Today is Presidents Day, and I realized that I have somewhat of a tradition going. For the past few years now, I have noted this holiday by writing about some of our presidents. Not the most famous ones, necessarily, but some of the others. From the time George Washington was sworn in as our first one back in 1789 through today, we have had 45. They’ve all been men, so far, and one of them (Grover Cleveland) served two non-consecutive terms, so he counts for two of them in the official list. All told, that is 44 different Americans who have served as our nation’s highest elected official in the past 231 years. Twenty-six of them served the nation in uniform prior to ascending to the presidency, many of those seeing combat.
One item on the news today caught my eye: the Taliban, our adversary in Afghanistan since 2001, have stated they’ve agreed to a peace deal with the United States. Potentially, this could end our longest-ever war. While we all hope this is true and works out–personally, I’m skeptical, but hopeful–it got me to thinking about how many of our presidents have ever had a direct hand in our nation’s wars.
Taking up arms before taking office.
Any student of American history can immediately name three presidents who served in the military before they reached the White House: Washington, Ulysses Grant and Dwight Eisenhower. Many also remember that John F. Kennedy served in the Navy in World War II and was a decorated PT boat skipper. Some may recall that Harry Truman was an artillery officer in World War I. But they certainly weren’t the only ones.
George Washington, of course, was our top general during the Revolutionary War, and truly one of history’s most indispensable men. But one of his officers was James Monroe, who would become our fifth president in 1817, serving two terms. Monroe reached the rank of major and is featured in two famous paintings. He’s holding the flag in Emanuel Leutze’s Washington Crossing the Delaware, and in John Trumbull’s lesser-known The Capture of the Hessians at Trenton, a seriously-wounded Monroe is shown leaning on a comrade.
In our history, the United States has fought only five declared wars against foreign powers. The first of these came to be known as the War of 1812, which is a misnomer; the conflict actually didn’t end until early 1815. Three future presidents saw combat in the war, most notably Andrew Jackson, who commanded American forces in the decisive Battle of New Orleans in January 1815. Although the engagement with invading British troops actually occurred after the signing of a peace treaty–the word hadn’t yet gotten back to the States from Europe–historians speculate that if the British had prevailed, they would have kept New Orleans even after being informed of the treaty. Control of the city would have given Britain de facto control of the entire Mississippi River, and who knows what might have happened then?
Jackson was elected our 7th president in 1828, more than a dozen years after the battle, but he had also distinguished himself in action against hostile Native American tribes in what is now the Southeast (then considered the Southwest). Some historians also say he was instrumental in the eventual transfer of Florida to the U.S. from Spain.
Two other presidents who saw combat in the War of 1812 were Zachary Taylor (our 12th president) and James Buchanan (15th). Taylor would gain more fame for leading troops against the Mexicans in the Mexican-American War some thirty years later, but in the earlier conflict he led U.S. Army troops into action in what was then called the Northwest (we’d call it the Upper Midwest) against several Native tribes who were allied with the British. His successful September 1812 defense of Fort Harrison in Indiana Territory against Native warriors led by Tecumseh is regarded as the first victory by American land forces in the war. Very few would follow, but Taylor was in on the lion’s share of what successes our Army and militias achieved over the next few years. Meanwhile, Buchanan served as a cavalry soldier and saw action near Baltimore. He remains the only one of our 26 fighting presidents who never became an officer. Perhaps it was a sign of things to come: his presidency (1857-61) is widely regarded as one of the least-successful White House tenures in history.
Taylor’s fame from the Mexican-American War (1845-48) led directly to his election to the presidency, and it also helped one of his successors. After Taylor’s death while in office in 1850, his vice president, Millard Fillmore, took over the job for the final 32 months of the term. Fillmore was unsure about running for a full term, and at the 1852 convention, his Whig Party nominated Winfield Scott, the general who had not only led American troops in the War of 1812, he had commanded the invasion of Mexico that captured the enemy capital and forced the Mexicans to capitulate. Despite his success in battle, though, Scott was easily beaten in the election by Franklin Pierce, who had been one of his brigade commanders in Mexico.
The war that nearly ended America.
The Civil War (1861-65) tore the nation in two and came very close to keeping it that way permanently. Most historians agree that our 16th president, Abraham Lincoln, was indispensable in preserving the United States as one country, as Washington had been in establishing it nearly a century before. Lincoln’s own military career was a short one: he served in the Illinois state militia during its participation in what became known as the Black Hawk War, a series of skirmishes in 1832 across what is now northwest Illinois and southwest Wisconsin. It’s certainly not one of the most glorious chapters of American arms, and Lincoln never participated in any combat actions. He did, however, see the aftermath of several battles, and witnessing the trauma of wounded men, on both sides, undoubtedly influenced his decisions when he later ordered Union soldiers into battle.
Several future presidents served in the Union Army during the Civil War, most notably Grant, whose leadership in the field led directly to the Union’s defeat of the Confederacy. Five of the next seven presidents after Grant were in uniform during that conflict; the only one who wasn’t, Cleveland, takes up both of the non-veteran slots in that run.
The last future president who served in the military during the 19th century would become one of our most revered chief executives, one of only four later immortalized on Mount Rushmore. In early 1898, thirty-nine-year-old Theodore Roosevelt resigned his post as Assistant Secretary of the Navy in the administration of Civil War combat veteran William McKinley and volunteered for the U.S. Army. He was named second-in-command of the 1st Volunteer Cavalry, a unit that would gain lasting fame as the Rough Riders. Eventually rising to the rank of colonel and given full command of the regiment, Roosevelt led them to victory in the pivotal Battle of San Juan Heights, an action that all but ended the brief Spanish-American War.
Nearly a hundred years later, Roosevelt was awarded a posthumous Congressional Medal of Honor for his actions in combat. He remains the only president ever so honored, and any reader of the many fine works about his wartime service cannot help to be seriously impressed. After the war, he wrote this: “On the day of the big fight I had to ask my men to do a deed that European military writers consider utterly impossible of performance, that is, to attack over open ground an unshaken infantry armed with the best modern repeating rifles behind a formidable system of entrenchments. The only way to get them to do it in the way it had to be done was to lead them myself.”
20th century veterans who made it to the White House.
Harry Truman had been a farmer in Missouri when he joined the National Guard in 1905 at the age of twenty-one. His poor vision caused him to fail the eye exam, but he asked for a re-test and passed after memorizing the chart. He left the Guard in 1911 but re-enlisted when the U.S. entered World War I in 1917. His regiment was federalized and Truman trained as an artillery officer. He rose to the rank of captain and commanded Battery D of the 129th Field Artillery, and saw plenty of action. Truman developed leadership skills in the Army that served him very well later on, and his intelligence and skill in caring for his men brought every one of them home when it was all over.
Several future presidents served in World War II, most notably Eisenhower, who led Allied troops to victory in Europe in 1945 and was elected our 34th president in 1952. I previously wrote about Ike here: Why I Like Ike. The man who succeeded Eisenhower in the White House also fought in World War II, although not under Ike’s command. John F. Kennedy enlisted in the Navy and became a skipper of a PT boat, seeing lots of action against the Japanese in the Pacific theater. He was only twenty-six in August 1943 when his boat, PT-109, was literally cut in half by a Japanese destroyer, killing two of his crew, during a night action. Kennedy rallied the survivors around the wreckage and asked them whether they wanted to flag down the Japanese ships and surrender, or try to swim to a nearby island. They all voted to go for the island, and with Kennedy leading the way, they made it. The young lieutenant was a strong swimmer–he’d been on the varsity swim team at Harvard–and often towed a badly-burned crewman by his life vest. Kennedy had to make several long swims, up to nearly four miles, in search of food and water for the men. All the time, he dealt with a back injury that had occurred during the crash, aggravating an earlier condition. They were rescued six days later.
Kennedy’s vice president, Lyndon Johnson, served as a Navy officer during the war and was awarded the Silver Star after the airplane he was aboard during an inspection tour in the Southwest Pacific came under heavy fire. Johnson became our 36th president upon Kennedy’s assassination in 1963. LBJ’s successor, Richard Nixon, also served as a naval officer in the Pacific, and was awarded commendations for his work in logistics operations, although he never saw combat. He did, however, win enough money at poker to finance his first run for Congress after the war. The man who followed Nixon into the White House in 1974, after Nixon’s resignation, was another naval officer who served in the Pacific. Gerald Ford’s ship, the aircraft carrier USS Monterey, saw plenty of action against the Japanese, but was never hit by enemy fire. It was, however, nearly lost during a typhoon that hit the battle group in mid-December 1944. During the storm, a fire started in the hangar deck when two planes were shaken loose of their moorings and collided. Ford was trying to get to his station when a violent roll of the ship nearly tossed him overboard.
Ford was defeated in the 1976 election by the former governor of Georgia, Jimmy Carter, who upon taking office in January 1977 became the fifth consecutive former Navy officer to reach the White House. Carter attended the Naval Academy at Annapolis (the only future president to do so, at least for now), graduating in 1946 and serving as an officer on board submarines and ashore until he resigned his commission in 1953 to take over the family business, following his father’s death.
Ronald Reagan, who defeated Carter in the 1980 election, had served in the Army Air Force during World War II, but never left the States, due to his poor eyesight. His Hollywood background got him assigned to units making training films, and he made over 400 of them, including B-29 bomber cockpit simulations that helped train the crews who would deliver the atomic bombs to Japan and end the war.
Another Navy officer followed Reagan. His vice president, George H.W. Bush, was the first former military aviator to enter the White House after he was elected in 1988. Bush was commissioned as an ensign in 1943, just days before his 19th birthday. By early 1944 he was in the Pacific, serving as a fighter pilot aboard USS San Jacinto. In August, while on a mission flying his Avenger torpedo bomber in a strike against the Japanese-held island of Chichijima in the Bonins, his plane was hit and he bailed out, hitting the water and then being rescued by a submarine. Several of his fellow pilots also bailed out and nine were captured and later executed by the Japanese. After decapitating the prisoners, the Japanese cooked and ate the livers of four of the Americans. The mission, and its aftermath, affected Bush profoundly, as one might expect. When he would later send American troops into combat during his presidency, he relied on his own World War II experience to guide his decisions.
After Bush, a notable lack of veterans in the White House.
Considering the times, it was inevitable that our run of veterans in the White House would end. America’s involvement in the Vietnam War ended in 1973, and although some of its veterans would later rise to prominence politically, none of them have so far reached the presidency. Bush was defeated for re-election in 1992 by young Arkansas governor Bill Clinton, who had utilized student deferments to avoid Vietnam-era service; at one point he had said he “loathed” the military. Those who served during his two terms in office didn’t forget that, either; it was said that when Clinton visited a military base and wanted to go jogging, troops had to be ordered to accompany him. When Bush’s son, George W., was running for president in 2000, his own service in the Texas Air National Guard was called into question. He enlisted in 1968, at the height of the Vietnam War, and served for six and a half years, flying fighter jets, but he was never deployed overseas. His political opponents and enemies in the media would later point out alleged irregularities in his service record regarding attendance and missed physicals, but Bush has always maintained that if his unit had been sent anywhere, he certainly would have gone with it.
Whatever one might think of Bush’s service, at least he served, which is more than can be said of the men who preceded and succeeded him. Barack Obama was elected our 44th president in 2008, defeating a Vietnam veteran, John McCain, who had been a Navy officer and fighter pilot who was shot down over North Vietnam and survived several years of often-brutal captivity. By the time of the election campaign, the disdain many Americans had shown for McCain’s comrades in the sixties and early seventies had waned, and Vietnam vets were getting their long-overdue respect. It wasn’t enough to propel McCain to victory, though; ironically, nobody made much of the fact that Obama had never even served in the National Guard, much less on active duty in a combat unit.
Our current president, Donald Trump, could’ve joined the military during the Vietnam era, but like so many future politicians of both parties, chose not to, and avoided the draft by way of deferments. During his teenage years, Trump attended a private military academy, but like virtually everything involving our 45th president, that short period is not without controversy: Trump in uniform, sort of.
Military service is not a requirement for the presidency; the Constitution only says the person must be a native-born U.S. citizen and at least 35 years of age. And having put on the uniform in the past certainly does not guarantee that a president will be a good one. But someone who has served, especially as an officer, has an understanding about important things that the civilian can never match. Leadership, for one, and if that officer has been in combat, that part of their service certainly gives them a different perspective when they become commander-in-chief.
I noted at the beginning that we may finally be close to an end to the longest war, declared or undeclared, in our nation’s history. Like virtually every American, I hope and pray that our troops will be coming home soon; or, if some of them have to stay, I hope it will be in the same capacity as our troops have served in Germany since 1945 and Korea since 1953, helping to keep the peace without having to actually pull a trigger.
In the meantime, the next several years will prove interesting, as more veterans of the Afghan and Iraq wars enter politics. The 116th Congress currently has 96 veterans; 21 of them served in the 1960s or earlier, meaning that the great majority of vets in the Capitol are from the post-Vietnam era. Two-thirds of them are Republicans, and seven overall are women, an all-time high. One veteran who is a freshman in the House deserves watching, in my opinion: Dan Crenshaw, from the 2nd district of Texas, served in the Navy for ten years, most of those in the SEALs, and was wounded in action, losing the sight in his right eye. Crenshaw has already shown he has the right stuff to succeed in the rough-and-tumble world of bareknuckle politics. Just before the election in November 2018, Crenshaw was mocked on Saturday Night Live by hipster comedian Peter Davidson, who said he looked like a “hit man in a porno movie.” The following Tuesday, Crenshaw won his seat by seven percentage points over his Democratic opponent, Todd Litton, who worked on Obama’s 2008 campaign. And a few days after that, Davidson, who had been the target of much criticism for his insults, appeared with Crenshaw on the next episode of the show, apologized and received some good-natured jabs from the newly-elected congressman, who then offered a poignant observation about how their interaction shows that people of different backgrounds and political philosophies can actually get along.
Time will tell how Crenshaw and his fellow veterans perform in Congress. So far, signs are promising. He’s not getting nearly as much press as his talkative and controversial fellow freshman, the New York Democrat Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, but talk is cheap. In the military, actions count a lot more than words. It might be a little different in politics, but not by much. Crenshaw is 35, Ocasio-Cortez 30 (and about as far away from being a veteran as it’s possible to be). No doubt both of them have had thoughts of being president someday, and who knows, in the election of 2028 or maybe ’32, we might see them squaring off. That will be entertaining, to say the least.