By Alan Caruba
There was a time in U.S. history when being a general was a big help in being elected President.
It started, of course, with General George Washington, our first President. A number of men skilled in the development of government followed, but by 1828 Andrew Jackson, famed for his victory in the Battle of New Orleans, was elected. William Henry Harrison who put down a Shawnee uprising at Tippecanoe was elected, only to be succeeded by John Tyler when he died barely a month after taking office. Zachary Taylor fought in the war of 1812.
Although Lincoln was never a general and had opposed the annexation of Mexico, he would forever find a place in our history for winning the Civil War after he found the right general to lead it. That general, Ulysses S. Grant would become the 18th President. James Garfield, best recalled for having been assassinated, had been a general in the Civil War. Benjamin Harrison, the 23rd President, had also been a Civil War general.
Theodore Roosevelt owed his presidency in part to his famed charge up San Juan Hill during the Spanish-American War and to the assassination of William McKinley whom he replaced.
A long period ensued when America elected a number of fairly colorless Presidents, such as Taft, Wilson, Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover. Franklin Delano Roosevelt arrived at the presidency having been Secretary of the Navy as part of his portfolio and is honored for having guided the nation through World War II. On his death, a former artillary major in World War I, Harry Truman, assumed the office. He is famed for the decision to drop two atom bombs on Japan to end the conflict in the Pacific. He was also in office during the Korean conflict which ended in a stalemate.
The most famous former general in the modern era was Dwight David Eisenhower, our 34th President. He was succeeded by John F. Kennedy who gained fame from having commanded a patrol torpedo boat in WWII. Lyndon Baines Johnson also had served in the Navy, but is best remembered now for having misled the nation into the Vietnam War which is generally regarded as a disastrous defeat. It forced him to forego a second term in office.
We can probably credit LBJ for the way the nation changed its attitude toward the waging of war. Americans became increasingly disenchanted with military adventures. By contrast, however, Jimmy Carter, an Annapolis graduate, lost reelection for, among his many failures, not taking or even threatening serious action after our diplomats were taken hostage when the Iranian revolution occurred in 1979.
Ronald Reagan served in the Air Force making training films during World War II and, though not a military hero of great rank, he is largely credited with bringing down the Soviet Union, a process than began with the Truman administration and the long Cold War. His Vice President, George Herbert Walker Bush had been a fighter pilot in World War II and would become our 41st President. He oversaw the first invasion of Iraq after it had invaded Kuwait, but once the thrill of that victory was over, a man who openly detested the military, William Jefferson Clinton, defeated him.
Clinton reflected the anti-war movement of the 1960s and 70s. A noted draft-dodger, his aversion to the use of the military except in the most desultory way is widely seen as the trigger for 9/11. The Islamist fanatics had concluded America no longer had the will to engage in war. They were wrong.
It was 9/11 that thrust George Walker Bush, the 43rd President, in the role of a wartime Commander-in-Chief. His only military experience was as a pilot in the Texas National Guard, but he did not see combat. He responded to 9/11 with an attack on the Taliban and al Qaeda in Afghanistan. He then convinced the nation that Iraq represented a threat that required a renewed conflict. That war continues and is generally unpopular, as much for the fact that there is no end in sight, as for the way it differs from all previous wars when armies in uniform faced one another. It does not fit the template of previous wars.
This brings us to the candidates from whom Americans must choose to take office on January 20, 2009. John McCain, the presumptive Republican candidate is a genuine war hero, having been a prisoner of war during the Vietnam conflict where he served as a Navy pilot. That is a strong credential for many veterans of the wars of the modern era.
Conversely, Sen. Barack Obama’s Democrat Party candidacy rests almost entirely on his opposition to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. He has never served in the military. He is the liberal’s liberal. Struggling against his lead is Sen. Hillary Clinton whose primary claim to office is that she was the wife of the 42nd President, perhaps one of the most absurd credentials for that high office ever offered to the voters!
There are no former generals on the political horizon to lead the nation and Americans have soured on war as what Clauswitz called an extension of diplomacy “by other means.”
War bad, surrender good, seems to be the prevailing philosophy. It is a very dangerous one.