ROTC at Dartmouth

Dartmouth's ROTC program has seen its fair share of controversies and obstacles throughout its decades-long history.

Dartmouth’s ROTC program has seen its fair share of controversies and obstacles throughout its decades-long history.

You see us around campus, sometimes in your class, and if you are a varsity athlete or morning-runner, you will see us wandering wearily in small groups in the direction of Leverone Field House. You can tell who we are by our stylish camouflage garments, or our elegant reflective yellow belts. We are the Dartmouth Army Reserve Officers Training Corps, better known as ROTC (R-O-T-C, not “rot-cee”). ROTC trains us to become officers in the United States Army: upon graduation, many of us will receive a commission and serve in the military. There around seventeen of us, men and women, hailing from every class and all corners of the “Dartmouth experience”. I have been asked to tell our story, a tale reaching back 63 years: though I am less than impartial, I hope to relate what is an interesting and important element of Dartmouth’s history.

Long before ROTC came to Dartmouth, the College on the Hill had a proud military tradition. Dartmouth, the only college to graduate classes during the American Revolutionary War, was the alma mater of Sylvanias Thayer, who went on to become known as the “Father of West Point.” Dartmouth men eagerly flocked to their nation’s banner during the American Civil War, even forming all-Dartmouth units. Most famously, Dartmouth men beat their countrymen to the punch by sending an ambulance corps to France long before the United States entered the First World War. Many of our alumni volunteered their services to the British and French armies during that war, and a Dartmouth man was the first American to fall in that Great War. The College even constructed an entire trench system on campus for training purposes. The entire Dartmouth family came together to fight the war: when the United States finally entered, young men just like us formed an all Dartmouth regiment, with many never returning to complete their studies.  What we see in this period is not a militant Dartmouth, at least in my opinion. We see a Dartmouth that is willing to take the ideals of the classroom beyond the woods of Hanover. We see a group of young men who have internalized the lessons of morality and justice they have learned in our old halls and desire to fight for their brothers and sisters in need (or perceived need). In the early 1900s, the United States Army reformed their program for educating young men attending colleges in the arts of warfare and leadership. After initial hesitation to adopt this “Reserve Officers Training Corps,” the trustees of Dartmouth College brought Navy ROTC to campus in 1946 and Army and Air Force ROTC in 1951. All were immediate successes: over 1,000 Dartmouth men, more than 40% of undergraduates, were enrolled that year. This heyday of ROTC saw around 200 men receive commissions as officers each year, and a full range of military, cultural, and geopolitical classes were offered by the ROTC department. Dartmouth even became the second college after Norwich University to offer Mountain Warfare training. The 1960s saw a slight drop in commissioning, with “only” 100 students earning commissions each year, though ROTC remained popular as a way to develop leadership and other practical skills.

As the Vietnam War entered the American conscious and colleges nationwide began to divest themselves of military ties, students at Dartmouth pushed the College to reconsider its ROTC program. In 1967, around 250 cadets participated in ROTC out of a total of 3100 undergraduates. Many chose ROTC to void conscription and as an assurance of the continuity of their studies. With the increasing scale of protests on campus in 1967, including one that had resulted in a nearly violent confrontation with police, the decision was made to hold the annual ROTC Armed Forces day parade in Memorial Stadium (named in honor of the Dartmouth men who fought in the First World War). A contemporary article even criticized the College for its perceived cowardice in the face of “fringe peaceniks.” Their fears were shown to be well-founded when a mob of students sporting black armbands and chanting anti-war slogans and songs formed within the stadium, though thirty policemen and state troopers kept them from harassing the cadets and their noise was drowned out by the military band. 1967 saw the continued success of ROTC: later that year, cadets gathered 1,040 pieces of clothing to send to Vietnamese children, proving further that the spirit of Dartmouth’s young officers was not one of hate. Mounting pressure in 1969, this time from the faculty, resulted in ROTC classes losing their status as academic courses with credit. This decision came partially from the anti-war sentiments of the faculty and partially from a growing academic exclusivity that rejected the status of a military officer as equal to that of a professor. In April of 1969, a group of 200 students held a three-hour sit-in inside Parkhurst Hall demanding the expulsion of the ROTC program, all while keeping their actions within college regulations. When their demands were not met, a smaller group of less than 100 students occupied Parkhurst that May, demanding all faculty leave the building. Most did, locking their papers and personal effects in drawers as they left. Two senior officials refused to leave, and were forcibly removed by the students, who then barricaded themselves in. The College wasted no time in setting in motion a chain of legal proceedings, and, after being given many warnings and opportunities to leave of their own will, the protestors were arrested by police and state troopers who forced open the doors. Forty-five students were jailed and fined $100.

June 1969 saw a faculty resolve to terminate ROTC by the year 1973. In July of that year, the Air Force announced it would leave Dartmouth by 1971 instead, and the Army and Navy soon announced they would leave by 1970. At that time, 200 cadets remained in the program, more than at other elite colleges in the same circumstances. ROTC juniors were promised accelerated commissions, while other students were initially told they would no longer be able to receive commissions. In actuality, it took until 1973 for Dartmouth to graduate its final Navy ROTC cadet.

After the tribulations of the early Vietnam War years and severe alumni pressure, the trustees voted to reinstate ROTC in 1975. The new program saw Dartmouth students training at Norwich University, a Senior Military Academy. 1981 saw the first Dartmouth student in over a decade graduate the college with a commission through ROTC as a second lieutenant. In 1985, the Dartmouth Army ROTC program became a state detachment of the program at Norwich University, with the Navy and Air Force ROTC programs disappearing entirely. By the 1990s, ROTC maintained a steady enrolment averaging fifteen cadets.In order for ROTC to return to campus, one important waiver was made. A specific exemption from the College’s policy against discrimination was written for ROTC, as at that time, the military still barred openly homosexual men and women from joining its ranks. This caused an understandable stir and resulted in formal requests by President Freedman and the Trustees that the Department of Defense revise its policy. Dispute many ultimatums, nothing ever came of student demands to again shut down the program.  Recent changes in legislation have since abolished this prohibition, and ROTC now welcomes students of every background.

This year has seen a rebirth of the ROTC program at Dartmouth. A new professor of Military Science, Captain Gregory Wortman, and a new NCO (non-commissioned officer), Mr. Ian Short, has been assigned to Dartmouth’s Lone Pine Detachment. The dynamic pair has overhauled the internal workings of the program. Capt. Wortman told The Review, “Army ROTC is very well received by the administration. We have weekly meetings with Dean Burke and they have been helpful and receptive to growing the program.” He stressed that ROTC is not just meant to commission officers, and that, as has been a tradition at Dartmouth, ROTC serves to build leaders. If anything can be taken away from the history of ROTC at Dartmouth, it is that this College has a proud tradition of leadership, of caring, and of service. It is this tradition that I as an Army ROTC cadet wish to uphold, and encourage others to explore in their own, unique ways.

The Review would like to thank Rauner Special Collections Library for resources pertaining to ROTC history and the Dartmouth ROTC department for its time.