The Army Reserve Officers’ Training Corps: A Hundred Years Old and Still Going Strong

Written By Colonel Woolf Gross, USA-Ret.

In 2016, the Army Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) celebrated its centennial as the largest producer of commissioned officers for the U.S. Army. In its first century, Army ROTC has turned out over a million “shavetails” for the force. How it came into being is an interesting story involving famous people and coincidences.

Though this presentation celebrates the centennial of ROTC, not all of its observers and boosters agree that ROTC is that young. While some historians claim it days as far back as 1819 with the establishment of the American Literary, Scientific, and Military Academy (now known as Norwich University), others consider the Morrill Act of 1862 to be the enabler. The legislation, introduced by Senator Justin Smith Morrill (R-VT), was signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln on 2 July of that year. The Morrill Act responded to the dearth of trained engineers produced by the American educational system of the period. Its connection with the military was the fact that engineers of the time, and civil engineers in particular, were produced almost entirely by the U.S. Military Academy. As a result, the nation’s colleges and universities produced insufficient numbers of engineers to respond to the  burgeoning Industrial Revolution.

Harvard University’s ROTC cadets gather for a photograph on the steps of Widener Library in 1917. (Harvard University Archives)

What the Morrill Act did to address the engineer shortage, however, was to establish the system of Land-Grant Colleges, the goal of which had very little to do with the military. Now known familiarly as the agricultural and mechanical (A&M) colleges and universities in many states, their very stated mission—production of agriculturists and associated civil engineers—had very little to do with the Army. One peripheral requirement laid on grantees by the Morrill Act mandated unspecified military-related training. The War Department provided some funding and, in some cases, assigned active duty or retired officers to accomplish or supervise whatever military-oriented training a land-grant college might host.  Though the requirement imposed no federally-managed or organized mechanism for administration of such training, it has led some historians to cite this phenomenon as a grandfather for the ROTC.

Although the enactment of the Morrill Act was contemporaneous with the early stages of the Civil War—a phenomenon that perhaps lent some credence to historians associating it with the need for Army officers—this timing was purely coincidental. Its evolution began as early as 1857 and even then, the concept was not new.

Instead, the advent of ROTC as we now know it was clearly a response to the rumbling of the guns on the Western Front after 1914, as the possibility that the United States would be drawn into the maelstrom that became known as World War I increased. As the storm clouds gathered, the Army, led by Chief of Staff Major General Leonard Wood and private citizens interested in “preparedness,” established a series of military training camps funded by private donations. The camps attracted hundreds of businessmen and other professionals and provided them a few weeks of rudimentary military training. It was hoped by Wood and other supporters of the camps that these prominent men would return home with renewed interest in military preparedness and win new supporters for it in their communities.

Junior ROTC (JROTC) cadets from Breckinridge High School prepare to march in a parade commemorating the Battle of San Jacinto in San Antonio, Texas, 25 April 1941. The National Defense Act of 1920 established JROTC for high school students. (National Archives)

One tends to visualize planning for a more permanent source of newly commissioned lieutenants as resulting from the output of study groups and extended staff deliberations. The birth of ROTC, however, exploded largely from a most unmilitary luncheon of two old soldiers known famously for other exploits. Perhaps serendipity can best describe this singular luncheon meeting. The subject for discussion at this momentous get-together was the creation of a “blueprint” for the establishment of military officer training at civilian institutions of higher learning. The end result of the meeting was the outline of the present-day ROTC.

The two “fathers” of ROTC who met at the Harvard Club of New York in 1913 perhaps need no introduction to a military readership. They were, respectively, Army Chief of Staff Wood and former President Theodore Roosevelt. Both were Harvard graduates and both were decorated for bravery under fire. Wood was awarded the Medal of Honor for his exploits against the Apaches, while Roosevelt was belatedly awarded the Medal of Honor in 2000 for leading the 1st U.S. Volunteer Cavalry, the “Rough Riders,” in a gallant charge up San Juan Hill in Cuba during the Spanish-American War.

The military careers of both of these soldiers were unorthodox in the extreme. Wood was a graduate of Harvard Medical School who joined the Army as a field surgeon in 1886 and spent a number of years “on the frontier.”  Roosevelt graduated from Harvard College in 1880 and was later commissioned in the New York National Guard, eventually attaining the rank of colonel. The pinnacle of his Army career was as the organizer and commander of the Rough Riders during the Spanish-American War.

The venue for the discussion was no accident. Harvard President A. Lawrence Lowell, who also attended the meeting, was among those concerned with America’s international stance and worried about the country’s “inadequate preparedness” for what he saw as the inevitable involvement of the United States in the conflict. There is some question whether Lowell offered Harvard as a testing ground for the officers training model which followed, but there is no question of Lowell’s enthusiastic involvement in what became known as the “Plattsburg Movement”: a wide-ranging high-level dialogue on defense issues that took its name from the eponymous military camp in New York. Eventually, the Plattsburg Movement was known more generally as the “Preparedness Movement,” such that the two terms became more-or-less interchangeable. They were differentiated from one another based upon the arena within which they circulated. Lowell also had his say in his 1916 Harvard President’s report: “The aim of a country which desires to remain at peace must be ready to defend itself, should train a large body of junior officers who can look forward to no career in the army, and can have no wish for war, yet who will be able to take their places in the field when needed.”

Intensive discussion in and out of government connected to the Plattsburg Movement spawned the National Defense Act of 1916, which was signed into law on 3 June of that year. This legislation was truly the father of the ROTC. It also provided for creation of an Officers’ and an Enlisted Reserve Corps. In addition, it gave the President the authority to mobilize the National Guard for the duration in cases of war or national emergency.

Soldiers from the 504th Airborne Infantry, 82d Airborne Division, instruct ROTC cadets on a 75mm recoilless rifle during training at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey, in June 1948. (National Archives)

The legislative lead for the inclusion of ROTC in the National Defense Act was taken by a delegation from Ohio that included the president of Ohio State University, William Oxley Thompson. Members of the delegation testified in favor of the “Ohio Plan” whose focus was creation of a Reserve Engineering Corps. While such a provision did not see the light of day in the final version of the National Defense Act, a variant became ROTC. As a land-grant institution, Ohio State’s substantial involvement in the run up to legislative approval strengthened the association of land-grant colleges with ROTC.

As envisioned in the 1916 legislation, ROTC was fully consonant with the viewpoint of the founding fathers as embodied in the concept of the citizen-soldier. While granting that a small professional military establishment would inevitably be required to constitute a tripwire in case of attack, national defense would largely be the responsibility of a large, well-trained and motivated reserve force called to the colors in times of national emergency. ROTC was conceived to fulfill the requirement for a vast body of reserve officers ready, willing, and able to lead an army of citizen-soldiers.

The Plattsburg Movement itself and the run-up to the National Defense Act of 1916 when viewed in vacuo might lead to the assumption that the American body-politic of the time was just one massive patriotic groundswell with everyone singing “Over There” in unison. In fact, “war fever” was limited mostly to the colleges of the East Coast and the drawing rooms of the well-educated. It was offset by a strong wave of isolationism in the country at large. President Woodrow Wilson, in effect, straddled both camps. His reelection campaign in 1916 probably succeeded in part due to its slogan, “He Kept Us Out of War.”

In a foreshadowing of events that were to follow a quarter of a century later in the run-up to an even greater world war, Wilson reversed himself at the outset of his second term. His new administration set about creating a viable war machine in response to the 1916 Defense Act. Establishment of ROTC was an integral feature of the effort. That legislation authorized the stand-up of specifically Army ROTC units on college campuses across the nation.  (Naval ROTC came later and, of course, there was no Air Force at the time.)

The stated concept was to create a pool of trained (and hopefully ready) junior officers who would man an augmented land force in time of war or national emergency. The U.S. Military Academy would remain the principal provider of equivalent commissioned officers for the Regular Army. The ROTC curriculum provided for a two-year basic course that would theoretically be mandatory for all students matriculating at Land-Grant institutions and voluntary elsewhere. The mandatory provision was never fully enforced, with the exception of such institutions as Texas A&M and Virginia Tech, and certain dedicated military colleges as The Citadel in South Carolina, Norwich University in Vermont, and the Virginia Military Institute. Completion of the initial two-year program conferred no lasting benefits other than eligibility for the second two-year program, termed the advanced course.

A requirement of the ROTC advanced course was attendance at summer training at posts, camps, and stations of the Regular Army, eventually set at a month to six weeks. The summer training program played off of a similar program established by Major General Wood with the cooperation and participation of several college presidents in 1913 (including Harvard’s Lowell) that was later regularized as a feature of ROTC.

ROTC cadets take part in a mess management class during summer training at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, in July 1950. (National Archives)

As it turned out, implementation of the 1916 Defense Act with respect to the initiation of the ROTC program; i.e., the beginning of the academic year 1917, came too late to have much impact on the Army’s officer corps as it went to war. At that, the program got off the ground in 1917 with just a handful of institutions implementing the effort. Ironically, given what transpired a half century later, the very first ROTC unit off the mark was Harvard’s. The Roosevelt-Wood-Lowell triumvirate ensured that the university would become the laboratory for the program. Taking the lead as is so often the case resulted in significant overkill with the Harvard Yard becoming, at least initially, a sort of auxiliary West Point. Under President Lowell’s guiding hand, virtually the entire student body became the basis for participation in the ROTC program. A grainy photograph in the archives of the university shows a veritable swarm of cadets obscuring the entire entrance façade of the Widener Library.

Though the World War I killing machine had ground on for some three years when the United States declared war in April 1917, American troops did not substantially enter the fray until the spring of 1918. Less than six months later, the fateful “eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month” put an end to the carnage—far too short a time for any substantial participation by even the earliest graduates of the nascent ROTC program.

As is normal in the halls of the U.S. government, World War I’s emergency precipitated an intensive and extensive review of the emergency’s shortcomings as the war itself wound down. A significant finding underscored the shortage of a trained and ready reserve of officers under the “minuteman” concept of necessary wartime expansion. The analyses as they pertained to ROTC were codified in the National Defense Act of 1920. This legislation expanded the summer camp-oriented Civilian Military Training Corps initiated largely by Major General Wood and the campus-based Reserve Officers’ Training Corps. By 1928, ROTC units had been established at 225 colleges and universities that were commissioning, in aggregate, some 6,000 second lieutenants per year.

The 1920 Act also provided for a Junior ROTC (JROTC) program at the high school level that over the same period sprang up in about 100 secondary schools (and coincidently created the Navy ROTC). The JROTC program’s goal was to raise awareness of military service and to encourage college-bound students to pursue a commission though ROTC. Reasoning that not all high school graduates would go on to college, it had (and has) a further focus to engender interest in military service at the enlisted level. Whereas ROTC at the college and university level was and is staffed largely with serving officers, the high school program drew on noncommissioned officers, both active duty and retired.

The 1929 stock market crash and the ensuing Great Depression focused popular interest away from things military. In harbingers of things to come, such outright anti-military movements as John Dewey’s Committee on Militarism in Education openly challenged the establishment of both the college-level and the JROTC programs. Though the committee’s challenges had some success in eliminating ROTC at the secondary school level, lawsuits went all the way to the Supreme Court which upheld the right of states to host compulsory ROTC at state colleges and universities.

The U.S. military reached a low point in both size and interest in the late 1930s just as the sabers began to rattle in both Europe and the Far East. Renewal of the draft in September 1940 generated a concomitant reinvigoration of ROTC in response both to renewed patriotism and as an alternative to the draft among college and college-bound students. During the build-up of the forces resulting from the draft calls of the 1940-41 run up to World War II, ROTC provided the junior officers to supply cadre to a force that reached some 8.3 million men and women in uniform. Army ROTC supplied about 120,000 new lieutenants during the first half-decade of the 1940s.

Cadet Katie Gay of Clemson University prepares to perform the fifteen-meter swim portion of Combat Water Survival Test, 28 January 2016. (U.S. Army photograph by Staff Sergeant Ken Scar)

Although the draft continued in the years immediately after World War II (with a one-year halt in 1947-48) as the occupation of Germany, Austria, Italy, and Japan kept comparatively large numbers of soldiers and airmen overseas, the need for new junior officers remained, although in much smaller numbers than during the war. These were largely commissioned through ROTC. The outbreak of war in Korea in June 1950 once again required large numbers of new troops, to include an increase in junior officers. During the Korean War, some seventy percent of the 26,800 lieutenants called to active duty were ROTC graduates.

The Korean War ended with a wobbly truce that is, unhappily, still the status quo, to be followed less than a decade later by the escalation of advisory action into full-blown warfare encompassing some 550,000 American troops at its zenith. As troop quotas and the draft demanded more and more personnel input, popular opposition to the war increased. One recalls the draft avoidance movement that saw eligible men fleeing to Canada to avoid service. Widespread resistance to the situation in Vietnam produced a concomitant negative effect on the ROTC, the worst in its then half-century of supplying junior officers to the U.S. defense establishment. Not alone in this phenomenon, but possibly the most evident was the  takeover of Harvard’s administration by student strikers against the war in 1969. Among their demands was the termination of ROTC on campus, acceded to, as it turned out, by an increasingly desperate university administration. Thus, it was that Harvard’s ROTC program, one of the first universities to participate in ROTC, that became one of the most publicized of its casualties. Soon other institutions in the Ivy League and elsewhere eliminated their ROTC programs. At some universities, ROTC was subjected to outright violence. The destruction of the ROTC building at Kent State University in Kent, Ohio, led to the call up of National Guard troops on 2 May to restore order, with tragic consequences two days later. ROTC facilities at other universities also suffered damage from anti-war protestors.

Another casualty of the opposition to Vietnam was termination of the draft on 27 January 1973. The Army put its best face on the loss of the draft in its major public relations campaign to justify and popularize the resultant stand-up of the All-Volunteer Army. Land-grant campuses, largely in keeping with their status under federal law, continued to maintain ROTC as before, but its popularity had significantly declined and requirements for mandatory participation for all young men had been eliminated.

University of Kentucky ROTC cadets conduct field training with M1 Garand rifles in 1969. (University of Kentucky ROTC)

As ROTC’s centennial approached, there was serious question as to whether some of the defectors would be active participants in marking the milestone. Notable among these was Harvard, whose current administration agreed that affording its sons (and now daughters) the opportunity to prepare for service in the military was part of its higher education obligation to this nation, officially welcomed Army ROTC back in March 2012. While for the last several years, Harvard students have participated in ROTC at nearby Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), whose Army ROTC unit serves as a regional function in this respect, it was only in 2016 that the Harvard administration once again fully accredited the MIT participation. Ironically, only two other Ivy League institutions retained or returned to the ROTC fold, namely Princeton and the University of Pennsylvania, the two southernmost Ivies. The irony is multiplied given that the Ivy League was host to some of the original ROTC participants.

ROTC’s current undergirding legislation is the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps Vitalization Act of 1964. The act sought to increase the attraction of ROTC in two salient areas, namely increased scholarship aid and a provision for deferral of entry into the program as late as the collegiate junior year, directly into the advanced segment.

The Department of the Army placed all ROTC issues into a formalized Army Cadet Command, established in April 1986 at Fort Monroe, Virginia, and currently headquartered at Fort Knox, Kentucky, that now provides centralized guidance and control to some 275 programs in all fifty states and U.S. territories, with a current enrollment of more than 30,000 at the collegiate level. Cadet Command also manages Junior ROTC with units in over 1,600 high schools and over 274,000 cadets.  According to its published public relations presentation, Cadet Command has transformed the ROTC from a decentralized organization to a centralized command producing lieutenants of uniformly high quality as a result of improved command and control, intensification, and standardization of training and improvements in leadership assessment and development.

Army ROTC begins its second century as the principal provider of new lieutenants to the force. While West Point has traditionally supplied many of the Army’s senior leaders, a significant percentage of general officers have been commissioned through ROTC, among them Army Chiefs of Staff Frederick C. Weyand, Gordon R. Sullivan, Peter Schoomaker, and Mark A. Milley, and Chairmen of the Joint Chiefs Colin I. Powell and Hugh Shelton. Due to its demonstrated effectiveness, ROTC will remain an important source for the Army’s junior officers for the foreseeable future.