Presidents and Military Experience

Throughout our history many Presidents served in the military. Does that experience help or hinder a Presidential candidacy? How about their Presidency? Let’s take a look.

Monroe Crossing the Delaware with Washington

Monroe Crossing the Delaware with Washington

Revolutionary War (1775 – 1783)

The first five Presidents, Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison were Founding Fathers. Washington and Monroe served in the military. President Monroe served under Washington and was with him on a boat crossing the Delaware River in Washington’s daring raid of Christmas, 1776. Washington, of course, is one of our best Presidents. Monroe is still known for his Monroe Doctrine opposing foreign interference in the affairs of North and South America. Monroe also won re-election unopposed, winning every state.

War of 1812

Harrison Campaign Slogan

Harrison Campaign Slogan

Generals Winfield Scott, William Henry Harrison, Zachary Taylor and Andrew Jackson all served with distinction in the War of 1812. Harrison, Jackson, and Taylor all became President while Scott was a major party Presidential nominee. Certainly their war service helped their campaigns, exemplified by Harrison’s ‘Tippecanoe and Tyler too’ campaign slogan. Ironically, or more likely just coincidence, both Harrison and Taylor died in office; Harrison after thirty-one days, Taylor after sixteen months. Jackson served two full terms. He is featured on the twenty dollar bill although he strongly opposed paper money and central banking during his Presidency.

Mexican-American War

General Grant

General Grant

Generals Taylor and Scott also served in the Mexican-American War. Lieutenant U.S Grant fought in several battles and was promoted to Captain in recognition of his service. President Pierce had a mixed record in this war. Playing on that, and on his reputation for drinking, opponents called him “the hero of many a well-fought bottle.” This war does not seem to have helped candidates win the Presidency.

Civil War

Waving the Bloody Shirt

Waving the Bloody

From 1868 to 1901, six of the next seven Presidents were Civil War veterans. U.S. Grant led the Union to its final victory over the Confederates. He went on to serve as President for eight years from 1868 to 1876. Grant’s record was mixed as widespread corruption during his administration offset his strong support for Civil Rights. Grant was followed by Rutherford Hayes, a Brigadier General during the War. Hayes was wounded several times during the war and he served one-term after a disputed election that took months to resolve. James Garfield, elected in 1880, avoided injury during the Civil War, but was assassinated by a disaffected office seeker four months into his term. Vice President Chester Arthur, who succeed Garfield, served in a non-combat role as Quartermaster during the war. He was followed by Grover Cleveland, President from 1884 to 1888 and 1892 to 1896. Cleveland avoided the Civil War draft and service by paying someone else to serve in his stead, which was legal at the time. He won the Presidency by a tiny margin.

As Brigadier General, Benjamin Harrison participated in several battles and participated in Sherman’s March to the Sea. William McKinley was the last Civil War veteran to serve as President. Like Garfield, McKinley survived several Civil War battles unhurt, but was assassinated during his Presidency.

Civil War service helped these candidates. Republican candidates were accused of exploiting the war by emotional appeals to Northern soldiers in a tactic known as ‘waving the bloody shirt.’

As an aside, President Lincoln served briefly in the Black Hawk War during the 1830’s. He never saw combat and joked about his military experience stating: “…I had a good many bloody struggles with the mosquitoes…”

Teddy Roosevelt Leading the Charge up San Juan Hill

Teddy Roosevelt Leading the Charge up San Juan Hill

Spanish – American War

Teddy Roosevelt (TR) famously led the ‘Rough Riders’, a volunteer cavalry unit. A century later, the United States awarded him the Medal of Honor for his role in leading the charge up San Juan hill in Cuba. TR’s leadership was popular with the public.

World War I

One President served in World War I: Harry Truman. He led an artillery unit in battle during 1918. He served with one of Tom Pendergast’s nephews. The Pendergast political machine was dominant in Kansas City and the connection made during military service started Truman’s subsequent political career. Years later he was criticized as ‘the Senator from Pendergast.’

World War II

JFK commanding PT 109

JFK commanding PT 109

Submarine Rescue of downed pilot, George H.W. Bush

Submarine Rescue of downed pilot, George H.W. Bush

From 1952 to 1992, every President served in World War II in some capacity.  Most in the Navy, where three experienced life-threatening situations. John F. Kennedy (JFK) commanded a PT (Patrol Torpedo) boat in the Pacific. His boat was sliced in half by a Japanese destroyer; it was several harrowing days before JFK and crew were rescued. The incident made him a war hero. Gerald Ford enlisted in the Navy. He was an anti-aircraft battery officer on an aircraft carrier. Ford narrowly avoided death when his ship listed severely during a storm and he slid towards the edge of the deck, falling onto a catwalk. George H.W. Bush deferred admission to Yale and enlisted as a Naval aviator flying combat planes off of aircraft carriers, a very dangerous job. During a raid his bomber was shot down with Bush the only survivor. He spent four hours on a life raft until rescued by a submarine. His military service was contrasted with that of Bill Clinton, who had avoided military service during the Vietnam War. Nonetheless, Clinton won.

Richard Nixon and Lyndon Johnson (LBJ) both served in the Navy during World War II. LBJ was sent by Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) to observe and report on conditions in the Pacific. He received a Silver Star for participation in a risky air raid. Nixon received commendation for supporting the Pacific Combat Air Transport Command. Jimmy Carter was admitted into the Naval Academy in 1943 during World War II. He graduated after the War ended and joined the submarine service, on one of the first nuclear submarines in our fleet.

Two future Presidents served in the Army. Eisenhower, of course, was Commander-in-Chief of the Allied Forces and this was no doubt a major reason for his election. His experience dealing with multiple allies with sometimes conflicting goals may have helped him become a successful President.  President Reagan was in the Army Reserve when World War II broke out. He spent the war years making training films. Neither Reagan nor Eisenhower was involved in direct combat.

Korean War

Jimmy Carter’s submarine service overlapped with the Korean War, although he was not involved in combat.

Vietnam War

None of our Presidents are Vietnam War Veterans.  The Presidential campaigns of Vietnam Vets Al Gore (2000), John Kerry (2004), and John McCain (2008) all failed.

Iraqi Wars

None to-date.

Final Thoughts

There have been periods of time where Presidents did not have military combat experience. None of the six Presidents who served from 1908 to 1945 were veterans as America was generally at peace from the end of the Civil War until World War I. This included Presidents Taft, Wilson, Harding, Coolidge, Hoover and FDR. And since 1992, our Presidents have not experienced combat. And there have been other time frames when most did serve in the military, such as after the Civil War and after World War II. It may be that military experience, including combat experience, is useful Presidential background. But better that we don’t fight any more wars and our Presidents find their experience elsewhere.


Howard TanzmanComment