In the nipping winter of 1917 — three months before Congress would declare war on Germany — Yale held a student-wide vote.
The resolution — calling for the College to offer some form of universal military service — passed overwhelmingly. The tally was 1112-288. The Pentagon swiftly established the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) on campus, one of the first such programs in the nation. Driven “by the belief that their membership in the American elite required certain sacrifices,” about 900 students enrolled.
But today, there is no ROTC at Yale even while one remains at Princeton: The faculty banned it during the Vietnam War and has maintained the policy largely to protest “don’t ask, don’t tell.” While the University provides transportation to nearby colleges to students who choose to participate nevertheless, there are — wait for it — only three students enrolled.
As Marc Wortman, author of “The Millionaires’ Unit” — the story of Yale’s “aristocratic flyboys” who “invented American air power” during the Great War — puts it in his book, “The rare wealthy family’s child who choses military service after attending Yale or Harvard provokes bewildered headshaking no different than would a married man who opted to enter the priesthood. While many … will one day become national and international leaders and some may emerge as decision-makers responsible for the military, very few will have experienced training or battle.”
Although Yale boasts the motto “For God, For Country and For Yale,” it does not, in 2008, live up to that second vow. As the YPU concluded in its debate last night, the time is right for the University to resurrect ROTC.
In bringing the program back to campus, however, the University must not abandon its opposition to Congress’ discriminatory policy that prevents openly gay Americans from enlisting. In fact, it should seize such a moment to reinvigorate the debate.
As it stands, Yale’s strategy to combat “don’t ask, don’t tell” is, practically speaking, ineffective. Yale Law School’s longstanding stance against providing equal access to JAG recruiters, for example, is the closest the University has come to prevailing. That approach ended with a unanimous loss at the U.S. Supreme Court more than a year ago.
There remains, however, a serious problem: The military unabashedly discriminates. We, like so many in the Yale community, believe “don’t ask, don’t tell” is wrong. The next president should call for its overhaul. But not allowing ROTC won’t achieve a thing.
“It’s kind of like not dealing with the problem at all as opposed to trying to change it,” said Taylor Giffen ’09, who spends all day Thursday at the University of Connecticut in the Air Force ROTC.
On a more fundamental level, Yale, of all schools, should reconnect to its history as a college at the forefront of national defense and public service. As Gen. William Odom, a Yale professor who passed away this summer, put it in 2006, “When a republic’s upper strata of youth contribute no leadership to the upper ranks of the military, is the republic really safe?”
Or just take Major-General Leonard Wood, the Rough Rider commander who delivered a rousing Woolsey Hall speech in 1915.
“At the present time, the country is woefully unprepared to resist a great power,” he said to a standing ovation. “The obligation to defend the country rests on everyone!”
Then he asked a good question. “Have you nothing to defend?”