Incompatibility and Divorce of Institutions: Civil-Military Conflict in the Reserve Officers' Training Corps' Departure from Yale during the Vietnam War

By Song, Midshipman Third Class Andrew | Military Review, July/August 2019 | Go to article overview

Incompatibility and Divorce of Institutions: Civil-Military Conflict in the Reserve Officers' Training Corps' Departure from Yale during the Vietnam War


Song, Midshipman Third Class Andrew, Military Review


The President's Ad Hoc Committee on the Reserve Officers' Training Corps (ROTC) at Yale University released a confidential memorandum to its president, Kingman Brewster Jr., on 29 April 1969. This report extensively outlined Yale's ROTC curriculum and listed possible administrative actions concerning the program's future.1 At the time, the document stated that Yale's Army and Naval ROTC consortium hosted over 211 students-of whom 147 were Yale undergraduates.2 By 1972, however, the official number of ROTC participants turned to zero. Since its inception in 1701, Yale graduated the Navy's first flying ace, taught the Nation's first spy, and inaugurated the first U.S. Naval Air Reserve unit.3 What prompted a school with such a long and rich military history to renegotiate its relationship with the Department of Defense (DOD)? What ensued following the sudden separation of American colleges like Yale and the Armed Forces?

To many historians, the answer to why ROTC left college campuses like Yale is simple: antiwar sentiments. This article, however, argues how unrelated, preexisting sources of tension between Yale and the military functioned as the primary reasons behind ROTC's expulsion. In other words, the exodus of ROTC from Yale did not stem from the single-handed efforts of antiwar protesters. Rather, the program lost its place on campus due to lobbying efforts by various demographics that had already found ROTC's academic status and creed contrary to their interests. Faculty frustration over the excessive promotion of ROTC's academic standing, religious perspectives, and the timing of Brewster's reforms all factored in the decision to remove ROTC. The abolishment of ROTC in 1972 until its return to Yale's campus in 2012 narrates an untold story-one that exposes motivations disguised by the fervor of the American antiwar movement.4 The story of Yale's relationship with ROTC during the 1960s captures misunderstanding and misperception. Its event informs us about the mutual divorce between the military and higher education, and the contemporary legacy of ROTC's bans in institutions, especially those of the Ivy League. In effect, the Yale ROTC debate gives us new understanding into a conflict surrounding a military program so significant that its presence aggravated a wide polarization in communities during and after the Vietnam War.

Background on ROTC

In order to disaggregate the key figures and groups that influenced the debate over ROTC, one must examine the prewar era when ROTC thrived and its existence was unquestioned. ROTC began under the premise of training college-aged men in preparation for a U.S. entrance into World War I. Congress legislated ROTC officially through the 1916 National Defense Act, and by 1918, over 135 colleges hosted an elementary ROTC unit.5 Unlike today's modern-day voluntary program, ROTC, at the time, required all physically eligible males to participate in a two-year mandatory capacity. Upon completion, there existed no obligation to continue or commission into the National Guard or the military reserves. At the conclusion of World War I, bureaucrats viewed ROTC as an immediate success that warranted further expansion. In its infancy, ROTC excited college administrators for several reasons. The initiative bestowed physical exercise benefits to its students, taught ethics, and instructed discipline. To clarify, the central purpose of ROTC was to familiarize American males to the military environment-not to aim for the recruitment of career officers. From the programs foundation, the military understood and predicted that the majority of college undergraduates who commissioned never planned on creating a military career for themselves. Yet, after high praise for ROTC-commissioned officers in World War II, the DOD advocated for more sponsorship of ROTC units and the establishment of more host universities. By 1955, ROTC reached 355 colleges in all of the United States along with the territory of Puerto Rico. …

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