Vol. 57, No. 5

In this edition

With American politics polarized and America facing an increasing number of threats around the world, the 5th Annual Veterans Day Special Edition of The Ripon Forum shines a light on a group of Republican and Democratic leaders who are working across the aisle to take care of our veterans and keep our nation secure.

“A Time to Reflect on the Privilege, Service, and Sacrifice of Veterans.”

Veterans Day is our opportunity to celebrate and thank those who served honorably and returned to build their lives as our fellow citizens.

“Live Everyday According to Their Values: Duty, Honor, and Service…”

More military virtue is needed in Washington. Unfortunately, there are some who seemingly care more about their party than their country.

“A Life of Service is One That is Well-Lived.”

It is critical that we remember those who have fought for our values and those who made the ultimate sacrifice in defense of all we hold dear.

Working Across the Aisle for America’s Veterans

The Chairman and Ranking Member of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee have put politics aside to fulfill the promise President Lincoln has made to veterans, their families, and their survivors.

Bridging the Partisan Divide for Our Veterans and National Security

In these highly polarized times, Republican and Democratic veteran members of the For Country Caucus are working together to keep America secure and help those who served.

Putting Veterans at the Center of Their Care: If the VA won’t implement the MISSION Act, Congress must step in

If the VA won’t implement the MISSION Act, Congress must step in.

Beyond the Uniform: Veterans Shaping Civic and Political Landscapes

A look at how veterans are shaping the civic and political landscape heading into the 2024 election.

Veterans in the White House: A Brief History of Presidents Who Served

Of the 35 men who have served as President, 31 previously served in uniform, as well.

Housing First Does Nothing to Solve the Homelessness Crisis

Despite spending billions of dollars, the number of homeless individuals has continued to rise.

The VA assists Veterans in a Way the Private System Cannot

We need a system that allows veterans to have options for the best of what VA can offer, as well as the best of what the private sector can offer.

To Protect Service Members and Honor Veterans, Reform the VA

Privatization of the VHA would improve health care for veterans and nonveterans alike.

Ripon Profile of Mariannette Miller-Meeks

Veteran and Lawmaker U.S. Rep. Mariannette Miller-Meeks (IA-01) discusses her career in the military and her job on Capitol Hill.

Veterans in the White House: A Brief History of Presidents Who Served

With Veterans Day upon us and the 2024 presidential campaign underway, it is a good time to look back at some of the veterans who have served as President, and how their time in uniform may have shaped their political careers.

In total, out of the 45 men who have served in the White House, 31 served in the military.  Ten reached the rank of general, while five rose to the rank of colonel. Three future Presidents fought in the Revolutionary War, five fought in the War of 1812, three saw combat in the Mexican-American War, five fought in the Civil War, one fought in in the Spanish-American War, one in World War I, and eight saw combat in World War II.

One could argue the most famous veteran President in U.S. history is George Washington.  He commanded the Continental Army during the American Revolution, presided over the Convention in Philadelphia that wrote the U.S. Constitution, and then went on to serve as America’s first President.  He led a life of leadership and achievement that helped win a war and shaped a young nation.

Yet perhaps Washington’s most significant action as both a soldier and statesman was giving up power — first by resigning his commission as General of the Army after the war was won, and then by stepping down as President after two terms in office.  “Remember,” he said in an address to the Virginia Regiment early in his career, “that it is the actions, and not the commission, that make the officer, and that there is more expected from him than the title.”

“Remember, that it is the actions, and not the commission, that make the officer, and that there is more expected from him than the title.”
George Washington

Abraham Lincoln had nowhere near the military experience or career that Washington had — he only spent one year in the Illinois militia during the Blackhawk War.  Yet for Lincoln, the title he earned while in the militia — as a 23-year-old Captain of the volunteers — was, he would later write during the 1860 presidential campaign, “a success which gave me more pleasure than any I have had since.”  Lincoln would go on, of course, to be one of the greatest Presidents in history, ending slavery and saving the Union.

He also signed legislation that established a network of national facilities to care for the nation’s wounded Civil War soldiers.  The day after signing the bill, he stood on the East Front of the U.S. Capitol and delivered his Second Inaugural Address, calling on the nation “to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan.”  Lincoln’s words continue to guide the modern Department of Veterans Affairs, and in fact form the foundation of the VA’s mission statement today.

Ulysses S. Grant served as Lincoln’s commanding General and was elected President three years after the end of the war.  A graduate of West Point who fought under then-General and future President Zachary Taylor in the Mexican War, he was known not only as a brilliant strategist, but as a leader who was popular with the troops.  “His soldiers always knew that he was ready to rough it with them and share their hardships on the march,” his aide-de-camp, Colonel Horace Porter, once wrote.  “He wore no better clothes than they, and often ate no better food.”

As President, Grant’s administration was tarnished by financial scandal, but he oversaw Reconstruction following the Civil War, sending federal troops to Southern states to quell violent attacks by the Ku Klux Klan and protect the four million blacks who had become citizens.  He summed up his view of force and attitude toward conflict in his autobiography, which he completed just before his death in 1885.  “Although a soldier by profession,” he wrote, “I have never felt any sort of fondness for war, and I have never advocated it, except as a means of peace.”

“Although a soldier by profession, I have never felt any sort of fondness for war, and I have never advocated it, except as a means of peace.”
Ulysses S. Grant

Sixteen years later, Theodore Roosevelt was sworn in as President with his own view of war and conflict.  It was a view that had been shaped largely by his experience leading the Rough Riders, a regiment of U.S. cavalry volunteers who were recruited by Roosevelt to fight in the Spanish-American War.  Roosevelt’s heroic exploits in the war — which included leading the charge up San Juan Hill — and the coverage his exploits received in America, helped fuel his political career when he returned home.

As President, he established the Panama Canal, built the U.S. Navy into one of the largest in the world, and became known for his now-famous diplomatic maxim, “Speak softly, and carry a big stick.”  He pushed for the first physical readiness tests for U.S. soldiers, sailors, and marines, and consistently argued that those who risked their life defending America should be taken care of once they leave uniform.  In his annual messages and other remarks, Roosevelt made the case that no other group of Americans deserved greater respect and gratitude than the nation’s veterans.  “A man who is good enough to shed his blood for his country is good enough to be given a square deal afterwards,” he said in one such speech in 1903.

Just as Theodore Roosevelt was the only President to see combat in the Spanish-American War, Harry Truman was the only President to see combat in World War I.  Truman was a 33-year-old farmer who had failed at several business ventures when America entered the war in 1917.  Too old for the draft, he enlisted in the Army.  It quickly became apparent that the unassuming farmer from Missouri was a natural leader.  He was elected lieutenant of Battery D in the Missouri National Guard, and then shipped out with the rest of his battery the following year to France, where he was promoted to Captain.  He earned a reputation for being tough but fair, a disciplinarian who cared for his troops and was fearless in battle.  He was so popular that after the allied victory, his troops took up a collection and bought him a loving cup. It was inscribed, “Presented by the Members of Battery D in appreciation of his justice, ability and leadership.”

Truman returned home a war hero.  He opened a haberdashery in Kansas City, and, after a few years, was asked to run for office by the local political machine. Veterans formed the core of his support, and after serving as a judge, he was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1934.  He served on committees responsible for military policy and appropriations, and made his mark as the leader of a special committee formed to investigate defense expenditures during the Second World War.  Franklin Roosevelt chose him as his Vice President when he ran for reelection in 1944.  When FDR died early the next year, the unassuming farmer-turned-war hero-turned-haberdasher became President of the United States.

As President, Truman did more to shape the post-war world than perhaps any other individual of his time.  He dropped the atom bomb, ending World War II and starting the atomic age.  He launched the Marshall Plan to rebuild war-torn Europe, and put in place the Truman Doctrine to curb the spread of communism around the world. He desegregated the military and oversaw the implementation of the GI Bill.  He was also the first President to recognize Israel.  Through it all, Truman remembered his roots and where his climb up the leadership ladder had begun.  After he was sworn into office in 1949, he invited the surviving members of Battery D to march with him in his inaugural parade.  Truman would later remark, “My whole political career is based on my war service and war associates.”

“My whole political career is based on my war service and war associates.”
– Harry Truman

His successor as President could say the same thing.  Dwight D. “Ike” Eisenhower graduated from West Point in 1915, serving stateside training recruits during World War I and rising steadily through the ranks.  At the suggestion of a superior officer who sensed his talent and leadership abilities, he attended the Command and General Staff School at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, where he graduated first in his class in 1926.  He would go on from there to serve briefly under General John Pershing, then spent four years working for the Assistant Secretary of War.  In 1933, he became chief military aide to the Chief of Staff of the Army, General Douglas McArthur, and would accompany McArthur to the Philippines, where he served as assistant military advisor to the Philippine Government.

Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, he was assigned to the War Department in Washington, where General George Marshall, who was by then serving the Army Chief of Staff, assigned him to manage the Pacific war.  In June 1942, Marshall sent Eisenhower to England to begin planning for the war in Europe. Those plans culminated two years later with the American-led invasion at Normandy on June 6, 1944. By then, Ike was serving as the Supreme Commander of Allied Expeditionary Forces.  He would receive his 5th star and was promoted to General of the Army that December and would succeed Marshall as Army Chief of Staff following the end of the war in November 1945.  The following January, he shared some insights into his view of military conflict in an address before the Canadian Club in Ottawa.  “I hate war as only a soldier who has lived it can, only as one who has seen its brutality, its futility, its stupidity,” he said.

After resisting a “Draft Eisenhower” movement by Democrats in 1948, Ike accepted the Republican nomination for President in 1952.  He would go on to be overwhelmingly elected to two terms.  He ended the Korean War, built the interstate highway system, launched America into the space age by establishing the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and sent federal troops to Arkansas to enforce the court-ordered integration of Little Rock Central High School.  He also signed legislation that changed the name of Armistice Day to Veterans Day and proclaimed November 11 as the day to recognize and honor veterans each year.  Before leaving office, on January 17, 1961, Eisenhower delivered a farewell address to the nation, a speech that once again revealed his views on war and has since become one of the most famous speeches in U.S. history.  “In the councils of government,” the former Supreme Commander warned, “we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex … Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.”

Three days after Eisenhower’s speech, another veteran of World War II was sworn into office as President.  Like Ike, John F. Kennedy was a hero of the war, having been awarded two medals and a Purple Heart for saving his crew after their PT-boat was inadvertently rammed and sunk by a Japanese destroyer in the middle of the night in August 1943.  But unlike the former General, Kennedy was a junior officer — a 26-year-old Naval Lieutenant — at the time.  He represented a new generation of Americans, a point he explicitly drove home in his Inaugural Address on January 20.  “Let the word go forth,” the young President proclaimed, “that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans — born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage — and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this nation has always been committed.”

Kennedy would be tested immediately, first by the Bay of Pigs that proved to be a disaster, and then by the Cuban Missile Crisis that almost ended the world.  In the first crisis, Kennedy inherited an ill-conceived plan to invade Cuba that had been developed in the Pentagon under Eisenhower, and then blindly followed the advice of Generals to carry it out.  Afterward, historian Robert Dallek would later write, “Kennedy accused himself of naïveté for trusting the military’s judgment that the Cuban operation was well thought-out and capable of success. ‘Those sons of bitches with all the fruit salad just sat there nodding, saying it would work,’ Kennedy said of the chiefs.”  In the second crisis, the former junior officer kept his own counsel and kept the Generals at arm’s length, resisting their recommendation to bomb Soviet missile sites in Cuba and instead settling on what would prove to be a successful strategy to impose an island blockade.

His disdain for the Pentagon brass aside, Kennedy remained respectful of military service, and admired those who chose to make the military a career.  He shared his views on the subject in a speech at the Naval Academy in August 1963, just over two months before his death.  “I hope that you realize how great is the dependence of our country upon the men who serve in our Armed Forces,” he stated.  “I sometimes think that the people of this country do not appreciate how secure we are because of the devotion of the men and their wives and children who serve this country in far off places, in the sea, in the air, and on the ground, thousands and thousands of miles away from this country, who make it possible for us all to live in peace each day … I can think of no more rewarding a career.”

“I hope that you realize how great is the dependence of our country upon the men who serve in our Armed Forces.  I can think of no more rewarding a career.”
John F. Kennedy

Thirty years after Kennedy’s speech at the Naval Academy, on January 5, 1993, another President, George H.W. Bush, spoke before the corps of cadets at West Point and said essentially the same thing. “There is no higher calling, no more honorable choice than the one that you hear today have made,” Bush stated.  “To join the Armed Forces is to be prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice for your country and for your fellow man.”

Bush spoke from experience.  Like Kennedy, he was a veteran of World War II.  As a 20-year-old Navy pilot, his plane had been shot down over the Pacific.  Serving in a squadron that suffered a 300 percent casualty rate among its pilots, Bush would fly a total of 58 combat missions during the war and be awarded three Air Medals and a Presidential Unit Citation for his heroic actions.  When he won the Presidency in 1988, it was the culmination of a lifetime of service that had begun during the war.

Bush would go on to serve in Congress, as U.S. Ambassador to China, as Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, and as Vice President under Ronald Reagan.  As President, Bush managed the peaceful end of the Cold War, and built an unprecedented global alliance of nations to repel Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait and win the first Gulf War.  Most of all, Bush’s presidency was defined by a focus on service, a theme he returned to in his remarks to the West Point cadets that January day.

“What you have done, what you are doing, sends an important message, one that I fear sometimes gets lost amidst today’s often materialist, self-interested culture,” he said.  “It is important to remember — it is important to demonstrate — that there is a higher purpose to life beyond oneself.  I speak of family, of community, of ideals. I speak of duty, honor, country.”

Duty.  Honor.  Country.  As America marks another Veterans Day, it is fitting to end with these three words and remember not just the veterans who served as President, but all those who served in uniform and continue to risk their lives defending our freedoms today.

Caroline Banaszak is Deputy Editor of The Ripon Forum.