ROTC and Yale:

Which is the four-letter word?


The Yale Free Press

December 2005


By Joseph Callo




      In an article about ROTC in the Yale Daily News of 21 January 2005, reporter Jessica Marsden quoted Yale President Richard Levin as saying, “It’s a difficult question of values.” President Levin has it right; the ROTC issue, more than anything else, involves values.  And among the values involved is Yale’s former, forward leaning tradition of support of the U.S. military—dare we call it patriotism?

      In any event, that tradition was repudiated in 1969. Yale Larned Professor of History emeritus Gaddis Smith described the events pretty accurately—from the University’s point of view—in a chapter of Time and Change—Yale 1952—The 50th Reunion:

“The presence of the Reserve Officer Training Corps programs was (in 1968) the key Vietnam issue at Yale and elsewhere. Since 1917 ROTC…had been an academic anomaly, providing credit toward the Yale degree with courses of slight intellectual weight taught by officers with courtesy faculty rank but slight teaching experience. By happenstance, a review of ROTC on academic grounds by the Yale College faculty coincided in 1968 with a campaign by leftist students to expel ROTC altogether. The outcome was the adoption by the faculty and the Yale Corporation in 1969 of a new set of conditions for the continuation of ROTC without academic credit or faculty rank for the military and naval instructors. The Pentagon said no deal—and ROTC departed. For many people with memories of World Wars I and II and Korea, Yale had betrayed its duty to country. For those who believed in the conditions the university set for retaining ROTC and/or who considered the Vietnam war a ghastly blunder, the outcome reflected the higher duty to criticize and dissent.”

      There’s a lot of emotional content between the lines of Professor Smith’s chronology. And, he rightly ends his summary with opposing views, leaving it for his reader to search for conclusions about what really went on. Did Yale betray its extended family and country? Or, did the university’s actions simply serve its higher purpose by fostering dissent? Those are provocative questions, and when emotions run high, it’s useful to begin at the beginning.

In the Shadow of a Hangman’s Noose

      Yale’s tradition of support for our military goes back a long way. Nathan Hale, whose statue stands outside the university’s oldest existing building, provides a dramatic entry point for an examination of the school’s earliest military connections. He was a member of the Yale class of 1773.

      As a Continental Army militiaman, Hale was a prototype for the thousands of volunteer, non-career military officers Yale has introduced into America’s military culture over the years. And when the news of Lexington and Concord spread, he reportedly spoke for immediate militia action in the cause of liberty. Then, as a captain in Washington’s struggling army, Hale volunteered for a dangerous spy mission and was caught by the British. He was 20 years old when British General William Howe hanged him without a trial. Hale’s final words are an inspiration for those who believe that patriotism is not a situational value: “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.”

      Other Yale graduates also served in the Continental military during the American Revolution, including Timothy Dwight, class of 1769 and President of Yale College from 1795-1817 and David Humphries, class of 1771. Dwight was a Continental Army chaplain and Humphries fought at Yorktown. Presumably one of the factors in the service of Yale men in the Revolution was that militia training was included in Yale’s freshman curriculum at the time. In The Memorial Quadrangle—A Book about Yale, compiled by Dudley French, there is a reference to this in a description of Zephaniah Swift, class of 1778: “The winds of war were blowing up through the land when they (Swift’s class) entered Yale, and military training was part of the curriculum in their freshman year.”

ROTC Enters the Yale Scene

      Yale was among the small group of private universities that established Army ROTC programs in 1917, as the United States entered WWI. The roots of the private universities’ actions were in two legislative acts: the Morill Act of 1862 and the National Defense Act of 1916. The former legislation established Land Grant Colleges, with a requirement for part time training of military officers. Part of the rationale for creating an additional source of military officers was that it could introduce perspectives into the military that would be somewhat different from those of officers trained at the then-two military academies. The latter law established the modern form for ROTC programs and was based, to a significant extent, on the British Officer Training Corps established at the beginning of WWI.

      But, perhaps the most intriguing WWI link between Yale and the U.S. military was the First Yale Unit, a unique group of undergraduates who made U.S. Navy history. The student group, led by F. Trubee Davison, was a self-trained, self-financed, self-equipped, all volunteer collection of aviation enthusiasts who foresaw the coming importance of military aviation. After months of struggling with government bureaucracy, Davison convinced the U.S. Navy that his unit could make an important contribution in the coming war. Thirteen days before the United States entered the war, the First Yale Unit was officially commissioned.

      The volunteer naval aviators had the university’s overt support. On 28 March 1917, several days before the United States entered the war, Yale’s Emergency War Council supported the interruption of undergraduate educations with voluntary military service saying: “[I]f he is an undergraduate in good and regular standing at the time of leaving, who has advanced to Junior year, due credit towards a degree will be given him for satisfactory work in the Army or Navy.”

      First Yale Unit members distinguished themselves for their combat courage and flying skill. The group is considered to be the beginning of the U.S. Naval Air Reserve, whose thousands of members have served their country above and beyond the call of duty. Many of the unit’s original unit members went on after the war to be nationally recognized for noteworthy postwar careers in business and government.

      Yale also was among the original six universities that established Navy ROTC units in 1926, along with the University of California at Berkeley, Georgia Institute of Technology, Northwestern University, University of Washington, and Harvard. In 1932 the Marine Corps entered the NROTC program.

The Greatest Generation at Yale

      Following what was by then a well established tradition of broadly based and pro active support of the U.S. military, thousands of Yale’s graduates served in WWII and the school was thoroughly involved in military training with such efforts as the Navy’s V-12 program. The V-12 program provided students an opportunity to complete their undergraduate Yale educations, while also preparing for active duty as naval aviators.

      After WWII an Air Force ROTC unit was established at Yale. At that point, the university had ROTC units for all of the armed services. And thousands of its graduates had gone on to active military duty, bringing their Yale perspectives with them, most for relatively brief periods before civilian careers and some for distinguished lifetime active duty or reserve careers.

      Yale’s Post WWII involvement with U.S. national defense continued unselfconsciously into the 1960s, and author Robin Winks illuminated a special aspect of that involvement in Cloak and Gown—Scholars in the Secret War, 1939-1961. The book’s dust jacket cites the work as an exploration of “the underlying bonds between the world of the university and that of the intelligence community,” where “Yale men, and a few women, were numerous.”

      In his book, Winks, a Yale professor and college master, included Norman Holmes Pearson, who served in the intelligence path finding U.S. Office of Strategic Services during WWII and in the post-war Central Intelligence Agency. Pearson also led the immensely popular undergraduate American Studies program at Yale during the 1950s, 60s, and early 70s. Winks also included James Jesus Angleton, Yale ’41, in his book. Angleton headed up the Central Intelligence Agency’s counterintelligence efforts for 25 years.

      On the evidence, there can be little doubt that many Yale graduates moved quietly into the nation’s Cold War intelligence community during the 1950s and 1960s. In almost all cases, their stories will never be told.

Yale Dismisses the Troops

      Then came the Vietnam War. It wasn’t the first U.S. war against which there was internal dissent. During the American Revolution, half the population was against separation from Great Britain. There were anti-draft riots during the American Civil War, and WWII had its “America First” dissenters before Pearl Harbor.

      One of the special and irrational characteristics of the Vietnam War dissent, however, was the degree of vehemence directed specifically at the American military. It was a time, for example, when military personnel were harassed and even assaulted on the streets of our cities. Active duty and reserve military personnel in New York City, for example, were ordered to wear civilian clothes to work, and military offices in that city were not listed in their lobby directories, lest they be attacked by bombers. ROTC buildings on university campuses throughout the country were dynamited and burned. Wives of military pilots who were prisoners of war in Vietnam received anonymous Christmas Eve phone calls, enthusiastically telling them that their POW husbands were getting exactly what they deserved in their Hanoi hell holes.

      The academic community was, unfortunately, in the forefront of the era’s hate-the-military attitudes. And many educators are still there. As recently as February of this year, there was a newspaper report of a sixth-grade teacher sending anti-military letters to a GI as part of a class “social studies” assignment.  

      The signature event of the time for media was the series of Kent State University riots of May 1970. Early in the sequence of anti-military demonstrations—presumable based on “free speech”—the Kent State ROTC building was burned to the ground. And after four days of violence in the town of Kent and on the Kent State Campus, four university students were shot and killed by Ohio National Guardsmen. The protesters and their sympathizers claimed that the people who were shot were peaceful demonstrators. On the other hand, the governor of Ohio James Rhodes, who had called in the state’s National Guard to stop the rioting and arson, described the demonstrators as “the worst type of people we harbor in America, worse than the brownshirts and the communist element.” 

      Then, it just happened at the time that universities, including Yale, began to reevaluate the academic credentials of the ROTC program. Some said that the courses were too “vocational.” Others said that the courses lacked “intellectual weight.” The more aggressive dissenters simply said that it was immoral for intellectual bastions to associate with those who were trained to blow things up and kill people.  Not surprisingly, it also just happened that university committees—comprised of various combinations of students, faculty, and administrators—found the ROTC programs were not intellectually worthy of a university campus presence. New requirements for the ROTC units were then established by many universities, again including Yale.

      The rest, as they say, is history. By 1973 many universities simply did not renew contracts with the Department of Defense, and other units were withdrawn by DOD. A survey by The Harvard Crimson that year reported that “the ROTC program is…dead and buried at Harvard, Yale, Brown, Columbia and Dartmouth.” The survey also reported that “ROTC is so far gone at Yale that even the administrators no longer remember clearly when it began, when it ended or who was in charge of it.” The smirk in The Harvard Crimson’s reporting reflected a broad campus attitude that had replaced the relationship of cooperation and respect that generally existed between American universities and the military for two centuries.

Whoa, Not so Fast

      There are several details involved with the forgoing process that have been glossed over for years but that deserve some exploration. One is the frequently repeated statement that ROTC units were “of slight intellectual weight.”

      For one thing, although ROTC is almost always thought of as a single entity, it is not one program but a series of programs. The Army, Navy/Marine Corps, and Air Force curricula and faculties are all different, and each is administered by its own service. And from personal experience, I can unequivocally attest to the fact that the NROTC courses in the early 50s were more rigorous than some of the other Yale undergraduate offerings of the time. In addition, the instructors were well qualified and highly motivated. Further, there were initial requirements in math and science for the NROTC program that exceeded those of Yale College in general. Based on that experience, one could conclude that perhaps the blanket condemnation of all ROTC programs was driven by something other than a spontaneous concern for academic standards.

      Further, if there was a concern with academic quality in the various ROTC programs at Yale, those concerns should have been articulated with specificity, so they could be addressed by the military service involved. Withdrawing academic credit and official faculty status of the military instructors across the board does not seem to be what the circumstances called for. In fact, it could be reasonably perceived as a rationalization for a decision that all things military on the campus had to go.

New Cover for Old Enmity

      Presently, the old indictments of inadequate academic content and the claimed immorality of the Vietnam War have faded. And they have been replaced primarily by objections based on the government’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy towards homosexuals. Gay activists claim discrimination. A recent example appeared the The Yale Herald with a quote from a Law School student Fadi Hanna, co-chair of the Student/Faculty Alliance for Military Equality (SAME): “We would actually like to have JAG (Judge Advocate General) recruiters and ROTC on campus, but we don’t want them compromising our non-discrimination policies.” This is a typical mischaracterization of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy as discriminatory. In fact, the policy is a common sense agreement that recognizes the right of homosexuals who wish to enlist in one of the armed services to do so.

      And, if you had lived for two years in a shipboard compartment approximately fifteen feet by fifteen feet, with two double bunks, a desk, a sink, and a double locker, the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy strikes one as a reasonable recognition of reality.

      Part of the problem with “don’t ask, don’t tell” is the unwillingness by some to recognize that the military is not the same as corporate, academic, or, in fact, any other kind of civilian activity. It has special requirements that are in place to give those involved the best chance of staying alive, and in the process, providing an effective military defense force for our country. These special requirements are not driven by social agendas or moral judgments but by practical considerations that relate to military—and especially combat—realities. 

      Finally, it seems to be an intellectual anomaly for Yale and other universities to fall back to the position that banning ROTC is basically a matter of free speech. That argument simply stands the principle involved on its head by denying others’ speech and rights. A letter to the editor in The Wall Street Journal of 16 December 2004 by David J. Arthur put it in elegantly simple terms. The letter read: “University faculties ingeniously use the language of tolerance to justify their intolerance for viewpoints that differ from their own. Faculties tell the military and others that they must agree with the faculty’s views on what fair personnel policies are or be banned from the university. This arrogant intolerance of particular opinions is counter to the very tolerance universities profess to favor.”

      But the intellectually inconsistent thinking Mr. Arthur describes is, unfortunately, politically correct in today’s world. And that is the most distressing aspect of the present ROTC situation at Yale. A great university has displaced a centuries-old tradition of support for some of our nation’s best and bravest with verbal gymnastics and political correctness. Yale has traded some of its most precious values for a trendy, anti-intellectual conformity.

      And if one doubts that Yale is in the thrall of inherently anti-military political correctness, one should be reminded of the truism that you can judge an organization by whom it honors. Now, think hard; when was the last time Yale honored a graduate—anyone, for that matter—for achievement in a military career? 

The Way Ahead

      During the interview cited at the beginning of this article, Yale President Levin responded to questions about ROTC by saying that there are no new university decisions on the issue. He added: “We’ve had some conversations, not directly with ROTC, but with some individuals interested in trying to facilitate that.”

      Indications suggest, however, that it is time for the university to do the right thing and reverse its politically correct but intellectually inconsistent ROTC policy. The virulent anti-military attitude that infected university students of the 1960s and 1970s has devolved into an array of left-leaning activist groups and individuals, mostly focused on Gay rights. Today, the inherited anti-military attitude of the late 1960s and early 1970s is being challenged, in one respect, by the question: “Why not ROTC?” Consider the following:

·       A Columbia Spectator report claims that a recent undergraduate referendum produced a roughly two to one favorable vote for ROTC.

·       The commander of the MIT ROTC Battalion, where Harvard ROTC students have classes and drills, has cited a significant increase in ROTC access to the Harvard campus during the past five years. 

·       The Yale College Republicans are campaigning for an undergraduate petition that will help to determine, among other things, if there should be increased discussion with the university administration about bringing ROTC back.

·       Even some media are beginning to suggest that there is a significant amount of intellectual hypocrisy associated with Yale’s attitude of “What issue?” An editorial in the New Haven Register of 18 February defines the university’s intellectual contradiction in dollar denominated terms: “The university takes $300 million in U.S. government money annually but has not had ROTC instruction on campus since the Vietnam era war protests.”

      There are two thoughts that President Levin, the Yale administration, and particularly the Yale faculty should consider from their pinnacle of cool. The first is an idea nicely expressed by humorist Will Rogers: “If you’re riding ahead of the herd, take a look back every now and then to make sure it’s still there.” The second idea is something that by now—borrowing a Margaret Thatcher phrase—“is so obvious that only very sophisticated people seem unable to grasp it.” Yale needs ROTC more than ROTC needs Yale.



Mr. Callo was commissioned from the Yale NROTC. He is a retired U.S. Navy Reserve rear admiral and an author.  His next book John Paul Jones: America’s First Sea Warrior will be published in March.  During his life, he has witnessed WWII, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Gulf War, the Afghanistan War, and the Iraq War. The views he represents are his own.  Email