Summer 2010

Political Generals

– The Wilson Quarterly

American military has a long-standing tradition of political neutrality, but in recent presidential elections a “disturbing trend” has emerged.

American military has a proud and long-standing tradition of political neutrality, but in recent presidential elections a “disturbing trend” has emerged: Retired generals have taken to endorsing candidates, write retired Army officers Steve Corbett and Michael J. Davidson. If this continues, the military risks “legitimizing the spread of partisan politics within the active-duty force.”

The culture of a politically neutral military took hold in the years following Reconstruction. After the presidential election of 1880, no professional military officer was nominated for the presidency until 1952. By custom, most officers did not even vote. General George C. Marshall epitomized the ethos of the era—he never voted, avoided all political participation, and upon becoming secretary of state in 1947, foreswore ever running for office. He discouraged General Dwight D. Eisenhower from pursuing the presidency, but, of course, Eisenhower did not heed his advice. Eisenhower’s election was “a watershed event,” marking the start of an era of increased military involvement in politics.

Since then, the deterioration of the military’s political neutrality has only continued. President Ronald Reagan actively courted military voters in the 1980s. The Clinton administration politicized the senior officer selection process. Today, officers regularly vote, and usually for Republicans. Endorsements by retired officers, once considered bad form, are run of the mill (two prominent examples: Tommy Franks’s backing of George W. Bush in 2004 and Colin Powell’s of Barack Obama in 2008).

The authors say that within the military today there is no consensus on the propriety of such endorsements. They quote one retired Army colonel as saying, “A retired four-star general represents the institution that produced him and by definition should remain apolitical.” In contrast, others argue that once they leave active duty, officers should be free to participate in politics like any other citizen.

Corbett and Davidson would like to see this problem fixed, but all approaches are fraught with difficulty. Expanding restraints on active-duty members to retired officers in an attempt to quiet political speech would run up against the protections of the First Amendment. For now, they say, the best that can be done is for the military itself to try to create a consensus that endorsements by retired officers are out of bounds. Anyone who achieved flag rank would be sensitive to a stronger institutional taboo against getting involved in politics.

THE SOURCE: “The Role of the Military in Presidential Politics” by Steve Corbett and Michael J. Davidson, in Parameters, Winter 2009–10.

Photo courtesy of The U.S. Army