“Takin’ it to the Streets”: Anti-ROTC Protests at MSU

4 12 2012

In the 1960s, students at Michigan State University echoed nationwide anti-war sentiments. For multiple reasons, student activists began to question the role of the military in the university. In 1960, students joined together to protest what was, at that time, compulsory ROTC (Reserve Officer Training Corps). One group of students and faculty raised their fists in solidarity, carrying picket signs that read “No Regimentation at MSU”, “Education or Indoctrination???”, and “Politics and Universities don’t Mix!.

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Students and faculty protest compulsory ROTC in 1960.

University policy came to reflect these concerns in 1962 when ROTC became an elective program at MSU. Some universities had chosen to abolish ROTC altogether. Commanding General of the U.S. Continental Army Command, Herbert Powell, anticipated MSU’s ability to continue the program in an “efficient” manner, even as an elective. He noted that the military still relied on “enlightened and patriotic supporters among faculty and students to point out to each and every man at State the absolutely essential nature of the ROTC program.”  Though male students were no longer required to do Reserve Officer’s Training, many continued to enroll in the program.

The validity of ROTC as an academic program came in to question once again in 1967 when a student, James R. Thomas, was ordered to drop his ROTC course, Military Science 100. James, a former infantry sergeant in the U.S. Army who had been taking the class as a visitor, had written a letter published by the State News which he described as “criticizing the inadequacy of the program.” The comment did not go over well with the head of Military Science at MSU, Colonel Robert G. Platt. In his letter to the editor, James notes that he was no longer allowed to ask questions or participate in any of the course activities. He was also forced to sit at the back of the room, otherwise, as his instructor explained, “The rest of the class might see that [he] was not being called on.” Later, James was notified that he did not actually meet the perquisites for the class. He claimed that the Military Science department did not give any reason for why he no longer met the criteria. Feeling that his student rights, as published in the Academic Freedom Report, had been violated, James filed a protest with the Ombudsman. He cited Section 2.2.1 of the Academic Freedom Report in his complaint. “It is the instructor’s role to encourage free discussion, inquiry and expression among his students in their quest for knowledge.”

James’s complaints sparked others’ concerns about the place of ROTC within the university. One editorial asked whether ROTC at MSU was “existing or co-existing in the academic community”. Were James Thomas’ rights violated? Did the Department of Military Science and the ROTC program have authority above the university’s academic regulations?

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Military officers standing before a crowd in 1942.

If you are interested in learning about the rights of MSU students or faculty member in the current Academic Freedom Report, click here.

Two years later, ROTC came under fire from students for yet another reason. This time, Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), who were against the Vietnam War, were protesting ROTC on the grounds that it proliferated a war which they felt was unduly aggressive. The group said that 85% of all junior war officers were supplied by ROTC programs and cited Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Manpower and Reserves as saying “the Armed Services cannot function properly without the ROTC system.”  SDS wanted to see an end to ROTC because of its role “in providing officers to maintain U.S economic domination of underdeveloped countries. Abolishing ROTC [would] help end the war in Vietnam and prevent the initiation of similar wars in Thailand, Guatemala, Brazil, and elsewhere.” In October of 1969, Students for a Democratic Society planned a rally to demand the complete abolition of ROTC. They encouraged fellow students to take action and join them in protest at Demonstration Hall, saying “nobody has a right to study the ways of oppressing people.”

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A poster from the Students for a Democratic Society inviting students to protest ROTC at MSU from 1969.

Anti-ROTC protests continued as the Vietnam War escalated. What did campus sentiments look like around campus on a whole though? Some students were so opposed to ROTC that they resorted to what ASMSU described as “violent acts of destruction”, acts that resulted in “serious and costly damage to University facilities”. It may be that groups like Students for a Democratic Society and the Committee to Abolish ROTC were in the minority when it came to negative attitudes toward ROTC. A survey done by ASMSU showed that a near majority of students (48.1%) “support[ed] ROTC with its current academic standing”. Only 13.6% of students surveyed “wanted ROTC abolished”.

In 1969, University President Walter Adams welcomed the Special Senate Committee to Study Michigan Colleges and Universities on Campus Disorder and Student Unrest (the Huber Commission) to investigate the degree of student protests on campus. The Huber Commission defined organized protests as picketing, striking, marching, petitioning, participating in a sit-in or teach-in, or assisting in a letter writing campaigns. Their survey of campus unrest indicated that there had been only one or two incidents and no more than 5% of the student body was involved.

As is the case with students across the country, MSU students have a long history of student activism. They have demonstrated in the name of equality, human rights, both socialism and capitalism, environmentalism, and against issues such as war and aggression, and university policies. These protests have been both violent and peaceful just like the array of anti-ROTC demonstrations. As the history surrounding anti-ROTC sentiments on campus shows the activists may actually make up a very small percentage of the population. However, that may be all that is necessary to trigger controversy and promote change.

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