Smash ROTC at UMass
From 1963 to 1972 college campuses all over the United States were common spots for protests. This time period marks the ending of the Civil Rights Movement and the beginning of national student protest to end the Vietnam War. The University of Massachusetts (UMass) Amherst campus has a history of massive demonstrations and protests that coincide with similar acts on other campuses across this nation. Specifically looking at the Reserve Officer’s Training Corps (ROTC) at UMass Amherst in Dickinson Hall during this period shows not only the vigor of the students at this time, but also the strategy of the University’s Administration through their decisions to deal with the acts of protest. In 1970 committees formed specifically aimed to abolish the ROTC program on campus, the “two major demands: 1) That ROTC be disbanded at UMass, and current ROTC cadets be given University scholarships, and 2) a daycare center be established by the Administration in Dickinson Hall” (The Daily Collegian 5/6/70). The opposition argued, “ If ROTC is moved off campus with the intent to destroy it, out nation’s future military leaders will simply be ‘educated’ in military-run academies… at least [here they have] been EXPOSED to the peace movement” (The Daily Collegian, 5/1/70).
Looking back to 1963 with protests for the Civil Rights Movement students at Universities had clear examples of the power they held in large numbers; as youth motivated and dedicated to a cause they knew actions could make an impact. The Civil Rights Movement was making huge gains at this time and it was no secret that many students were involved. Students played a significant role in public protests and overall organizing communities to gather together and fight for African Americans’ civil liberties. In 1960 there were student-organized sit-ins at lunch counters that grew so large they were published in national newspapers, an incident repeated itself as campuses began antiwar demonstrations. This is just one example of what students were doing to take a stand and campus populations felt the need to take action, they felt that their demonstrations could work as a platform to spread information and hopefully push for change.
The Dow Chemical Company was a supplier of napalm, a hazardous chemical weapon used in Vietnam, and once a year would visit large campuses to conduct interviews to recruit graduating students to work for them. In 1967 the University of Wisconsin in Madison conducted a sit-in and held signs showing the effects of napalm, discouraging interviewees and shaking the moral conscience of Dow recruiters (The War at Home). The same occurred on the UMass campus one year later, as 75 students began a sit-in in the Whitmore Administration Building to discourage Dow from hiring recent graduates. Five hours after the impromptu sit-in began approximately 500 more students joined in support. The simple act of gathering and occupying a space was a way to gain attention and momentum, which was then used as a simple platform to spread information about chemical weapons being used and developed for the Vietnam War (Goldscheider).
As antiwar protests developed a common focus was the ROTC buildings on campuses, which were targeted during the Vietnam War because of their connection to the military. In 1970 three ROTC buildings were burnt to the ground in a violent display of protest. One building was located on the University of California Berkley campus, a campus known for its large rallies and excessive displays of distaste for the Vietnam War. In May of 1965 UC Berkley began a massive demonstration with approximately thirty thousand attendees. There were numerous draft cards burnt in protest, a coffin brought to the local Draft Office, and the President was burned in effigy (UC Berkeley Library). It was extreme occurrences like this that were covered in daily articles from coast to coast. As more articles were produced it became common for other campuses to follow suit and organize. In November of 1965 there was a student organized rally to surround the White House with over forty thousand protesters in attendance. UMass students soon began to work together and find ways to protest on campus, joining the nation to call for an end to the Vietnam War.
Looking at ROTC’s history during the Vietnam War it is clearly muddled with student protests, political changes, times of inactivation, and on average resistance. Originally ROTC was a program all male collegiate students were required to participate in. The late 50s and early 60s (the beginning of the Vietnam War) brought an end to the obligation. Initially college and university protest brought the national standard down to mandate only one introductory class for every male student. Further protests made possible the ROTC program standards currently still in place, which allows students to voluntarily enroll at their own discretion. “On the 19th of September, 1962, the Chairman of the Military Science Department said that ROTC enrollment had declined 90%” (The Fight Against Compulsory R.O.T.C.). A decade later at the height of the Vietnam War another round of student protests and antiwar rallies successfully lowered registration to the scarce numbers on campuses today.
During antiwar protests ROTC buildings gained more attention than anticipated, the buildings were vandalized with graffiti and windows were broken, they became main targets for sit-ins, picketing, and were occupied several times by non-ROTC students. ROTC programs would generally cancel classes during times of heavy picketing and massive demonstrations, for property preservation and generally safety reasons. UMass Amherst’s ROTC program was no exception. While students looked to the Civil Rights Movement as proof that student protesting was effective, there was only a slight emphasis on non-violent demonstrations during the Vietnam War protests. Non-violent protests tended to develop into massive groups. Mob mentality would take control of the crowd when students became frustrated by the information stated at a rally. Groups often became hostile destroying property or occupying administrational buildings as signs of rebellion.
As ROTC buildings became centralized targets, students began to protest more than the war, but the presence of ROTC on campus and the University’s aid to military training. A small number of students were in favor of keeping the program on campus; exposing future military officers to radical movements seemed beneficial. Rallies were organized specifically to ban the program from campuses. Across the United States a common response was to no longer give college credit to ROTC courses; some removed the program completely. ROTC programs without credit remained on campuses for a short time, offices and classrooms kept training and recruiting members, but many of those programs faded away. Without college credit many officers/cadets dropped the courses and found other ways to pay for their education. These offices without credit lasted until enrollment dropped so low the ROTC offices became obsolete and the programs left numerous higher education institutions. The reinstitution of ROTC on campuses has recently been covered in national news media as the Ivy League universities have recently allowed the program back onto campuses, a decision made alongside the repeal of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” Policy. While the UMass ROTC program was dis-credited in 1972 it remained on the Amherst campus in a smaller building and credit was reinstated in 1973.
UMass’s ROTC program, during the Vietnam War period, was singled out in the course of protesting on two memorable occasions; these specific incidents are still mentioned from time to time in local student run newspaper articles, reminiscent of the antiwar demonstrations. Dickinson Hall use to house the ROTC program on UMass campus, offices and classrooms for both military and Air Force courses (only the Air Force offices remain there today). The first notable event at Dickinson Hall occurred in 1970, and the second in 1972. Each incident coincides with national events regarding the Vietnam War, and with other campuses compelling reactions to United States military.
On April 28, 1970 Nixon announced the decision for the United States military to follow the Vietcong into Cambodia. Nixon had made clear that he had no intention of expanding the war and had begun to decrease the troops’ presence in areas without conflict. Americans were outraged with his decision. It meant extending the area of conflict, increasing the need for more troops, increasing violence and death tolls on both sides, increasing civilian casualties. Rallies began on campuses all across the nation almost instantaneously; the notion of a national student strike began and picked up momentum quickly. On the UMass campus, “President Nixon’s speech last night seemed to frustrate and evoke cynical laughs from many of the 300 persons watching the Student Union T.V.” (The Daily Collegian, 5/1/70).
UMass received a telegram a few days after Nixon’s announcement from the leaders of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) who were picketing a murder trial related to the Black Panthers, 90 miles away in New Haven, Connecticut. The telegram urged the students of UMass Amherst to join the strike, to join together with the students of the nation with hopes to bring an end to the Vietnam War. The student senate gathered on the night of May 3rd to vote on whether or not to join the National Student Strike. All but one vote was for the strike. On the same night the second floor of the Student Union Building was consumed by students organizing and planning the strike. May 4th began with the cover of The Daily Collegian adorned with a fist, the word strike across it in bold letters. Inside the student paper wrote articles addressing the strike, the student senate vote, and information concerning that faculty and administration backed the strike. Class attendance was at an all time low. Those students and teachers entering classes were greeted with signs and chants urging them to stop and consider the larger picture.
On the day that UMass campus decided to strike, students stood along side hundreds of others across the nation, including Kent State University in Ohio. On May 4th the National Guard was present on Kent State’s campus due to Kent’s history of aggressive protesting. The National Guard shot into a crowd of student protesters; four of the university’s students were shot and killed on that day. The protesters were striving for the end of the Vietnam War in the same fashion as millions of other college students. Only one student killed was actually participating in the demonstration, a fact that motivated all those who once hesitated to speak up and take a stand.
Once the news of this tragic event reached UMass there was no going back and the strike gained momentum faster than anticipated. Other universities reacted in similar ways; the Kent State incident was a rude awakening for students. They began to realize the vast impact the strike could leave, the influence they would have in the antiwar movement, but also the severe repercussions their actions may provoke. “During the night the front door of Dickenson Hall had been smashed and the word strike has been painted on the side building. The strikers hung a sign on the front entrance calling for non-violence and discouraged those who advocated the destruction of the building. ROTC classes were canceled for the day and the building was quiet on the inside” (The Daily Collegian, 5/6/70). May 7th’s publication of The Daily Collegian brought news of the successful National Student Strike; 258 names were published of colleges and universities taking part and standing together advocating for the end of the Vietnam War (a grand total of 450 higher education establishments took part by the end of the semester). During the National Student Strike The Daily Collegian published a double wide news spread entitled “Strike Information Page” which held information on schools involved in the strike and local teach-in’s, everything one would need to participate in antiwar events. Groups gathered and kept communication with other national campus groups to stand together and to stay on the same page. Antiwar demonstrations were daily occurrences, the objective being to keep the student population as informed with the most current information. A selection of professors held unofficial classes to help students keep up for the coming years, but the strike remained for the entirety of the semester. Looking into records there are no grades recorded, just pass for each class a student took. This strike was a testament not only to what the student body aimed to do, but what faculty was willing to allow in order to send antiwar messages to the government.
The second time Dickenson Hall made headlines was during a national student uprising against ROTC programs. Their affiliation with the military was no longer welcome on campuses and their accreditation through colleges and universities frustrated many students. Over the month of April in 1972, antiwar student activists occupied ROTC buildings across the nation, using the space for teach-in’s and organizational headquarters. UMass students occupied Dickenson Hall from April 20th to the 25th a weekend spent advocating for change. On the night of the 19th students who were protesting outside the building found it to be unlocked and preceded to make certain there were no weapons inside. After confirmation from janitorial staff the students took control. An article in the Friday edition of The Daily Collegian titled: Dickenson Occupied by VVAW (Vietnam Veterans Against the War) Indefinably, stated the hall would “be used for workshops and films open to the University community throughout the strike” (The Daily Collegian, 4/21/72). The classrooms were set up for anti-war teachings and some as a temporary medical aid area. The university assigned police to keep watch over the hall for these few days to keep violent actions from occurring, for the safety of the students inside the building and the students against the takeover (The Daily Collegian, 4/21-28/72).
On the 27th, two days after the building was reopened, the Faculty Senate announced a decision regarding ROTC’s position with UMass: courses would no longer receive college credit. The Faculty Senate was initially given a list of demands from those occupying the building; the students refused to leave until the demands were honestly reviewed by administration. Students left Dickenson when the senate agreed to meet and discuss the reality of the demands, taking into account the student body arguments over the past years displayed unofficially, as well as, through formal evidence like the student ballot of 1970. The meeting lasted a few days and was publicized in the student paper. Heated debates among faculty members made reasonable compromise uncertain. Funding, surrounding college access, and other under mentioned factors were considered and made it difficult to look at ROTC as a simple institution. The colleges that neighbor the UMass campus acknowledge credit of ROTC courses and allow students to take part, including everything the curriculum entails. The schools utilized the offices located at UMass to create a military training opportunity for their students as well. The reliance other schools placed on the program complicated the removal of ROTC; there was a commitment to the community of surrounding colleges. There was also the loyalty between the university and the students within the program, as well as, to the students outside the program. The non-ROTC students made up the majority of campus and strongly advocated for the removal. The compromise reached, considering each party involved, was to remove credit from the military coursework for UMass students, partially meeting the demands of those who occupied the ROTC building but not breaking the promise to the cadets. Another decision regarding ROTC was made only a year later, in 1973, to reinstate credit to the programs courses. The original judgment turned out to be a strategic move by the administration to keep campus stable and appease the majority of students to a degree.
The argument from students who wanted to keep the program on campus initially did so with the intent to subject members to experiences and events on a non-military campus, specifically functions in regard to the Vietnam War and the antiwar movement. These initial views were expressed around the first ROTC building takeover in 1970, but after their own exposure to rallies and demonstrations opinions changed. There was hardly an opposing side to the removal of the program from non-ROTC students, after several years of direct focus on ROTC there was no longer a silver lining to their presence on campus. E.A. Shaoghnessy a UMass student in 72’ wrote in a published letter to the editor, “As it stands now we are accepting money for having ROTC on campus. At the same time it is my understanding that the University [has] no control over the subject matter within the ROTC curriculum. I feel that the university, by abdicating all control and by accepting money with that premise, giving support and approval to an institution which is intricately connected with the military;” (The Daily Collegian, 5/1/72). Opinions such as this one were often published in the student paper, as time went on the bias in articles was stronger too, the opinions of individuals were easily accessible and were a likely factor in the 1972 decision to discredit the program.
Although dis-crediting ROTC was happening all across the country, many schools kept ROTC off campus permanently and refused to give credit back to the courses as long as the military contradicted the school’s beliefs. There was an overall impact on the program after the April occupations, specifically ramifications regarding the number of students recruited. Since its reinstated credit in 1973, UMass ROTC is now housed in a noticeably smaller building at the edge of campus and continues to have mediocre enrollment compared to ROTC programs in other regions of the country. The low rate of incoming cadets was slightly affected by the 1972 decision but moreover effected by the Antiwar Movement as a whole. Enrollment rates are connected to the events on campuses across the nation during the Vietnam War due to the publicity the large events attracted. Each event caught the attention of all age groups, in all regions of the country, leaving ROTC with a negative stigma deterring future students. Currently there are less than 100 ROTC students attending courses on the UMass Amherst campus; students include those from the surrounding colleges that do not have available coursework and training.
While the 1970 takeover was far more publicized, due to the national student strike, the 1972 occupation of Dickenson Hall was strategized in an efficient manner and yielded results. Overall the students of UMass worked toward getting ROTC off campus and made a noticeable difference that affected the program in its entirety. While ROTC never left campus and the courses were dis-credited for a simple year, it was still a piece of the puzzle as a whole.
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