Commentary: Presidents as veterans are becoming dying breed

As we commemorate Veterans Day, it is interesting to examine the military record of America’s presidents. There are certainly important ramifications to having a president who was a member of the military prior to his election, as there are risks of not having such.

In terms of general statistics, 31 of 44 U.S. presidents have had some form of military experience. A plurality of the latter total served in the Army, whereas no president had experience as a Marine or member of the Coast Guard. At least eight presidents served in multiple conflicts.

The conflict which eight different subsequent presidents served in was World War II, while seven later chief executives were veterans of the Civil War.

Dr. Samuel B. Hoff

As individual leaders, 12 presidents previously served as generals in the military. Of course, George Washington’s background was unique, whether as a British officer, American Revolutionary War hero, or commanding general of the provisional military during the John Adams administration. Washington’s seminal military status was cemented in 1976, when President Gerald Ford designated Washington as

General of the Armies of the United States, allowing him to outrank all previous and president Army officers.

Several American presidents were decorated while in the military. Theodore Roosevelt’s exploits during the Spanish-American War eventually led to his being awarded a posthumous Medal of Honor–the only president to receive that distinction. TR’s son Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., likewise earned a posthumous Medal of Honor for his participation in the Normandy invasion during World War II.

For his service in World War II, John Kennedy earned a Navy medal and Purple Heart. Lyndon Johnson received a Silver Star after an observation mission.

Richard Nixon earned battle stars for service in the Pacific during World War II. George Bush, a Naval aviator, earned the Distinguished Flying Cross for his World War II heroics.

A few Americans were educated at military institutions and served in military civilian positions prior to election as president. Ulysses Grant and Dwight Eisenhower were West Point graduates, whereas Jimmy Carter graduated from Annapolis. Before service as chief executive, John Adams served as chair of the Continental Congress’ Board of War. Much later in American history Theodore Roosevelt was Assistant Secretary of the Navy in William McKinley’s administration, William Howard Taft served as Secretary of War during Theodore Roosevelt’s administration and Franklin Roosevelt was Assistant Secretary of the Navy during Woodrow Wilson’s presidency.

Those presidents who were at the helm at the time of a major military conflict made consequential decisions which certainly impacted the results.

These included James Madison in the War of 1812, James Polk in the Mexican War, Abraham Lincoln in the Civil War, William McKinley in the Spanish-American War, Woodrow Wilson in World War I, Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman in World War II, Truman and Dwight Eisenhower in the Korean War, those three presidents who led the military during the Vietnam conflict, George Bush in the Gulf War, and

George W. Bush in the Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts. Of the aforementioned persons, only Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt did not have a military background, though both were state governors.

With three of the last four American presidents lacking any military background, the question of what influence that dearth will have on beliefs and behavior toward the military is legitimate; a similar pattern of declining military credentials among

Members of Congress raises a concomitant concern. One tendency of not having military experience may be to ignore all options for acting in a crisis. Further, while presidents might support the military on the surface, only those with a background in that area have a genuine appreciation for all elements of service.

Finally, using tools to monopolize the war power relative to Congress has subverted this dual responsibility and given the public a false sense of security, one which could be starkly reversed by resuscitation of the military draft.

It is comforting to know that the traits that we usually attribute to those in the military — sacrifice, bravery, honor, discipline, strength, and teamwork — have been present in American presidents regardless of military experience.

Dr. Samuel B. Hoff is George Washington Distinguished Professor of History and Political Science and Law Studies Program Director at Delaware State University. He is a member of several military hereditary organizations, including the Society of the Cincinnati (Del.), General Society of the War of 1812 (Pa.), and Sons of the American Revolution (Pa.). Dr. Hoff is a previous recipient of a military history fellowship from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

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