When that email landed in my inbox I was at first both surprised and pleased. After all, Harvard University has been, for half a century, one of the most hostile institutions on the planet to the U.S. military, ranking right up there ahead of the Peoples Republic of China.
This hostility was, in one sense, almost impossible to understand. Although few people know any of this, here are a couple of obscure-but-important facts about Harvard’s long and proud (but entirely pre-1960s) association with the American military:
Harvard hosted one of the very first ROTC programs in academia, starting in 1916, and by the middle of the twentieth century almost half of all Harvard freshmen were enrolled in ROTC.
Except for West Point and Annapolis, Harvard has produced more Congressional Medal of Honor winners than any other academic institution.
But during the Vietnam War, while most Harvard students cowered behind their student deferments, ROTC was hounded off the campus. For the next half century the only way a Harvard student could take ROTC courses was to register with the MIT program two miles down Mass Ave.
As if that weren’t bad enough, in 1992 the Harvard faculty voted overwhelmingly to demand that Harvard sever any and all remaining ties to the military.
Between Vietnam and when ROTC was (finally) reinstated at Harvard, more than 65,000 American men — and almost two hundred American women — had died protecting the right of the Harvard faculty to pass puerile resolutions.
Finally, in 2011, ROTC returned to Harvard, only 52 years too late. Even that event was explosively controversial, as the general opinion of the faculty, as expressed by one Harvard Law professor, is that the U.S. military is a violent, fascistic, patriarchal horror that needs to be abolished now. (And that, I’m sorry to tell you, is a polite translation of her remarks.)
I suppose we could simply pass this off by noting that it was an ugly period in American history generally, not just at Harvard. We might also note that that hothouse flower known as the Harvard faculty has blotted its escutcheon on more important matters over the last half-century.
But the fact is that I’m sensitive to the issue, having personally been a victim of Harvard’s military bigotry. In the fall of 1969 I matriculated at Harvard Law School, the beneficiary of lots of scholarship money. In those days, first-year law students took five courses, each lasting nine months.
During that period you had no exams or quizzes, so you had no idea whether you were understanding the material or not. Then, in May, you took five four-hour exams, one for each course.
But in May of 1970, Richard Nixon ordered the U.S military to invade Cambodia. From a military perspective, the invasion was a no-brainer and long-overdue. But from a political perspective it was incendiary.
Harvard University simply shut down. Professors refused to profess, administrators refused to administer and students refused to learn. They all spent their time marching up and down Mass Ave, overturning cars, breaking windows, and setting fires. Harvard Law School announced that exams couldn’t be given under these conditions and we should all go home. The exams would be mailed to us and we would take them on the honor system and mail them back.
There was just one problem — I wasn’t going home. I’d been drafted and would be reporting for duty in a few weeks. But when I pointed this out to the dean’s office, they couldn’t have been less interested. If I was going into the army, that was my problem, not theirs. (Tellingly, they did allow a friend of mine to take her exams in Cambridge because she was going not into the fascist army but into the Peace Corps.)
I went off to basic training and, four weeks later, Harvard mailed my exams to my home. My wife forwarded them to me at Fort Dix, but by the time they arrived, I’d moved on to Fort Gordon. The army sent the exams back to my wife, who sent them on to Fort Gordon. But by the time they arrived…, well you get my point. The exams followed me around the army, with about a ten-week lag time, until, more than a year later, they finally caught up with me at Fort Benjamin Harrison.
I opened the horribly tattered package, took one look at the exams, and knew it was hopeless. I hadn’t even thought about my law school courses for an entire year. I called the Law School and spoke to an assistant dean, explaining to her that it simply wasn’t possible for me to take those exams now.
“I’ll say!” she blurted. “You’ve had a full year to study! It’s not fair to the other students!”
While I was being too flabbergasted to respond, she continued. “You’ll have to take the exams we’re giving to this year’s first year students.”
“Actually,” I said, trying to remain calm, “that makes no sense. I didn’t take those courses, didn’t have those professors, and never even heard of them.”
“I’ll put the exams in the mail today,” she said, and that was that.
I would have burned the damn things, but they arrived with a cover letter telling me that if I didn’t take — and pass! — all those exams, I could forget about returning to Harvard Law School.
One final incident before I continue with this Twilight Zone-version of Harvard interacting with the military. I was about two hours into Jack Dawson’s Contracts exam when my portable radio squawked and I raced off to deal with a bad traffic accident. An army deuce and a half had collided head-on with a compact car driven by a young lieutenant. The officer and his wife had both died in the crash, and it took me more than seven hours to clean up the mess and finish my investigation.
I returned to my office, opened my bluebook and continued with the Contracts exam. I laid my weary head on my hand and my weary elbow on the left page of the bluebook. When I raised my elbow I saw, to my horror, that I had left a large splotch of blood on the page. Later, back at Harvard, I mentioned this episode to Prof. Dawson, who burst out laughing.
“So that was your exam!” he bellowed. “I’ve always heard that students sweated blood over my exams, but that’s the first time I ever saw any actual evidence of it!”
Next week, back to the Twilight Zone.
Next up: We Are Forever Grateful for Your Sacrifices, Part II