For country: Yale and the military

In April 1861, Uriah Parmelee dropped out of Yale. Having matriculated as a member of the class of 1863, Parmelee left Yale to answer President Lincoln’s call for volunteers to join the Union Army. To get to war, Parmelee had to join a New York regiment because Connecticut’s regiments were already full with volunteers even more eager than he. Class of 1954 Professor of American History David Blight tells this story every year when he teaches “The Civil War and Reconstruction Era: 1848-1877.” At first Parmelee agitated for more aggressive Union action against slavery, at times threatening his captain with desertion. Energized by the turn of the war and the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, Parmelee wrote home: “There is really something to fight for—I mean freedom.”

On April 1, 1865 Parmelee was killed in the last major action of the Civil War, eight days before Lee would surrender to Grant at Appomattox. “When you walk out today and you go through Woolsey Hall,” Blight said in the Open Yale Courses recording of his class, “Uriah Parmelee’s name will be right on your right as you’re walking through, this high on my shoulder.”

Yale had a long tradition of active involvement in America’s military until, in 1969 and 1970, the Yale faculty voted in a series of meetings to change the rules governing Yale’s relationship with the United States Military’s Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) programs. ROTC trains aspiring military officers while they attend college. Students in ROTC programs can receive scholarships for their participation in ROTC. The vote was in part a rejection of American foreign policy and the military during the Vietnam War, and in response to these changes, the military announced in 1970 that it would discontinue the Army and Naval ROTC programs at Yale. Since 1917, ROTC had been an important part of Yale’s long history with the military; in 1970, that direct relationship ended.

Throughout its history, Yale’s connection with the military has played an important role in the school’s identity both on campus and beyond university walls. Woolsey Hall, the building that frames two sides of Beinecke Plaza and contains Commons, has the names of Yale students who have died in American wars inscribed on its walls. Woolsey was built at the turn of the 20th century and dedicated in 1915, 50 years after a Yale committee formed to build a memorial to the men who had died in the just-ended Civil War.

In an interview, Blight said that after he first found Parmelee’s letters in a book, he went to check Woolsey to find the inscription. “It really is the dominant building on campus,” Blight said. “That and Beinecke are the heart of this place.” Maya Lin, SY ’81 ARC ’86, has called Woolsey Hall “completely influential” in her design for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. Like Blight’s retelling of Parmelee’s story in his popular lecture, Yale veterans affect the world outside of Yale. The list of famous Yale veterans is long—starting, perhaps, with Nathan Hale, YC 1773, and coming up to today with two of America’s last four presidents, John Kerry, JE ’66, and Karl Marlantes, JE ’67, author of the 2010 New York Times Bestseller, Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War.

Following the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (DADT), Yale’s faculty voted in May to reverse its 1969-70 decisions. The Air Force and Navy have signed contracts with Yale to reestablish Yale ROTC units. Marine Captain Christopher Reinke, who will lead the Naval ROTC’s Marine Corps program, hopes that the Navy ROTC unit will attract between 15 and 20 students—midshipmen in Navy parlance. They and the Air Force ROTC cadets will be the first ROTC students based in a Yale unit since 1972.


Nathan Hale was a spy. An officer in George Washington’s Revolutionary Army, Hale knowingly broke the rules of war to report on British plans; he was captured and hanged on Sept. 22, 1776. Hale is also Connecticut’s official state hero. A statue dedicated to him stands next to Yale’s Connecticut Hall, where Hale lived as a Yale student. Inscribed at its base are Hale’s famous last words: “I only regret that I have but one life to give for my country.”

In January, 1861, before Abraham Lincoln’s inauguration and the hostilities at Fort Sumter that April, a group of Yale students from southern states occupied Alumni Hall, flying secessionist banners and barricading themselves in the stone building. As described by Adam Goodheart in the New York Times’s “Disunion” blog, Unionist students laid siege to the building until “at last the stout panels splintered apart and the students charged upstairs to haul down the banner.” According to Judith Ann Schiff, chief research archivist at Yale University Library, 168 Yale men died in the Civil War, 113 fighting for the Union, 55 for the Confederacy.

Gaddis Smith, PC ’50, GRD ’54, Yale’s Larned professor emeritus of History, has been working on a history of Yale in the 20th century for over a decade, and said that in 1898 a “tremendous boost of enthusiasm” struck Yale at the outbreak of the Spanish-American War. The war and the occupation of the Philippines that followed are memorialized by 16 names in Woolsey; the arch between Battell Chapel and Durfee Hall on Elm Street commemorating a Yale student who died fighting with Theodore Roosevelt’s Rough Riders in Cuba; and the flagpole in Beinecke Plaza, built for a Yale student who died during the American occupation of the Philippines.

After Woolsey’s dedication in 1915 and the army’s announcement the following year of the first ROTC program, Yale jumped at the idea of establishing a student ROTC unit. When the then-president of Yale told the faculty that Yale would award class credit for ROTC, presenting it as a fait accompli, Smith said, “The faculty was quite rebellious.”

Once America entered the World War I, faculty concerns were forgotten. A group of rich Yale men, including David Ingalls, YC ’20, and Robert Lovett, YC ’18, began an air force unit in the form of the Yale Flying Club. Ingalls became one of the most prominent American fighter pilots in the war, and Yale’s hockey rink is now named after him. Lovett worked in and out of government and the military for his entire life, and was instrumental in the policy of Japanese internment on the West Coast during World War II and as the secretary of defense during the Korean War.


During World War I, Smith said, Yale’s campus itself was consumed by the war. “The military basically took over Yale—there were hardly any students who were not in good health who were not in the military.” According to Schiff, about 10,000 Yale men served in the war; according to her research, 33 Yale men received the Distinguished Service Cross for their contributions in World War I.

Yale’s enthusiasm for the military nearly disappeared in the 22 years between America’s involvement in the World Wars. Smith said that the nationwide wave of isolationism had a keen effect on campus. Even as Yale’s ROTC programs continued, “there was a good deal of grumbling on the part of faculty in the interwar period, and enrollment in ROTC was pretty low as an era of disillusionment developed,” Smith said.

World War II did not end the debates: “There wasn’t the same kind of football type cheering as during the war with Spain,” Smith said. Once again, the military took over Yale’s campus. According to Schiff, Yale had only enough students (most of whom were unfit for the draft) to fill two residential colleges. The University rented out the other eight, as well as Old Campus, to the military: Yale once again became a military base.

After the war, Schiff said the president of Yale held himself to his promise to those who had served in the military at Yale, and with the help of the G.I. Bill, she said, the university enrolled around 8,000 veterans immediately after the end of the war. World War II gave Woolsey 514 names, the most Yale graduates killed in any war.


20 years later, many Yale students and faculty were actively and prominently opposed to the Vietnam War, and faculty began to re-raise concerns about the academic merits of ROTC. Finally, in 1969 and 1970, the Yale faculty met and voted to change the rules governing ROTC, revoking academic credit for ROTC courses, faculty positions for ROTC instructors, financial aid for students who stopped participating in ROTC, and free campus space for ROTC activities and classes. The faculty did not vote to formally abolish or end the ROTC programs; rather, it changed the conditions for ROTC’s continuation. In 1970, the Army and Navy announced that they would discontinue their Yale ROTC programs and the last classes of ROTC students graduated in 1972.

Whether the fierce opposition to the Vietnam War or the academic question was the greater driving motive for the faculty’s votes is open to debate. Sterling Professor of History Donald Kagan tells the story of how, as a professor at Cornell University during the most controversial years of the Vietnam War, he saw a similar vote. After examining the academic merit of Cornell’s ROTC classes, Kagan said, “I was about ready to support the withdrawal of credit to the program because I thought the objections were legitimate to its educational function.” But at the faculty meeting, he recalls, “I heard the people who were demanding this happen, and it was so obvious that they were simply engaged in anti-military, anti-government, anti-American prejudice that I couldn’t bring myself to join them and vote to abolish the ROTC.”

There were few people defending the academic merit of Yale’s ROTC program, suggesting that it was not just a cover for political motives. Robert Bonds, BK ’71, was a midshipman in the second-to-last class of Yale’s Naval ROTC program. He said that his Navy ROTC class shrank due to the Vietnam War’s unpopularity: “When I started, there were probably about 40 kids in the class of ’71, but by the time we graduated there were about 15 of us.” About the vote to remove academic credit, Bonds said, “The faculty was doing the right thing for the wrong reasons. The courses weren’t that great—they weren’t up to Yale standards.”

Sterling Professor of Economics William Nordhaus, CC ’63, GRD ’73, was on the Yale faculty at the time and voted to revoke ROTC’s class credit, arguing that the classes did not meet Yale standards, but he said that ROTC’s role on campus was “primarily a symbolic issue for many people.”


Currently, three Yale undergraduates are ROTC cadets at programs based out of the University of Connecticut. A small number of students, like Matthew Dernbach, TC ’13, have or will participate in alternative ways for college students or graduates to commission as military officers. Since ROTC announced it would leave Yale’s campus, many Yale students have served in the United States military, though numbers aren’t available: The only alumni network, the Yale Veterans Association, is less than a year old, and its list of veterans—by its founders’ admission—is far from complete. The group estimates there are 10,000 living Yale veterans—roughly the same number that fought in World War I.

Some veterans who are currently students are members of the Yale Veterans Council, an organization that was set up only a few years ago. There are veterans in many of the graduate schools; there are also several who are Eli Whitney students. John Perez, SOM ’12, served in the Army and did two tours of duty in Iraq. He said that the community of Yale veterans and members of the military is like the Yale School of Management: “Small and tightly knit.”

Andrew Hendricks, SY ’14, is the sole Yale student in an Air Force ROTC program. He drives an hour and 15 minutes each way once a week to the University of Connecticut to participate in ROTC courses and activities, and said that the commute is the hardest part of the entire ROTC experience. Two Yale students currently participate in an Army ROTC program based out of the University of New Haven, driving across town for physical training three mornings a week as well as to classes and “Leadership Labs” each Friday.

The military community at Yale in some ways is like the different residential colleges and the professional schools: There is a sense of common purpose—service to country, leadership as service—despite a fractured social network. Matthew Schmitt, SOM ’12, is a West Point graduate who will retire from the Army Reserve next month. “Personally, I don’t want much or need much community from the veterans at Yale,” he said. “But there is a great value in knowing that we’re out there.”


On Dec. 22, 2010, President Barack Obama signed the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Repeal Act of 2010” into law. For many years, Yale believed the United States Military’s policies that barred LGBTQ Americans from serving in the military conflicted with the University’s core values and its rules prohibiting such discrimination by student groups or campus recruiters. With DADT repealed, Yale’s president, Richard Levin, GRD ’74, believed it was time for Yale to reconsider its position on ROTC. In an email to the Herald, he wrote, “The day after the repeal of DADT, I called Secretary Gates, whom I knew well from his years as President of Texas A&M. I told him Yale would very much like to explore reinstating ROTC.”

Levin then asked Dean of Yale College Mary Miller, GRD ’81, to explore what steps Yale would have to take in order to bring ROTC programs back to campus. Miller appointed a committee to reexamine the faculty’s 1969-70 decision. A faculty vote in May ratified the committee’s findings that the university should reverse its previous decision.

Under the new rules, proposed ROTC courses will go through the same process as all Yale courses with the Yale Course of Study Committee to receive credit. Dean of Undergraduate Academics Joseph Gordon insists ROTC courses will receive credit only if they meet the standards for all Yale courses. ROTC courses that fail to receive credit would appear on midshipmen and cadet transcripts without factoring into GPA or counting as credit towards graduation or the major.

J. Richardson Dilworth Professor of History Paul Kennedy is currently working on designing a military history course, hopefully to be taught in the fall of 2012, that will be both an Air Force and Navy ROTC course and count for a full Yale credit. The goal, in part, is to design an interesting class that will attract students beyond just ROTC cadets and midshipmen.

Since the faculty voted to approve the committee’s recommendations, President Levin has signed ROTC contracts with the secretaries of the Navy and the Air Force, and each branch will start ROTC units at Yale next fall. These units will draw primarily from the Yale class of 2016; the commanding officers for each ROTC program will, at least at first, come from the Naval ROTC program at Holy Cross College and the Air Force ROTC program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.


Levin and other Yale administrators emphasize that the return of ROTC is about Yale’s role in training leaders. Miller suggests that the return of ROTC is part of Yale’s broader self-image as an international university. “Certainly some of the movement to make this campus inhospitable to ROTC was a part of a somewhat isolationist trend,” she said. “I don’t think there’s room to be isolationist anymore.” Gordon emphasized that allowing ROTC to return is about supporting students’ interest in the spirit of Yale’s tradition of dedication to leadership and service, as well as several of Yale’s other priorities, such as engineering and foreign languages. “If we want armed forces to be led by the best educated people in this country,” he said, “we ought to make that option available to our students.”

Kagan, who taught a popular course on the origins of war for many years at Yale, believes that having more Yale students in the military may help prevent war. “The successful avoidance of war historically has been much assisted by having considerable military strength in the hands of nations that have an interest in preserving the peace,” he said. “Even if you are primarily concerned with the question of avoiding a war, I think it’s very reckless not to see to it that we have the best possible military establishment.”

Matt Shafer, ES ’13, thinks that the return of ROTC is an abdication of its role as an international university. Shafer’s grandfather was in the Yale Naval ROTC program before serving on a destroyer during the Korean War. Shafer’s grandfather’s service makes him feel conflicted about ROTC’s return, but he insists that Yale and the military have changed greatly since his grandfather’s time. “I don’t think that Yale is an American university in the same sense that it was 60 years ago,” he said.  “I don’t think it’s appropriate for a university that conceives of itself as having a sort of cosmopolitan global mission to have an exclusive relationship with the military of the world’s largest superpower.”

Nordhaus, the Sterling professor of economics, said he voted against changing the rules regarding ROTC in May 2011 for the same reason he voted to revoke ROTC’s academic credit in 1969. “My concern about the ROTC courses is primarily that they are not appropriate for a liberal arts education,” he explains, though he thinks that the votes on ROTC are mainly symbolic. Henry Prentiss Becton Professor of Engineering and Applied Science Gary Haller was a member of the Yale faculty in 1969 and chaired the 2011 faculty committee on ROTC. Haller supports the return of ROTC, he said that opponents to ROTC’s return argued “that the military is incompatible with academic goals—that the courses do not have the same depth and rigor that we would expect of comparable courses given in the departments, that their rules of conduct and conformity are counter to the openness we desire, that war is not an academic exercise.”


One of the biggest challenges facing the ROTC program will be recruitment. “It would be sad if we went through all this trouble and we had three kids next year,” said Marine Captain Reinke, who will lead the Yale Naval ROTC’s marines. Administrators universally agree, and Dean of Admissions Jeffrey Brenzel, TD ’75, has been tasked with ensuring that Yale receives applications from students interested in ROTC. He has hired a staffer dedicated to liaison work on recruitment and admissions with the officers in charge of Yale’s ROTC programs.

Shafer said that after having seriously considered it as Yale decided whether or not to change its rules regarding ROTC, he doesn’t believe he could actively protest now. “The return of ROTC is inevitable,” he said, though he still wishes Yale administrators would change their minds. Between his respect for his grandfather’s service and his doubts that his protest could change any policy, Shafer said, “I’m really conflicted on it. I’m hesitant on a personal level to take an activist stance on this.”


Reinke and Hendricks wonder how Yale students will react when ROTC returns and they see their classmates walking around campus in uniform. Hendricks said he already receives some glances. “When people see me in uniform on Thursdays, they’ll come up to me, and it’s never anything negative, it’s either neutral, or they’re curious—or it’s positive,” he said. Reinke said, “Honestly, I don’t want to say I’ve been surprised, but the reception that I’ve personally gotten has been really positive.”

Army Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Boccardi is a War College Fellow at Yale’s Jackson Institute. Boccardi thinks that seeing ROTC cadets in uniform will inspire a different kind of respect for a desire to serve. “If you see a military service member, it’s a different kind of service than when you see a police officer on the corner,” he said. Of the new ROTC cadets, he said, “They’re pioneers.”

Pioneers often encounter some kind of culture shock. Gordon said he’s learning the different ranks in the military, and showed the Herald the iPhone application he uses as an aid. “Yale is a first name kind of place,” he said.

Katie Miller, MC ’12, transferred from West Point to Yale in protest of the military’s DADT policy. She plans to rejoin the Army after her graduation, and thinks that the main elements of culture shock will have to do with Yale students adjusting to the fact that the military is actually not so different from Yale. Though some concerns may be valid—she said, “The politics of the military are much more conservative and Republican, while Yale is a liberal and Democratic environment”—Miller believes that the main difference will be solved over time. “The military deals with personnel differently than Yale deals with students,” she said, though both hold dear the idea of meritocracy and leadership in public service. “In the military, they give you the same sort of meritocracy, but it’s in certain confines.”


Reinke wonders about ROTC’s ability to take advantage of Yale’s tradition of military service. One point of hope is what he sees as the similarities between kinds of service Yale students often participate in—he and Dean Miller both point to Teach for America in this context—and what he sees as the military’s goals of service.

Whether or not Yale’s military tradition will feel more alive when there are students walking around in their Air Force and Navy uniforms, it is clear that even with the return of ROTC, Yale now has a very different relationship to the military than ever before. Blight points out that Yale now has few professors like the recently deceased John M. Blum, who had served in the Navy in World War II. Throughout interviews, members of the military, Yale students, faculty, and administrators emphasized the distance most Americans feel from what the United States Military does today. Despite, or because of that, Yale’s embrace of ROTC is not unique among elite universities, or as a part of broader cultural support for America’s military.

What will happen to the first ROTC programs at Yale with an all-volunteer military is unclear—but across the board there is concern about their ability to fit into the tradition and history of the University’s mission. The Civil War began 150 years ago this year; eight of the 168 Yalies killed in the war died in 1861. In four years, ROTC may still be trying to establish new traditions while reconnecting with the old—whether or not the new roots will hold is unclear. There will likely still be questions then about the military’s role at Yale. But no one has resolved whether or not the 55 Confederates’ names on Woolsey’s marble belong there either.

One Response

  1. Legacy Admit says:

    Wasn’t Kagan one of the signers of “Project for the New American Century”, the neocon organization that started the Iraq and Afghanistan wars?

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