Students Fight the War Machine on College Campuses

It’s no secret that college campuses have always been one of the most steadfast bastions of antiwar sentiment throughout America. Indeed, student resistance to illegal, imperialist wars from Vietnam to Iraq has been well documented. Countless students participated in draft card burnings, building occupations, and protests against these wars and other acts of aggression. But less examined is the history of student action against the more surreptitious aspects of the "military-industrial complex". I was able to research this relationship at my institution, Cornell University, in the process of pushing for Cornell’s divestment from weapons manufacturers involved in the War in Yemen, and found an insidious partnership built on blood money. It prompted me to examine all aspects of the deep ties between universities and the war machine.

Less attention has been dedicated by the media to the relationships between universities and the American military or major arms manufacturers. This is because the draft and recruiting of soldiers has shifted from middle- and upper-class students at prestigious institutions to predatory recruiting of lower-income students, as Jacobin wrote in 2020. One method has been through the use of the Reserve Officer Training Corps, ostensibly a preparedness program, which is in actuality a scheme to force lower income students of color into the military in exchange for financial aid to mitigate the untenable burden of student loan debt. During the Vietnam War, students were able to successfully cancel the ROTC at over 40 colleges and universities, but the ROTC programs have been making a recent comeback, as schools like Harvard in 2011 began to welcome back ROTC programs. Protests against military recruiting during the War on Iraq were also surveilled by the Pentagon, which labeled several protests "threats", showing the intense pressure on counter-recruitment activism.

While overt military service recruiting has been reduced if not completely eliminated from college campuses, the burden shifted primarily to poor communities of color, the American imperial apparatus is outfitted in other ways. The Central Intelligence Agency maintains a heavy presence on college campuses. In 1963, the agency launched the "100 Colleges/Universities" program to recruit students on campus, leading to heavy backlash. Students in the past led active resistance to this CIA presence, as exemplified by the first sit-in protest at Columbia University organized against CIA recruiting in 1967, a student blockade organized at Brown University in the same year, or a 200 strong rally against the CIA at Cornell in 1984. The CIA seems to have monitored this student organizing, as there are copies of documents on their website about an unsuccessful effort to ban them from the California State University campus, a report on the student rally at Cornell, and a copy of an anti-CIA organizing manual from the University of Wisconsin-Madison (it is not clear how the agency obtained this document). This presence was investigated once, as the Church Committee of 1975 reported that "The CIA is now using several hundred American academics (administrators, faculty members, graduate students engaged in teaching) who, in addition to providing leads and, on occasion, making introductions for intelligence purposes, write books and other material to be used for propaganda purposes… These academics are located in over 100 American colleges and universities." Today, we cannot be sure how extensive this presence is, though it is undoubtedly still massive, and outfitted by not-so-secret CIA recruiting at career fairs.

Less examined is the large-scale connection between universities and military arms manufacturers. Several of the largest and most profitable arms manufacturers have extensive partnerships with prestigious universities nationwide. Take, for example, Cornell: the Engineering Department has corporate partnerships with arms manufacturers such as Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, BAE, and Boeing. These companies actively recruit engineers, and have made large donations to the university, with one such disclosed donation of $63,000 from Lockheed Martin in 2007. As if it even needs restating, all these companies have been accused of complicity in war crimes, yet continue to donate and recruit on campus. Universities don’t just provide fresh recruits to these companies; they also provide Masters programs for current employees as part of the corporate partnerships. Our universities are thus helping to train both current and future employees of war criminal arms manufacturers, and in the process outfitting every level of the US war machine, from the soldiers and officers, to the intelligence and the very weapons used for atrocities against civilians (as bombs from Lockheed Martin were used in the horrific Dahyan airstrike on a school bus in Yemen).

And this partnership extends across a multitude of American colleges and universities. Max Foley-Keene questioned the presence of a Lockheed Martin funded "Partnership Suite" at the University of Maryland, and university ties to Raytheon and Northrup Gurmman, in the Diamondback student newspaper. Northeastern University’s Huntington News student newspaper pointed out the irony that their school’s Veterans Memorial is right across from Raytheon Amphitheater, named in honor of donations from the weapons company. And Olivia Peluso, writing for student newspaper Mustang News pointed out a common problem of the extensive scholarship money donated by these arms manufacturers, allowing them to justify their presence on her campus at Cal Poly, also the alma mater of former Raytheon CEO Bill Swanson. A point noted by Peluso that is common across the board: at universities where these companies have a large presence, defense industry-employed graduates often have positions of power in the Board of Trustees. For instance, Swanson happens to be the Chair of Cal Poly’s Foundation Board of Directors.

These wealthy Trustees represent but one major impediment to change. In 1988, when Colby College students voted to ban the CIA from recruiting on campus, Trustees blocked the decision from taking effect. College administrators also weaponize judicial code to silence dissent on campuses, such as when Middlebury College student Amitai Ben-Abba was charged with an offense after correctly pointing out the CIA’s record of "destabilizing regimes, kidnapping people, torturing them and sending them to secret prisons around the world" to CIA recruiters. Conservative students play a large role in defending the military presence on campus, which I personally encountered when asked by one how engineers at Cornell would get jobs if recruiting by arms manufacturers was banned. And federal legislation protects the presence of military recruiting on campus, most infamously the Solomon Amendment, which cuts off any federal funding to a university that blocks military recruiting on campus (this amendment was strengthened in 2001 and upheld by the Supreme Court in 2006 as part of War on Terror fervor). Two colleges, Vermont and William Mitchell Law Schools, challenged this amendment by banning military recruitment in protest of "don’t ask, don’t tell", but dropped their bans once this policy was repealed, as if this act redeemed the military. The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 "gives military recruiters access to students’ personal information and allows them to recruit at public schools" according to the NYCLU.

Just as American military action since Vietnam has been able to largely isolate itself from public opinion, and has accomplished this primarily through shifting the burden of drafting from those whose opinions the mainstream media cares to report and who are more likely to afford a college education to lower income communities of color, college antiwar activism has subsided, especially when American soldiers are not directly involved. The war on Yemen, aided and subsidized by America to this day, never drew massive student protest despite untold human suffering. And while some students protested in the pages of college newspapers against obvious American aggression targeted at Venezuela or Iran, nothing close to the scale of Vietnam has manifested since then.

But there has been sustained action in the present day, despite the lack of a major war like Vietnam to galvanize student opinion. As recently as 2019, Cal Poly students protested the presence of arms manufacturers at their Spring Career Fair, and urged the University to divest from war. The same year, students at Wellesley College forced their Career Education department to cancel a scheduled event with CIA recruiters, citing the agency’s history of torture and human rights violations. In 2018, 10 students blocked the entrance to the Career Education Center at Johns Hopkins University to protest CIA recruiting, identifying the CIA as part of the "school-to-war pipeline". And students at Boston University School of Law protested military recruitment on campus due to the military’s transgender ban in 2019. Students at Harvard, Stanford, UC Berkeley, Georgia Tech, Duke, Carnegie Mellon and Brown have protested the military contractor Palantir, primarily over their ties to ICE, with 3,000 students from 30 schools signing a pledge to never work at Palantir. And students at the University of Connecticut have conducted sustained protests against Lockheed Martin, starting in 2018.

College students have to maintain a committed antiwar presence on campus, one that does not simply challenge repeated American acts of aggression, but fights the long-term presence of the military-industrial complex and their entrenched recruitment apparatus. Resolutions in student government bodies like our initiative at Cornell are a good start, but often are vetoed by the financial interests represented by the Board of Trustees or University President. Another model is that of student-led referendums on banning arms manufacturers or the CIA from campus, as was initiated by University of Colorado students in 1985. Of course, the organizing efforts that have borne the most success have always included student-led protest and especially occupations, sit-ins, strikes, and other forms of disruptive and attention-grabbing action. Other efforts for change will take more significant effort, such as repealing the Solomon Amendment.

What is clear is that the obstacles to divesting and disengaging from the war machine on campus remain more emboldened than ever. From Trustees and Presidents who are openly more interested in increasing the endowment than making moral investments, to a history of CIA surveillance of student backlash to their campus presence, the vanguard protecting the military-industrial complex on campus will not be defeated without a large-scale student movement like the one that challenged the war machine during the Vietnam War. It will take a wide array of groups, expanding beyond the typical coalition of antiwar leftist students, to effectively summon the power necessary to challenge the war machine. But already, we have signs of such a new coalition forming, as an increasing number of students invested in the Black Lives Matter and Justice in Palestine movements realize that the common denominator in militarization of police or the bombing of Gaza is the American arms industry. At Cornell, which has a massive partnership with Israeli military technology researcher Technion, over 300 students, including a large presence of students energized by the Black Lives Matter movement, rallied to protest Cornell’s complicity in the war industry enabling the Israeli occupation. Perhaps here we see the inception of a new coalition of students prepared to challenge the military-industrial complex, and finally purge it from campuses dedicated not to greed, death, and profit, but to education, justice, and peace.

Joseph Mullen is a Cornell Undergraduate and Internal Vice President of Cornell Student Assembly.