American Diplomacy
Commentary and Analysis

September 1996

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U. S. Presidents, Military Service, and the Electorate

by Henry E. Mattox

Although the U. S. Constitution grants to Congress alone the authority to declare war, over the life of the Republic the Presidency has come to be the principal instrument not only for the nation to wage war, as the Founding Fathers intended, but to initiate warfare, as well. In their capacity as Commander in Chief of the armed forces under the Constitution, Presidents frequently have used military, naval, and air might to accomplish the nation's ends abroad. According to one authority,1 since the late 18th century, the nation's armed forces -- at the direction of the President -- have been involved in well over 350 incidents, "police actions," and other shows of force. Between the close of World War II and the early 1990s, the United States military suffered one-half million battle casualties, even though the nation technically was never at war.2 Since 1973 and the end of America's participation in the costly and prolonged but undeclared Vietnam War, geographic locales deemed suitable by the nation's chief executive for the application of military force have included Lebanon, Grenada, Libya, the Persian Gulf, Panama, Iraq, Haiti, Somalia, and Bosnia.3

Scholars thus can list hundreds of instances, large and small, protracted and limited in duration, of the application of armed force initiated or directed by the President, beginning even before 1800. The Congress, on the other hand, has had occasion only five times to exercise its authority to declare war under Article I, Section 8, of the Constitution: in 1812 against Britain, 1846 against Mexico, 1898 against Spain, 1917 against Germany and other Central Powers, and in 1941 against Japan, Germany, and other Axis nations.

Constitutional Responsibilities

The Constitution would seem to make clear the President's and Congress' respective roles in conducting war. Like so many things in life, especially political life, however, these roles call for interpretation and depend upon usage over time. The article and section of the Constitution granting Congress the power to declare war specifies a number of important related Congressional prerogatives, such as raising and supporting armies, providing and maintaining a navy, and calling forth the militia. The President, by law or in practice, serves as chief of state, principal administrator, head of government, top diplomat, and the standard bearer of his political party; in addition, Article II, Section 2, of the Constitution stipulates that the President "shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the Militia of the several States, when called into the actual service of the United States . . . ." If we may judge from the Federalist Papers and the limited reports of the debates at the Constitutional Convention of 1787, the Founding Fathers intended that the Chief Executive would provide civilian control of the military; he, as an official elected to a civilian position, not a general or an admiral, would exercise overall direction of those forces, in the manner of the English Kings. But unlike the King of England and other monarchs, he would not have the power to initiate war. The American President's function as Commander in Chief, in the words of Alexander Hamilton in The Federalist No. 69 , "would amount to nothing more than the supreme command and direction of the military and naval forces, as first general and admiral. . . ." Members of the convention even lobbied for a provision in the document then being drafted that would prohibit the President from commanding in person, but that restraint was not adopted.4

The framers of the Constitution in their wisdom create a system of checks and balances on the military, on the Congress, and on the Executive Branch, even while according the elected President a resoundingly prestigious military title. Never believing that the military would become a huge part of the national government, an institution that would require a full-time operational leader, they provided no elaboration in the Constitution of the President's powers as Commander in Chief, nor anything about qualifications that he should possess. George Washington served as the model of a military commander in chief at the time, but nowhere is there any record of explicit reference to the military experience that the First Fathers deemed desirable in the elected President and supreme head of the military/naval establishment.

Military Qualifications of Past Presidents

How well qualified by virtue of their backgrounds to fill the position of "first general and admiral," in Hamilton's phrase, have successful Presidential candidates been over the decades? Has the electorate considered it an important part of the experience of those political figures aspiring to the White House? Potentially even more important, have Americans tended to choose war heroes for their Presidents, as political observers sometimes claim? The present inquiry seeks to suggest answers to these questions, at least tentatively, but is not intended to address the more complex, controversial question of the increase in Presidential assumption of war-making power over the years and whether that assumption has been appropriate or desirable.

To the end in view, I look briefly at the group of men who served in the office and their backgrounds, determining whether active military or naval service was included.5 I attach in Table 1 information on the military records, or the absence thereof, of all major (and some minor) candidates for the Presidency since 1789. For those who were veterans, I include the highest rank held on active duty and the years of their service.

Table 2 below presents the lineup of Presidential candidates -- veterans and non veterans -- in the fifty-two elections from 1789 to 1992. Veterans of the army or navy or of active militia service won twenty-nine of these contests (fifty-six percent), with twenty-one different individuals involved. This total of victories by veterans includes thirteen occasions when both major candidates could claim military experience. Examples of such races include that in 1816 pitting Monroe (Democratic-Republican) against Rufus King (Federalist), both Revolutionary War veterans, and in 1984, with Republican Ronald W. Reagan defeating Democrat Walter F. Mondale, the former a veteran of World War II and the latter, of the Korean War. In eleven national elections over the years, a non veteran has beaten out a candidate with a military background, ranging in time from 1796, when John Adams defeated three rivals for the office, including senior Revolutionary War officers Aaron Burr and Thomas Pinckney, to 1992, with Democrat William J. Clinton defeating for reelection the incumbent Republican President and World War II veteran, George H. W. Bush. Only ten times in the fifty-two national elections since 1789 has a completely civilian slate run for the Oval Office, first in 1812 in the race between James Madison (Democratic-Republican) and DeWitt Clinton (Federalist). Seven of these all-civilian Presidential elections took place in the years of the twentieth century from World War I to the Second World War, most recently more than fifty years ago, in 1944 in the contest between Franklin D. Roosevelt and Thomas E. Dewey.

Few of the men either elected or running for the highest political position in the land, even if veterans, could have met military experience or training requirements of any consequence, if such had been established under the Constitution. Of the forty-one individuals who have held the office of President of the United States to date, either by election or accession from their Vice Presidential positions,6 over one-third -- sixteen in number, or thirty-nine percent -- had no direct experience at all, even fleeting, of life as a soldier or sailor, commissioned or enlisted, before assuming their weighty constitutional responsibilities. These sixteen Presidents gained the status of supreme military commander through their presentation to the electorate of entirely civilian virtues, qualifications, and experience. The other twenty-five men who became President and assumed command of the armed forces could claim service as a soldier or sailor, even though only briefly or unsubstantially in some instances.

Chief Executives Short on Experience

Several men in the pantheon of American Presidents had such limited military experience that one could question whether or not they should be counted as true veterans. Most Presidents clearly either pulled full-time active service7 with American soldiers or sailors at one time or another, or patently did not have occasion to do so. As an example, Washington served in the military twice for a total of some fifteen years; his successor as chief executive, John Adams, a lawyer by profession, clearly did not. The records of several of the office's incumbents, however, reflect marginal or indirect experience with military service and require a slightly more detailed inquiry with an almost subjective determination.

The record of James Buchanan, the fifteenth President, provides a prime example of this point. As a rising young politician in his early twenties, he enlisted as a volunteer in a Pennsylvania company of dragoons during the War of 1812, serving only a very few weeks.8 Abraham Lincoln spent more time than that as an Illinois militia member during the Black Hawk War of 1832, yet his service totaled only three months and included no fighting. Aside from Lincoln's and Buchanan's short, unremarkable periods of service, other marginally more substantial but likewise unexceptional Presidential military records can be cited. Then-U. S. Representative Lyndon B. Johnson spent six months as a Navy officer immediately after Pearl Harbor, including a short overseas inspection tour in the South Pacific, before President Franklin D. Roosevelt asked him to return to his Congressional duties. The Army Air Forces stationed the popular movie actor Ronald Reagan in his hometown of Hollywood during World War II, assigned to making training films; he had no overseas assignments and few of the usual military duties. Andrew Johnson and Chester A. Arthur had military service of a sort. Johnson, before succeeding to the Presidency upon the death of Lincoln, held a brigadier general's commission in the Union Army during the period 1862-1865 while filling an appointive position as governor of his home state, Tennessee. Vice President Arthur, upon the death of James A. Garfield, served as President from 1881 to 1885; for two years during the Civil War, he filled positions in the New York state militia with the martial-sounding titles of inspector general and quartermaster general while performing wholly administrative duties. Neither Andrew Johnson nor Arthur soldiered in the field, even briefly.

All six of these individuals -- Buchanan, Lincoln, Lyndon Johnson, Reagan, Andrew Johnson, and Arthur -- I nonetheless count in this survey as veterans of service in the armed forces. All of them formally entered the nation's service, or that of a state militia, in time of armed conflict, and all held army- or navy-related responsibilities. Even Buchanan in his very limited exposure to army life in the summer of 1814 marched off with his militia company to defend Baltimore from the British after the fall of Washington. Even Reagan in America's movie capital reached the rank of army captain and met his assigned responsibilities over a period of three years. Even Arthur, the most marginal case, won plaudits for his administrative abilities in helping to mobilize the New York militia during the Civil War. None of the nation's Presidents other than those in this group, perhaps happily for the historian, had a record of service subject to such debatable classification.

Wide Range of Presidents' Backgrounds

The military backgrounds of the Presidents who indisputably held veterans' status cover a wide range of experience, from that of a few long-time professional soldiers, moving downward in time spent under arms through the service of a substantial number of non-career senior army officers with political backgrounds, young men who held junior and middle-grade officer rank during wartime, and finally to those with a mere passing familiarity with life under arms. All but one of the veteran Presidents -- again Buchanan, a buck private -- held commissions as officers, although Lincoln was in enlisted status longer than he held elected command of his militia company.

Ten presidents rose to general officer rank before entering the Presidency, first Washington and most recently, Dwight D. Eisenhower, elected in 1952. Only three of the former generals -- Zachary Taylor, Ulysses S. Grant, and Eisenhower -- had soldiered as long-service professionals; the remainder fall into the category of citizen-soldier, even Washington and former regular army major general Andrew Jackson. Four non-career generals emerged from the Civil War to become Chief Executives (see below). Aside the ambiguous (as to rank) Civil War militia appointment of Arthur, the list of American Presidents includes a baker's dozen army and navy field- and company-grade officers -- i.e., officers at the rank of army colonel and navy captain and below -- beginning with Monroe (elected in 1816) and ending with Bush (1988).

A direct relationship between a heroic military reputation and election at the highest national level can be demonstrated explicitly in only a half-dozen cases over the past two centuries, including the prime example of Washington. Others in this category include W. H. Harrison, Jackson, Taylor, Grant, and Eisenhower.9 Harrison's campaign slogan in 1840 featured his military prowess in the Tippecanoe action: "Tippecanoe and Tyler Too!", with Tyler being his Vice Presidential running mate. Jackson, outmaneuvered in the 1824 elections for a Presidential victory by John Quincy Adams, who had no military background, did not reach the Executive Mansion until 1829, but his military victories more than a decade earlier had made him a hero with the national electorate. Taylor, an opposition Whig, garnered the lion's share of honors in the Mexican War and cashed in on that fame, thus succeeding in office his former Commander in Chief, Polk. The reputation of the previously unknown Grant could hardly have stood higher at the end of the Civil War -- he was an overwhelming favorite for the office in the 1868 election because of his wartime exploits and, despite mounting evidence of scandals in his administration, in 1872. General of the Army Dwight Eisenhower, the supreme commander of victorious World War II Allied forces in Europe and then the Supreme Allied Commander of North Atlantic Treaty Organization troops, had an enormous popularity with the American people that led to his nomination by the Republican party in 1952 and two terms in the Oval Office.

The military backgrounds of several other Presidents aided them in launching national political careers at levels initially below the Presidency. Looking back to the nineteenth century, politics after the Civil War virtually required service in the military -- in, of course, the Grand Army of the Republic. Hayes was a lawyer and Garfield an educator when South Carolinians fired on Fort Sumter in 1861, but they entered national politics during the war from the springboard of their service as high-ranking officers, Hayes in 1864 and Garfield a year earlier.10 Teddy Roosevelt, a moderately successful young politician without wide recognition before the Spanish-American War, made a spectacular postwar rise to high elective office, helped considerably by his self-advertised heroics at San Juan Hill in 1898. In this century, we can count Kennedy, Nixon, and Ford, who first ran for congressional seats shortly after World War II, as pointing with pride to their service in the Navy. Bush, too, could cite his outstanding service as a young naval aviator in the Second World War when he first sought (unsuccessfully) a Congressional seat in 1964.

U. S. Wars Produce Presidents (Please click here to read Part II.)

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