, was legitimated rhetorically as an extension of the last war fought by a large military of citizen-soldiers.

A concise essay by Professor Eliot A. Cohen, of Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, with the gloomy title of “The Twilight of the Citizen-Soldier” offers an opportunity to build on, extend and disagree with its sharp thesis. v Cohen takes the citizen-soldier ideal in its strong sense – a military composed of soldiers whose primary identity is civilian and whose service expresses a sense of obligation to the nation even if imposed by conscription. This ideas was realized only exceptionally in the nation’s three big wars, contested in Korea and more so in Vietnam. Otherwise, American citizens largely rejected military service as an obligation on libertarian grounds. American campaigns and wars were were fought by small, voluntary forces socially and cultural distinct from civil society. Local militias decayed as conflicts with indigenous peoples ended east of the Mississippi and then delegated to small, voluntary military forces. Daniel Webster’s rhetoric, opposing President Madison’s call for a draft, is exemplary in its defiant individualism and suspicion of government:

Where is it written in the Constitution...that you may take children from their parents,

and parents from their children, and compel them to fight the battles of any way in which

the folly or the wickedness of the Government may engage it?... Who will show me any

constitutional injunction which makes it the duty of the American people to surrender

everything valuable in life, & even life itself, not when the safety of the country may demand

the sacrifice, but whenever the purposes of an ambitious & mischievous Government may

require it?
Libertarian rather than civic themes define the relationship of citizens to military service, unless the “safety of the country” is palpably in question.

The safety of the country is in question at present in terms that differ from the big wars of the past. Indeed, it is appropriate to ask whether we are “at war” in the classic sense. “National security” in the long term is a strategic goal addressed by the volunteer, highly trained forces that constitute at any point in time one percent of the population, as distinct from the 4% of the Civil War, World War I, Korea and Vietnam, much less the 12% of the Second World War. The citizen-army of large numbers of semi-skilled, inexpensive and readily replaceable soldiers is militarily obsolete. With it has gone the historic means for large numbers of citizens to signify service, obligation and sacrifice for the nation, commitments extending to their families.

The wars for which these militaries were mobilized produced large numbers of veterans, clustered in age-cohorts that, as they moved through the life cycle, collectively and visibly embodied the experience of service. To a less dramatic, but significant extent, the same is true of veterans from the earlier, warmer phase of the Cold War. Except for some reserve service, Eliot Cohen argues, the advent of the All Volunteer Force in 1973 ended the reality of the citizen-soldier.vi It follows that today it is a treasured and nurtured myth rather than a prevailing practice. Treasured myth it certainly is, but its practice has assumed a new form. While no longer in principle including the citizenry, the AVF is almost entirely composed of soldiers whose primary identity remains civilian. The average length of enlisted service in the AFV is seven years. Similarly, length of service in the officer corps is limited by design, as diminishing numbers staff successively higher ranks. By far most commissioned officers return to lengthy civilian employment after their service.

Military service thus constitutes a phase in citizens’ life cycles primarily devoted to civilian pursuits. The small military population continuously turns over at a rapid rate. The All Volunteer Force is indeed distinct from the kind of citizen-armies it replaced, but sustains the citizen-soldier ideal in that it is distinct from a “standing army” of long-serving professionals whose primary identity, over the life cycle, is military. Officers receiving commissions through ROTC are conspicuously citizen-soldiers in this sense. By far, most officers recruited through ROTC programs, like many graduates of the service academies, regain civilian identities after military service of relatively short periods. Military service with so firm a basis in civilian life affirms the citizen-soldier ideal on a new basis. However, ROTC programs also contribute about 60% of all Army officers and their graduates roughly equal those of West Point in the highest ranks.

The goal of restoring ROTC to selective, private universities takes on high and visible significance because, as Cohen and many others point out, the AVF conspicuously fails to be a citizen-army to the deplorable extent that its composition does not reflect – in region, social class, ethnicity, and education – the whole range of American society.vii It is in this respect –

as well as the AVF’s cultural and political composition -- that the place of ROTC at the private, selective universities achieves significance in the polity and society.

That the citizen-soldier thrives as an aspirational myth is a valuable resource. The ideal of active citizenship in civil society is vibrant among many undergraduates. The task at the private colleges is to define military service on behalf of the nation as meriting the same degree of honor and respect as do contributions to civil society. Military service ought to be universal in the sense that all sectors of society qualified for service should contribute equally, and be seen to contribute equally, to the nation’s armed forces. It is in this respect that the restoration of ROTC at selective, private colleges makes a significant contribution.

Let us not overlook the military’s contribution to the present, unsatisfactory situation. Indeed, it may well be easier to create a welcome from the private universities than interest by the Department of Defense in returning to them. The BadUniversity/GoodMilitary narrative selectively remembers the convulsions of the 1960s, but little notices the military’s long-term response. According to the Army Cadet Command’s official history,

...[T]he abolition of ROTC units at elite institutions along the eastern seaboard was more than offset, quantitatively at least, by the creation of additional detachments in the South and West... Some...officials... feared that the average quality of ROTC students would drop and that the social balance of the Army officer corps would be upset.... Other officials and officers were glad to see the Army sever relations with schools which,

in their opinion, had never been avid supporters of the military...viii

This division persists in all the services. Their relative withdrawal of ROTC programs from the northeast, accelerating in the drawdown of the 1990s, was driven in part by budgetary constraints.ix More officers can be procured for less expenditure at large institutions disproportionately located in culturally conservative regions with pervasive “pro-military” cultures. To evoke but one quick illustration, Virginia, with a population of over 7,500,000, has twelve Army ROTC programs while New York City, with a population of about 8,500,000, has two. Acknowledging Virginia’s historically strong culture of military service, this ratio is indefensibly out of proportion.

It is to the national interest that Department of Defense to locate ROTC programs in campuses and regions where the nation’s future military endeavors may well evoke criticism and opposition. It is the historical norm that the nation's wars are politically contested in the spirit of democratic discourse. World War II and much of the Cold War were exceptionally consensual, the war in Vietnam exceptionally rancorous. In the most likely proximate future, as at present, our military endeavors will result from policies properly subject to criticism and dispute. To permit the consensual model of war to influence the location of ROTC programs is, in effect, to constrict democratic debate on the wisdom of strategic and military policies.

Nonetheless, it is a corrosive civic scandal that those in institutions of higher learning that seem to offer high prospects are egregiously under-represented in military service. This inflicts both symbolic and substantive damage on the Republic. It weakens the ties that ought to bind all citizens, and deprives our military of broadly educated offers needed now more than ever.

That is why restoring the bond between military service and the private universities is a visibly important contribution to the republic’s civic health.


 Michael S. Neiberg, Making Citizen Soldiers: ROTC and the Ideology of American Military

Service, Harvard University Press, 2000.

ii ROTC Vitalization Act, October 13, 1964 (Public Law 88-647, Title II, para. 2102).

iii Executive Committee, Faculty Joint Committee on NROTC, Part II (“Discussion”), March 13,

1969. http://www.advocatesforrotc.org/columbia/1969committee.html The entire passage is

worth quoting in full:
It is obvious that the war in Viet Nam is a factor in causing the current criticism of NROTC. The role of the war has been to weaken, in the minds of many people at the university, the justifications which were given in the past for granting the NROTC exceptions from normal academic practices. Those exceptions - irregularities in faculty appointments, external control over curriculum, unusual student rules - were justified in earlier years by the widely-held opinion that there was a congruence between the best interests of the nation and the current military policies of the nation. That opinion has now weakened to the point that many members of the academic community believe that granting exceptions to the Navy from normal academic practices is no longer justified. Thus, the minority has made specific recommendations for an off-campus NROTC program, separate from the University in all respects except for a counseling officer on campus. We do not consider this an act of political defiance of the government but merely the reassertion of normal academic control over the university curriculum and faculty. Several of us admit that if in the future sufficiently extreme conditions should arise - a situation similar to World War II, for example - we would be willing to grant again those exceptions from regular academic practices necessary for the presence of an on-campus NROTC. We see here a certain consistency of policy rather than an inconsistency, and we would enunciate our underlying assumption in the following way: We believe that it is impossible to have on-campus military or naval courses taught by active-duty officers without violating at least some of the normal academic procedures which attempt to guarantee the autonomy of the university; we admit, however, that in certain extreme circumstances exceptions to these procedures may be granted, but maintain that these exceptions should always be approved by the university community and should be subject to termination by that community. We interpret the present period of change as a cancellation of those exceptions from normal procedures which were granted to the Navy during or immediately after World War II. We regret that we did not take such action before the present mood on campuses was created, but we cannot refuse to take steps to correct an academically-irregular situation merely because that mood exists.

iv Sarah Cohler, “The Military Ambivalence”, Columbia Political Review, April 2009



 Elliot A. Cohen, “Twilight of the Citizen-Soldier”, Parameters, Summer 2001, pp. 23-28. Cohen’s Citizens and Soldiers: Dilemmas of Military Service, Cornell University Press, 1985, subtly discusses the political implications of varying systems of military recruitment.

vi This formulation is too abrupt because it does not take into account the decay of the citizen-soldier ideal during the selective conscription from the end of the Korean War to that in Vietnam, which deferred or exempted high proportions of higher income and college educated groups.

vii Beth Bailey, America’s Army: making the All-Volunteer Force, Harvard University Press, 2009, is a current survey, though without special focus on the AVF’s changing social composition in relation to the society as a whole. Jason K. Dempsey, Our Army: Soldiers, Politics, and American Civil-Military Relations, Princeton University Press, 2010, studies the political culture enlisted ranks and officers. David R. Segal and Mady Wechsler Segal, “America’s Military Population”, Population Bulletin, 59:4, 1994. More recently, blacks have declined and Hispanics increased their respective presence in the AVF.

viii Arthur T. Coumbe...., U.S. Army Cadet Command.... U.S. Government Printing Office, p...

ix Casey Wardynski, David S. Lyle, Michael J. Colarusso, “Accessing Talent: the Foundation of a U.S. Army Officer Corps Strategy”, Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College,

March 29, 2010, pp. 9-13, passim, through http://www.strategicstudiesinstitute.army.mil/ and directly at http://www.strategicstudiesinstitute.army.mil/pubs/display.cfm?pubID=977 .

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