Military Experience of US Presidents

The military regularly ranks as the most trusted institution on public opinion surveys. Veterans are regularly deified by politicians of every stripe as heroes rendering extraordinary service to the country. Even when politicians are articulating their dissent over the Iraq War, they frequently find time to praise veterans, and to reiterate America’s commitment to its veterans.

The unique status of the veterans and the military in modern American consciousness can perhaps be traced to the revolutionary origins of the United States. The military success in the “War of Independence”, and the “Second War of Independence” (War of 1812), and the heroism of the ‘founders’, is an essential part of America’s collective memory, along with being an essential part of the school history curricula. Tony Judt, writing for NYRB mentions that one of the reasons militarism continues to persist in US is because –

“Americans, perhaps alone in the world, experienced the twentieth century in a far more positive light. The US was not invaded. It did not lose vast numbers of citizens, or huge swathes of territory, as a result of occupation or dismemberment. Although humiliated in distant neocolonial wars (in Vietnam and now in Iraq), the US has never suffered the full consequences of defeat. [Judt makes a reference here to South's defeat in the Civil War and subsequent reaction as exception that proves the rule] Despite their ambivalence toward its recent undertakings, most Americans still feel that the wars their country has fought were mostly “good wars.” The US was greatly enriched by its role in the two world wars and by their outcome, in which respect it has nothing in common with Britain, the only other major country to emerge unambiguously victorious from those struggles but at the cost of near bankruptcy and the loss of empire. And compared with other major twentieth-century combatants, the US lost relatively few soldiers in battle and suffered hardly any civilian casualties.”

Vinay, a regular contributor here, conjectures that the other possible reason for this continued ‘heroification’ of military and veterans is because as a country of immigrants, people in US have often found it hard to find common things (like shared history) to rally around. In absence of those themes, people have opted to rally behind things that exclude no one. That latent tendency has been buttressed by generations of strategic political actors, and mass culture producers.

The other unique fact that brings the above arguments in sharp relief is the disproportionately (as compared to other countries – excepting ones with mandatory military training) large number of veterans in the US. According to the Statistical Abstract of United States for 2004-2005, the country had 24.9 million veterans. The large veteran population is a result of two things – having one of the largest standing armies in the world, and the preponderance of personnel who serve the army only for a few years (generally as a way to have their college tuitions paid.)

Given the factors outlined above, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the American residency has been dominated by men with prior military experience. However the sheer number is still surprising – for 137 of the 219 years the country since its independence, the country has had a veteran as a president. Associatedly 29 of its 43 presidents have been veterans. There are at least three caveats about the numbers provided above– Eight years of George W Bush’s ‘service’ in the National Guard have been excluded; the five years of Lincoln presidency have been included (Lincoln participated very briefly in the Black Hawk War of 1832), and Millard Fillmore’s tenure isn’t included as his experience in the military was after he had left his presidency. One can raise questions about inclusion of some other presidents including Madison (whose service was brief again), however, as one can see, such tinkering is unlikely to impact the numbers much.

The longest time American’s went without electing a veteran was the 32 year period starting with Taft in 1913, and ending with Roosevelt’s death in 1945. Incredibly, during this time, the country took part in the two World Wars.

Perhaps the subsequent question we may want to ask is what impact has election of presidents with prior military experience had on the country. The lessons there remain less clear.


US President mil experience summary table[1] – Get more documents