Military Roots: Presidents who were Veterans
George Washington marshaled an out-numbered, ill-trained army to victory over the British by learning the importance of simply keeping his army intact and winning an occasional victory to rally public support.
William Henry Harrison was a soldier, farmer, and outdoorsman; but his term as President would end prematurely. He caught a cold after giving a two hour inaugural address without a coat or hat and would die in office just three weeks later.
Ulysses S. Grant attended West Point against his will and graduated in the middle of his class with no intention of pursuing a military career; he wanted to become a professor of mathematics.
On D-Day, 1944, Dwight Eisenhower was Supreme Commander of the troops invading France.
Presidents who Served in the Military
For some Presidents of the United States, the title “Commander-in-Chief” was their first association with the military, but a majority of our country’s leaders came to office as Veterans.
The first President of the United States, George Washington, set an important precedent by entering the Presidency as a civilian, rather than as a commanding general with military forces at his disposal. Washington voluntarily resigned his commission as commander of the Continental Army in December 1783 before re-entering public service four years later. He presided over the Constitutional Convention in 1787 and became the only President in American history to receive a vote from every elector.
Partisanship soon became the norm in American politics, but the value of military service remained an important quality that citizens sought in their President. Twenty-six of our 44 Presidents served in the military. The prevalence of Presidential Veterans often corresponded with America’s military engagements and generals’ success on the battlefield. Until World War II, a majority of our Presidents had served in the Army; since then, most served in the Navy.
Post-Revolutionary War America marked an era of constant conflict – skirmishes with Native Americans, land disputes with the Spanish and French, another war with Great Britain – and the military offered an opportunity for a bright, aspiring man to make a name for himself. Our ninth President, William Henry Harrison, embarked on his military career at age 18, enlisting 80 men off the streets of Philadelphia to serve in the Northwest Territory. Harrison quickly rose through the ranks and distinguished himself in battle during the Indian campaigns in what is now the Midwest. The strategies and outcomes of Harrison’s battles were mixed, but relentless force won out and he became the talk of the nation.
Civil War Veteran Ulysses S. Grant also gained national acclaim for his military service. Grant was a West Point graduate who fought in the Mexican War, but it was his calm, steely command of Union troops during the Civil War that earned Lincoln’s confidence. As President, Grant presided over the government much as he had run the Army. The Civil War produced seven Veteran Presidents in the post-war period, all of them having served in the Union Army.
Past Presidents did not use military experience solely as a catalyst to power. Spanish-American War Veteran Theodore Roosevelt was a man of action both in war and in peace. In 1902, he was the first to call upon the services of the international Court of Arbitration at The Hague to resolve the differences between the United States and Mexico. He also served as mediator between Japan and Russia, leading them to a 1905 peace treaty.
The First and Second World Wars ushered in another series of Veteran Presidents, starting with Harry Truman and West Point graduate General Dwight Eisenhower. Both men exemplified the strengths of military training by proving themselves to be diplomatic, dynamic leaders in an unstable world. The Truman Doctrine, pledging American support for “free peoples” around the world, followed by Eisenhower’s enforcement of desegregation in U.S. schools, after Brown vs. Board of Education, by sending troops to Little Rock, Ark. shaped America’s foreign and domestic policies ever since.
The nation’s most recent Veteran President was George W. Bush, who served with the Texas Air National Guard. Bush presided over the most dramatic reorganization of the federal government since the beginning of the Cold War, reforming the intelligence community and establishing new institutions like the Department of Homeland Security in response to the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Internationally, Bush commanded the U.S. military in a new type of battle: the ‘War on Terror.’
The evolution of warfare has introduced many new tactical and technical dynamics to the U.S. military, but the core qualities of decision-making and inspiring leadership remain. In spite of, or perhaps because of, the hardships they have endured, OEF/OIF/OND Veterans will most likely be among the next generation of Veteran Presidents to serve in America’s highest military office: Commander-in-Chief.