In 2012, we won’t have the chance to test this trend: For the first time in modern American history, neither major candidate for the presidency has any military experience.
This is a dramatic change. The crucible of combat not only created these United States but has also given us many of our most successful presidents.
Our first president, and still the greatest of all Americans, was a general before he was elected; George Washington’s leadership of the Continental Army proved that he could handle the challenges of a newborn nation. William Henry Harrison’s short presidency was based in no small part on his victory over the Shawnee Indians at the Battle of Tippecanoe; with Vice President John Tyler, he won on the slogan “Tippecanoe and Tyler, too.” The presidency of Ulysses S. Grant, though marked by scandal,would never have been but for his steady generalship in America’s bloodiest conflict.
Harry Trumancame to prominence as the commander of a National Guard artillery battery in the First World War in France; his performance in combat powered his rise to the Oval Office. Service in World War II gave the nation not just Dwight D. Eisenhower but also John F. Kennedy, whose heroism as a PT boat skipper in the Pacific was a counterpoint to Eisenhower’s leadership of a great alliance in Europe.
Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush all served in uniform during World War II, while Jimmy Carter, too young for that conflict, graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy and served aboard nuclear submarines during the Cold War.
But today, 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.