Presidents who Served in the Military
A majority of America’s presidents 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.
Twenty-six of our 44 Presidents served in the military. Presidential Veterans often coincided with America’s military engagements. Until World War II, a majority of our presidents had served in the Army. Since then, most have 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.
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. The Civil War produced seven Veteran presidents in the postwar period, all of them having served in the Union Army.
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, shaped America’s foreign and domestic policies.
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.
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. It is probable that an OEF/OIF/OND Veteran will be among the next generation of Presidents to serve in America’s highest military office: Commander-in-Chief.
You can read about all the Presidents on the White House website.