by Ed Ross

February 11, 2008

The President of the United States is the Commander-in-Chief of the US Armed Forces, but the US Constitution contains no requirement for the president to have served in the military. Nevertheless, throughout US history, Americans have routinely elected military officers, and one private, James Buchanan, as their presidents. Thirty American presidents had active military service. Twenty-six of them were war veterans. No Korean or Vietnam War veteran, however, has ever been elected president. Why is that, and what does it suggest about John McCain’s chances of winning the 2008 election?

Military service, of course, doesn’t necessarily make people better presidents. Some of America's greatest presidents have been military veterans, but not all military veterans have been great presidents. Ulysses S. Grant is rarely listed as one of America's great presidents. Franklin D. Roosevelt, a wartime president who had no military service, usually is.

Americans are firmly committed to the principle of civilian control of the military. They haven’t generally elected men because of their war records prior to and during wars. They have, however, regularly elected them to office afterward. George Washington, James Madison, and James Monroe all were elected following the Revolutionary War. Andrew Jackson, both a Revolutionary War and a War of 1812 veteran, was elected after the war of 1812. For the 36 years following the Civil War, seven of the next eight presidents were Civil War veterans, all of them generals. Only Grover Cleveland had no military background. 

Oddly enough, however, the longest gap between presidents with military service was 36 years from 1909 to 1945, one of the most turbulent periods in American history. Six US presidents, from William Howard Taft to Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was elected during the Great Depression and served for 13 of those years, successively held office with no military background. 

Mirroring the pattern following the Revolutionary and Civil Wars, the 63 years since the end of World War II, from Presidents Harry Truman to George W. Bush, only Bill Clinton had no military service whatsoever. Clinton's lack of military service was an issue in both his campaigns, but it didn’t prevent him from winning those elections. He defeated World War II veterans George H. W. Bush, an incumbent president, and Bob Dole, finally bringing to an end the election of World War II veterans.

With the run of electing World War II veterans over, you would expect Americans to turn to the next generation of war veterans. The Korean War, also known as “The Forgotten War” had the misfortune of coming too close in time to World War II, and in 2000 it became the Vietnam veterans’ turn.

George W. Bush gets credit for military service for his stint in the Texas Air National Guard, but he wasn’t a Vietnam War veteran. Moreover, his enemies have accused him of using his National Guard service as a way of avoiding service in Vietnam. 

Bush’s opponent, Al Gore, was a Vietnam veteran. But Gore’s detractors questioned his short and “overly protected” seven-month tour in Vietnam as a military journalist, a harbinger of what would happen to John Kerry four years later. Criticism of Gore’s Vietnam service, however, played only a marginal role in his defeat, if at all.

In 2004, Kerry, the first Vietnam War combat veteran to win the nomination of his party, decided to make his Vietnam service a centerpiece of his campaign. In doing so he opened a Pandora’s Box that cost him the presidency. Kerry’s chief detractors, the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, used Kerry’s anti war statements to the media and Congress following his tour of duty in Vietnam against him and questioned the authenticity of Kerry’s three Purple Heart medals.

Using a candidate’s military service or war record against a nominee for president is nothing new in American politics. Libraries are filled with political cartoons and newspaper articles that did just that. What’s changed is the technology of mass communication, the amount of money available for such purposes, and the effectiveness of the attacks.

That military service in Vietnam, or even military service during but without service in Vietnam, could provide ammunition for a presidential nominee’s opponents should come as no surprise. The effectiveness of these attacks is a testament to how divisive the Vietnam War still is in American politics. And it serves as a warning to Senator McCain, the sole remaining Vietnam War veteran likely to be a nominee in either party for president.

Similar to Kerry, McCain has chosen to use his years as a POW in the Hanoi Hilton as a centerpiece of his campaign. His detractors, looking for his vulnerabilities and remembering what happened to Kerry in 2004, are sharpening their swords to use them against McCain. Accusations that he was “brainwashed” in the Vietnamese prison camp, for example, have already begun to circulate on the Internet.

If you thought the 2004 election was nasty, fasten your seatbelt, this one is likely to be even nastier. And like 2004, the worst mud slinging won’t be by the candidates or their campaigns. A host of new and existing independent political action committees, nonprofits, and so-called 527 groups, largely unencumbered by the contribution limits that candidates must follow, are ready to play a greater role than ever before.

In the end, no candidate's service in the military necessarily makes him or her a better president. What we frequently are able to learn from the candidate's military service is the nature of the candidate's character, as military service often puts character to the test. What’s most important is how well any president understands the US Military, its capabilities and limitations, and how wisely he or she uses US military power.

In American presidential politics, what a candidate did or didn't do in the military is always potential fodder for a nominee’s detractors, more so when that service took place in a controversial and divisive war. How McCain's detractors will try to use his service against him in the 2008 presidential election, how effective they will be, and whether a Vietnam veteran will ever become a US President remains to be seen.

COPYRIGHT © Edward W. Ross 2008, All Rights Reserved