ROTC: SDS Challenges the Liberal Position

by Alan Gilbert, instructor in government, Harvard University

As a result of student protests against the Vietnam war, the presence of ROTC has become an issue on the Harvard campus this fall. Some official university bodies . . . have voiced a limited opposition to ROTC which maintains the dominant liberal conception of the government, the Army, and the University. The SDS position, on the other hand, fundamentally opposes the present structure of American society and perceives the existing relations between these institutions in a new way. The differences between these two views may be summarized as follows:

High Harvard Standards

In the liberal view, ROTC courses, presently offered for credit, do not measure up to Harvard's high intellectual standards. Course credit should be withdrawn, but ROTC should be allowed to remain on campus as an extracurricular activity.

In the radical view, ROTC is bad because it provides leadership for an Army engaged in the suppression of just popular movements at home and abroad. Hence, ROTC should be abolished. It makes little difference to the Vietnamese or to American black people whether the Army secures "human resources" on college campuses in an extracurricular rather than a curricular fashion.

The liberal view portrays the University as a pure community of scholars concerned with the free pursuit of learning. Military education, directed by the Department of Defense (which appoints all ROTC instructors) degrades this rarefied conception of an independent academy. The liberal says that the military (or military education) can justifiably be considered in abstract, eternal terms outside the context of the Vietnam war and American imperialism.

Radicals view the university mainly in terms of its function in society: to inculcate the dominant ideology (and perhaps to produce some limited innovations in it) and train highly-skilled technicians and scientists; and secondarily, as a corporation maintaining profitable relations with its students and with American society at large.

In terms of the university's ideological functions, social science courses express the more-or-less explicit attitude that American democracy and American capitalism are good institutions (or at least not actively harmful ones) for Americans and other peoples, and that we should all be concerned about the "free world interests" which are in fact the interests of American business. Humanities courses tend to posit the existence of a great humanistic tradition in the minds of cultivated men. The masses, however, are not susceptible to such intellectual concerns, so learning must be kept alive in the sanctuary of universities.

This exclusive definition of humanism coincides nicely with the needs and interests of America's rulers, for they too are exclusive humanists (man being defined as his capital, if one has no money one has no desires, i.e., is not a man, on the sensitive register of the market).

In the power structure of the University, the main governing body is the Corporation. This body consists of 7 members who hold 1 chairmanship, 3 presidencies, and 33 directorships in major corporations. For such important businessmen running Harvard actively would be a waste of time and money.

Hence, they delegate the job to the Administration . . . The administrators view Harvard as an elite institution. Their admissions policies strengthen the already unegalitarian tendencies of American class structure, e.g., less than 4% of a Harvard entering class comes from household units earning less than $7,500 (the national median). The Administration approves the use of the University's vast resources in such enterprises as the power companies of the American South and in expansion into Cambridge. High tuition, the necessity for even well-off students to take low-paying university jobs and to keep wages low for the buildings and grounds workers, the effects of Harvard's presence in driving up rents in Cambridge - these are a few of the many ways in which Harvard's activities as a corporation hurt both students and workers. Harvard's administrators are men of the same class origins, education, and breeding as the Corporation executives. They are dedicated to perpetuating Harvard's usefulness to the American ruling class.

The question arises: If Harvard is that bad, what can radicals expect to accomplish in the University? Harvard is part of American capitalism. The nature of Harvard (i.e., the interests which control it and which it serves) cannot be changed short of a revolution which changes the nature of the society. But by building a strong radical student movement, it is possible to win limited victories, e.g., to abolish ROTC. Such a victory would not in itself change the nature of Harvard, but it could significantly affect the US government's capacity to carry on the Vietnam war. To the extent that one builds such a movement, some education also takes place at a university.

Liberal ideology encourages students to conceive of themselves as privileged beings above the conflicts of the real world, to remain "neutral", and hence, since these conflicts continue, to ally themselves with the dominant power. In the case of ROTC, liberalism justifies shadow-boxing over the withdrawal of credit while allowing ROTC to stay.

The radical position sees that students as well as working people at home and abroad are hurt by the functioning of the university. As against liberalism which says that students should be apolitical, self-interested, and neutral, the radical position says that students should ally with working people and fight against their common rulers. Thus, the fight to abolish ROTC aligns students with the people whom the American government oppresses.

Procedural Objections

When SDS challenges the liberal position as in fact a reactionary one, liberals resort to procedural objections. The university, they say, is above the realm of politics. Hence, the willingness of SDS to use tactics of "violent" confrontation in the university is in itself wrong. Given their definition of the university, liberals do not discuss the substance of the radical position; rather, they attack the tactics used by radicals and claim that the position itself is devoid of substance (e.g., they charge radicals with "mindless activism," "manufacturing issues," disrupting "normal" procedures, etc.)

Liberals then proceed to draw the conclusion that since radicals have no other purposes, they must be out to destroy the university; they must be "wreckers," "outside agitators," and "sons of Communists" (cf Dean Ford, Harvard Today, August 1968; Pusey, Annual Report, 1968; Dean Watson, Harvard Crimson, this fall) who "dupe" and "manipulate" more "wholesome" students.

In effect, liberals play on the image which many students have of the university as neutral, nonviolent, and rational in an attempt to divert student anger over the war, over the oppression of black and white working people, over their own situation, onto the tactics of radicals. Last year, in the aftermath of the Dow sit-in, for instance, the administration and the faculty sought to make the essential issue Mr. Leavitt's (the Dow recruiter's) "right of egress" from Mallinckrodt - he was kept an hour from his dinner - rather than the war ... Similarly, in the case of ROTC, liberals say that SDS is attacking the basic civil liberty of students to join any organization they choose. They claim that the issue is not what the army does, but free speech and association in the University. Finally, liberals threaten the radicals: if you do fight seriously against oppression and violate the cardinal principle of free speech, what will protect you in the next McCarthy era? (Given the performance of liberals in the last one, this argument is an especially blatant example of bad faith. See Jared Israel, "Free Speech at Harvard," Old Mole, No.2).

Radicals say: the only precedent created by driving ROTC off campus would be a good one - students should fight hard against imperialism. Such a precedent could hardly be turned against SDS. In fact, a strong student movement to drive ROTC off campus is the best protection radicals could have when liberals - because they are imperialists - try to destroy us.

Not Free Speech Issue

Radicals say free speech is not the issue; ROTC is an instrument of US Armed Forces engaged in a war against the Vietnamese people. The American Government's "right of conquest" is here counterposed to the Vietnamese people's right to rebel. But only one of these mutually exclusive rights is in fact a genuine right. The force which a robber uses to extort goods from his victim does not give him a right to those goods. The force applied to maintain social conditions in which the great majority live on the edge of starvation and are treated as animals and a small number of men live luxuriously (e.g., in Vietnam, both French colonialism and U.S. imperialism from Diem through Ky) cannot manufacture a right of conquest. The oppressed on the other hand have the right to try to forge a society in which they can live as men, i.e., a more egalitarian and autonomous society. They have, in other words, the right to rebel (what makes rebellion a right is that there can be no genuine, i.e., non-coerced agreement among the men who engage in it and who attempt to build a just society).

In many countries besides Vietnam, the US Army (and military aid and advice) shore up reactionary regimes. There is no "right" involved in these activities. Since ROTC is engaged in such activities, its "right" to recruit junior officers on college campuses can justly be suppressed. It is the right of conquest, not freedom of speech, what ROTC does, not what individual officers say, which will be suppressed by driving ROTC off the Harvard campus.

Misguided Patriotism

In addition, an attack on ROTC is not, except in the minds of desperate liberals, an attack on students in the ROTC program. Radicals believe that ROTC uses the real needs of such students, e.g., money to go to school, fear of the draft for an imperialist war, etc., to manipulate them into signing up. There is no genuine - only misguided patriotism - involved in a war of conquest or in service in the American army. We think, therefore, that many ROTC students can be won over to a radical position. . . .

This article appeared in The Old Mole, a Cambridge Massachusetts radical newspaper, January 13-26, 1969.  SDS refers to the radical group Students for a Democratic Society.