ROTC Debate Could be Hillary’s Sista Soulja

Peter Beinart contends that the flap over ROTC on college campuses is a “winning political issue, which has the added virtue of being morally important” and that, if she’s smart, Hillary Clinton will seize on it as her “Sister Souljah moment*.”

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.


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.

Smart advice. And she may well take it. Since joining the Senate, she has been quite shrewd in her positioning on military and national security issues. Whether out of genuine conviction or political calculation–or perhaps some combination of both–she has been on the right side of the Iraq War, border security, and several other issues. Even her recent demagoguery on the ports issue has been right politically.

Siding with ROTC over the Columbia faculty is indeed a no-brainer. Not only would it give her added credibilty among centrists but it would come at virtually no cost to her among her base. After all, her Ivy League bonafides are hardly in question.

*Note: This phrase was used in the emailed promo from TNR but does not appear in the article itself.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Steve says:

    I hope they ask her where she’s going to get the staff (active duty, reserve compenents and civlian admins) and the funding.

    Universities like Harvard will never be able to generate the commissioning numbers required justify a resident ROTC program. Though given the visiblity of having a program “return” to Harvard or Columbia, DA might swallow hard and fund one (or two or three).

    Fact is, these schools missed the boat when they kicked ROTC off their campuses almost 40 years ago. Yes, it’s been that long. I don’t see why they deserve another bite at the apple. The Army does quite well with graduates from the hundreds of other colleges in the US. If a Harvard or Yale grad truly desires to serve as a 2LT, they can always go through OCS. As some do today.

    Besides, these schools would have to agree to accept Military Science as “for credit courses”. I wonder how that will go down with the faculty that couldn’t tolerate Larry Summers as President.

  2. LJD says:

    This is yet another facet of the Clinton identity crisis. She criticizes the President for not securing the nation, then votes twice against money for border security. She admits to voting for the war (hard to wiggle out of that one), yet claims in a Kerry-esque manner ‘if we knew then what we know now…” So what? Is this indicative of her plans for leading the free world? Hindsight? She continually and unscrupulously tight rope walks the line…

    I can see through her B.S. Soon her ‘constituency’ will as well. Liberal academia will never support the imposition of ‘fascist’ military types on their turf. They will accept nothing less than an outright admission that the Iraq war is wrong, and an immediate withdrawal. As we saw in 2004, voters will absolutely not support wishy-washy diplomacy. They want a moderate, not a two-face.

    Of course, she could prove to be as teflon coated as her cigar afficionado husband. God help us.

  3. Jack Ehrlich says:

    Why don’t we just make an effort to get the Barrett Report published? Hints indicate the true nature of the former Clinton Administration, and could give insight as to what to expect from a H. Clinton Presidency. It could also bring crimial charges. I know why the Democrats do not wish it published, but why is it Republicans are not pushing for public release? The MSM will never voluntarily publish it.

  4. anjin-san says:

    I have mixed feelings about Hillary, and I question her electability in a national election. That being said, there is no doubt that she has more brains in her fingernail then Bush does in his entire body.