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History As It Happens

Oct 19, 2021

Today the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps is considered an important pillar of the U.S. military establishment. ROTC programs are offered at approximately 1,700 colleges, providing enrollees a path of upward mobility in exchange for their military service and good citizenship. Yet its prosaic presence in American life hides its controversial origins. In this episode, a sliver of an important story -- the rise of militarism in early 20th century America -- illuminates a larger dilemma. For when the ROTC was proposed as part of the National Defense Act of 1916, antiwar activists joined critics of imperialism in what would amount to a failed attempt to convince Congress to kill the bill. An organized and vocal peace movement once existed in the U.S. It warned that "Prussianism" would harm the country’s youth and the education system. In extensive congressional hearings, these voices clashed with powerful forces behind the Preparedness Movement, who argued the U.S. was unready to join combat in Europe because of the desultory state of its armed forces. In this maelstrom was born the ROTC and with it a marriage between two great American institutions: the military and academia.