Does It Matter If A Presidential Candidate Never Served In The Military?

For the first time in 68 years, neither major party candidate for President has served in the military. Does this matter?

This year marks the first year since Franklin Roosevelt and Thomas Dewey faced off against each other in 1944 that neither major party candidate for President will have served in the military at some point in their life (Democratic VP nominee Harry Truman did serve in World War One, andFDR was Asst. Secretary of the Navy during World War I, but never served in uniform). In The Washington Post, John Nagl takes note of this fact, and wonders if we’ve reached a point where military service is no longer a big deal for Presidential candidates:

[T]oday, the connection between service in war and election to the highest office in the land has been severed.

How we got here is difficult to ascertain. The sample size of presidential elections is small, and military service is far from the only factor that voters consider. Yet the 2012 White House hopefuls reflect a broader truth: Even in a country waging what seems to be a forever war, military service is increasingly limited to a small swath of volunteers, widely admired but little known.

Early in our nation’s history, Americans fought to claim a continent both from its native inhabitants and from foreign powers that coveted its riches. Fighting for the country was a regular part of the American experience, and excellence in that service was one way to demonstrate leadership to the nation. The pool of citizens who were veterans was broadened by the draft during the Civil War and both World Wars, increasing the number of political candidates with military service and the connection voters felt to contenders with whom they had shared the experience of combat. Everyone respected those who had served — and perhaps even looked down a bit on those who had not been a part of America’s battles.

That relationship broke down during the Vietnam War, when not all segments of society were called upon to fight. When Johnson chose not to mobilize the National Guard for combat duty, it became a refuge for the sons of the elite who were avoiding war.James Fallows has written, movingly and guiltily, of how the most privileged Americans found ways to avoid the draft, sending the less fortunate to war in their place.

The long conflict in Southeast Asia tore the United States in two, destroying an effective consensus about the use of American power abroad. The soldier became the symbol of an unpopular war. Presidential candidates who had answered the nation’s call struggled to connect with voters who often hated the war that had helped form them. Gore played down his service in Vietnam during his bid for the White House, while Kerry’s service became a liability; although he was one of a few candidates to have been wounded in combat, he was “swift boated” by opponents who questioned some details of his service. No American veteran of any earlier war, let alone another recipient of several Purple Heart medals, would have been treated this way.

But this black mark on America’s treatment of its veterans is fading. In the wake of Vietnam, the country chose to meet its national security needs with a force composed entirely of professionals who had volunteered for duty. This force has proved enormously capable — triumphing in Desert Storm, easily defeating both the Taliban rulers and Saddam Hussein’s army, and demonstrating adaptability when performing counterinsurgency in Iraq and Afghanistan. No one who has served in today’s military would countenance a return to the draft and a force composed at least in part of Americans compelled to serve. The small size of the military relative to the population — well under 1 percent — makes broadening the service base both unnecessary and unlikely.

But there are costs to this all-volunteer military that are not immediately apparent, even on this weekend dedicated to remembering its sacrifices. The disconnect between those who give the orders and those who have no choice but to follow them has never been wider; all Americans salute the same flag, but only a few carry it forward against enemy fire. The military has become a caste apart from the nation it protects, with many of its fighters the sons and daughters of military leaders — a family business that asks much of a few. Service academy alumni journals are full of photos of multi-generational family reunions in combat zones, while most of us do no more to support the troops than stand, remove our caps and cheer when they present the national colors before a baseball game.

To some degree, the long stretch of time from 1944 to 2008 when at least one candidate had served in uniform is actually something of an historical anomaly. If you go through a list of major party Presidential candidates throughout American history, you find that very few Presidents or losing nominees had any military experience at all. This is, I think, largely a reflection of the fact that the 20th Century saw America involved in two World Wars, the Cold war, Korea, and Vietnam and that during a large part of this period there was a military draft in place that increased the odds that a given person would end up in military service at some point along the way. Now, though, we’re coming to the point where candidates who were born at the tail end of the Vietnam Era are now the men (and women) running for the Presidency. For the most part, they were born too late to be subject to the draft and have grown up in the era of the all-volunteer military. Therefore, one could argue that we are returning to some sense of normalcy in terms of the way things were prior to the end of World War II when military service was not commonly found on the resume of a Presidential candidate.

Nagl seems to think that this is not necessarily a good thing.

There are, perhaps, some down sides to an all-volunteer military notwithstanding the fact that tends to lead to the creation of a smarter, more professional fighting force while at the same time avoiding the ethically questionable idea of forcing people into military service. The cultural divide between those parts of the nation that serve as the major sources of military recruits, such as the South and rural West, and those that do not is rather obvious and apparent. Additionally, there is perhaps some wisdom in the idea that a President who has served in the military may be more judicious about the use of force than one who has not. That doesn’t always apply, of course, since the two President’s who presided over the ill-advised war in Vietnam both served in the military during World War II, and that didn’t seem to prevent either Richard Nixon or Lyndon Johnson from making decision about the war that seem to be quite foolhardy in retrospect.

Furthermore, I have serious questions about the idea that military service, especially during war time, invests someone with qualities that make them uniquely suited to the Presidency. Bob Dole served with distinction and honor in Europe during World War II but, in all honesty, I think he would have made an utterly horrible President not so much because of his policy ideas but because of his personality. Bill Clinton didn’t serve in the military, and indeed was the subject of one of the last serious “draft dodger” arguments from the Vietnam Era during his 1992 campaign, and while I often disagreed with his decisions while President, I think it’s rather obvious that he was a better President than Dole ever would have been. Similarly, Ronald Reagan served stateside in the military during World War II and I don’t know that his time in uniform gave him any special insight that he was able to tap into some 40 years later, that came from some place else.

Nagl’s argument is somewhat academic anyway. As I noted above, we are entering an era where the odds of a candidate for political office having served in the military are going to be significantly lower than they have been in the past 60-odd years. I don’t know that you can say that this is either a good or a bad thing, it’s just a fact of life.

FILED UNDER: Barack Obama, Campaign 2012, Military Affairs, Politicians, US Politics,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020.

Comments

  1. superdestroyer says:

    A more interesting question is whether a veteran will ever be president again. With an all volunteer force made of generally of enlisted for middle class or lower families and officers from second tier universities, the military is not capable of producing the type of veteran who can be successful in politics.

    A more interesting question is whether an Ivy League education is required of a president.

  2. al-Ameda says:

    It should neither be a qualifying nor a disqualifying factor. The fact of service in the military may have little or no relationship to the decisions a president might be required to make in the role of Commander-In-Chief.

  3. G.A. says:

    I think it’s rather obvious that he was a better President than Dole ever would have been.

    lol…..Clinton sucked and was probably the scummiest, lying, evolving pond scum that we have ever had.Many of the the problems we have today is because of him. On all levels of government,economy, and society.

  4. steve says:

    I have nothing but contempt for those like Cheney who went out of their way to get multiple deferments to avoid serving, or those who got deferments for pretty obviously bogus conditions, then went on to become hawkish, super-patriots. Other than that, I dont think serving or not serving is that big of an issue for most candidates. I think it is a national issue that affects all of us, but I dont see a good resolution. I truly believe that serving together, people from all walks of life, promotes an important kind of social cohesion. However, there is a significant price to be paid by having a drafted military rather than the more professional, volunteer one we now employ. Not sure I want to pay that price.

    Steve

  5. Tsar Nicholas says:

    @superdestroyer:

    With an all volunteer force made of generally of enlisted for middle class or lower families and officers from second tier universities, the military is not capable of producing the type of veteran who can be successful in politics.

    Governor Bob McDonnell, Governor Rick Perry, former governor Matt Blunt, former governor Ernie Fletcher, U.S. Rep. Mike Rogers, among several others, would disagree with that assessment.

    A more interesting question is whether an Ivy League education is required of a president.

    Neither Andrew Cuomo nor Martin O’Malley would worry about that. Chris Christie wouldn’t lose too much sleep over it. Brian Sandoval wouldn’t worry about it. Nor would John Kasich. Marco Rubio won’t be worried about it. Nor Bob McDonnell.

    In any event, regarding the question posited by Mataconis, I don’t think military service is anything close to a requirement of the presidency. Presidents have teams. They have advisors. What matters is that the president has overall life’s experiences, a sound temperament and most of all good judgment, not that he or she wore a military uniform.

  6. @Tsar Nicholas:

    Neither Andrew Cuomo nor Martin O’Malley would worry about that. Chris Christie wouldn’t lose too much sleep over it. Brian Sandoval wouldn’t worry about it. Nor would John Kasich. Marco Rubio won’t be worried about it. Nor Bob McDonnell.

    None of whom has won the nomination, much less the presidency. Given that both of the current candidates are Havard grads, that means that by 2016 it will have been almost three decades since we’ve had a president who did not have a degree from either Havard or Yale.

  7. André Kenji de Sousa says:

    If the United States is willing to engage in eternal war in any place in the world the fact that not only the President did not serve in uniform but that 99% of the population also did not serve is surely a problem. There is a correlation between the support for wars and “defense” among the American Public and among the American Punditry and the fact that very few of them know what a war is.

    Since there was no war in the Domestic United States since the Civil War most Americans underestimate the costs of going to war. Most Americans does not know how really bad a war is(The way that several Americans joke about the way that the French “surrendered” to the Germans during World War II is an example).

    I know that´s annoying when a foreign says something like “the rest of the world is cooler than you”, but it´s troubling a country so willing to go to war, and so ignorant about what a war is.

  8. superdestroyer says:

    @Stormy Dragon:

    Andrew Cuomo is also single and the U.S. has not elected a single president in 150 years. If Cuomo does not get married before 2014, he will not be running for president.

    Martin O’Mally does not stand a chance since there is almost no way that O’Mally can finish in the top three in Iowa.

  9. The first sign that Andrew Cuomo is running in 2016 will be when he marries Sandra Lee

  10. superdestroyer says:

    Another interesting question would be whether Americans will elect another president who only has a bachelors degree. With the growth of credentialism, I doubt if anyone will be able to climb very high in politics with just an undergraduate degree. No only will future candidate by Ivy Leaguers but whey will need a graduate/professional degree from the Ivy League.

  11. Janis Gore says:

    Sandra Lee is practical. But I wouldn’t go to the mansion for food.

  12. Janis Gore says:

    Mr. de Sousa is right. We have not seen the devastation of war. It’s one of my pick-nits when people talk of the sites of tornadoes or hurricanes as looking like “war zones.” Do you know?

  13. DRS says:

    The actual military experience, I think, matters less than how the candidate handles it. One of the things about the Republican campaign in 2008 that I really hated was the not-too-subtle messaging that we practically owed the presidency to McCain because he’d suffered as a POW in Vietnam. I didn’t hold that messaging against McCain personally – not like the selection of Palin, which I did hold against him personally.

    But I agree with Steve above: if you’re going to take multiple deferments when it’s your ass that’s threated by the draft, then have the decency to be a bit more circumspect about sending other guys off to die when you’re at the top level of government. It kind of suggests that you’ve walked the talk, as it were.

  14. superdestroyer says:

    @DRS:

    But why are progressives who eager to call conservatives hypocrites for military service but never mention that progressive leaders use private armed security, send their own children to virtually all white private schools, vacation in exclusive resorts that are overwhelmingly white,

    People seem willing to elected Democrats who never attended public school (primary, secondary, or college) while those same leaders seem willing to give the core groups of the Democratic Party such as colleges of education and teachers unions whatever they want.

  15. DRS says:

    Because we’re out to destroy the White Civilization and let Coloured Minorities take over America. Geez, SuperDestroyer, try to keep up, willya?

  16. Jenos Idanian says:

    According to Democrats, military service did not matter in 2008, 1996, or 1992.

    It was essential, however, in 2004 and 2000.

    That it was far more important in the years that the Democrats’ nominee had a more impressive record in the latter two cases than in the former three is, of course, a wild coincidence.

  17. André Kenji de Sousa says:

    The point is not that conservatives are hypocrites. The point is that very few people among the general public went to military service, and very few of them went to war. On the other hand, there is consistent support for war among the same public. Iraq happened because there were several pundits, politicians and other people(FROM BOTH PARTIES) that never went to war simply underestimated the costs of toppling Saddam and then stabilizing Iraq.

    There is someone in this own post comparing going to war to enrolling children in public schools. C´mon.

  18. superdestroyer says:

    @André Kenji de Sousa:

    The first rule of leadership is to not ask people to do something that you would not do yourself. Whether it is going to war versus taking a deferment, sending your children to elite all white private schools instead of urban public schools, moving around by chauffer driven car or private plane instead of city bus or Amtrack, the hypocrisy is about the leadership and the lack of that leadership.

    If everyone followed the same rules of leaderships, there would probably be better public schools and fewer wars, and fewer private planes.

    You should also remember that all of the presidents from Grant to McKinley were veterans of world war II and all of the presidents from Eisenhower to Ford were World War II veterans.

    I doubt that being a veteran caused Johnson to avoid entanglements in Vietnam.

  19. Janis Gore says:

    C’mon. Y’all gonna guide a missile to my house because my cousin has high emotions. I’ll be pissed.

  20. André Kenji de Sousa says:

    @superdestroyer: I´m not talking about leadership. I´m talking about war and the relation that Americans have with it. It´s true that the quagmire in Vietnam was created by two war veterans, but today there is disconnection in the United States, where too much people supports wars of any kind while they do not know what a war really is.

    War used to mean sacrifices for the civil population, not tax cuts. But, you know, the word “sacrifice” does not exist in the dictionary of politicians of both parties for 30 years. The only people that talked or did something about it became political pariahs.

  21. jukeboxgrad says:

    it´s troubling a country so willing to go to war, and so ignorant about what a war is

    A deeply important point that needs to be repeated.

    For most Americans, war is just one more thing you get to watch on the tee-vee. But of course what we’re allowed to watch of it is highly sanitized.

  22. superdestroyer says:

    @André Kenji de Sousa:

    Most Americans were aware of war at the start of the Korean War. It was only five years after the end of WWII. In addition, most Americans were not asked to make any sacrifices. Your theory of military service, support for war, and the american population is not support by history.

  23. Loviatar says:

    Does It Matter If A Presidential Candidate Never Served In The Military?

    No.

    However if your question was slightly changed to Does It Matter If A Presidential Candidate Never Served Their Country?

    Then the answer is HELL YES.

    We have too many selfish, self centered people in office who are only concerned with their own personal livelihood (their taxes, their regulations, their laws, etc.). They are only concerned in whats in it for them, not whats best for the country.

    My personal political hero is Lyndon Baines Johnson, a man who served his country and put its welfare above his personal and political well being. He knew that he and his party would suffer both personal and political (maybe not to the level that it has) fallout from his decisions surrounding the 1964 and 1965 Civil Rights Acts, yet he did the right thing anyway. Can you name a politician today who would do the same?

  24. Andre Kenji says:

    @superdestroyer: Yes, that does not avoid something like Korea or Vietnam(Not that we are talking about the same society) . But it surely makes things worse.

  25. superdestroyer says:

    @Loviatar:

    Have you actually read LBJ’s biography. LBJ started out poor and his family is not fabulously wealthy.

    LBJ also did service in the Navy during World War II and arranged to be fraudulently awarded s Silver Star.

    LBJ was the ultimate deal maker and always made out well on the deals he made.

  26. Dazedandconfused says:

    An incumbent President has been “in the military” -as CIC. 😉

  27. superdestroyer says:

    @Dazedandconfused:

    I think Clinton made that claim about being in the military and the courts did not recognize it.

  28. al-Ameda says:

    I have come to believe that if we had to vote for a surtax to pay for our wars, we might take more time to understand exactly what the purpose of the war we’re paying for is, and whether it is worth the cost in human and financial resources.