Core American Ideas: Civilian-Military Relations

February 28, 2024

Core American Ideas: Civilian-Military Relations

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In this episode of The American Idea, we delve into a topic that is crucial to the health of the American Republic but often overlooked in contemporary discussions – the proper relationship between civilian and military leaders and the role of the military in American public and political life. While it might seem like a given in American society, it was a matter of great concern for the Founding Fathers. George Washington, in particular, played a pivotal role in establishing the principles that define this relationship. We are joined by Professor Miles Smith of Hillsdale College, an expert in American history and civilian-military relations, to shed light on this foundational aspect of American governance.

George Washington: The Architect of Civilian-Military Relations

George Washington stands as an emblematic figure in the annals of American history for his instrumental role in shaping the proper relationship between civilian and military authority. At the onset of the Federalist Era in the 1780s, as the Constitution was taking shape, there was a prevailing fear that republics could be susceptible to military dictatorships. The specter of figures like Caesar from the classical world loomed large in the minds of many. The status of the military in a republic was a subject of apprehension, as there was always a concern that military officers might establish an aristocracy and seize control of the government.

George Washington’s significance in this context arises from a critical juncture after the American Revolution when the Continental Army, due to Congress’s financial mismanagement, had not been paid for an extended period. Dissatisfaction brewed among the officer corps, leading to discussions about taking decisive action, potentially even marching on Philadelphia to claim their due. This could easily be misinterpreted as a coup, but the unique circumstances of the time must be considered. The Army had been the most functional arm of the government, defending the fledgling nation. Their grievances against Congress were substantial.

Washington played a pivotal role in defusing the situation. He made it clear that the revolution was not fought to establish a military government but to preserve a civilian one. He insisted that the Army remain patient, even in the face of governmental shortcomings. Washington’s resolute commitment to civilian government, despite its flaws, remains a remarkable principle. This commitment has been etched in history, culminating in the symbolic scene where George Washington relinquishes his sword to Congress, akin to the Roman general Cincinnatus, who won a war and willingly surrendered power to the Republic.

Challenges and Tensions in Early Republic

The establishment of a proper civilian-military relationship in the Early Republic was not without its challenges. The U.S. Army of the time was possibly the most professional institution within the federal government, albeit small and underpaid. It was an institution Americans learned to trust, especially as the Army performed commendably during events like the War of 1812.

This trust in the military led to a curious tension. While there was a stated aversion to having military figures in positions of political power, the reality was different. Over time, Americans seemed to prefer generals in politics, raising questions about the compatibility of this preference with the commitment to civilian republican government. This dilemma persisted as a part of American political discourse.

Critics of the Military in Politics

In the Early Republic, critics of the U.S. military and its involvement in politics did exist. There were voices cautioning against electing generals as presidents and advocating for reducing the size and budget of the Army and Navy. They argued that having a large and powerful military was inappropriate for a republic and could lead to a dangerous militarization of the government. The tension between appreciating the military’s service and expertise and the fear of them holding too much political power was a recurrent theme.

Political Generals in the Civil War

The term “political generals” refers to military officers whose appointments were influenced by political factors rather than their military expertise. During the Civil War, political generals were quite common. Many officers owed their commissions to political connections, and this practice was not limited to the Civil War era; it is a tradition that dates back in American military history.

One noteworthy example is Nathaniel Banks, who, before becoming a general, served as the Speaker of the House in the United States. His appointment as a general can be attributed to his popularity and political favor. The Union Army, in particular, had its share of political appointees to command state regiments. These appointments were often regularized, making political generals a significant presence during the conflict.

The Rise of Non-Political Generals

Amid the prevalence of political generals during the Civil War, there were notable exceptions. Figures like Ulysses S. Grant, William Tecumseh Sherman, and George G. Meade distinguished themselves by their military prowess rather than their political connections. Their paths to leadership were marked by a different trajectory.

  • Ulysses S. Grant: Prior to his renowned military career, Grant struggled as a businessman and was far from being a prominent political figure. He rose through the ranks based on his military skills and ability.
  • William Tecumseh Sherman: Sherman’s journey was similar. Before becoming a renowned general, he held the position of the president of what was then an insignificant school, Louisiana State University. His rise was not due to political connections but rather his strategic brilliance.
  • George G. Meade: Meade was often considered a “nerd” by his contemporaries. He came from a diplomatic family and was not known for his political involvement. His appointment as a general was based on merit and not political favor.

Abraham Lincoln’s Approach to Civilian-Military Relations

President Abraham Lincoln, serving as the commander-in-chief during the Civil War, played a pivotal role in defining the relationship between civilian leadership and the military. His approach was notable for several reasons:

  • Hands-Off Yet Decisive: Lincoln is often perceived as a hands-off leader when it came to military strategy and tactics. He did not micromanage his generals but instead sought commanders who were willing to take the initiative and fight.
  • Utilitarian View: Lincoln had a utilitarian view of the military. He was pragmatic and focused on achieving military objectives rather than promoting political generals. This approach allowed him to avoid favoring officers based on political connections.
  • Replacing Ineffective Commanders: Lincoln was not hesitant to replace commanders who were not delivering results. His decisiveness and willingness to make changes within the military leadership played a crucial role in the Union’s success.

The Gilded Age and the Waning of Military Influence

After the Civil War, the military’s prominence in American life declined, especially during the Gilded Age. While some military figures like Ulysses S. Grant, Rutherford Hayes, and James K. Garfield became presidents, they were not primarily generals but individuals who found political coalitions based on their military service.

  • Military’s Diminished Role: In the post-Civil War Gilded Age, the military fell out of the daily thoughts of most Americans.
  • Generals in Politics: The presence of generals in politics was due to the fact that many able-bodied men had served in the Confederate or Union armies.
  • Military’s Limited Influence: The military itself did not function as a significant political influencer during this period.

The Rise of a Professional Army

The notion of a permanent professional army that significantly influenced American public life started to emerge in the post-World War II era. During World War I, the United States Army was relatively small, but in the post-war years, it began to expand significantly. This era saw the prominence of generals like Dwight D. Eisenhower, whose role as both a military leader and a statesman was notable.

Dwight D. Eisenhower: A Complex Figure

Dwight D. Eisenhower’s role in shaping civilian-military relations is complex. While often compared to George Washington, his understanding of the military’s role in American politics was more aligned with preserving a professional military that remained relatively independent from partisan politics.

The MacArthur Controversy

One of the most telling moments in American history that highlighted the tensions between civilian leadership and military authority was the controversy surrounding General Douglas MacArthur. MacArthur, often seen as a Caesar-like figure, challenged the authority of the President, highlighting the complexities of military-civilian relations.

  • MacArthur’s Challenge: General MacArthur, during the Korean War, challenged President Harry Truman’s authority and viewed himself as the commander-in-chief of the military.
  • A Dual Voice: MacArthur believed in a dual, equal voice in military decisions alongside the President.
  • Popular Support: Surprisingly, MacArthur gained significant public support, emphasizing the delicate balance between civilian control and public sentiment.

The Post-9/11 Paradigm Shift

The aftermath of the 9/11 attacks triggered significant changes in the military-civilian relationship. The urgency and immediacy of the war on terror led to a militarization of conflicts and a reshaping of the role of the military in American society.

  • Militarization of Conflicts: The 9/11 attacks propelled the United States into a state of war on terror, immediately militarizing the conflict.
  • National Security Apparatus Growth: The growth of the national security apparatus, even within the White House, was a direct consequence of the war on terrorism.
  • Ubiquitous Military Presence: The military’s presence became more conspicuous in American life, from professional sporting events to military plane flyovers.

Changing Perceptions of the Military

Over the years, American society’s perception of the military has evolved. It’s crucial to explore why the military has become one of the last trusted institutions and whether the reflexive use of the military in various domains is a consequence of this shift.

  • Trust in the Military: The military remains one of the few trusted institutions in a relatively low-trust society.
  • Reflexive Military Use: A tendency has emerged to rely on the military for addressing various challenges, which was not as prevalent in earlier decades.
  • Historical Context: The history of civilian-military relations should serve as a reminder of the importance of maintaining the principles of civilian rule.

Future of Civilian-Military Relations

Considering these changes, it’s essential to consider the future of civilian-military relations. Questions about the evolving relationship between society and the military and whether the military is shouldering responsibilities beyond its core mandate must be addressed.

  • Evolving Relationship: Exploring the relationship between society and the military is crucial in shaping future civilian-military dynamics.
  • Proper Roles and Responsibilities: Determining whether we are assigning tasks to the military that should fall under other domains, such as law enforcement, is a vital consideration.
  • Preserving Civilian Rule: The principle of civilian rule remains a cornerstone of the American Republic, and safeguarding it is a collective responsibility.

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