ROTC Resurgent

By Jay D. Jurie

Carrying an upside-down U.S. flag tacked onto a short wooden pole, a student at the head of a column of anti-Vietnam war students marching onto a University practice field was tackled by several pro-war student athletes. As the protest column continued to press onto the field the “jocks” and police struggled to bring it to a halt. They were unsuccessful and the protestors made their way through the ranks of parading cadets, turning the drill into a melee. This April 30, 1970 event was not the first time such a drill had been disrupted on the Boulder campus.

Early in the fall of 1969, the Student Peace Union (SPU) chapter approached their counterparts in the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) with a proposal.

SPU had decided the Reserve Officer Training Program (ROTC, pronounced “rotsee” by friend and foe alike) was the most visible manifestation of the Vietnam War on campus. While SDS elsewhere had devoted some attention to ROTC, this had not particularly filtered down to the Boulder chapter as an “action item.” SPU’s proposal was that SDS partner in demonstrating against ROTC.

At that time, ROTC held regular drills on an open field approximately two blocks from the heart of campus. SDS readily agreed with the SPU proposal, not only because of the high profile, but because it was viewed as an affront that ROTC paraded so openly while the carnage mounted in Vietnam. It was agreed the target of the protest would not be the individual cadets enrolled in ROTC, but the program itself and its relation to the University, the military and the war. SDS put out a very simple flyer that read only: “1) end ROTC. 2) reimburse students on ROTC scholarships.”

When the day of protest came, the two organizations, along with supporters, met at the student union fountain area and marched to the field where the ROTC drill was already under way. Proceeding onto the field protestors marched to and fro through the ranks of parading cadets and confusion reigned. There was no violence, but the drill was disrupted. ROTC instructors sized up the situation and called off the exercise.

At the next ROTC parade, the protest was repeated. Though they again marched from the fountain area together, relations between SPU and SDS were cool. From the outset it was clear there was a tactical dispute. SPU wanted to be a visible presence and make a statement in opposition to the war and ROTC on campus, while SDS wanted to do everything in its power to “stop the war machine” and end the killing.
Nearing arrival at the field, the column of protestors split into two, with SPU heading to the side of the field, and SDS marching toward the drill. This time, campus police were better prepared. They formed a cordon along the edge of the parade ground to prevent the SDS contingent from reaching the drill. However, SDS moved quickly and did an end run around the police line. As before, protestors managed to run through the ranks of drilling cadets and chaos ensued. There was no violence, but the drill was again disrupted.

Apparently the police realized if they chased the protestors across the field they would only contribute to the disruption. Again, ROTC instructors called off the drill. SDS was elated, believing the system had been beaten twice and one small corner of the war machine had been shut down, at least temporarily.

There was one more “ROTC smash” that fall, but by this time, in disagreement with SDS tactics, SPU had dropped out of the partnership. SDS figured the police would be too well prepared for a third successful march onto the field. Instead, when the marchers neared the field, they abruptly veered off and headed toward the stadium, where ROTC had its offices. Campus police rapidly redeployed and kept pace with the SDS march.

Outside the ROTC offices, a couple SDS leaders were making the usual anti-war speeches when the campus police chief noticed smoke billowing from the area where the ROTC parade was underway. He quickly realized they’d been duped. Several police officers stayed with the rally to keep an eye on the demonstrators and ensure the ROTC offices were protected, while the main force ran back to the field.

At that point, the protestors had a good laugh and dispersed. In the planning for the event a couple SDS members had volunteered to throw smoke bombs onto the field. This was not done in such a way as to cause any harm, but to make a symbolic point about the bombing of Vietnam, and to sow confusion and hopefully yet again cause disruption. In this respect the action was a success, as were all the ROTC “smashes” that fall. No one was injured, and remarkably, no one was kicked out of school and there were no arrests.

By the spring of 1970 both the SPU and SDS chapters were defunct. Filling the void of campus anti-war activism at the University of Colorado was the Student Mobilization Committee (SMC), a front group for the Young Socialist Alliance (YSA), the youth affiliate of the Trotskyite Socialist Workers Party (SWP). Meanwhile, the depredations of the Nixon-Kissinger regime in Southeast Asia had intensified. Campus awareness and activism across the country, and at the University of Colorado, reached its zenith that spring.

Students who were more militant, including many previously affiliated with SDS, became the very uneasy left-wing “junior partner” under the SMC umbrella. The dominant YSA faction, strategically if not ideologically, fulfilled the role played by SPU the previous fall. While a variety of anti-war actions took place early in the year, including an occupation of the first floor of the administration building, ROTC was not forgotten.

It was decided by late April ROTC would once again be a “smash” target. This time, it was understood well in advance by all in SMC there would be a divergence over tactics. As before, marchers gathered at the fountain area and set off for the ROTC drill field. This time the protest was larger, there were somewhere between 300 to 500 who participated. When the field was reached, the larger YSA-affliated contingent peeled off and in keeping with their strategy of mass rallies, like SPU the preceding fall, assumed positions along the sidelines.

Campus police turned out in full force, accompanying the march all the way to the field, where they formed a much larger cordon than before and were more fully equipped for a riot. Determined they were not going to be stopped, the more militant faction of SMC marched directly toward the line of police. Aligned with the police was a contingent of about 30 “jocks.”

As the two sides converged, the previously described scuffle broke out. Police chased demonstrators on and off the field. Police parked in cruisers adjacent to the field pursued some who fled across campus. Some students were handcuffed to a nearby chain link fence as the arresting officers returned to the fray. A student who thoughtfully came equipped with a handcuff key surreptitiously set them free.

On this occasion, a number people were tackled, knocked down, shoved, punched, or grabbed. While there was violence, there were no serious injuries. Most of the violence was initiated by the jocks, which the police ignored, and no jocks were arrested. It was widely believed by protestors that an understanding had been reached between the police and jocks beforehand.

Since some of those arrested had stayed on the sidelines, it was abundantly clear the University strategy was to target and get rid of those they identified as leaders of the campus anti-war movement. Nine of the anti-war students were arrested at the scene and nine more were subsequently charged with violating Colorado’s newly-enacted “Campus Disorder Act.” As it turned out, no one was ever tried for the Boulder “ROTC smashes” of 1969-70. Eventually, the case of the “Boulder 18” wound up in front of the Colorado Supreme Court, which ruled the statute unconstitutionally vague, threw it out, and quashed the charges.

After the final “smash” in 1970 the University moved all ROTC drills inside the football stadium, where access was able to be controlled. For their part, Boulder’s anti-war protestors won at least a minor victory by visibly exposing University complicity with the military and the war. While ROTC was not forced off campus, the protests resulted in some change of “business as usual.”

While what occurred in Boulder was unique, it was far from the only protest against ROTC during the anti-Vietnam war era, or even well before that era. Since its inception, ROTC has proven controversial. Part of the original purpose of ROTC was found in the Morrill Land Grant Act of 1862, which gave states federal land that included a stipulation for military coursework. In 1898 the War Department attempted to clarify this by proposing military instruction be provided by officers assigned as faculty, that students in those courses be required to wear uniforms, and that this instruction be made mandatory. Enactment of the National Defense Act of 1916 formally established ROTC and extended it to private as well as public colleges.

Some have argued ROTC played an essential role in keeping the military grounded in civil society. According to Michael S. Neiberg, as opposed to officers trained in elite military academies, one perspective held that “civilian educated officers would bring to military service a wider and more rounded background. They would also bring to the military a value system more consistent with American society by virtue of having lived in a civilian environment.” On the other hand, some have argued that ROTC desensitizes the civilian population to the militarization of society and the inimical purposes that may be served by the military. University of Washington SDS in 1969 was quoted by Neiberg as contending that “If the university’s role in cooperating with ROTC is the production of officers, our universities have become, in part, mere extension schools of our government’s military establishment…The university continues to produce the tools to make possible policies such as those which led the U.S. into war in Asia.”

ROTC had become so well-established by the 1920s that John Dewey and others created a Committee on Militarism and Education. By the 1930s a few educational institutions either dropped the program or changed its status from mandatory to voluntary. However, most schools that had the program retained it, usually with the requirement that two years of participation in the program were obligatory for all male students.

ROTC received a boost during World War II, but after the war controversy returned. Motivated by the Cold War and the threat of nuclear annihilation in the late 1950s and early 1960s, ROTC sparked protest. In May 1960, protestors at Boston University picketed, leafletted, petitioned, and placed a table with a protest sign in a ROTC parade route.

As the Vietnam war heated up in the mid and late 1960s, so did protests against ROTC. In addition to demonstrations, ROTC facilities were set on fire at Stanford, Michigan, Kent State, and the University of Colorado. There was a perception held by a number in the anti-war movement that this violence paled in comparison with, and was justified by, the widespread use of napalm and the tonnage of bombs dropped in Vietnam. Some schools, in response to these protests, removed the mandatory requirement. Others, like the Colorado School of Mines, kept it in place into the 1970s.

Even where ROTC was no longer compulsory, such as the University of Colorado, the program became a focal point of the anti-war movement. During the late 1960s and into the 1970s over 80 ROTC programs were dropped, mostly from the elite universities where it had drawn the most opposition. While ROTC was dropped from some schools, it was established in less “controversial” mostly public university locations.

Nonetheless, a rough status quo was maintained for decades after the Vietnam war ended. During that time frame many colleges and universities enacted clauses banning discrimination against gays. Because the military engaged in such discrimination, this effectively kept ROTC off campus at those schools. When the military “don’t ask don’t tell” policy was dropped in 2010, some institutions began to reconsider re-establishing their relationship with ROTC.

Harvard, Yale, and Columbia are among those that have brought ROTC back onto campus, and Brown has been considering the matter. ROTC has regained a certain popularity among students. Not only have the draft and the memory of Vietnam faded, but military service is seen as patriotic in the wake of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, and an employment option in a tough economy.

While the military may no longer be engaged in overt discrimination against gays, the earlier objections to ROTC largely remain in place. So long as the U.S. maintains a foreign policy based on dominance, resource exploitation, and the containment of those believed to be at odds with the elite interests, it is evident that resurgent ROTC programs will continue to provide officers to serve those interests.

Sources: Allan Brick, The Campus Protest Against ROTC, Southern Student Organizing Committee, no date; Editorial: Reconsidering ROTC, The Brown Daily Herald; Larry Gordon, Once a Campus Outcast, ROTC is Booming at Universities, Los Angeles Times, June 1, 2011; Tara W. Merrigan & Zoe A.Y. Weinberg, Harvard to Officially Recognize Naval ROTC, Harvard Crimson, March 3, 2011; Michael S. Neiberg, Making Citizen-Soldiers: ROTC and the Ideology of American Military Service, Cambridge: Harvard, 2000; Fahmida Y. Rashid, The Return of ROTC to Columbia, The Village Voice, April 6, 2011.

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