ROTC under Siege

By Captain Brendan J. O'Donnell, U.S. Navy (Retired)

President Richard Nixon authorized a U.S. military incursion into Cambodia beginning in April 1970, igniting widespread concern that the war was expanding. When four students at Kent State University were shot and killed by Ohio National Guard troops during a protest on 4 May, the nation erupted, and more than 400 colleges and universities temporarily shut down in response.

Holy Cross, in Worcester, Massachusetts, was one of those schools, and the crisis extended well beyond the first days of May. What followed affected the college and its NROTC unit over the next ten months.

Days of Rage

On Monday, 4 May, the Holy Cross faculty voted to suspend normal academic activities. The next day, several discussion groups were held to address the Vietnam War, the capitalist system, racism, and political prisoners, and rumors suggested that meetings or discussions would take up the issue of ROTC on campus.

The NROTC unit’s officers, staff, and midshipmen decided to observe strict restraint and avoid confrontation. Members of the class of 1971 had assumed battalion leadership in February, and the new midshipmen battalion officers were influenced strongly by an April 1969 incident at Harvard in which members of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) had occupied an administration building to protest the war. Strongly negative reaction to the occupation misled Harvard President Nathan M. Pusey into thinking he could evict the occupiers without consequence. However, once he unleashed the police on the protestors, the opinion of the faculty and students immediately turned against the administration and led to a shutdown of the university. Holy Cross midshipmen leaders did not want a repeat of this situation and put the word out to the battalion to wait for the situation to calm down.

At one late-evening discussion group, a leader of the Revolutionary Student Union (RSU)—the Holy Cross equivalent of the SDS—announced there were plainclothes policemen on campus, and a brief confrontation occurred near the Air Force ROTC building (now the Millard Art Center). Amid assertions that more police were in the building and demands for college president Rev. Raymond J. Swords, S.J., to appear, Father Swords arrived. He insisted there were no police in the building, but an inspection by one of the deans revealed the presence of one. The policeman quickly left the campus, but Father Swords’ credibility was damaged. A heavy rainfall and unseasonably cold temperatures ended the confrontation.

On Wednesday, the Air Force removed its files from the building as a precaution. A discussion of ROTC was scheduled for that evening in Hogan Campus Center Ballroom, and the RSU was advertising via telephone that another demonstration would occur outside the Air Force building that evening. The college asked the NROTC staff to remove weapons and ammunition from the armory in O’Kane Hall, which was accomplished without incident. At the ROTC discussion, one of the Air Force senior cadets, speaking from the floor, first used the phrase “oppressive minority” to characterize the RSU; this became a rallying cry for ROTC supporters over the next few days.

By 2230, the RSU had given up hope that anything substantive would come from the ROTC discussion, and it shifted the scene of action to the Air Force ROTC building. One of the faculty members present proposed that part of the building be converted to a peace center, at which point an RSU student threw a rock through a window. Immediately, 30 to 40 nonviolent, antiwar students formed a human chain to block occupation of the building. The strategy of the ROTC students to avoid physical confrontation with their opponents had produced a schism among the various antiwar and anti-ROTC factions.

Rev. John E. Brooks, S.J., the dean of the college, was present at the demonstration and announced that Father Swords would meet with the protestors in the Hogan Ballroom. There, Father Swords opined that ROTC had a place on campus, drawing derision from the RSU and Black Student Union representatives on the stage with him. This led to an audience demand that ROTC be represented on the panel, so the NROTC midshipmen battalion commander and one AFROTC student joined the group on stage. By 0130 the next day, fatigue and continuing unseasonably cold weather ended the meeting.

The following day, the midshipmen reported on the previous night’s activities to the unit staff. During this meeting, one of the deans called unit commander and professor of naval science Captain Edward F. Hayes to ask that the midshipmen officers’ swords be removed from campus. Captain Hayes refused, saying that the next request would be to remove pencils with sharp points. The consensus among the midshipmen was that they had earned a great deal of respect in the past two days, but that support was more anti-RSU than pro-ROTC.

Deliberations about ROTC’s Future

The Ad Hoc Committee on ROTC, a subcommittee of the Educational Policy Committee (EPC), had been meeting since February, but on Friday, 8 May, Father Swords released a letter tasking the ad hoc committee—consisting of two faculty members, one member of the Board of Trustees, and two students—to submit its report as soon as possible. On 31 May, members responded that it would be mid-September at the earliest before their report would be ready.

On Monday, 11 May, the faculty voted to continue the strike. That same day, Captain Hayes retired from the Navy at a previously scheduled ceremony off campus.

The midshipmen received notice two days later that the annual President’s Review—an awards ceremony and formal parade—was canceled. The midshipmen battalion commander protested this cancelation in a letter to Father Swords and was granted a personal meeting with him on 1 June. On both 6 May and 1 June, Father Swords visibly was worn down. In August 1969, he had requested retirement, to take effect in July 1970, after the longest tenure of any Holy Cross president, and by any measure his tenure was exceptionally distinguished. No one had anticipated how controversial and stressful his last year would be.

On 1 July 1970, Father Brooks succeeded Father Swords as president of the college, and Captain Harry R. Moore assumed command of the NROTC unit in August. Because of Father Brooks’ prior service as college dean, he was a known quantity. Captain Moore was completely unknown, and there was concern among the midshipmen that his prior active-duty and World War II service might prejudice him against the “ivory tower intellectuals” he would encounter at Holy Cross. However, Captain Moore also had diplomatic experience as the former naval attaché to Pakistan, and he was a scholar in his own right, as the author of the textbook A Navigation Compendium. He would prove to be the right man at the right time in the right position.

The ad hoc committee labored through the summer in response to Father Swords’ 8 May mandate. In mid-September, the committee released a majority report and a minority report. The majority report, from one faculty member and both students, concluded ROTC should be phased out over three years as a symbolic moral protest of distorted national priorities. The minority report from the trustee and the second faculty member found the aims and goals of Holy Cross and the presence of ROTC not to be mutually exclusive and called for its retention with some modifications.

On 23 September, Captain Moore addressed the midshipmen battalion for the first time and covered a variety of topics, including the two reports, pledging to do his best for the educational interest of the midshipmen.

The midshipmen leaders assessed the probable attitudes of various groups toward ROTC as follows:

• Trustees—almost certain to support retention of ROTC, even if opposed by the faculty and students.

• Alumni—strong supporters of ROTC because of the very high percentage who were ROTC graduates or had other military service.

• Administration—likely to support ROTC for both philosophical and practical reasons.

• Jesuits—likely to support ROTC because of the longstanding relationship, particularly with the Navy. (The midshipmen underestimated this because they were not aware of the deep reservoir of gratitude toward the Navy among the Jesuits for the financial support that kept the college functioning during World War II.)

• Lay faculty—likely to oppose retention of ROTC.

• Students—nearly evenly split. However, most students came from middle-class Catholic families who remembered their roles in the victory in World War II.

Based on this assessment, the midshipmen concluded the generally centrist beliefs of the student body could work to the advantage of ROTC if the student vote truly were representative. The Inter-House Congress (part of the student government) arranged for a student vote to be held 30 September and 1 October that would offer three options: support the majority report, support the minority report, or support neither.

The Navy midshipmen and Air Force cadets organized down to the level of dormitory corridors, posted and distributed flyers advocating support for the minority report, and engaged in extensive personal contact with friends and fellow students. Supplemented by position papers distributed through campus mail and an information table in the Campus Center, this “get-out-the-vote” campaign emphasized not letting a small minority of students dictate to everyone.

The relatively small size of the Holy Cross student body made for easy familiarity. Students with a wide range of political beliefs took the same classes, participated in the same extracurricular activities, and lived in the same dormitories. While students might oppose each other fundamentally and vehemently on topics such as ROTC, they at least respected the sincerity of their opponents.

The results of the vote were decisive: with 55 percent student turnout (the largest in memory), 55 percent supported the minority report; 38 percent supported the majority report; and 7 percent (both pro- and anti-ROTC) supported neither. Shortly after the results were announced, the RSU, through the chairman of the Inter-House Congress, requested a public forum with ROTC advocates be held immediately before the scheduled Faculty-Student Assembly vote on 5 October. The midshipmen declined to participate.

On 5 October, each faculty member received a letter from the midshipmen outlining some of the recent changes in NROTC policies, courses, and activities. The agenda for that day’s Faculty-Student Assembly proved too ambitious, and the vote on ROTC was postponed to a special meeting on 12 October.

The midshipmen again sent each faculty member a letter, this time urging the highest possible participation at the meeting. The event was broadcast on the campus radio station and opened with many statements from ROTC opponents, but they could not find common ground on language to eliminate ROTC. Their position gradually collapsed. As Father Brooks, acting as assembly chairman, recognized pro-ROTC speakers—particularly Jesuits—a tide of momentum built. In the end, 89 members voted against the ad hoc committee majority report, 60 voted for it, and five abstained. ROTC would remain at Holy Cross. The Educational Policy Committee was directed to formulate recommendations for changes to ROTC and to report back to the assembly in December.

Later that day, one of the Jesuits told the midshipmen battalion commander that without the Navy, there would be no Holy Cross because the college was saved from closing in World War II by the Navy’s ROTC and V-12 programs. The commander also received a note—from Rev. Francis Hart, S.J.—that said: “ROTC is one of our great activities. Congratulations—God Bless the Air Force + Navy ROTC Units.”

Academic Credit for ROTC

Captain Moore had arrived at Holy Cross less than two months before the Faculty-Student Assembly vote and, although he already had forged strong personal relationships with Father Brooks and with Acting Dean Rev. Joseph R. Fahey, S.J., he was only beginning to know and be known by the faculty. As the discussion about academic credit proceeded, his personal character and intellect made themselves felt, and he began to earn great respect from the faculty.

On 19 October, the EPC formally requested through Father Fahey that the commanders of the Naval and Air Force ROTC units provide a great deal of specific information on their academic courses. Father Fahey previously had solicited directly the names of representative midshipmen and cadets from each class, including a Marine option representative. Captain Moore’s reply and all the supporting material were submitted on 23 October, and the Naval and Air Force unit commanders and representative midshipmen and cadets were scheduled to meet separately with the EPC on 6 November.

The ROTC representatives spent two weeks preparing for this meeting by studying the material assembled by their units, collecting other pertinent material, and brainstorming likely questions. The midshipmen’s final preparation came in a session with Captain Moore and the executive officer, Commander Robert Orcutt, to ensure a consistent message. Shortly before the EPC meeting, the NROTC unit learned that the College Curriculum Committee intended to recommend only three naval science courses for academic credit.

The midshipmen met separately with the EPC in a session that was scheduled for 30 minutes but went 50 and covered naval science courses and the importance of battalion activities. After separate meetings that day with Air Force cadets and commanders of both units, the EPC decided to resubmit the ROTC courses to individual departments for evaluation, essentially overruling the College Curriculum Committee. The additional evaluations delayed the final EPC report until March 1971, when the EPC recommended full academic credit for all NROTC courses, except for the first semester of freshman year and a deferred decision on one of the Marine-option courses. The Holy Cross NROTC unit had survived the 11-month challenge to its existence nearly intact.

In individual letters to the midshipmen representatives to the EPC on 10 November, Father Brooks thanked them for their “extremely positive contribution,” “very fine impression,” “very articulate and well-reasoned responses,” and “wonderfully beneficial service.”

In a 5 March 1971 letter to Father Brooks, Captain Moore thanked him and Father Fahey “for the fairness with which the NROTC problem has been treated at Holy Cross” and for their “kind and impartial treatment.” Father Brooks replied on 8 March that Holy Cross was very fortunate to have Captain Moore as commander of the NROTC Unit because of his experience, openness, and ability to articulate issues. In 2009 remarks to the O’Callahan Society, Father Brooks said “the retention of the Holy Cross NROTC Unit was preserved primarily in those troubled days and weeks by the dedicated labor, attention to detail, compelling arguments, patience and persistence of Captain Moore. Without his dedicated commitment and hard work, there would be no NROTC unit on the Holy Cross campus.”

In perhaps the best assessment of the core principles of the College of the Holy Cross, Father Fahey told the NROTC seniors at their Spring 1971 Dining-In that Holy Cross had both the last unrestricted NROTC unit in New England and a nationally published, critically acclaimed booklet on the Berrigan brothers, prominent antiwar activists. He thought that range of activity represented the intellectual balance that the college ought to provide.



John R. Satterfield, Saving Big Ben—The USS Franklin and Father Joseph T. O’Callahan (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2011), 121–22, 133–34.

Anthony J. Kuzniewski, S.J., Thy Honored Name—A History of the College of the Holy Cross 1843–1994 (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1999).

COL Harry G. Summers Jr., Vietnam War Almanac Part II: Chronology 1959–1975 (New York: Facts on File Publications, 1985).

Steven M. Gillon, The American Paradox: A History of the United States Since 1945, 3rd ed. (Boston, MA: Wadsworth, Cengage Learning, 2013).

Steve Kamer, “Faculty Senate votes strike to condemn Viet escalation,” The Crusader XLVI 36 (Worcester, MA: College of the Holy Cross), 8 May 1970.

MIDN 1/C Brendan J. O’Donnell, “Report on the May Crisis at the College of the Holy Cross, 30 April 1970 to 1 June 1970,” attached to the 1970–71 Annual Report of the College of the Holy Cross Naval ROTC Unit on file in the Navy Archives, Washington Navy Yard.

MIDN 1/C Brendan J. O’Donnell, “Report on the Fall 1970 Examination of the ROTC at the College of the Holy Cross,” attached to the 1970–71 Annual Report of the College of the Holy Cross Naval ROTC Unit on file in the Navy Archives, Washington Navy Yard.

NROTC papers in the Holy Cross Archives in Dinand Library (four boxes of letters and reports).

Captain O’Donnell was the Holy Cross NROTC midshipmen battalion commander from February 1970 to February 1971 and participated in the events described in this article. He has been published in the Naval War College Review and Strategic Review and was a 1990 individual winner in the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Essay Contest. To commemorate the 75th anniversary of NROTC at Holy Cross in 2016, the college’s O’Callahan Society sponsored this snapshot of the most critical episode in the history of the unit.


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