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George Washington (1789-97) led the American Revolution as general and commander in chief of the Colonial Armies.

Andrew Jackson (1829-37) led the American victory over the British at the Battle of New Orleans. “Old Hickory” claimed Florida for the United States.

William Henry Harrison (1841) led military forces in the Indian Wars. Nicknamed “Old Tippecanoe,” he was promoted to general during the War of 1812. He died of pneumonia one month after his inauguration.  

Zachary Taylor (1849-50) was a hero of the Mexican-American War. “Old Rough and Ready” won the presidency despite having no political philosophy, attachments, or leanings. He died unexpectedly from a bacterial infection.

Franklin Pierce 1853-57) took part in the capture of Mexico City, but severe diarrhea kept the general known to his men as “Fainting Frank” in sick bay most of the time. He supported legislation that allowed runaway slaves to be “captured and returned to their rightful owners.”

Ulysses S. Grant (1869-77) led the Union Army to victory over the Confederate States of America. A civil rights advocate, he put the Ku Klux Klan out of business for the next 50 years. He founded the Department of Justice, the Civil Service Commission and America’s first National Park.*

James A. Garfield (1881), a Phi Beta Kappa, he was a general during campaigns at Shiloh and Chickamauga. He was killed by an assassin during his first year in office. 

Chester A. Arthur (1881-85) was a quartermaster general during the Civil War, he served the rest of Garfield’s term and was described by many as one of the least memorable presidents.

Benjamin Harrison (1889-93) was the five-and-a-half-foot tall grandson of William Henry Harrison and the last Civil War general to serve as president. He devoted 13 million acres of land to the National Forest Reserves and was a promoter of American expansion. 

Rutherford B. Hayes (1887-81) was wounded in battle five times, earning him a reputation for bravery in combat and a promotion from major to general. As the president who won by one electoral vote, he supervised the end of the Reconstruction era.

Each of those ten presidents had first been a general in the U.S. Army

Historian and politicians agree that their military leadership and gallantry in battle contributed to their winning the office of the presidency. 

Leaders of entire armies, these former generals learned firsthand what weapons are needed to defeat the enemy. As president, each had to decide what and how many armaments they should build. They had seen the relationship between civilian armaments manufacturers and the military from both sides.

I Like Ike

In 1952, Dwight D. Eisenhower was the Supreme Allied Commander. On June 6, 1944, he led the massive D-Day invasion against the Nazis. It marked the beginning of the largest-ever amphibious invasion, putting more than 150,000 American, British, and Canadian troops on shore along 50 miles of fiercely defended beaches. Following Germany’s unconditional surrender, Eisenhower was in command of all the NATO forces in Europe.

Eisenhower was the most admired man in America

Both parties wanted Ike to run for president because he was a sure winner in any election. In 1951, he declared himself a Republican. Ike won, many of his votes coming because of his fame and his military success, as was the case with the 10 generals/presidents who preceded him. During his two terms in office, President Eisenhower established the Interstate Highway System, presided over the creation of NASA, and appointed five Supreme Court justices, yet was known by some as a do-nothing president.

The Cold War 

In 1945, George Orwell coined the term Cold War to describe what he predicted would be “two or three monstrous super-states, each possessed of a weapon by which millions of people can be wiped out in a few seconds.” Not bad for 1945, right?

Soviet expansion into Eastern Europe had caused many to fear that Russia had a plan to rule the world, just like Nazi Germany. In 1946, Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin claimed the inevitability of war between the East and West. Churchill stressed the need for the United States and Britain to join together as guardians against the Soviet communists “who have lowered an iron curtain across Europe,” dividing it into east and west.

Eisenhower believed nuclear weapons would act as a deterrent

The U.S. built up a stockpile during his presidency, along with the bombers, missiles, and submarines needed to deliver them. So did the Soviets. It became a competition between rival world powers to see who could build and store the most nuclear weapons. It was called a cold war because there were lots of saber-rattling but no large-scale fighting. 

It was the size of a beach ball

It was two feet in diameter and weighed 184 pounds. The Russians called it Sputnik. When the USSR launched the first artificial satellite into space in 1957, Sputnik sparked fears of the Communists controlling space and the Space Race was on. 

The Space Race

After putting the first satellite into space, the Soviets put the first man in space, the first woman in space, and the first spacewalk. The Space Race became a symbol of Russia’s superiority in space travel. Each of these Soviet “firsts” made the United States look as if it was losing the Space Race, but by sticking to their step-by-step program, NASA was able to put a man on the moon in 1969 – before the end of the decade, per Kennedy’s promise. If you have never seen The Right Stuff, you’ve missed an excellent film about the Mercury 7 astronauts. 

Prior to World War Two, the United States had no armaments industry to support the war effort

Industries of all kinds had to convert their factories to produce war materiel instead of consumer goods; Ford built bombers, Alcoa built airplanes, and Lionel built compasses. Factories across the country built everything the military needed to fight enemies in two theaters. America’s mighty industries produced 86,000 tanks, 300,000 aircraft, and two million Army trucks. After the war, Ford went back to making cars, Alcoa went back to manufacturing aluminum, and Lionel went back to making toy trains.

The Military-Industrial Complex

Unwilling to risk being unprepared for military emergencies, the U.S. created a permanent arms industry. Controlling this military-industrial complex would be nearly impossible. With all those billions up for grabs, deals are made and bribes and payoffs are inevitable.

NPR’s Tom Bowman says controlling the size of the nation’s military gets ever-more difficult because the hundreds of military contractors in World War II have now been whittled down to only a handful through mergers and acquisitions, meaning they can’t shop around for better prices.

President Eisenhower ended his presidency by warning Americans during a televised address to the nation

He described the ever-growing power and influence of the military-industrial complex as being a threat to democracy. He believed that the relations between the immense military establishment and the large arms industry were getting too close and the whole thing was getting out of hand. The Institute for Policy Studies said the average American taxpayer spends $6 for renewable energy, $270 for primary and secondary education, and $1,087 for weapons contractors.

As Eisenhower said early in his first term:

“Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children.”

Bonus

World War II hero Lieutenant John F. Kennedy commanded a torpedo boat in the Pacific. The story of PT-109 was printed in Reader’s Digest and The New Yorker. Coupled with his bravery, good looks, and friendly appeal, the exposure they gave Kennedy helped him to become president in 1960. One of his first acts was to declare the United States had set a goal to land a man on the moon before the end of the decade.

“I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth. No single space project will be more exciting, or more impressive to mankind, or more important, and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish.” -President John F. Kennedy, 1961.

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*Yellowstone National Park

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