Politicization of the United States Military: Crisis or Tempest in a Teapot?

By Holsti, Ole R. | International Journal, Winter 2002 | Go to article overview

Politicization of the United States Military: Crisis or Tempest in a Teapot?


Holsti, Ole R., International Journal


IN A SEMINAL ARTICLE ON 'The Widening Gap Between the Military and Society,' Thomas E. Ricks of the Wall Street Journal asserted that: 'The military appears to be becoming politically less representative of society, with a long-term downward trend in the number of officers willing to identify themselves as liberals. Open identification with the Republican Party is becoming the norm.'(1) The Ricks thesis, introduced in his Atlantic Monthly article and developed more fully in a subsequent book, served as an important landmark in the most recent debates about a core issue in democratic governance: the relationship between the military and the society they are trained and pledged to defend. Ricks located sources of the civil-military gap in fundamental changes in the nature of American society, as fewer civilians have any military experience; in the security environment following the disintegration of the Soviet Union; and in the military itself.(2)

Although Ricks's analysis ranged widely over many aspects of the relationship between the military and society, this article focuses on two questions: does systematic evidence sustain his assertions about the politicization of the United States military? Even if it does, is that finding of any real consequence?

Partisanship involving military elites is not unknown in American history. During the early years of the republic, appointments to key positions in the military often reflected party loyalties.(3) Outstanding military careers served as springboards to the presidency for George Washington, Andrew Jackson, U.S. Grant, and Dwight D. Eisenhower. Lesser military careers helped to elect William Henry Harrison and Zachary Taylor to the White House. Although their military exploits during the Civil War were less well known, three Republican candidates who had served as Union officers in that conflict - Rutherford B. Hayes, James A. Garfield, and William McKinley - gained some electoral advantage in running against candidates of a party that was associated, fairly or not, with the southern secession. Finally, several generals ran unsuccessfully for the presidency while still in uniform. Whig Winfield Scott was trounced by Franklin Pierce in 1852; Democrat George B. McClellan lost to Abraham Lincoln during the wartime election of 1864; Leonard Wood narrowly lost the Republican nomination in 1920; and Douglas MacArthur did little to discourage the enthusiasm of his Republican backers in 1948 and, after his retirement, in 1952.

These examples notwithstanding, the growth of military professionalism during the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries established norms against partisan political activity by military officers. This aspect of professionalism is effectively summarized in an essay on military ethics by a retired colonel. 'The ideal of remaining above politics grew finally to embrace the notion that regulars should refrain from affiliating with particular political parties and even refrain from voting. The rationale was that the professional military must loyally serve the nation, regardless of whom political vicissitudes bring to the presidency or Congress, and that political involvement could be seen as compromising the impartiality of professional military advice.'(4)

The examples of George C. Marshall and Dwight D. Eisenhower, two of a handful of World War II five star generals, are instructive. Marshall never even voted, and he let it be known that doing so would have run contrary to his conception of professionalism. Eisenhower was courted by leaders of both major political parties - President Harry Truman even offered to step aside if Eisenhower wanted the 1948 Democratic presidential nomination - and his preference for the Republican party was not known until he decided to seek the presidency in 1952.

As suggested by this very sketchy overview, if the United States military is indeed becoming more politicized, that would represent a significant step back from professional norms against partisanship. …

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