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War College

Hillary Clinton, congratulations. You’re the lucky recipient of a winning political issue, which has the added virtue of being morally important. Send your thanks to Columbia University and the U.S. Supreme Court.  

This week, the Court unanimously upheld the Solomon Amendment, which denies government funding to universities that prohibit military recruiting on campus. The ruling’s practical implications aren’t entirely clear, but they thrust an old, ugly issue back into the national spotlight: the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC).

For 90 years, ROTC has been a barometer of relations between America’s elite universities and American society. In 1916, when Congress created a national system of military training on campus, East Coast, liberal arts colleges clamored to be included. As historian Michael Neiberg notes, Ivy League universities were so fearful that ROTC would be confined to land-grant schools in the South and West, giving them “a monopoly on patriotism,” that students at Harvard, Princeton, Dartmouth, and Yale circulated a petition demanding that they be allowed to participate as well. And they succeeded. By 1955, every member of the Ivy League boasted its own ROTC detachment. At its height, Columbia graduated almost as many naval officers as the Naval Academy. But, in the late ’60s, under pressure from the campus left, most Ivy League schools expelled ROTC. And, when Richard Nixon abolished the draft—which many people joined ROTC in order to avoid—the program lost even more luster. Today, if students at Harvard, Columbia, Brown, or Yale want to join the anime society or the frisbee team, they can do so on campus. But, if they want to serve their country, they must take the bus across town.

As it happens, the epicenter of debate in the Ivy League over ROTC is at Columbia, in Clinton’s state of New York. Harvard President Larry Summers raised the issue before being dumped last month. But, ten months ago at Columbia, the university senate—composed of faculty, students, and administrators—actually took a vote. A student poll in 2003 had shown that a majority wanted the program restored. But the senate voted 53-10 to keep the ban in place. Columbia’s president, Lee Bollinger, voted against ROTC. Columbia’s provost, the eminent American historian Alan Brinkley, argued against letting the military return to campus. Outside the senate auditorium, some pro-ROTC students hung a banner reading a vote for ROTC is a vote for the heroes of our generation. With the Court decision as her pretext, Senator Clinton’s opportunity is clear: Go to Columbia and tell its leaders that those students are right, and they are wrong.

Politically, it’s a no-brainer. The national Democratic Party grew alienated from the U.S. military at exactly the time liberal campuses began expelling ROTC. A public call for its restoration could help undermine the anti-military stereotype that still plagues the party today.

But demanding ROTC’s restoration would be far more than a sop to conservative swing voters; it would signify the resurgence of a certain kind of liberalism. As Neiberg shows in his book, Making Citizen Soldiers, early- twentieth-century university administrators believed ROTC served a fundamentally liberal purpose. It infused the military with the spirit of intellectual openness found in the academy and thus “prevent[ed] the creation” of a narrow, isolated “military caste.” When the New Left attacked ROTC during the Vietnam years, it was precisely this vision of liberal patriotism that it was trying to destroy. Groups like Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) didn’t want to reform and humanize the U.S. military; they wanted the military to be as reactionary and isolated as possible so Americans would grow alienated from it. The New Left’s strategy, as SDS leader Tom Hayden explained, was to “arouse the sleeping dogs on the [r]ight” and thus force Americans to choose between fascism and revolution. And, in that effort, the most illiberal forces in the U.S. military were the New Left’s tacit allies. As Neiberg explains, some in the military were pleased to see ROTC expelled from the Ivy League, since they felt uncomfortable on liberal, antiwar campuses.

Today, ROTC’s opponents are no longer politically radical. They’re not antimilitary, they insist, they just oppose its “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy toward gays and lesbians. They’re simply treating the military the same way they treat every other organization that discriminates.

But that’s exactly the problem. The military isn’t like every other organization: Its members risk their lives to defend the United States. When such an institution discriminates, you can—and should—try to reform it from within. That’s what ROTC was designed for. But, when you treat it like a pariah—while still insisting that it protect you—you have broken the contract that binds a democratic military and a democratic people.

In his speech opposing ROTC, Brinkley compared making gays serve under “don’t ask, don’t tell” to making blacks who serve pass for white. But, of course, Columbia embraced ROTC even when the U.S. military did discriminate against blacks. And, more important, blacks themselves enlisted in vast numbers. In so doing, they weren’t endorsing racism; they were recognizing that, when a racist institution also defends your country, you have to embrace it and fight to change it at the same time.

Today, the Serviceman’s Legal Defense Network—which represents gays and lesbians in the military—understands the same thing. Which is why it does not oppose ROTC on campus, even as it struggles heroically against “don’t ask, don’t tell.” It is Bollinger and Brinkley who, by shunning the military, have placed themselves in the oppositional, anti-liberal tradition of the New Left.

And today, as in the past, some in the military are happy to oblige. What the students of the Ivy League feared in 1916 has largely come to pass: ROTC has overwhelmingly shifted to the universities of the South and West, where the military can pursue its discriminatory policies with less fear of challenge. The officer corps has become far more ideologically isolated and politically partisan than it was before Vietnam. And, not coincidentally, so have elite universities like Columbia. All of which is disastrous for the Democratic Party, and, more importantly, for American liberalism. Hillary Clinton, what are you waiting for?

This article appeared in the March 20 & 27, 2006 issue of the magazine.