COMMENTARY: Celebrating ROTC’s centennial on Armed Forces Day

Armed Forces Day affords the opportunity to thank members of the military for their patriotic service to our nation. This year’s commemoration coincides with celebrations marking 100 years of the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps program, or ROTC.

Armed Forces Day commemorates the service of all military branches. Before 1949, each service area held its own appreciation day. After the reorganization of the military in 1947, President Truman approved a day which would honor all sectors of the military at once.

Unquestionably, one of the most significant components of the American military is ROTC, which comprises about 70 percent of current officers in the military and 30 percent of active-duty officers. Students who enroll in ROTC attend college like other students, but likewise received military and officer training throughout the school year and summer months. The term of service varies according to the type of scholarship and commission.

The etiology of ROTC can be traced initially to Norwich University in Vermont, created in 1819 as the nation’s first private military college. The idea of including military tactics in college curriculum expanded with the passage of the 1862 Morrill Act, which required the newly established land-grant colleges to teach that topic.

Dr. Samuel B. Hoff

Dr. Samuel B. Hoff

During the American colonial rule of the Philippines following the Spanish-American War, an ROTC unit began at the University of the Philippines.

In 1915, a Citizen’s Military Training Corps was started. This project offered a condensed course of training and commissioning. A year later, the Defense Act of 1916 made the project permanent and marked the official start of an Army ROTC program. This preparation certainly benefited the United States once it entered World War I. For example, by the end of 1917, over 17,000 men had been trained as Army officers.

Soon after the end of World War I, other military service areas founded ROTC programs. The first Air Force ROTC [then “Air ROTC”; the U.S. Air Force became separate from the U.S. Army in 1947] units were started between 1920 and 1923. Naval ROTC began in 1926. Although the Marine Corps joined ROTC in 1932, the first Marine Corps NROTC program did not commence until 1970.

Currently, there are ROTC programs at the six military universities, at civilian colleges, and at military junior colleges, producing a total of 5,000 officer commissions annually.

Through the decades, ROTC has experienced its share of controversy. Due to extensive disagreement with the nation’s Vietnam War policy, ROTC programs at many universities were changed from mandatory to voluntary or dropped altogether. During the Vietnam War era, ROTC facilities were often attacked or were the site of protests. This anti-military attitude eventually dissipated, leading many colleges which discontinued ROTC to renew it.

Since the 1990s, disagreement with ROTC and the military generally has centered on the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy regarding gays in the military. Signed by President Bill Clinton in 1993, this policy led to a plethora of universities banning ROTC as discriminatory. Once the aforementioned act was repealed by President Barack Obama in 2011, ROTC was permitted back on campuses which had previously taken action against it.

Due to budget challenges, the military has sought to reduce its burden by training civilians as ROTC instructors. During 1994, I was selected to participate in a military history fellowship at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

The five-week course included classroom sessions, visits to battlefields around the East Coast, and interaction with military staff who visited and gave addresses on various topics. Although this particular seminar was discontinued for several years, it is once again being offered annually in a scaled-down version.

The U.S.’s ROTC program is part of the overall military establishment, which is ranked second in active troops, seventh in reserve forces, and first in budget among nations in the world. Clearly, ROTC programs in nations like South Korea, Taiwan, and Canada were patterned after the American form.

Whether in active or reserve status, ROTC officers deserve recognition for their sacrifice and commitment. Correspondingly, the national ROTC program is flourishing at its centennial, reassuring millions of the country’s ability to defend itself and to assist others when necessary.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Dr. Samuel B. Hoff is George Washington Distinguished Professor of History and Political Science and Law Studies director at Delaware State University. He served as DSU’s ROTC director from 1993 through 1999. As Vice President General for Military Awards for the General Society of the War of 1812 from 2009-2014, Dr. Hoff presented that organization’s award to over 1500 ROTC cadets from around the nation.

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