What’s the deal with “The Commander-In-Chief Test?” What test are they talking about? And how many of our War Presidents passed it?
Barack Obama and John McCain are running for President. Whoever wins will be Commander-In-Chief. Obviously, that’s important – but only in time of war. Otherwise, it’s just another piece of the job description. So, what exactly is the history of our wartime Presidents? Would they – if they were running for the office today – pass this so-called “Commander-In-Chief Test?” Take a guess – go ahead. How many American Presidents have served in times of foreign wars?
The answer is 17. Yes, 17 different American Presidents have been in office while the US was engaged in a war with a foreign nation. How did they do, and how important was their background? Did they all pass this all important test of leadership? Let’s look at the two indisputably biggest wars in US history and see if those President’s might pass whatever it is people today are calling “The Commander-In-Chief Test.”
World War I was fought almost entirely under a Commander-In-Chief whose previous experience was as a college professor and President of Princeton University – Woodrow Wilson. Officially, the Great War was concluded under President Warren Harding. Neither Wilson nor Harding served in the military. Neither ever commanded men in battle. Neither man ever saw battle themselves. Imagine that skimpy resume, and we won that war, too – didn’t we?
Twenty years later an even larger conflict would engulf our country. During World War II, the Commander-In-Chief, until the final few months, was Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Although WW II called for the US to do battle completely around the globe, fighting two mighty empires simultaneously, we somehow managed to win this war, even with a Commander-In-Chief who had never served in the military in any capacity. Amazing, don’t you agree?
After Roosevelt’s death in office, President Harry S. Truman (who as Vice President was not even briefed on the progress of the war and had never heard of an Atom Bomb until the day he became our Chief Executive) concluded the hostilities still underway with Japan. Truman had served his country in the Army during WW I. He attained the rank of Major. What about his work experience prior to being Vice President? Perhaps that gave him the necessary Commander-In-Chief stones. Harry Truman was a haberdasher, a clothing retailer. After dropping two Atom Bombs on Japanese cities, President Truman got to hone his Commander-In-Chief skills in another war, the Korean War. Using nuclear weapons, something no Commander-In-Chief had done, before or since, apparently didn’t help Truman much. The Korean War did not come out as well as the one before it. In fact, more than 50 years later, our military forces are still there.
Going back to the beginning of the United States of America, our very first foreign war was fought against a bunch of rag-tag North Africans. In the Tripolitan War (1801-1804), the US Commander-In-Chief was the third President of the US, Thomas Jefferson. Some people say Jefferson was a member of the Virginia militia in 1789, but most records of his time do not indicate any military service on his part. Despite his lack of experience, we beat the North African pirates handily. Taught them a lesson or two.
In 1812, England had the temerity to attack us. They even bombarded our new capital city, Washington D.C. We fought back bravely under Commander-In-Chief James Madison. President Madison liked to say that he and Jefferson served together in the Virginia militia, but there are no records to backup his service and nothing to show that he actually manned an artillery position against the invading British in 1812. That story may have been the first in what would be 200 years of Presidential spin. Nevertheless, we successfully pushed the British forces off North America and back across the pond from whence they came. Another victory for a Commander-In-Chief with no experience.
Thirty years later, the United States went to war with Mexico under the leadership of Commander-In-Chief James K. Polk. That engagement, which lasted from 1846 to 1848, was successfully concluded in our favor although President Polk had, at best, a sketchy military record. He claimed to have been in the Tennessee militia, but just like Madison and Jefferson before him, there are no official records to prove it.
In the years 1861 through 1865, the Civil War happened. This may not have been a foreign war, but it accounted for the greatest loss of life and number of seriously wounded of any war ever fought by the United States. The Commander-In-Chief was Abraham Lincoln, a man who rose to the Presidency despite having served only a single term in The House of Representatives. The sum total of his military service was a short stint spent in the Illinois militia and his participation in one of the unfortunate Indian Wars, called The Black Hawk War, in 1832. In that engagement, Lincoln did not see combat. He was part of a burial unit. Lincoln did have some command, executive experience. Back in Illinois he had served briefly as a Postmaster. As Commander-in-Chief, he seemed to work out just fine. He saved the Union. The Civil War was officially ended under President James Buchanan. He was the only Commander-In-Chief in our history who served as an enlisted man in the Army never rising beyond the rank of Private in the War of 1812.
A couple of years before the turn of the century, the US was caught up in The Spanish-American War. We won that one in 1898 and the very next year our victorious Commander-In-Chief plunged us into a new war in the Philippines that lasted from 1899 to 1902. That Commander-In-Chief was President William McKinley. While McKinley served in and survived the Civil War, reaching the rank of Major, he came to a bad end one day in Buffalo, New York. We won that war in the Philippines; at least that’s what we said for many decades to come. We’re not as proud of it today as we once were.
In more modern times, the involvement of the United States in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos was conducted under three Commanders-In-Chief – Presidents Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon, in that order – and every unbiased observer will tell you we didn’t do very well there. However, each of our three Commanders-In-Chief had seen service as officers during WW II. All three served in the Navy, John Kennedy as a Lieutenant and both Johnson and Nixon as Commanders. That service, that wartime military experience – although none of the three ever commanded combat troops - didn’t seem to help much. We came out on the short end of the stick in Vietnam.
In 1983, Ronald Reagan, who reached the rank of Captain in WW II despite never leaving the country and never seeing active duty or combat, invaded the tiny Caribbean nation of Grenada. Among his previous job experiences, prior to getting the gig as Commander-In-Chief, he had been an actor, in the movies and on the new medium, TV as well as a baseball announcer on radio. Under his leadership, we whipped those Cuban construction workers who were building an international airport in Grenada.
Later, the next President after Reagan, George H.W. Bush, commonly known as Bush 41, attacked, in force, the country of Panama. Panama had not threatened or attacked us and they were easily defeated in a war that resembled an eighth grader taking lunch money from kindergarten kids. We literally kidnapped Panama’s President. No doubt encouraged by his swift success in Latin America, President Bush, acting as Commander-In-Chief, then started a real war in 1991 against Iraq. Although he went up against Iraq, Bush decided to fight that war in the country of Kuwait, right next to Iraq. Bush 41 had been a Lieutenant in WW II. As a flyer, his plane was shot down in the Pacific. Perhaps, it was this military service that accounts for the fact that we won, both in Panama and against Iraq in Kuwait. What do you think?
The final American President to fight a foreign war is George W. Bush, or Bush 43, or Son of Bush. Beginning in 2001 with his bombing of Afghanistan and subsequent invasion there, and then in Iraq, in 2003 and continuing to this very day, these two wars have not gone well. Although he claimed, once, that it was “Mission Accomplished,” thousands more have died since that declaration and no end to either conflict appears in sight – at least not under the leadership of this Commander-In-Chief. President Bush 43 was a member of a unit of the Texas Air National Guard, but his outfit was never activated, he left the state before his obligation had been completed and he never saw combat or any other active duty action. You tell me, did Bush 43 pass “The Commander-in-Chief Test?”
So, have you figured out yet what this “Commander-In-Chief Test” is all about? No? Does it strike you as strange that the United States has never had a wartime President with any command experience in the military? Again, take in the meaning of that fact – that’s never; not sometimes; not frequently; not when we win these wars; it’s not never! We have never in our history had a wartime President with a background that included command of men in wartime. Although we have elected a handful of men who were Generals in time of war, we hired them afterward, and during their tenure as Commander-In-Chief, none ever fought another war. Come to think of it, maybe that tells you something.
The reality is - our foreign wars have been fought under the Commander-In-Chief leadership of farmers, Postal clerks, haberdashers, cripples, actors, University professors and businessmen, most of them failed businessmen. Does this have relevance to the 2008 election for President?
John McCain served in Vietnam. He flew a Navy bomber, was shot down and spent more than 5 years in a POW camp. McCain never commanded men in battle. Unlike his father and grandfather, he was refused promotion to Admiral and eventually resigned his commission to go into politics. How does that stack up against “The commander-in-Chief Test?” The US has endured untold POWs in war after war. We have never before elected a former POW President of the United States. We have never publicly considered that time spent as a POW was a serious qualification to serve in political office.
Barack Obama, the other choice for President and therefore would-be Commander-In-Chief, is in the historical tradition of those American Presidents with no military experience, no service in uniform and no personal participation in any sort of war. Obama joins a list of US Presidents that includes: John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe, John Quincy Adams, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Bill Clinton.
When choosing your candidate in 2008, will you look to pick a President who can pass the mythical “Commander-In-Chief Test,” or will you recognize the true history of America’s foreign wars and see that there no prior life experiences that anyone can point to that qualifies a prospective President of the United States to lead the country in time of war.