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This post is inspired by a bit of presidential trivia I came upon the other day. When John F. Kennedy was elected president, he became the first to have served in the US Navy. That made me wonder about how many other presidents had served in the military in some capacity prior to their winning the White House, what branches they had served in, and whether or not they’d experienced combat.
In general, I think it’s agreed that prior military service is to the credit of anyone seeking political office, especially so for the presidency and that also having combat experience only enhances that benefit. With that in mind, does the record bear out the assumption that prior military service makes for a better president? Whether that’s been the case for our presidents is, I think, an open question; although I would still prefer, everything else being equal, that the presidential candidate I support have military service on their résumé.
I went through the military records of each president as presented in The Complete Book of U. S. Presidents by William A. Degregoria plus whatever I previously knew about a number of our presidents and their military service. In doing this, I kept track of not only whether or not they had any military service, but also their service branch, years of service, whether they saw combat, and what their military ranks were.
Of our 44 presidents to date (including Trump), 29 had military service of some sort, 15 had no military service at the time they became president, 18 had experienced combat, and 22 had served in the Army (including militia, National Guard, and the like), six had served in the Navy, and one had served in the Air Force.
George Washington – 1st President – Military Service – Yes, Career Soldier, Experienced Combat, Army, General of the Army.
John Adams – 2nd President – Military Service – No, Although he has no military service, he signed the Declaration of Independence thus putting his life in jeopardy.
Thomas Jefferson – 3rd President – Military Service – No, although he also affixed his name to the Declaration of Independence.
James Madison – 4th President – Military Service – Yes, he was commissioned a colonel in the Orange County militia in October 1775 but due to frail health limited his activities to drill, target practice and recruitment.
James Monroe – 5th President – Military Service – Yes. Served in the Continental Army from 1776-1778 rising from lieutenant to major. Experienced Combat.
John Quincy Adams – 6th President – Military Service – No.
Andrew Jackson – 7th President – Military Service – Yes, Career Soldier, American Revolution (at age 13!), War of 1812 and various Indian Wars, Army, Experienced Combat, Highest Rank – Major General.
Martin Van Buren – 8th President – Military Service – No.
William Henry Harrison – 9th President – Military Service – Yes. Professional Soldier, Various Indian Wars and the War of 1812, Experienced Combat, Joined Army in 1791 as ensign Highest Rank – Major General.
John Tyler – 10th President – Military Service – Yes, War of 1812, joined militia as captain, did not see combat.
James Polk – 11th President – Military Service – Yes – in 1821 commissioned a captain of a militia cavalry unit rose to colonel. No combat experience.
Zachary Taylor – 12th President – Military Service – Yes, Career Soldier 1808-1848, War if 1812, Black Hawk War, Second Seminole War, and Mexican War, Experienced Combat, Began as first lieutenant. Highest Rank – major general.
Millard Fillmore – 13th President – Military Service – None before the presidency. During Civil War, he formed a Buffalo home guard comprised of men 45 and over.
Franklin Pierce – 14th President – Military Service – Yes, Mexican War (1846-48) Enlisted as a private in a volunteer unit in Concord, New Hampshire in May 1846. Commissioned a colonel in February 1847 and promoted to brigadier general in March 1847. Army, Experienced Combat.
James Buchanan – 15th President – Military Service – Yes, War of 1812, volunteered for a company of dragoons after the British burning of Washington. Saw no combat.
Abraham Lincoln – 16th President – Military Service – Yes. Black Hawk War, 1832, local militia elected captain, saw no combat.
Andrew Johnson – 17th President – Military Service – Yes. Appointed military governor of Tennessee by President Lincoln in 1862 with the rank of brigadier general. Saw no combat.
Ulysses S. Grant – 18th President – Military Service – Yes, Career Soldier (1843-54, 1861-69), West Point graduate, Mexican War, Civil War, Experienced combat. Highest Rank – General of the Army.
Rutherford B. Hayes – 19th President – Military Service – Yes, Civil War – June 1861-June 1865 rising from major to major general. Army, Experienced extensive combat.
James Garfield – 20th President – Military Service – Yes, Civil War August 1861 to December 1863, Army. Commissioned as lieutenant colonel and rose to major general. Experienced combat.
Chester Arthur – 21st President – Military Service – Yes, Civil War, Served in New York state militia 1858 to December 1862 rising from brigade judge general to brigadier general. Saw no combat.
Grover Cleveland – 22nd and 24th President – Military Service – No, during the civil war, Cleveland was drafted and paid $150 for a substitute which was legal at the time.
Benjamin Harrison – 23rd President – Military Service – Yes. Civil War served with the 70th Indiana Infantry Regiment from July 1862 to June 1865 rising from second lieutenant to brigadier general. Experienced combat.
William McKinley – 25th President – Military Service – Yes. Civil War served with 23rd Ohio Volunteer Infantry from June 1861 to July 1865 rising from private to brevet major. Experienced combat.
Theodore Roosevelt – 26th President – Military Service – Yes. Member of New York state National Guard from 1882-1885, rising from second lieutenant to captain. Served as commander of the First US Volunteer Cavalry Regiment (Rough Riders) during the Spanish-American War 1898. Experienced combat.
William Howard Taft – 27th President – Military Service – No.
Woodrow Wilson – 28th President – Military Service – No.
Warren Harding – 29th President – Military Service – No.
Calvin Coolidge – 30th President – Military Service – No.
Herbert Hoover – 31st President – Military Service – No.
Franklin D, Roosevelt – 32nd President – Military Service – No.
Harry Truman – 33rd President – Military Service – Yes. Served in Missouri National Guard 1905-11, rejoined upon U.S. entry into World War I serving with 129th Field Artillery from August 1917-May 1919 rising from lieutenant to major. Experienced combat.
Dwight D. Eisenhower – 34th President – Military Service – Yes. Career Soldier 1915-48, 51-52. West Point graduate, Highest Rank 5-Star General, Supreme Allied Commander ETO.
John F. Kennedy – 35th President – Military Service – Yes, World War II Navy September 1941 to April 1945 rising from ensign to lieutenant. Experienced combat.
Lyndon B. Johnson – 36th President – Military Service – Yes, World War II Navy December 1941 to July 1942. Experienced combat, although that’s a bit of a joke.
Richard Nixon – 37th President – Military Service – Yes. World War II, Navy June 1942 to March 1946 rising from lieutenant junior grade to lieutenant commander. Saw no combat but won a lot of money playing poker.
Gerald Ford – 38th President – Military Service – Yes. World War II, Navy April 1942 to February 1946 rising from ensign to lieutenant commander. Experienced combat (10 battle stars) as officer aboard the USS Monterey, a light carrier.
Jimmy Carter – 39th President – Military Service – Yes. Annapolis graduate, US Navy 1946 to 1953 engineering officer aboard the USS Sea Wolf and early nuclear submarine. Saw no combat.
Ronald Reagan – 40th President – Military Service – Yes. Army Reserve, served in US Army from April 1942-July 1945 rising from second lieutenant to captain. Barred from combat due to poor eyesight.
George H. W. Bush – 41st President – Military Service – Yes. Navy World War II June 1942 to September 1945 rising from seaman second class to lieutenant (junior grade). Torpedo Bomber pilot. Experienced combat.
Bill Clinton – 42nd President – Military Service – No.
George W. Bush – 43rd President – Military Service – Yes Air National Guard 1968-1974 Fighter pilot. Experienced no combat.
Barack Obama – 44th President – Military Service – No.
Donald Trump – 45th President – Military Service – No.
Looking through the list, I do have a few comments.
I think it’s fair to say that the two biggest wars in our history (Civil War and World War II, ignoring the War of Independence) had long-term impacts on our politics in many ways. An obvious effect was the number of veterans from those wars who later became president. Every president except one (Cleveland) was a Civil War veteran for the rest of the 19th century and that time would’ve been at least a bit longer if not for the 1901 assassination of McKinley. Likewise, every president from 1952-1992 except for one (Carter) was a military veteran of World War II.
We had one very long period of time in which we elected presidents with no military record. Every president from 1908 (Taft) through 1945 (FDR) was a non-veteran. Why that was, I don’t know. Although, I should note that both Taft and Roosevelt had served as civilian leaders of the military; Taft as Secretary of War during the presidency of Teddy Roosevelt and FDR as Assistant Secretary of the Navy during Wilson’s two terms, including during World War I. These civilian posts are to the credit of their holders but I don’t think they should be considered the same as military service.
As I mentioned earlier, I’d prefer my presidential candidate to have served in the military. However, there are different types of courage. Grover Cleveland, who paid a substitute to take his place during the Civil War displayed political courage throughout his political career. As Sheriff of Erie County, he ended the routine graft of the department which earned him the wrath of his fellow Democrats and, as president, he regularly vetoed many popular spending bills because he thought them wrong or unconstitutional, including a Civil War veterans pension and private relief bills. I think the same can be said for many of our other presidents who did not serve in the military.
I just remembered one other thing I wanted to mention. After Kennedy, the next four presidents were also Navy vets (Johnson, Nixon, Ford, and Carter), after 170 years without a Navy vet in the White House. Go figure.