Although the ROTC program was established in 1916, the idea of obtaining military officers from civilian institutions dates back to the citizen‐soldiers of the colonial militia units. In the new republic, while the federal government founded its own military and naval academies for officering the regular forces, and a few states had private military academies, most officers in the state militias (later National Guard) and the ad hoc wartime units of volunteers were civilians temporarily in uniform. Their preparation came from prior military experience, militia membership, or simply by reading military manuals.
The Civil War expansion of the army showed the need for a more widespread training of such citizen‐officers. The idea of including military training in public colleges was incorporated into the Morrill Act of 1862, which granted public lands for the establishment of colleges and provided that military tactics should be offered as part of the curriculum in these land‐grant institutions. The federal government provided some funding and the War Department assigned some active duty or retired officers as professors of military science and tactics. By 1893, some seventy‐nine colleges and universities provided such military instruction, varying by state or institution as to whether it was voluntary or compulsory for male students. Between 1865 and 1919, West Point continued to be the main source of commissioned officers for the regular army. The graduates who had taken military courses at the land‐grant colleges were neither commissioned nor registered with the War Department.
The growing size of armies and the emergence of the United States as an active world power in the early twentieth century led some military planners, businesspeople, and college presidents to advocate a regularized system of commissioning reserve officers from the citizenry. In 1913, Gen. Leonard Wood, the army chief of staff, with several college presidents established summer military training camps for college students. After the outbreak of World War I, these formed the model for summer military training camps, held at Plattsburg, New York, and elsewhere in 1915 and 1916, for some 13,000 business and professional men. General Wood, former President Theodore Roosevelt, and former Secretary of War Elihu Root obtained federal funding for the camps and the commissioning of their graduates in the army's new Officers Reserve Corps.
The National Defense Act of 1916 also authorized the creation of a campus‐based Reserve Officers Training Corps in its modern form. Students would take a two‐year basic course plus a two‐year advanced course; in addition to their regular academic courses, they would also participate in summer field training, and some would be eligible for scholarships and living allowances. Those who completed the four‐year program would become commissioned officers with the regulars or the reserves. U.S. entry into the war in 1917 came as ROTC was just being established. Although ROTC provided some wartime officers, the majority came from the enlisted ranks of the regular army and National Guard, from Plattsburg camp graduates, and from civilians who went through ninety‐day officer training camps established by the army during the war. Reserve officers provided 43 percent of the World War I officers, yet the army still obtained only half the 200,000 officers it desired to lead 3.5 million men.
Because the war had demonstrated the shortage of pretrained citizen‐officers, the National Defense Act of 1920 expanded the two main programs for preparing reserve officers: the summer camp–oriented Civilian Military Training Corps and the larger, campus‐based ROTC. By 1928, there were ROTC units in 225 colleges and universities, 100 high schools and academies, with a total enrollment of 85,000 students. ROTC commissioned about 6,000 graduates each year. In addition, the U.S. Navy created Naval ROTC (NROTC) in 1926 with the units initially at six colleges and universities.
In the antiwar and antimilitary mood of the 1920s and early 1930s, peace activists, educators, and clergy, including John Dewey and Oswald Garrison Villard, formed the Committee on Militarism in Education, to challenge ROTC and military drill programs in high schools. The committee was more successful at the secondary schools than in higher education, for the Supreme Court upheld the right of states to make military training compulsory in state colleges.
With the adoption of the draft and the buildup of the army in 1940–41, ROTC graduates provided many of the required junior officers. During American participation in World War II, as the army expanded to 8.3 million men and women, the largest number of officers came from the enlisted ranks and received three to four months' training at Officer Candidate Schools run by the army. About 120,000 also came through ROTC, but the wartime army fell far short of its desired quota of officers. The navy and Marines obtained wartime officers through NROTC units at two dozen colleges and universities plus special officer training programs at dozens of schools.
Since World War II, ROTC has been the primary source of officers for all the armed forces. (A separate air force ROTC program, AFROTC, was established in 1947.) During the Korean War, 70 percent of the 26,800 lieutenants called to active duty by the army between 1951 and 1953 were ROTC graduates. The program also supplied a high percentage of the junior officers for the Vietnam War in the 1960s and early 1970s. Even though the compulsory basis of ROTC had been ended at all public institutions after 1961, the unpopularity of the Vietnam War led to protests and demonstrations on many campuses against the program. Still, in 1968 there were 150,000 students in the initial two‐year course. Antiwar and antimilitary sentiment led several colleges and universities to drop their ROTC units.
In the 1980s, however, the number of units grew again, and by the end of the decade, there were army ROTC units at 300 colleges and 800 high schools, AFROTC at 150 colleges and 300 high schools, and NROTC at 65 colleges and 230 high schools. A smaller military in the post‐Vietnam and post–Cold War eras required fewer officers. The ROTC programs of the army, navy, and air force had a total enrollment of about 100,000 students in the 1990s.
[See also Air National Guard; Army Reserves and National Guard; Education, Military; Marine Corps Reserve; Militia and National Guard; National Defense Acts (1916, 1920); Naval Reserve; Service Academies.]
Gene M. Lyons and and John W. Masland , Education and Military Leadership: A Study of the R.O.T.C., 1959; 2nd ed., 1975.
John Garry Clifford , The Citizen Soldiers: The Plattsburg Training Camp Movement, 1913–1920, 1972.
Robert F. Collins , Reserve Officers Training Corps, 1986.
Martin Binkin and and William W. Kaufman , U.S. Army Guard and Reserve, 1989.
John Whiteclay Chambers II
The Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) program dates to the National Defense Act of 1916. ROTC built upon existing requirements at land-grant schools (colleges built on public lands that taught agriculture, mechanical arts, and military science) to offer military instruction. Before 1916 this instruction had been applied only haphazardly, often amounting to little more than drill instruction by local Civil War veterans. The 1916 act regularized standards for training and, as part of a more general preparedness movement for World War I, added most of the nation's prestigious colleges and universities. Until World War II, the program largely served to produce officers for the reserves, as its name implies.
In the 1940s and 1950s ROTC became a primary source for accessing large numbers of men into the officer corps of the U.S. Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps. ROTC offered men a chance to fulfill their military service as an officer. By the early 1960s, the program faced a significant problem as large numbers of baby boomers began to enter college. Most colleges with ROTC programs required male students to complete two years of military training, but the military did not want to spend the money to train all of them. Accordingly, the military asked colleges and universities to abandon the required two-year portion of ROTC. Most did so reluctantly as administrators saw in ROTC a model citizenship program.
The Vietnam period produced ROTC's greatest period of crisis. Many radical student groups targeted ROTC units as the most visible manifestations of the military presence on campus. However, many administrators and even many student groups supported ROTC because of its traditional role of producing officers believed to be closer in values to the general American population than their service academy counterparts. Despite protests and occasional violence, ROTC survived the Vietnam turmoil almost everywhere outside the Ivy League and small liberal arts colleges, although its curriculum became less technical. Strictly military courses like drill were often replaced with courses in the general college and university program such as foreign area studies.
The end of the draft removed the primary impulse that led men to join ROTC. The attendant decline in enrollments forced significant changes. As early as 1969 the program began to admit women, predating the arrival of women at the service academies by seven years. ROTC also became the principal means of entry into the officer corps for African Americans and Hispanics. The military replaced the prestigious liberal arts and Ivy League schools with branch campuses and mid-sized state universities in the South and the Midwest, most of which had students eager to join ROTC in order to receive the financial benefits. Thus ROTC helped thousands of lower-middle-class and working-class men and women join the military, a process scholars have called the "bluing" of the officer corps. ROTC remains the commissioning source for the majority of American officers. In the past decade, ROTC graduates have become more visible at senior levels, most notably in the persons of two chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Colin Powell from the Army and General Richard Meyers from the Air Force.
Coumbe, Arthur, and Harford, Lee. U. S. Army Cadet Command: The Ten-Year History. Fort Monroe, VA: U.S. Army Cadet Command, 1996.
Karsten, Peter. "Anti-ROTC: Response to Vietnam or 'Consciousness III'?" in New Civil-Military Relations: The Agonies of Adjustment to Post-Vietnam Realities, edited by John Lovell and Philip Kronenberg. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Books, 1974.
Lyons, Gene, and Masland, John. Education and Military Leadership: A Study of the ROTC. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1959.
Neiberg, Michael S. Making Citizen-Soldiers: ROTC and the Ideology of American Military Service. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000.
Michael S. Neiberg
ROTC / ˈrätsē/ • abbr. (in the U.S.) Reserve Officers' Training Corps.