September 1816, northeast France: Members of Battery D, 129th Field Artillery, 35th Division, had finally completed a brutal hundred mile march to an area near the village of Cheppy, only to begin five days of intense combat that would see a future American president threatened with court martial.
During a culminating battle, German artillery had been sighted across the Aire River, in the sector of the 28th division. Despite prohibitions against firing outside one’s own sector, Battery D’s commander ordered fire on the German artillery. It was quickly laid to waste. Later, despite the success, a colonel threatened court martial on the commander, to which he reportedly replied, “I’ll never pass up a chance like that. We plastered ‘em.” That commander’s name: Harry S. Truman.
Truman had begun his military career in 1905 with the Missouri National Guard, starting as a private and retiring as a colonel before WWII. He was, throughout his career, a champion of the Guard. He once remarked, “I think that the backbone of the defense of this country is in its civilian components.”
Truman was just one among the panoply of American presidents to serve in the military. Of the 45 elected presidents, 31 have served in some capacity, the majority of whom were Reserve, National Guard, or their militia predecessors. Beginning with George Washington’s command of the emerging nation’s Continental Army through George W. Bush’s service in the Texas Air National Guard, one could say with confidence that the American electorate has consistently seen military service as an important factor in choosing a president.
The degree to which our presidents served has varied widely. James Buchanan served for one year as a private in the Pennsylvania Militia, while Dwight D. Eisenhower was Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in WWII, leading the invasion that wrested control of Europe from the Nazis.
After WWII, eight successive presidents had served in some capacity during that war, beginning with Eisenhower and ending with George H.W. Bush. Six of those eight served in the U.S. Naval Reserve.
Even in the early years of the nation, future presidents would heed the call to service. Both Thomas Jefferson and James Madison were colonels in the Virginia Militia during the Revolutionary War, but neither saw direct action. Still, their administrative work helped with the overall war effort. Similarly, Abraham Lincoln eagerly joined the Illinois Militia in 1832, only to be thwarted in his apparent attempts to see combat.
What is it about military service that tends to be makers of presidents? Is it the gravitas of having served, and in many cases, led? Is it the proving ground for demonstrating allegiance to the country and its future?
We don’t attempt answers to those questions here, but we do pay tribute on this Presidents’ Day to all who served our nation as president, with a special nod to those who, in Truman’s view, formed the backbone of our defense.