No military service is required to be elected president of the United States. However, more than half of America's presidents have served in various capacities. You might have the general idea that early in America's history, it was an unwritten rule that someone should have done military service before running for president, but that this unspoken requirement grew laxer in the 20th century as attitudes changed. Or you might guess that conservatives were more likely to have served than liberals. However, that's not what the record shows. Instead, from the very earliest presidents, the pattern is that if America was at war during their youth, presidents tended to have served. If they were young men in a time of peace, though, they often didn't. This pattern holds through Vietnam: That controversial conflict caused several future commanders-in-chief to remain stateside.
Some fun facts about presidential military service: Some of the earlier ones served in state militias—during the American Revolution, for example, these units were key to the war against the British. Later, America's military became more organized, with five branches (Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force and Coast Guard). Two of the newer branches, the Marines and the Coast Guard, have never sent a veteran to the Oval Office. Also, a surprising number of presidents were reservists, some of whom were called up and saw combat, especially in WWII.
Do you know who pulled an injured sailor to shore with a strap held in his teeth? Or who lowered himself into a partially melted-down nuclear reactor to decommission it? Don't worry; our quiz isn't that specific. You'll just have to answer yes or no questions. But you'll learn some fascinating trivia along the way!
In the Civil War, Grant was General Grant of the Union Army. After the Union defeated the Confederacy and America became one nation again, Grant ascended to its highest office.
Roosevelt served with great distinction, in fact. In the Spanish-American War, he was the leader of the First Volunteer Cavalry, or the "Rough Riders." His most famous exploit from that time was leading the charge up, and capture of, San Juan Hill.
Obama rose to prominence strictly through academia and the law (and a whole lot of charisma, too). Once or twice, this came back to bite him—for example, he pronounced "corpsman" (a military medic) as "corpse man." The correct pronunciation is "core man," derived from the word "corps."
Vision problems kept Reagan from serving overseas in WWII, but he was stationed in the U.S. Unsurprisingly, given his Hollywood career, Reagan was assigned to public relations and made training films for the Army Air Forces.
Fun fact: John F. Kennedy was the first president to serve in the Navy. And with distinction: After the ramming and sinking of his ship, the PT-109, Kennedy swam to safety, towing an injured crewman behind him by holding the man's life-jacket strap in his *teeth.* Seriously!
Washington landed the job of first president of the newly born United States expressly because of his distinguished military service in the Revolutionary War. If it weren't for General Washington, Americans would be drinking Darjeeling, not Starbucks, right now. (Hmmm ... is that so awful?)
Anyone who read the obituaries following Bush's death in late 2018 knows this one. Bush was a naval aviator in World War II. He was shot down over the Pacific and received the Distinguished Flying Cross.
As a part of the Baby Boomer generation, Clinton did the same complicated dance many young men did at the time: getting a deferment and later considering ROTC service, which would have him kept him stateside. He decided to take his chances with the draft instead and was lucky enough to get a high draft number. Ultimately, he didn't serve, which was a source of some criticism during his first campaign.
Nixon was a commander in the United States Navy during the second World War. He could have received a religious deferment based on his upbringing—he was raised Quaker—but chose to serve instead.
Before he was President Eisenhower, the man was General Eisenhower. He was part of the "class the stars fell on" at West Point—the class of 1915, which gave America several generals.
Ford was part of the WWII generation and did his service in the United States Navy. He saw combat in the Pacific theater and did not leave active duty until 1946, after the war had ended.
We're seeing a trend here: the presidents who were of prime service age during World War II did, in fact, serve. Johnson was no exception. A Navy flier, he reported for a time to General Douglas MacArthur and won a Silver Star for a risky mission he undertook at MacArthur's direction.
The indecision is rooted in the fact that Adams, who was a contemporary of General Washington, was vaulted to the position of Head of War and Ordnance in the Continental Congress, a role that is the equivalent of today's Secretary of Defense. Whether you consider that to be military service is up to you.
Still a child when the Revolutionary War ended, the son of the second president took a strictly civilian path to the highest office in the land, rising up through the legal profession. This is a pattern that we see repeated throughout presidential history—those who did not live in a time of war often did not serve.
Monroe served under General Washington in the Revolutionary War. Can't quite place him? Google the famous painting of Washington crossing the Delaware. The guy right behind Washington, holding the American flag? That's Monroe.
Van Buren was the eighth president of the United States and the only president ever to have spoken English as a second language, having been raised in a Dutch-speaking home. We can only imagine the Twitter conspiracy theories that would be going around about him and his heritage if he were president today!
Jackson served in the Revolutionary War as a teenager and eventually became a general in the United States Army. He was a central figure in the War of 1812, the Creek War and the Seminole War. Even in peacetime, Jackson seems to have been a man always at war with something—political enemies, the status quo and perhaps even himself. It's what makes him such a fascinating figure to history buffs.
Lincoln served in the Illinois militia during the Black Hawk War. We know: The what? It was a conflict with the Sauk tribe, led by a man named Black Hawk. Lincoln's military career was a small part of his personal history, but overall, he was a fighter. At 6'4, and as a former wrestler, he was nobody to be trifled with.
Coolidge might have been known as "Silent Cal," but he didn't walk softly and carry a big stick, nor a big gun. At least, not for the U.S. Navy or Army.
While his presidency saw the Korean War, Truman was part of the "greatest generation" that fought WWII. He served in both the Army, seeing combat in France, and later was in the Army Reserve. Truman rose to the rank of colonel.
Jefferson was a commander in the Virginia militia during the Revolution and apparently did not see combat. For some, this might not count as "military service," but to be fair, during the Revolution, there were a lot of smaller militias and informal ways to serve.
Hayes, a staunch abolitionist, served in the Union Army during the Civil War. He was part of the 23rd Regiment of Ohio Volunteer Infantry, where he served alongside another future president.
Roosevelt was the Assistant Secretary of the Navy during World War I. He attempted to resign that position and actually enlist, but his request was denied. Contrary to what some people might guess, he was not turned down for service due to having had polio; that disease struck him after WWI was over.
Carter attended the United States Naval Academy, informally known as Annapolis, graduating 60th in a class of 820. Later, he was part of a unit that disassembled a partially melted-down nuclear reactor, at considerable risk to their own life and health. Hardcore!
The closest Taft came to service was being Secretary of War. However, should we give him props for being a college wrestler? Taft, who weighed in as one of our heavier presidents, was a wrestling champion at Yale.
Bush 43 served in the Texas Air National Guard, a stateside deployment. During the Vietnam War, such stateside deployments were not uncommon for sons of the well-connected. However, both Bush and his father, George H.W. Bush, denied pulling any strings to get him into the Air National Guard.
Hoover is the early 20th-century president on whose watch America spiraled into the Great Depression and whom historians blame for a large part of it. Looking back, Hoover might have wished he'd been in a war rather than the economic meltdown of the 1930s.
Harrison is best known for dying 32 days into his term and sparking a crisis about presidential succession rules. However, he had a notable Army career before that, in the Northwest Indian War and the War of 1812.
Harding was the United States's 29th president. If you're not inclined to think less of a president because he didn't do military service, well, there's a lot else to dislike about Harding, like the Teapot Dome scandal that took place on his watch.
Madison was a short man and not a very athletic one. Still, he became the commander of a militia during the Revolutionary War, and later he even commanded troops on the battlefield while president, in the War of 1812. A true commander in chief!
Tyler was the 10th president of the United States. Previously, he served as a militia captain in the War of 1812. We'd also like to note that he had 15 children—that's an army right there!
McKinley served in the 23rd Regiment of the Ohio Volunteer Infantry, which was part of the Union Army. If all that sounds familiar, it's because you've read about his superior officer elsewhere in this quiz—future president Rutherford B. Hayes.
Cleveland is far from the only chief executive not to do military service, but his case has a bit of an asterisk. Cleveland paid a man to take his place in the army during the Civil War. Does this make him the president with the worst track record in terms of respect for the military and the troops?
President Trump received five military draft deferments and did not serve in Vietnam. He's not alone in his deferment: many young men, especially those from wealthy families, found reasons to defer.
Just trying to keep you on your toes. McGovern had a distinguished political career and was the Democrat nominee in 1972. If you're curious: Yes, he did serve—he flew missions in World War II and won the Distinguished Flying Cross, just like George H.W. Bush did.