, there seems to be some sort of sentiment that it is preferable the U.S. President
have had military service at some point (although this sentiment is hardly all-overriding, as can be seen in that both the 2004 and 2008 elections featured candidates who banked hard on stories of military heroism-- then lost). The logic behind this seems to be either that military service indicates patriotism, or that the President, as Commander-in-chief
of the armed forces, needs to be equipped to deal with military issues-- although it is interesting to note that the biggest wars of america's history (the War of 1812
, the Mexican-American War
, the Civil War
, World Wars I
, and Vietnam
) all began under the tenure of presidents with no or solely-administrative military service.
Military service in the executive branch seems to come in waves. For a long block of time after the Civil War, and a very long block of time after World War I, there were unbroken chains of presidents with military service (although, as Roninspoon notes, practically all the men of the generations which were of eligible age during WWII and the Civil War wound up serving); during other times, while military fame was often a springboard to the presidency, there does not otherwise seem to have been a preference for ex-military leaders. The post-Vietnam era in fact coincided with a sort of weird anti-wave of military experience; between George H.W. Bush, the last President to serve in World War II, and Barack Obama, the first President born late enough to not be eligible for the Vietnam draft, came six Presidents or Vice-Presidents who were eligible to fight in Vietnam-- all of whom one way or another avoided doing so.
So that you may see all this for yourself, following is a complete listing of the military records of all U.S. Presidents, and the recent Vice-presidents. Each entry is accompanied by which U.S. military action, if any, they were eligible for the draft of.
- Barack Obama, President 2008-...: No applicable draft: No military service.
- Joe Biden, VP 2008-...: Vietnam War: Dodged draft.
- George W. Bush, President 2000-2008: Vietnam War: Talked to parents, got cushy job in National Guard, spent the war flying a plane around in Alabama. From 1972-1973 actually went AWOL for over a year with no explanation and with no repercussions.
- Dick Cheney, VP 2000-2008: Vietnam War: Dodged draft.
- Bill Clinton, President 1992-2000: Vietnam War: Dodged draft.
- Al Gore Jr., VP 1992-2000: Vietnam War: Talked to parents, got cushy noncombatant job as a "reporter", spent the war hanging around in combat areas and smoking pot.
- George H. W. Bush, VP 1980-1988, President 1988-1992: World War II: Served as a Navy pilot from 1942-1945, flew 58 combat missions in the Pacific theater and was at one point shot down.
- Dan Quayle VP 1988-1992: Vietnam: Talked to parents, got cushy job in National Guard, spent the war getting a law degree in Indiana.
- Ronald Reagan, President 1980-1988: World War II: Dodged draft, apparently by agreeing to make propaganda films.
- Jimmy Carter, President 1976-80: Served 1947-1953 in the navy, mostly in submarine service, mostly in a variety of technical positions.
- Walter Mondale, VP 1976-80: Korean War: Served for two years in the army, was stationed at Fort Knox and was not sent to combat.
- Gerald Ford, VP 1973-1974, President 1974-1976: World War II: Served 1941-1946 in the Navy and performed in combat in the Pacific theater.
- Richard Nixon, VP 1952-1960, President 1970-1974: World War 2: Served 1942-1946 as an administrative officer in a variety of positions, at one point in the Pacific theater.
- Spiro Agnew, VP 1970-1973: World War II: Served as some sort of officer in the army in Europe.
- Lyndon B. Johnson, VP 1960-1963, President 1963-1970: World War II: Resigned from the U.S. Senate to serve as an officer in the Army from 1940-1942 to fulfill a campaign promise that he would do so if war broke out. Was appointed to a series of relatively cushy administration positions in the U.S.. Was in combat exactly once, as an observer, sitting in the backseat of a plane during a combat mission in Australia.
- John F. Kennedy, President 1960-1963: World War II: Served in Navy from 1940-1945, mostly as a boat commander. At one point in combat his boat was rammed and sank; he was injured in the process but managed to drag two incapacitated men to safety, then swim to shore 3 miles away dragging one of the men by pulling the light on the man's lifejacket in his teeth.
- Dwight Eisenhower, President 1952-1960: World War I: Served 1915-1948 in U.S. Army and was commanding general in the European theater for the entire span of U.S. involvement in World War 2. Personally oversaw the Allied committee in charge of the D-Day operation.
- Harry S Truman, VP 1944-1945, President 1945-1952: World War I: Was a field artillery captain in combat in France.
- Franklin D. Roosevelt, President 1932-1945: World War I: Served as Assistant Secretary of the Navy under Wilson from 1913-1920.
- Herbert Hoover, President 1928-1932: No applicable draft: No military service. During World War I while a private citizen oversaw relief organizations helping Americans stranded in England and distributing food relief in Belgium.
- Calvin Coolidge, VP 1920-1923, President 1923-1928: No applicable draft: No military service.
- Warren G. Harding, President 1920-1923: No applicable draft: No military service.
- Woodrow Wilson, President 1912-1920: No applicable draft: No military service.
- William H. Taft, President 1908-1912: No applicable draft: No military service, but was Secretary of War under Roosevelt 1904-1908.
- Theodore Roosevelt, VP 1900-1901, President 1901-1908: No applicable draft: Served as Assistant Secretary of the Navy under McKinley right until shortly after the outbreak of the Spanish-American war, after which he resigned to serve in combat in a volunteer Calvary unit for the duration of the war.
- William McKinley, President 1896-1901: Civil War: Served 1861-1864 in the Army,
entering as a private and exiting with a rank of brevet major, and spent pretty much all of 1862 in combat.
- Grover Cleveland, President 1884-1888 and 1892-1896: Civil War: Dodged draft by hiring a substitute. (He and his two brothers drew straws to decide who would go to war, and who would stay in New York to support their mother; Grover lost. Note that the hiring of substitutes was at the time a legal and socially accepted practice.)
- Benjamin Harrison, President 1888-1892: Civil War: Served in combat operating a regiment 1862-1865.
- Chester A. Arthur, VP 1880-1881, President 1881-1884: Served 1861-1862 as Quartermaster General of the State of New York.
- James A. Garfield, President 1880-1881: Served in combat as a commanding officer from the beginning of the Civil War until 1863, when he left to serve in the House of Representatives.
- Rutherford B. Hayes, President 1876-1880: Civil War: Served from the beginning of the war, entering as a major, and exiting as a brevet major general in 1864 when he was elected to congress. Saw more combat than any other President before or since and was wounded in action five times.
- Ulysses S. Grant, President 1868-1876: Civil War: Served from 1861-1868, entering as the head of a volunteer regiment, and steadily rose, becoming one of the Union's foremost generals before finally becoming General-in-Chief of the Union army forces in 1864 and overseeing the conclusion of the war. Personally signed the Confederate surrender at Appomattox.
- Andrew Johnson, VP 1864-1865, President 1865-1868: No applicable draft: Was appointed Military Governor of Tennessee by Lincoln from 1862-1864. No previous military service.
- Abraham Lincoln, President 1860-1865: No military service. (Served in Illinois militia during Black Hawk War.)
- James Buchanan, President 1856-1860: No military service.
- Franklin Pierce, President 1852-1856: Served in combat as a commanding officer in the Mexican-American War and was wounded.
- Millard Fillmore, VP 1848-1850, President 1850-1852: No military service.
- Zachary Taylor, President 1848-1850: Served in the army 1808-1848 and played pivotal roles in the War of 1812, the Black Hawk War, the Seminole War, and the Mexican-American War.
- James Polk, President 1844-1848: No military service.
- John Tyler, VP 1940-1841, President 1841-1844: No military service.
- William Harrison, President 1840-1841: Served in the army 1791-1813, saw combat, spent 12 years as military governor of Indiana, and was chief commander of the Northwest front of the war of 1812.
- Martin Van Buren, President 1836-1840: No military service.
- Andrew Jackson, President 1828-1836: Fought in combat in the Revolutionary War at the age of 13; was later major general of the Tennessee Militia up until the War of 1812; was Major General in the U.S. army afterward; led the decisive Battle of New Orleans in the War of 1812, and led forces in the Creek and First Seminole wars.
- John Adams Jr., President 1824-1828: No military service.
- James Monroe, President 1816-1824: Served in the Continental Army in the Revolutionary War 1776-1778.
- James Madison, President 1808-1816: No military service.
- Thomas Jefferson, VP 1796-1800, President 1800-1808: No military service.
- John Adams Sr., VP 1788-1796, President 1796-1800: Served in a diplomatic role in France and Holland during the Revolutionary War.
- George Washington, President 1788-1796: Served in the British Army as a Lieutenant Colonel during the French and Indian War and Commander in Chief of the Continental Army during the whole of the Revolutionary War.
- John McCain, failed 2000 republican candidate and 2008 president: Fought in combat in Vietnam War, was taken prisoner, spent years in horrible conditions, was at one point offered release since he was the son of a U.S. senator but refused unless the other POWs were released as well.
- Hillary Clinton, failed 2008 democratic candidate: Not eligible for draft (female)
- John Kerry, failed 2004 president: Served in the navy during the Vietnam War and was awarded three purple hearts.
- Bob Dole, failed 1996 president: Fought in combat in World War II, was wounded while trying to save a man's life and permanently lost the use of his left arm.
- Ralph Nader, failed 2000 president: No military service, appears to have never been eligible for a draft.
- Ross Perot, failed 1992 and 1996 president: No military service, appears to have never been eligible for a draft.
- Jefferson Davis, president of failed Confederate States of America: Lead a regiment in the Mexican-American War.
The above was compiled from a number of sources, mostly drawn from google, but the most significant sources were:
.com/presidents/, http://www.history.navy.mil, http://www.awolbush.com
If anything above is inaccurate, please feel free to point it out to me. In particular I am unable to figure out if there were any drafts previous to the Civil War. (Eliserh notes that the Civil War was indeed the first official draft.)