‘It’s good for the country that the Ivies get a little skin in the game in this fight,” Harvard professor Kevin Parker said about the decision to welcome the Reserve Officer Training Corps back on campus. An engineer, Parker demonstrates dramatically that a technical background does not preclude a colorful quote.
Parker also is an Army officer, with three tours in Afghanistan, and has been appointed by Harvard President Drew Faust to lead an ROTC implementation committee. The Navy program is expected to be joined soon by the Army and Air Force. Students currently pursue military training through a respected regional consortium based at MIT.
ROTC was thrown off campus more than 40 years ago, during intense — and at times violent — national controversy over the Vietnam War. In May 1970, a particularly notorious incident occurred at Kent State, where the Ohio National Guard had been deployed to break up student demonstrations. Some panicked guardsmen opened fire, killing four students and wounding nine others. A burning ROTC building added to the carnage at the scene.
In more recent years, Harvard and other universities have objected to the military’s prohibition on service by gays and lesbians. The repeal of that ban by Congress has opened the door for renewed cooperation.
Faust’s example should be emulated by other university leaders. She has taken a step forward in cooperation, along with communication, between the civilian and military sectors of our society. Especially in a democracy, there is inherent tension between these dimensions, but also opportunities for collaboration.
Historically, the military has been heavily involved in the economic development of the United States. In the 19th century, the services carried out extensive mapping, engineering and scientific projects, providing support and security. The Corps of Engineers was a principal route to senior rank in the Army, and it continues to play significant roles in management of waterways.
Also, the military has served as a source of upward mobility through education and training. The Army traditionally was viewed as “the poor boy’s college,” and today all branches of the service perform that role for ambitious young women and men. ROTC programs were begun in 1916 as part of preparedness for World War I.
The military draft that started during World War II ensured that the services would reach relatively broadly throughout American society. President Richard Nixon’s decision in the early 1970s to end the draft immediately reduced political pressures associated with the very unpopular Vietnam War, and has led to a highly effective professional military, but has significantly increased the social and psychological segregation of the services from the wider American society.
Professor Parker indirectly alludes to this, and to the value of diversity, in noting that ROTC on campus “will allow us to reach into the demographics that we want at Harvard, men and women committed to national security.”
Parker is the Thomas D. Cabot Professor, linking him to one of the most eminent old patrician families of Boston. A local ditty from an earlier age went that “The Cabots speak only to the Lodges, and the Lodges speak only to God.”
In 1952 in Massachusetts, Rep. John F. Kennedy defeated incumbent Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge, a major political upset. Lodge’s distinctive Social Register standing did not count for much with an electorate caught up in post-war social change, including many veterans whose military experience provided new opportunities.
Arthur I. Cyr is the Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College.