The Vetting: Obama Decried 'Spread of Militarism,' Lauded Anti-Selective Service Group at Columbia

In late 2008—long after the election—the media revealed a long-forgotten article written by Barack Obama while at Columbia. Obama wrote the March 1983 article, “Breaking the War Mentality,” about two campus groups, Arms Race Alternatives (ARA) and Student Against Militarism (SAM). Ben Smith of Politico (now at Buzzfeed) told readers that Obama’s views reflected the “very conventional campus liberalism of the time.”

Wrong. Smith and the media failed to investigate what the activists at SAM were actually doing: encouraging students to break the law by not registering for the Selective Service and harassing military recruiters.

Obama wrote that SAM “was formed in response to the passage of the registration laws in 1980.” Obama noted that the activists had “fostered awareness and practical action necessary to counter the growing threat of war.” That “awareness” and “practical action” went beyond mere protest, or encouraging students to break the law. SAM also wanted to break the military itself by sapping it of support—as Obama must have known from contemporaneous articles in the Columbia Spectator and from campus politics.

On March 11, 1982, the Spectator’s John Jay Tilsen wrote: 

About twenty demonstrated from the Students Against Militarism stage a protest outside the building to condemn what, they said, is a national shift of job opportunities from human services industries to military industries.

            The students walked in the snow, carrying placards that said, ‘Marine Corps Not Welcome Here We Want Peace Jobs,” as they distributed leaflets calling for a new type of recruitment program that would list only organizations and companies that had no connections with the military.

            As few jobs become available in the private sector, job-seekers ‘see few alternatives to the military, which is always hiring,’ Rob Kahn of SAM said, ‘All of this adds up to increased militarization of the campus.’

On April 2, 1982, SAM protested against both the Air Force and the Fairchild Republican Corporation, a military contractor. The Spectator quoted an organizer who argued that the “technical training Columbia offers ‘should be used for a peaceful society rather than a militarized society.’” Protesters handed out leaflets claiming: “The duties of a weapons employee are in conflict with any sense of ethics; there is a direct link between military employment and violent human death.” (Paul Getzels, “Student Protest Recruiting on Campus for Defense Jobs,” Columbia Spectator, April 2, 1982).

In April 1982, Columbia considered allowing the U.S. Navy’s Reserve Officer Training Corps (NROTC) back on campus after a ten-year hiatus. “The university is ‘unofficially’ considering the [Navy’s] request, but no plans to bring the NROTC back to campus will be made before student opinion is measured, according to Philip Benson, deputy to the president for student affairs,” the Spectator reported (Douglas Hill, “CU considering NROTC offer,” Columbia Spectator, April 5, 1982). SAM challenged the proposal and helped rally student opinion against NROTC.

John Foucek, CC ’81, the founder of SAM, hoped that the pressure exerted by groups like SAM and ARA might be enough to “set forth a political and economic program for the reversal of the arms race” (John Foucek, “Forced to Think About the ‘Unthinkable’ Again,” Columbia Spectator, May 19, 1982). Foucek later worked for the Institute for a World Order, which organized students throughout the country against nuclear weapons.

SAM’s most serious form of political activism, however, was encouraging students not to register for the Selective Service. Refusing to register for the Selective Service could mean arrest, imprisonment, and—most importantly—denial of federal student aid. SAM counseled Columbia’s estimated 400 non-registrants and tried to form them into a political force on campus. The non-registrant’s “refusal to register seems to reflect more of an abstract repulsion to war and violence than any political opposition to the American political system,” wrote Julius Genachowski for the Spectator on November 29, 1982 (later Obama’s classmate at Harvard Law School, and his appointee to lead the Federal Communications Commission). “But they are nevertheless acutely aware that a peaceful world would require a restructuring of that system—and that such a change could only be furthered by the public declaration of their opposition to draft registration.”

SAM hosted an event encouraging students to do just that. It even formed a support group for law-breakers. 

Matt Meyer, a public non-registrant, from the War Resisters League, spoke to about 30 students in a speech sponsored by SAM about the legitimacy of resisting draft registration, the important of being outspoken in that dissent, and the need for resisters to reinforce each other’s beliefs. (Julius Genachowski, “Draft Law Violators to Resist Together,” Columbia Spectator, December 2, 1982)

Former Democratic Congressman Bella Abzug joined Sister Anne Montgomery and Father Paul Dinter at the rally, denouncing President Ronald Reagan and the “militaristic and adventuristic [sic] attitudes of the current administration.” When student athletes joined the counter-protest, the left-wing rally fizzled. However, SAM successfully promoted its ideas by distributing flyers calling for the following policy steps:

  • Financial Aid for Non-Registrants [those who refused to register for the Selective Service]

  • No to the Solomon Amendment! [which took away federal aid from those who refused to register]  

  • No Draft or Registration!

  • No to Militarism in Our Schools and In Our Country!

While Obama did register for the draft in Honolulu, Hawaii on September 4, 1980, far out of sight of his fellow student radicals at Occidental or Columbia, he backed SAM’s program.

SAM, Obama wrote in Sundial, works “by educating and organizing the Columbia community” and “lay[ing] the foundation for future mobilization against the relentless, often silent spread of militarism in the country.” Indeed, Obama applauded SAM’s members for “adding their energy and effort to enhance the possibility of a decent world.” In so doing, “they may help deprive us of a spectacular event—that of war.” Yet by encouraging students to refuse to register for the Selective Service, SAM made it more likely that if America were ever attacked, there would be fewer men to defend her.

Today, as Barack Obama cuts military spending and advertises to the Russians that he will have more “flexibility” on American defense after the election, it appears that old lessons die hard. 


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