- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 5, 2008

We may have a military veteran in the Oval Office when the next president is sworn in. Again.

The hazards and hardships of military life may be the most common nongenetic trait among American presidents. Success at soldiering has paved an open road to the White House for 30 of the 42 men who have held the highest political office. (George W. Bush is sometimes referred to as No. 43, but he is the 42nd person to be president; Grover Cleveland, who served two nonconsecutive terms, gets counted twice.)

So frequently has a veteran occupied the White House that there has been only one period in American history when three or more consecutive presidents have not served in the military: in the early part of the 20th century with a string consisting of the six presidents from William Howard Taft to Franklin D. Roosevelt.

President Truman, who credited much of his success in politics to his military service, wrote that maneuvers in battle were like the maneuvers in politics. Three presidents were career soldiers (Zachary Taylor, Ulysses S. Grant and Dwight D. Eisenhower). Several saw extensive battle - most notably Taylor, who served in four wars.

Eight presidents served during the Civil War (Millard Fillmore, Andrew Johnson, Grant, Rutherford B. Hayes, James A. Garfield, Chester A. Arthur, Benjamin Harrison and William McKinley). Cleveland, who was drafted but paid a 32-year-old Polish immigrant to take his place, made the following unique remark about America and war: “The United States is not a nation to which peace is a necessity.”

Benjamin Harrison, who participated in Gen. William T. Sherman’s march to Atlanta, later said of his military aspirations: “I am not Julius Caesar, nor a Napoleon, but a plain Hoosier colonel, with no more relish for a fight than for a good breakfast.”

Grant also claimed to have had few military aspirations: “The truth is I am more of a farmer than a soldier. I take little or no interest in military affairs, and, although I entered the army 35 years ago and have been in two wars … I never went into the army without regret and never retired without pleasure.” Fillmore did not see any action in the war but organized a Buffalo, N.Y., home guard unit consisting of men older than 45. The unit primarily saw volunteers off to war, took part in funeral services and marched in parades.

As for McKinley, the following commendation from a supervising officer certainly shows presidential aptitude: “Young as he was, we soon found that in the business of a soldier, requiring much executive ability, young McKinley showed unusual and unsurpassed capacity.”

Seven presidents served during World War II: Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard M. Nixon, Gerald R. Ford, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. Mr. Ford served on a ship that took part in almost all the major battles of the South Pacific, including the assaults on Wake Island and Okinawa. Mr. Bush enlisted on his 18th birthday and went on to fly 58 combat missions in a single-engine aircraft. Of his original squadron of 14 pilots, he was one of just four to survive the war.

Five veterans from the War of 1812 became president: Andrew Jackson, William Henry Harrison, John Tyler, Taylor and James Buchanan. Jackson’s famous victory at the Battle of New Orleans occurred after the war ended, but with the communications of the era, the word had not gotten to him in time.

Taylor used an old war expression as a political slogan. Refusing to retreat at a difficult point in the war, Taylor bristled, “My wounded are behind me, and I will never pass them alive.” Years later, the slogan “Taylor never gives up” was used in his presidential campaign.

Harrison’s 1811 victory against Indians at Tippecanoe Creek in Indiana earned him the nickname Old Tippecanoe. That moniker, along with the fact that his running mate’s surname started with the letter T, played nicely into his campaign slogan: “Tippecanoe and Tyler too.”

Four veterans of the American Revolution ended up as president: George Washington, James Madison, James Monroe and young Andrew Jackson, who primarily served as a messenger.

It was from this war that Jackson holds claim to being the only president to have been a prisoner of war. He was captured by the British and held for about two weeks in Camden, S.C. Monroe saw extensive action and was involved in the famous Christmas 1776 crossing of the Delaware.

Washington was the only president to lead, while in military uniform, an armed Federal military force. That incident occurred in 1794, when Washington led the Federal Army to southwestern Pennsylvania to quell the Whiskey Rebellion.

Three veterans of the Mexican War became president (Taylor, Franklin Pierce and Grant) and two from the Black Hawk War: Taylor and Capt. Abraham Lincoln, who received $125 for his wartime service of trying to track down Chief Black Hawk in what is now southern Wisconsin. Lincoln later joked that the only blood he lost in defense of his country was to mosquitoes.

Two World War I vets went on to the White House: Mr. Truman and Gen. Eisenhower. Mr. Truman is believed to have fired one of the last rounds before the armistice. Gen. Eisenhower’s wartime experience convinced him of the importance of good roads, which culminated in the Eisenhower Highway System in America, better known as the Interstate Highway System. Both Franklin and Theodore Roosevelt requested active-duty service during World War I but were denied: Theodore because of his age and Franklin because President Woodrow Wilson wanted him to remain in his position as assistant secretary of the Navy.

Five wars were represented by one future president each: the French and Indian War by Washington, the First Seminole War of 1817-1819 by Jackson, the Second Seminole War of 1837-1840 by Taylor, the Spanish-American War by Theodore Roosevelt and the Korean War by Jimmy Carter. Roosevelt’s commanding officer in the Spanish-American War said he set “a splendid example to the troops” for his gallant charge on San Juan (or Kettle) Hill. Mr. Carter served on one of the first nuclear submarines during the Korean War.

Finally, James K. Polk was in the military during peacetime, and George W. Bush served in the Texas National Guard.

Prior service in the armed forces would seem to give political aspirants an inside track to the Oval Office, but it certainly is no guarantee. Otherwise, we would have former chief executives with such names as McClellan, Goldwater and McGovern.

* Paul N. Herbert of Fairfax County is a frequent contributor on military history.

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times is switching its third-party commenting system from Disqus to Spot.IM. You will need to either create an account with Spot.im or if you wish to use your Disqus account look under the Conversation for the link "Have a Disqus Account?". Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More

Click to Hide