Reserve Officers Training Corps (R.O.T.C.)

Reserve Officers Training Corps (R.O.T.C.) at Princeton began quietly in the fall of 1919 with the establishment of an army field artillery unit. Princeton was ``an ideal location'' for such a unit, according to Major John McMahon, Jr., the first Professor of Military Science and Tactics. ``It is out in the country where there is plenty of available land for riding,'' he wrote. ``The soft country roads are only a few minutes ride from the stables, thus affording the students a wonderful opportunity to ride in the midst of the pleasantest surroundings.'' The military training unit under his command soon included a half dozen Regular Army officers, two dozen enlisted men, a battery of French '75s, and ninety horses.

The field artillery unit remained horse-drawn long after Nassau Street was clogged by automobiles; indeed, the first trucks did not make a caisson roll till 1937, and ``seventy horses'' were still listed in the 1940 catalog. A course on Hippology and Military Law was offered in the 1922 catalogue (``The conformation of the horse, lameness and disease, age by the teeth, bitting, stable hygiene, shoeing, gaits . . .'') and, about the same time, polo was established as an intercollegiate sport at Princeton (indoor champions in 1921) with polo ponies furnished the ROTC by the War Department.

The start of the program in 1919, coming so soon after the Armistice that ended the ``war to end all wars,'' had not been a propitious time to start military training on the campus. Early enrollments lagged, but an unlikely combination -- the Daily Princetonian and President John Grier Hibben (``We all pray . . . we may never have to undertake another war, but the fallacy of unpreparedness would be . . . a great national sin.'') -- urged students to participate. By late fall, 127 had enrolled, and in 1925 the number had grown to 600. By the time of Pearl Harbor, more than 2,000 Princetonians had been commissioned in the field artillery. Many of them served in World War II, and some gave their lives. One ROTC ~graduate, Lt. Colonel John U. D. Page '26, later won the Medal of Honor and lost his life at the Pusan Reservoir in Korea.

Suspended during World War II, the Army unit was reactivated in 1946 -- this time with 2-ton trucks and 105-mm. howitzers. With the establishment of a Naval ROTC unit in 1946 and an Air Force unit in 1951, ROTC became a significant presence on campus, with annual reviews, military balls, and commissioning by the president as part of Class Day ceremonies. The Cold War and the draft exemption for ROTC students, along with the scholarships offered by the three services, and a chance for a commission, pushed enrollments to an all-time high of 1,107 undergraduates in 1951. But even with the support given ROTC by Presidents Hibben and Dodds, there were always some who questioned the presence of a military training unit on a liberal arts campus. As early as 1927, an article in the Alumni Weekly had foreshadowed the principal arguments later put forth against ROTC when it declared that ``the course is not . . . properly . . . a part of a University curriculum, . . . and . . . is detrimental to the furtherance of permanent peace, toward which the University . . . should constantly strive.''

In the 1950s these problems multiplied. Faculty grew restive about granting academic credit for ROTC courses; students were increasingly reluctant to give up one course a semester for ROTC; and a number of professional associations, most notably in engineering, threatened not to accredit programs that gave course credit for ROTC. The University, under the leadership of Dean J. Douglas Brown, made an effort to add academic substance to ROTC by creating a series of special, alternative University-taught courses -- in psychology, politics, economics, and military history. Army and Air Force responded; but the Navy, which valued the ``readily employable ensign,'' did not. The ``Princeton Plan'' for reforming ROTC found little support outside the University and, even locally, proved at best a short-run solution to a mounting problem.

In the 1960s, as Vietnam emerged as the great issue on campus, enrollments dwindled and tensions mounted. By 1964 there had been a 70 percent decline to only 334 in all three units. Student groups, the Undergraduate Assembly, and members of the faculty began to insist upon an end to course credit for ROTC, as well as to departmental standing for ROTC programs and faculty status for on-campus military officers. President Goheen appointed a special faculty committee, which recommended such changes, and in the spring of 1969, the faculty overwhelmingly approved proposals that, in effect, converted ROTC into non-credit programs with the status of extra-curricular activities.

The invasion of Cambodia in May 1970 (when there were a mere 113 students in ROTC) brought the high point of campus anti-militarism -- a firebombing of the Armory. A month later, the trustees approved a proposal by faculty and students to terminate all three ROTC programs no later than June of 1972.

Yet within a year -- paralleling the unanticipated pendulum swing of student opinion that came with the end of the draft and the winding down of the war -- students in a 1971 Undergraduate Assembly referendum voted in favor of retaining ROTC under the conditions set by the faculty in 1969. Although the Air Force and the Navy were unwilling to accept the University's requirements and closed down their programs, the Army agreed to the contract the trustees offered in June 1972. That fall ROTC quietly returned to Princeton -- not as field artillery and not for course credit, but as a non-credit elective program of officer education. Thereafter, growth was modest but sustained. By 1976, seventy-four students (thirteen of them women) were enrolled, with the prospect of the first co-ed being commissioned in 1978.

Richard D. Challener


From Alexander Leitch, A Princeton Companion, copyright Princeton University Press (1978).

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