The Role of the Military in Presidential Politics

By Corbett, Steve; Davidson, Michael J. | Parameters, Winter 2009 | Go to article overview

The Role of the Military in Presidential Politics


Corbett, Steve, Davidson, Michael J., Parameters


During the Bush-Kerry presidential election of 2004, both candidates sought and received endorsements from retired high-ranking military officers. At the Democratic National Convention, Senator John Kerry "surrounded himself not only with former Navy colleagues but also with prominent retired military brass." Retired Army General (and former candidate) Wesley Clark spoke at the convention, describing Kerry as "a leader, a fighter, and he will make a great commander-in-chief." (1) Twelve retired generals and admirals endorsed Kerry, including such notables as Admiral William Crowe, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and General Merrill McPeak, former Air Force Chief of Staff. McPeak subsequently appeared in television advertisements defending Kerry and his service in Vietnam in response to critical television advertisements from the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. Retired Army General Tommy Franks, the architect of the successful invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, publicly endorsed President George W. Bush and later spoke in support of the President before a national audience at the Republican National Convention.

Similarly, during the 2008 Obama-McCain presidential campaign, retired military leaders actively endorsed and campaigned for candidates. One of America's most respected retired officers, former Secretary of State Colin Powell, crossed party lines and endorsed candidate Barack Obama on national television. E-mails from "General Wesley Clark" sought campaign contributions for then-candidate Obama. (2) This was followed by Clark's devaluation on national television of Senator John McCain's war record in Vietnam, prompting then-Senator Obama to disavow Clark's criticisms. (3) In reporting the event, one article referred to Clark as a "prominent Democratic general." (4)

The public endorsement of presidential candidates by retired general officers reflects a disturbing trend toward the politicization of the American military, and concomitantly, a gradual departure from the nonpartisan professional military ethic. This modern trend began subtly with the candidacy of Dwight D. Eisenhower but has taken a very disturbing and public turn as prominent retired officers began to endorse candidates. What was once considered inappropriate behavior has now become commonplace.

This article will review the history of the development, and gradual erosion, of a professional military ethic of political neutrality. Further, the article will examine the current state of permissible military participation in the political process. Finally, the authors posit that active and public participation of retired military officers in partisan politics, in their capacity as retired military officers, should be discouraged as potentially damaging to the US armed forces in both material and philosophical ways. If the military of a democracy is politically partisan, it is, in effect, damaging to democracy itself in that the military does not serve in the fullest, most impartial manner.

The Development of a Politically Neutral Military

Although the historical tradition of an "apolitical" military is generally accepted among most Americans, many might feel uncomfortable when contemplating the rather large number of men who have parlayed military achievements into political success. Prior to the Civil War, George Washington, Andrew Jackson, William Henry Harrison, and Zachary Taylor all ascended to the presidency after successful military careers. Lieutenant General Winfield Scott more frequently, if less prosperously, attempted to secure the presidency, while simultaneously serving as Commanding General of the Army. Scott's political ambitions date at least to the 1840 presidential campaign, which Harrison, a former general, won. In 1852, Commanding General Scott ran unsuccessfully for President as the Whig Party candidate, garnering more than 40 percent of the popular vote but losing heavily in the electoral vote. …

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