A lone building ablaze—one iconic image of students’ discontent with the United States government and its military in the late 1960s.
In 1968, amid increased U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War and growing protest among the student body, arsonists twice attacked Stanford’s Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) building, successfully burning it to the ground on their second attempt in May. Yet following investigations, authorities made no arrests and could prove no student involvement.
Even as tensions approached a tipping point, full-scale action on the ROTC was not taken until 1970, and the program was not entirely jettisoned from campus until 1973.
The incident and its aftermath are emblematic of Stanford’s final clash with ROTC: demonstrative, but slowly evolving in a way that relegated it to secondary status among the campus community. As the Faculty Senate currently considers the possibility of bringing ROTC back to Stanford, there is sure to be more debate about the issue. A look back at the history of the ROTC debate, however, shows that the controversy wasn’t necessarily over the program itself, but more about actions undertaken in the Vietnam War effort.
“My general sense was that ROTC was subsumed over time and overshadowed by other issues on campus,” said Phil Taubman ’70, a consulting professor at the Center for International Security and Cooperation and the Editor in Chief of The Daily in 1969. “As the Vietnam War expanded, student opposition increased.”
As resistance mounted against a largely unpopular war, Taubman said the armed forces as a whole became synonymous with the war. Universities were, in particular, closely scrutinized, with the belief that research on college campuses was done to aid military efforts.
“The military got tagged in the minds of many students as inimical to the traditions and values of the university,” Taubman said. “ROTC was a whipping boy for anti-war protests. It was an easy target.”
David Harris ’67, who served as student body president from 1966 to 1967, was one of the student leaders in the campus movement against the war. Proclaimed as a radical during his time in office, Harris would go on to be nationally known for his anti-war demonstrations.
In 1966, Harris ran on a platform that called for the elimination of ROTC, but quickly saw the issue take a back seat to the more pressing topics of the day: equal rights for female students and, of course, Vietnam. He noted that while ROTC protests still flared up on campus during his time, action against ROTC was slow to develop, sped up only by the context of the war.
“It became more and more of an issue the more that the war became an issue,” Harris said. “It would be fair to say that there was at least half a decade of build up to the decision [to eliminate ROTC].”
While Vietnam remained the main focus, it provided an avenue for Harris to address what he saw was an inconsistency between ROTC and Stanford’s scholarly mission.
“If you believe in the life of the mind, you don’t drop napalm on villages,” he said.
“The backdrop to all of this was the Vietnam War, where very clearly the military was engaging in acts that were unacceptable in an academic context,” Harris continued. “The setting was Vietnam, but it was in some way universal.”
This “academic context” would later become the grounds for ROTC’s removal from campus, when members of the administration argued that the military instructors and core curriculum of the program did not meet the intellectual standards of the University.
William Perry, professor emeritus and the former Secretary of State, and David M. Kennedy ’63, history professor emeritus, argued for the reintroduction of ROTC on campus last week before the Faculty Senate. Kennedy believed that such academic arguments were debatable then and are still debatable today. Nevertheless, Kennedy acknowledged that the context of the situation might have lent itself to the removal of ROTC in the early 70s.
Kennedy said that the issue “blew up” due to America’s involvement in Cambodia, which began in 1969 and reached a height domestically in 1970, when National Guardsmen killed four student protestors at Kent State University. Taubman indicated, as well, that eventual change came from both faculty and students.
Even then, according to Kennedy, it took several months for Stanford to negotiate the deal discontinuing the ROTC program. After ROTC lost its academic standing within the University, it took an additional three years for its presence to be entirely removed.
The impetus, as always, was clear.
“Back then, if you were against the Vietnam War, you were almost by definition against the military services,” Taubman said. “The ROTC program became a target.”
“It was a perfect storm,” he added.