civilian leadership

Timothy Noah wonders why, since 1964, presidential candidates who were war heroes have been so unsuccessful:

With the sole exception of George H.W. Bush in 1988—who won by waging the dirtiest presidential campaign of the modern era and then served only one term—no war hero has won the presidency since John F. Kennedy beat Nixon in 1960. Before Kennedy, there was Dwight Eisenhower, former Supreme Allied Commander in Europe. Before Eisenhower came a century and a half of American history during which war heroes and battlefield commanders routinely won the presidency, starting with George Washington and continuing through Andrew Jackson, William Henry Harrison, Zachary Taylor, Ulysses S. Grant, Rutherford B. Hayes, James Garfield, Benjamin Harrison, William McKinley, Teddy Roosevelt, and Harry S. Truman. Between TR and Truman came a dry spell of 36 years during which no sitting president had served in the military. But that anomaly can be explained partly by the fact that for nearly half that time the president was a single person—Franklin D. Roosevelt. Moreover, both Roosevelt and his predecessor, Herbert Hoover, had performed enormously significant civilian duties in World War I, Roosevelt as assistant secretary of the Navy and Hoover as a highly enterprising organizer of famine relief, first as a private citizen and later as an appointee of President Woodrow Wilson. The Oval Office’s current drought of military leaders, then, would seem historically unique.

Noah then runs through a few possible explanations, which I don’t find particularly satisfying, even when I agree with them. Part of the problem is that I’m not sure if this is the right question.

Noah suggests that it was historically the norm for presidents to have been war heroes, but he’s only able to name 14 who fit his description (which he never really defines); add Hoover and FDR – and I think he has a better case for Hoover than for FDR – and you still have just 16.* That’s a substantial number, to be sure, enough to say that presidents who were war heroes have been a recurring feature in American politics, but hardly enough to say it’s also unusual for presidents not to be war heroes.

Now take a look at the wars involved:

  • Revolutionary War: 1 (Washington)
  • War of 1812 and related Indian wars: 2 (Jackson, Harrison grand-pere)
  • Mexican-American War: 1 (Taylor)
  • Civil War: 5 (Grant, Hayes, Garfield, Harrison (petit-fils), McKinley)
  • Spanish-American War: 1 (TR)
  • World War I: 2 or 3 (Truman, Hoover, maybe FDR)
  • World War II: 3 (Eisenhower, Kennedy, Bush pere)

Notice any pattern here? The Civil War accounts for at least one third of all war heroes; it plus the two world wars account for two thirds. So the supposed norm largely comes down to the effects of three wars, each of which involved unusually large mobilizations – and you still have to stretch to get more than one president out of the first World War.** Moreover, each of the remaining wars were not just significant victories for the United States but seen as turning points in the country’s history and development. Given that the United States hasn’t been involved in a war on the scale of the Civil or the two World Wars since 1945, and that the main candidate for a smaller, turning point war is Vietnam, it’s hardly surprising that there haven’t been more war hero presidents in recent times.

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*If you expand the category to include all Presidents with any prior military service you get to about 30 – depending on how you treat those who served in the militia/national guard but did not serve in active combat. But Noah specifically rules out that kind of expansion when he writes

Presidents Richard Nixon, Lyndon Johnson, and Ronald Reagan were all World War II veterans, but their service records were unexceptional.

Most of the increase comes from the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, and World War II. All of the Civil War vets are already on the hero list. And no, Fillmore’s Civil War service doesn’t count towards his presidential electability.

**And it’s only by stretching that you break up the 36 years between TR and Truman without a war hero president. By the way, does Noah really expect us to go along with his math when he claims that FDR’s 12 years took up “nearly half” of that period?

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