The Reserve Officers’ Training Corps today is considered an important pillar of the U.S. military establishment. ROTC programs are offered at about 1,700 colleges, providing enrollees a path of upward mobility in exchange for their military service and good citizenship.
Its prosaic presence in American life today, however, hides its controversial origins.
In this episode of History As It Happens, a sliver of an important story — the rise of militarism in early 20th century America — illuminates a larger dilemma. For when the ROTC was proposed as part of the National Defense Act of 1916, antiwar activists joined critics of imperialism in what would amount to a failed attempt to convince Congress to kill the bill.
As discussed in recent episodes, an organized and vocal peace movement once existed in the U.S. This movement questioned the wisdom of getting involved in wars on other continents and spending excessive amounts on the military. And it warned that Prussianism would harm the country’s youth and the education system.
In extensive congressional hearings, those voices clashed with powerful forces behind the Preparedness Movement, who argued the U.S. was not ready to join combat in Europe because of the desultory state of its armed forces. In this maelstrom was born the ROTC and with it a marriage between two great American institutions: the military and academia.
“There were preparedness parades in major cities. There were anti-preparedness parades in major cities, because getting into the war was extremely contentious. There was a massive peace movement,” said Paul McBride, Ithaca College professor emeritus of 20th century U.S. history.
Mr. McBride enrolled in ROTC and served as a civil liaison officer in Vietnam in 1965. His experience spurred his research, upon returning to the United States one year later, into the origins of ROTC. The program was mandatory for all male students at the University of Georgia, where Mr. Bride pursued his Ph.D. in history.
At the 1916 congressional hearings, “people from all over the country testified. John Dewey strongly opposed bringing the military into the academy. On the one hand, [colleges] are for the free exchange of ideas. On the military side, it is ‘you believe what we tell you,’” Mr. McBride said.
“The most important thing was that [the act] created the National Research Council … to conduct research into mathematical, biological and physical science aspects of defense. That is the origin of what Eisenhower later was to warn us about, the military-industrial complex.”
The following decade, a bill was introduced in Congress to eliminate the ROTC for the same reasons its critics had cited when they fought the 1916 legislation. But this time the criticisms were angrily dismissed, and the bill did not make it out of committee.
By the mid-1920 powerful conservative forces had emerged in American life, Mr. Bride said, dramatically diminishing the room for public criticism of the armed forces.
For more of historian Paul McBride’s remarks about the history of the ROTC and what the debates surrounding its creation tell us about the rise of militarism, listen to this episode of History As It Happens.