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U. S. Presidents, Military Service,
and the Electorate (Conclusion)
by Henry E. Mattox

Return to Part I

U. S. Wars Produce Presidents

EACH OF THE UNITED STATES' MAJOR WARS, other than the Vietnam conflict, has produced a veteran who rose to the Presidency. And in all but one additional case, that of World War I, the wars were followed by a leading military figure entering the White House quite soon, as noted by scholar Edward Pessen:

The hero of the nation's most recent great war seems to have an inside track to the presidency-- so long as that war is perceived by the people as legitimate or authentic.11

The new nation saw Washington, commander of the victorious Continental Army, as the natural selection to head the federal government established in 1789 under the Constitution. Only one other Revolutionary War veteran, however, followed him into the office, and that not for nearly two decades: Monroe, who served two years in the Continental Army, rose to the rank of major, and suffered a wound at the Battle of Trenton, took office in 1817. Civilian Revolutionary leaders John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and Madison preceded him in the Executive Mansion.

Andrew Jackson, a sometime high-ranking Regular officer (and twice a U. S. Senator), was the leading beneficiary of a military reputation from the War of 1812; his victories at Horseshoe Bend in 1814 and especially at New Orleans in early 1815 propelled him into the national spotlight. William H. Harrison, the ninth President, held a major command during the War of 1812, after having previously served as an army captain in the 1790s and as governor of the Indiana Territory in command of a force engaged in 1811 against Indians in a comparatively minor action at Tippecanoe Creek, Indiana. The United States' hugely successful war against Mexico in 1846-47, waged under non veteran President James K. Polk, made the reputation of Polk's successor, regular army general Zachary Taylor, and it contributed to that of Franklin Pierce, a politically appointed general during that conflict, who occupied the White House in the mid-1850s.

The United States' most traumatic national experience, the Civil War, produced a group of Presidents with active military records, and service in that war had an impact on politics at all levels for an entire generation. Five general officers (or six if one counts Arthur as such), plus one field grade officer, gained the Presidency after service in the Union Army. Grant, a former career soldier who gained enormous acclaim by defeating the Confederacy, was the first President elected in the post-war period. His two immediate successors, Rutherford B. Hayes and Garfield, saw service as generals of volunteer troops, as did Benjamin Harrison, who took office in 1889. Harrison was the last high ranking officer to reach the White House for the next 64 years, when five-star general Eisenhower won the first of two terms. The last of the Civil War-veteran Presidents, William McKinley, elected in 1896, held the rank of major at the age of twenty-two by war's end.

The generation of political figures that reached the White House during the last one-third of the 19th century, with one exception, consisted entirely of veterans with substantial military records. Only the Democrat Grover Cleveland had remained a civilian, even though of military age, during the Civil War (not especially committed to the Union cause, he paid for a substitute to avoid serving). Theodore Roosevelt, an infant during that conflict, rose to the rank of colonel of volunteers as the Rough Rider hero of the Spanish-American War and followed the assassinated McKinley in office in 1901.

After Roosevelt left the Presidency in 1909, the nation experienced a long hiatus in the advent of veterans to America's highest political office. Not until 1945 with the inauguration of Harry S. Truman, a National Guard artillery officer in France during World War I, did a chief executive with a stint in the armed forces again became President. But Truman led off a procession of no fewer than nine Presidents in a row with veteran's status: He was followed by Eisenhower, Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Richard M. Nixon, Gerald R. Ford, Jimmy Carter, Reagan, and Bush. All but Truman and Carter, the latter a career naval officer from 1947 to the end of the Korean War in 1953, were World War II veterans (Eisenhower also was on active duty as an army officer during the First World War). All but Eisenhower, a long-service West Pointer, held relatively junior rank. All but Reagan saw overseas duty and two -- Kennedy and Bush -- distinguished themselves as junior officers by gallantry in combat.

The succession of veteran Presidents came to an end with the election in 1992 of William J. Clinton. Opposing America's involvement in the Vietnam War, Clinton as a student had avoided -- or unethically evaded, in the view of his critics -- military service in the late 1960s. Not for a century had there been such a stark contrast in the army or navy backgrounds of the two principal candidates for the office. In 1892, the Civil War general Benjamin Harrison lost to the military service avoider Cleveland, whom he had defeated four years previously. Clearly on that occasion, as in 1992, the election turned on factors other than experience as a soldier, or even the record of the candidate's willingness to serve in the armed forces. In both elections, the non veteran defeated the veteran with military service credentials.

America Has Avoided Military Authoritarianism

THE UNITED STATES HAS NOT BEEN SUBJECT over the years to the "man on horseback" political phenomenon, the accession of a military leader to dictatorial power, either initially by election or by coup d'etat, notwithstanding the fact that most U. S. Presidents have been veterans. On perhaps only two occasions since the adoption of the Constitution has the nation faced even the remote hypothetical possibility of turning extralegally to a military ruler for salvation during a national crisis.

  • Once, following the disputed Presidential election of 1876, the political system seemed headed toward breakdown and an inability to effect an orderly transfer of executive power.
  • Again, in the fall of 1932, as the nation slid ever downward toward economic collapse, Americans seemed ready for almost any solution to the nation's problems.

No evidence suggests that in either of these two junctures in American history did the people contemplate turning to the extralegal installation of an authoritarian figure from the military. In the first instance, the candidate finally installed in office, Hayes, had the background of service as a Union Army general, and he won out in back room maneuverings over a Democratic party governor from New York, Samuel J. Tilden, who took no active part in the Civil War. But the martial qualities that Hayes, by then a U. S. Senator for more than a decade, evidenced during the war had little or nothing to do with his choice by the politicians, north and south, to succeed Grant in the famed Compromise of 1877. Hayes was no would-be Napoleon.

In 1932, Americans turned not to a general or an admiral, but, in a choice between two thoroughly civilian politicians, to another governor of New York, Franklin Roosevelt, who overwhelmingly defeated incumbent President Herbert Hoover. Despite the gravity of the times, no one entertained any discernible notion of calling upon a man on horseback.

A less unthinkable instance of assumption of power in a national crisis by a general -- but by legal means -- occurred in Presidential election of 1864. Regular army major general George B. McClellan challenged Lincoln in the midst of the Civil War, with the general and the Democratic party representing the peace sentiment in the war-weary Union. McClellan, trained and experienced in handling armies, popular with his troops, personally attractive to large segments of the Northern voting populace, but cursed with the disabling military traits of excessive caution and slowness, in any event missed out on the timing that might have permitted his entry into office. By the fall of 1864, the Union finally had victory over the Confederacy in view and voter dissatisfaction with Lincoln's performance had ebbed. Lincoln, the former short-term militia captain, won with a margin to spare.

A military assumption of power, legal or extralegal, was not (and is not) the American way. As Richard H. Kohn, a scholar of U. S. civil-military relations, has phrased it,

The American Constitution, with its division of powers and authority, its checks and balances, has succeeded not only in defending the nation against all enemies foreign and domestic, but in upholding the liberty it was meant to preserve. No military force in the United States has ever risen up to challenge constitutional procedures or the Constitution itself, nor has any political leader, so far as is known, ever attempted to use military force against the Constitution.12

The American people have declined to turn to war heroes or high-ranking generals in time of crisis, and the voters seem to have paid scant attention to the military backgrounds of those they elect to be their Chief Executive and Commander in Chief. Article II, Section 1, of the Constitution specifies that U. S. Presidents must be natural born citizens of the United States, have attained the age of at least thirty-five years, and have resided in the United States for at least fourteen years -- nothing more. As we have seen, the following section of the same article goes on to name the President to the crucial military position of commander in chief, but no further prerequisites in that regard are set forth. Taking the Constitution at its word, the electorate has looked to other qualifications in making its choice between Presidential candidates.

  • In elections pitting veterans against non veterans, prior military service has not always guaranteed success, even for veterans running against candidates burdened with the dubious record of having avoided service.
  • With two veterans vying for the office, the fact that one aspirant for the office previously had superior rank and more extensive experience often has not resulted in victory.

Whatever the match up, historian T. Harry Williams found it historically significant and a testimonial to the sound political instinct of the American people that in choosing generals to be Presidents they have always elevated those of the Ike type. They have favored with their votes only those generals who by their characters and in their actions have seemed to embody the spirit of the democratic tradition.13

POLITICS MAY BE ALMOST AS EXCITING AS WAR, as Winston Churchill once remarked, and war may be inseparable from politics, as Clausewitz and Mao Tse-Tung both opined, but in choosing a President, the two activities have not been closely related in the minds of the American people at election time.

Dr. Mattox served in the U. S. Army during the Korean War, rising to the rank of corporal.

End Notes

1. James W. Davis, The American Presidency, 2d ed, (Westport, CT: Praeger, 1995), 221.

2. Norman A. Graebner, "The President as Commander in Chief: A Study in Power," in Joseph G. Dawson III, ed., Commanders in Chief (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 1993), 31; cited in Davis, ibid.

3. That year saw the Congress adopted what has proved to be the largely ineffectual War Powers Resolution designed to curb the President's ability to wage war on his own.

4. Secret Proceedings and Debates of the Convention . . . . (Cincinnati: Alston Mygatt, 1838), 74.

5. For the purposes of this compilation, I count only full-time active military service in the regular armed forces or the reserves, National Guard or the militia when called to duty, not part-time training status as a member of a reserve component of the military.

6. Three Vice Presidents who acceded to the Presidency -- John Tyler, Andrew Johnson, and Chester A. Arthur -- did not subsequently run for the office.

7. Here I use the phrase "active service" to mean full-time active duty, not necessarily combat action, as in the British usage of the phrase.

8. The record is not clear as to the length of Buchanan's service. He received an honorable discharge after a period possibly as short as two weeks.

9. See the listing by Samuel P. Huntington in his The Soldier and the State: The Theory and Politics of Civil-Military Relations, (New York: Vintage Books, 1964), 157-58. Orig. publ. 1957.

10. Benjamin Harrison and McKinley had the requisite service in the GAR, but rose to prominence in national politics only years later.

11. Edward Pessen, The Log Cabin Myth: The Social Backgrounds of the Presidents , (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1984), 45. Pessen notes the anomaly of the First World War.

12. Richard H. Kohn, "The Constitution and National Security: The Intent of the Framers," in Kohn, ed., The United States Military under the Constitution of the United States, 1789-1989, (New York: New York University Press, 1991), 87.

13. The Selected Essays of T. Harry Williams, (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1983), 181.

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