It is now Memorial Day, and I want to focus on the historic role of the commander-in-chief.
Ten generals have been president of the United States, all of whom served in combat: Washington, Jackson, William H. Harrison, Taylor, Pierce, Grant, Hayes, Garfield, Benjamin Harrison, and Eisenhower.
In addition, Theodore Roosevelt was a much decorated combat colonel and William McKinley a decorated Civil War captain. Harry Truman was an artillery captain on the Western front in World War I.
John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon, and Gerald Ford were all decorated junior officers in the United States Navy in World War II (and they entered the House of Representatives together in 1946). President Carter was a Navy submariner between wars. George H.W. Bush won the Distinguished Flying Cross when he was 20, as a combat pilot in the Pacific.
A number of Prominent military officers ran unsuccessfully for president, including General Lewis Cass, General Winfield Scott, Colonel John C. Fremont (the first Republican presidential nominee), General George B. McClellan, and General Winfield S. Hancock.
Many other prominent militarists have been courted as presidential candidates by the parties including Generals George C. Marshall, Douglas MacArthur, and Colin L. Powell, and most famously, General William Tecumseh Sherman, who memorably replied to the suggestion that he consider a presidential candidacy: “If nominated I will not run and if elected I will not serve.”
None of the senior military officers who served as president initiated any wars, and most were careful, while promoting the national interest and expressing it forcefully when necessary, and were distinctly war-averse.
President Eisenhower promised to “go to Korea,” in his campaign of 1952, to resolve the war there, and he did so by having senior officials of the government of India advise Chinese diplomatic representatives accredited to India that if the People’s Republic of China did not start taking the negotiations for an end to the Korean War seriously, he would have to consider the use of atomic weapons to achieve that end.
The armistice was signed shortly afterwards and has been in effect for 48 years. President Eisenhower advised strongly against military adventurism in Cuba, and both he and General MacArthur advised President Kennedy and President Johnson not to commit combat ground forces to Vietnam and once they had done so, to cut the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
There was an argument for intervention that President Kennedy and Johnson found persuasive but there was no argument, once having intervened, not to follow the advice of the nation’s two senior generals and victorious theater commanders to cut the supply of men and materiel from North to South Vietnam as they urged.
In 1955, when mainland China was threatening an invasion of Taiwan (as they are almost doing today), and were shelling the islands of Quemoy and Matsu just offshore, the Congress overwhelmingly voted President Eisenhower a blank check to use any degree of force he judged necessary in dealing with the crisis, specifically including nuclear weapons.
Five times in the following year the Joint Chiefs of Staff filed into his office and asked the president to authorize use of nuclear weapons against the People’s Republic of China. On each occasion, Eisenhower declined and asked what the justification would be for such a drastic measure that would inevitably cause great loss of life. The answer always was to prevent an amphibious invasion of Taiwan.
President Eisenhower pointed out that the Formosa Strait was more than three times as wide as the distance travelled by the invasion fleet for the Normandy landings on D-Day in 1944. He had been the commander of that operation and it still stands as the greatest amphibious invasion in the history of the world, and the Allies had absolute air and sea superiority-12,000 aircraft and 5000 ships, where In 1955, the United States had absolute air and sea superiority in the Formosa Strait and full aerial reconnaissance of the primitive state of any Chinese invasion capability: a Chinese invasion would have been a suicide mission.
The world was fortunate that at this critical period, the height of the Cold War, when the communist leaders-Nikita Khrushchev and Mao Tse-tung, often referred flippantly to the use of nuclear weapons, the President of the United States was a person so superbly qualified to reject requests for impetuous recourse to weapons of mass destruction. Eisenhower was prepared to threaten nuclear weapons to end the Korean War but not to prevent a military threat that did not really exist.
He warned the French not to take a stand at Dien Bien Phu in North Vietnam when the enemy would hold the surrounding hills and he declined to bail the French out by recourse to nuclear weapons as they asked after they ignored his advice.
He said on several occasions that states should only go to war as an absolute last resort and “thoughtfully and prayerfully.” And as General Washington in his farewell address warned against entangling alliances with foreign powers that could drag America into conflicts it should avoid, General Eisenhower in his departure address cautioned against the dangers of the intimate and mutually supportive relationship between the high military command and the great industrial corporations that supplied and encouraged the appetite of the Armed Forces.
All of the generals who were elected president were successful generals, but it must be said that only Washington, Jackson, and Eisenhower were distinctly successful presidents. The country has always, after successful wars, looked to electing combat commanders as potential political leaders because they are generally assumed to possess qualities of leadership and personal integrity and absence of low political opportunism or questionable motives, and that that makes them admirably suited to be the chief of state as well as the head of government.
Most of those men so elevated met those expectations, but several, including U.S. Grant and Franklin Pierce, proved erratic judges of the integrity of politicians, and were under-informed in some key policy areas.
Not to strike a vexatious note on Memorial Day, I cannot help but reflect what all of these victorious generals who were freely elected to the presidency of the United States would have thought of the idea of providing instruction in Critical Race Theory to the men whom they victoriously conducted in battle. They would have been outraged by it.
Many of them are from an era that ante-dated general American recognition of the concept of racial equality. Washington was a slaveholder though he emancipated his slaves in his will, and Jackson was a slavery-enthusiast, a white supremacist in fact. Even though General Eisenhower enforced the Supreme Court order to desegregate Central High School in Little Rock and used the famous 101st airborne division (the Screaming Eagles) that he had commanded in Europe, to do it, Eisenhower was not as motivated in civil rights matters as his admirers, then and now, would have hoped, but he believed in law enforcement. All of these general-presidents were patriotic Americans and strong believers in the principal ethical concepts of their times and all executed their great office with integrity.
They all loved their country and they would all be horrified at the woke, racially overcharged and often bigoted, shooting gallery that parts of it have become. And they would be right.
Conrad Black has been one of Canada’s most prominent financiers for 40 years, and was one of the leading newspaper publishers in the world. He’s the author of authoritative biographies of Franklin D. Roosevelt and Richard Nixon, and, most recently, “Donald J. Trump: A President Like No Other,” which has been republished in updated form. You can hear more of Conrad’s thoughts on his podcast “Scholars & Sense” alongside his co-hosts Bill Bennett and Victor Davis Hanson at ScholarsAndSense.buzzsprout.com
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.