Antimilitarism in American public life

Issue 2023, vol. 77

Review of Breaking the War Habit: The Debate over Militarism in American Education, by Seth Kershner, Scott Harding and Charles Howlett (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2022)

Depending on one’s zip code, an American teen may have a high likelihood of attending a public school with Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (JROTC), a federally funded program aimed to introduce students to U.S. military culture. At present, some 3,500 public high schools across the United States offer JROTC classes, with clusters especially in Southern states and in large urban districts. According to a 2022 New York Times study, troubling evidence is emerging that more and more high schools are mandating JROTC for large swaths of freshman students, even though by law these military classes are elective, not compulsory. Not surprisingly, some students and parents are pushing back against school officials, asserting – and winning – arguments that they have a right to public education without military-focused requirements.

The new volume Breaking the War Habit, a collaborative effort by a trio of U.S. peace historians, provides fascinating historical context for these present-day conflicts in districts around the country. Dating back to the new nation’s formation, rejecting school militarism has been “part of a long American tradition of opposition to military meddling in civil affairs,” which included James Madison’s and other founders’ concerns for the separation of powers, as well as limits on military authority (16). By the 1830s, as the Massachusetts educator and theorist Horace Mann began working out key principles for American public education, antimilitarist sentiments were widespread. Mann, the most influential of 19th-century U.S. educational reformers, proclaimed that young people must be “educated to that strength of intellect which shall dispel the insane illusions of martial glory” (5).

Breaking the War Habit carries this story of antimilitarist commitments in American public  life – especially regarding JROTC and school-based military recruiting – through the 20th century and beyond. The authors note that in the post-9/11 era, peace activists have enjoyed modest successes in slowing the spread of JROTC programs in some districts, but have also faced enormous challenges. One of these, the passage in 2002 of the No Child Left Behind Act, opened doors for military recruiters to public high schools and to individual students’ identifying information, stipulating that schools unwilling to comply could lose federal funding. In this climate, in which many public-school administrators hold the U.S. military in high regard, and see enlistment as a viable post-graduation career option for students, the growth of JROTC programs nationwide and the omnipresence of military recruiters on school campuses may seem to be long-established aspects of American culture.

But the history recounted in this book suggests otherwise. The authors argue convincingly that the trajectory of militaristic education in American schools was never inevitable. For decades, a shifting constellation of secular and faith-based activists sought to prevent – or at least limit – military-centered curricula and recruiters’ access to youth. While their successes waxed and waned over time, often in relation to rising tides of national militarism in wartime, coalitions of activists ranging from the American Friends Service Committee to groups such as the Vietnam Veterans Against the War strategized to limit militarism in school settings.

Organized chronologically, the book links the beginnings of school-based militarism to national preparedness during the First World War. Progressive Era advocates for military training garnered congressional funding in 1916, and again in 1920, to establish the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) program. From the onset, peace advocates and leading educators warned vigorously of the perils of military footholds in secondary schools and universities. The American educator John Dewey, for example, denounced military training in schools and colleges because, he argued, it reduced learning to a rigid set of codes and pathways constrained by expectations of discipline and conformity. He saw this as a stumbling block to education’s true potential, the ability of a student to “become a conscious agent in criticizing and reconstructing social and political life” (26). Throughout the 1920s and ’30s, American women peace activists and others amplified Dewey’s ideas via grassroots campaigns to keep ROTC programs at land-grant universities as voluntary (not compulsory) for male students, and to prevent the programs’ spread to other types of institutions, including public high schools. These Americans supported the work of a new and energetic antimilitarist organization, the Committee on Militarism in Education, which pursued a variety of legal strategies challenging ROTC until the outbreak of the Second World War.

These interwar peace activists rejected the notion that bellicose tendencies are inherent to human nature. Rather, they argued that “by promoting the idea that war was justified, military training in schools and colleges helped create an ideological predisposition to war” (41). Accordingly, they geared their activities toward peace education as a way of preventing future wars, and some of them saw a place for sectarian institutions – privately funded church secondary schools and colleges – as leading lights. In the 1920s, for example, a prominent colleague of John Dewey’s, the Columbia University-based philosopher George Albert Coe, advocated for the expansion of church schools, which, free of military influences, could further democratic traditions based on civilian leadership and “point the way for the public schools” in promoting peace-oriented curricula (42).

In this context, early-20th century Mennonite schools at the secondary and post-secondary levels fit into a progressive vision promoted by activists who equated moral clarity with the  absence of militaristic influence. Although the many peace-education programs developed by American Mennonites fall outside the scope of this volume, the authors give close attention to the anti-ROTC activism of Goshen (Ind.) College alumna Rachel Weaver Kreider, who in 1934-35 pursued graduate studies in philosophy at Ohio State University. Drawing on a life sketch published in Mennonite Life in 2002 by historian James C. Juhnke (Kreider’s son-in-law), the authors cite her vigorous participation in the 1934 nationwide “Strike against War” campaign, and her championing of Ohio legislation to limit ROTC inroads at her university, as exemplary grassroots campus activism.

Among the book’s strengths is its analysis of antimilitarist activists’ multiple and oft-changing organizational strategies. In Breaking the War Habit, we learn of lawsuits, legislative action and letter-writing campaigns, challenges to textbook and other curricular offerings, and student-led grassroots movements utilizing art, music, and theatre. During the 1970s, the authors note, American antipathy to military recruiting in schools reached its zenith. But the authors also explore how socioeconomic factors in American society – including the perception in some communities that predominantly white activists protesting JROTC programs were threatening opportunities for racially- and economically-disadvantaged students – limited their successes.  Accordingly, as the 20th century ended, those seeking to challenge JROTC programs and to limit military recruiters’ access to students were employing new strategies:  building more racially-diverse coalitions, and emphasizing economic arguments (i.e., cost-benefit analyses of JROTC programs in school districts), rather than relying on moral suasion.

Breaking the War Habit enlightens on many levels, since few scholars have addressed the history of antimilitarists’ efforts to shape American education. One limitation of the book is that it skips over the crucially important decades of the early Cold War and the dawning of the nuclear age. A companion volume is yet to be written about how antimilitarist efforts among school-age youth  during the 1940s, ’50s, and early ’60s interfaced with “duck and cover” drills and intense Civil Rights-focused activism. But this shortcoming also presents readers with an opportunity: to dig further for nuanced historical understandings of the struggle to keep American schools free of militarism.