Friday, March 04, 2011

Harvard Stops Hating America

On the surface, it's as simple as this: The Navy says, "Go ahead, ask and tell." A few weeks later, Harvard says, "Welcome back, NROTC."

In fact, of course, it was never just about gay people. There is a lot more to the story of the Reserve Officer Training Corps's exile from, and now return to, the Yard. And the "lot more" in question, like so much else in American cultural life, has little to do with the obvious issues, and more to do with the pathology of the Boomers.

It was, as we all know, Viet Nam that drove ROTC from Harvard and many other university campuses. Or rather, it was the protest against the war in Viet Nam; and while the war was unconscionable and the protest movement largely correct in its goals, let us be honest and admit that many of the protesters said and did some dumb things. Consider this Time magazine coverage of a 1969 student takeover of some Harvard buildings:
They had charged that the university planned to tear down Negro slums in Roxbury to make room for the expanding Harvard Medical School, and that members of the Corporation had illegitimate vested interests in preserving ROTC on campus: "These businessmen want Harvard to continue producing officers for the Viet Nam war or for use against black rebellions at home for political reasons."
You can just feel the youthful outrage, not to mention the limited grasp of the facts. And a few years later, after they had succeeded in getting their way, even some of the student leaders began to have second thoughts. In 1974, John Hook (class of 1969) wrote a letter to the Crimson which said, in part:

I advocate the full return of ROTC to Harvard. As an undergraduate in 1969, I was twice suspended from Harvard for occupying buildings with the demand to abolish ROTC. Why is my position changed? ...

[Because] the United States should seek the best officers possible for our armed forces. The best officers combine leadership and discipline with humanitarian instincts. Harvard has an obligation to educate men and women to complement the officers of the military academies. We need Marshalls as well as Pattons.

Pompous, sure, but this is the Ivy League. Still, Hook's letter, which is includes no shortage of leftie sniping at Kissinger and Nixon, makes a point that was obvious to people of common sense all along: for a school to prepare its alumni for military service does not necessarily endorse the policies of the military; it provides a means to help shape those policies. And by making such preparation more difficult, as Harvard did by banning ROTC and forcing its students to participate in an off-campus ROTC consortium hosted by M.I.T., is to miss an important opportunity.

The thing to remember here is that, although the actual decision to kick ROTC off-campus was made by a vote of the faculty, it was made under immense pressure from Students for Democratic Society, as well as like-minded protest groups. A close look at groups like this reminds us that they were creatures of their time, not of ours. Remember Stokely Carmichael on "the place of women in the SNCC"? Or Anita Hoffman, visiting Timothy Leary and Eldredge Cleaver in Algiers, so offended by the mistreatment of women that she crawled through a window to escape? If we we remember correctly, the anthology Sisterhood is Powerful opens with a collection of sexist remarks by leaders of the old "New Left." By contemporary standards, it is shockingly insensitive stuff.

This is what we need to remember about the campus agitators of the 1960s. They wanted to end the war; beyond that, they wanted to end the Cold War, more or less by surrendering. Their sympathy for African-Americans, while genuine, was also touched with Romanticism, paternalism and condescension. They had little concern for rights of either women or gay people. By contemporary standards, they were as crudely sexist and homophobic as the miscellaneous adulterers at Sterling, Cooper.

Which means that, when Harvard later linked its ban on ROTC to the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy, it was changing the rules. The ban had never been about sex, until the faculty decided to use sex as a pretext for maintaining it.

They did need a pretext, too. After all, the war was over, and had been for a good long while. What lingered was the sense of hostility between the government, especially the armed services, and some of America's best universities. Mind you, this hostility didn't keep them from accepting enormous government grants for scientific research, or keep Harvard from putting Kissinger on the faculty. No; the lingering hostility simplymade it harder for students at these schools to prepare for military service -- depriving both the students and the nation.

If, as is often suggested, the armed services of the United States have taken an unfortunate turn toward rightist politics and Christianist religiosity, much of the blame lies with the end of the draft. But at least a little also lies with gradual removal from the officer corps of many young men and women whose educations were as good as those of the military academies, but shaped by vastly different conditions.

So we congratulate President Drew Gilpin Faust for steering her university back toward a more reasonable course, which provides an important opportunity for its students and also for the American military.

1 comment:

Gillian said...

I commend Nathan Fick's _One Bullet Away_, the memoir of a Marine officer who signed on for USMC OCS as a junior at Dartmouth and was on the 'tip of the spear' in Iraq in 2003 w/ a platoon of Recon Marines, as a reflection on the topic of the divide between the officer corps and the cream of the academic crop.