On the complicated relationship between wartime and national leadership.
The 44 U.S. presidents to date have shared one obvious trait (their gender); now that race can no longer be identified as a second (if it even could have been prior to 2008), one of the other most common characteristics of our chief executives has been a military background, and more exactly a prominent history of military leadership. From George Washington to Andrew Jackson and Zachary Taylor, Ulysses S. Grant to Teddy Roosevelt, virtually every significant American military conflict has produced at least one future president from its ranks of leaders. The link makes sense, both broadly (because of the leg up that any form of prior prominence can provide a candidate) and specifically (because of the veneration with which we generally treat our military heroes). But it also raises the complex question of whether military leadership can or should be correlated with national leadership.
If we examine the case of the most recent military leader to be elected president, Dwight D. Eisenhower, there are good arguments on either side of that debate (George H.W. Bush was also a prominent World War II veteran, but as a naval aviator, not a general or other leader). On the one hand, Eisenhower’s experience as the Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Forces, and specifically his leadership role in planning and executing the D-Day Invasion, undoubtedly prepared him for many of the most significant elements to the presidency: not only strategic thinking and decision making, but also overseeing a huge and multi-layered organization, delegating to and trusting his team, and many other shared features of the two jobs. But on the other hand, political affiliations and oppositions are far different from and murkier than those in wartime, and military leadership in no necessary way prepares a person for engaging with (much less leading in response to) those issues; a fact concisely illustrated by Eisenhower’s unwillingness to publicly critique Senator Joseph McCarthy (despite private opposition to his efforts) either during or after the 1952 presidential campaign.
Yet there’s one more layer to what Eisenhower helps us see about these different roles and identities: his famous farewell address, during which he critiqued the evolving military-industrial complex in strikingly overt terms. It’s fair to say that any president brings his or her past experiences to the job, and that in the best case those experiences inform the administration’s leadership in significant and potent ways. Moreover, the public perception of those experiences, particularly if they are as valorized as military heroism, can greatly influence how controversial presidential actions or perspectives are viewed and responded to. Which is to say, whether or not Eisenhower’s views on the dangers posed by the military-industrial complex were a product of his own wartime experiences (and it seems likely that they were, at least in part), his prior military stature afforded him the opportunity to make those statements, and more exactly to be perceived by a broad audience as someone worth listening to on those complicated and crucial issues. I believe the speech was one of Eisenhower’s most heroic moments, but it was also deeply tied to his other ones.
Next D-Day story tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other D-Day stories you’d highlight or share?
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