When the 117th Congress convened on Jan. 3, 2021, only 91 – more than one-sixth – of its members were veterans, the lowest number since at least WWII, according to the MilitaryTimes. Serving in the military was once considered essential to attaining higher political office, especially the presidency, and most of America’s chief executives have been in one branch or another of the armed forces. (See each president’s path to the Oval Office.)
Of the 46 men who have become president, 12 not only served but reached the rank of general, six of them during the Civil War. Men such as George Washington, Ulysses S. Grant, and Dwight D. Eisenhower demonstrated leadership and administrative abilities as generals that stood them in good stead as presidents.
But the biographies of presidents who did not become generals show that military life can reveal leadership skills that had yet to be demonstrated. That was the experience of Harry S. Truman, when he became the captain of an artillery unit in WWI. Political connections helped John F. Kennedy receive a commission in the Navy, but he showed his mettle during WWII as a PT boat commander who saved the lives of his ship mates after his boat was rammed by a Japanese destroyer.
Kennedy was the first member of the Navy who became president. That branch of the military has since proved to be a good path for the White House, as six of the last eight presidents on our list were sailors.
Military exploits, regardless of rank, have boosted the political fortunes of other men who became president. William Henry Harrison’s victory over Native Americans at the Tippecanoe River in 1811 became part of his presidential campaign slogan. James Garfield’s heroism at the Battle of Middle Creek in the Civil War was called “the battle that made a presidency.”
Theodore Roosevelt gave up his job as assistant secretary of the navy in 1898 to form a volunteer cavalry unit to fight in the Spanish-American War in Cuba. In 2001, he was awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously, the only president to have received the nation’s highest military honor. (These are the most decorated war heroes in American history.)
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