Generals and Political Interventions in American History

August 4, 2016

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In a curt letter to The Washington Post, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Martin Dempsey, reacting to speeches by two recently retired generals — Michael Flynn and John Allen — before the Republican and Democratic conventions, declared that, “The military is not a political prize.” Dempsey explained:

The American people should not wonder where their military leaders draw the line between military advice and political preference. And our nation’s soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines should not wonder about the political leanings and motivations of their leaders.

Certainly, this is not a new controversy.  Way back in 1992, one of Dempsey’s predecessors Admiral William Crowe gave a speech endorsing Bill Clinton for the White House as the future president was facing criticism over his dodging of the draft during Vietnam.  He was soon joined by another 20 retired generals and admirals, many of whom, like Crowe, had seen their military advice overruled by Clinton’s opponent, sitting President George H.W. Bush.

Moreover, the United States has a long history, literally going back to the founding, of retired generals entering politics.  George Washington, Andrew Jackson, William Harrison, Zachary Taylor, Andrew Johnson, Ulysses Grant, Rutherford Hayes, Franklin Pierce, James Garfield, Chester Arthur, Benjamin Harrison, and Dwight Eisenhower all rose to the presidency at least partially on the strength of their military records.  In recent times, Wesley Clark ran unsuccessfully for the Democratic nomination and there was a serious effort to recruit Colin Powell to run as well.  Indeed, there was an effort this cycle to draft Jim Mattis, who showed no interest in the pursuit.

Retired generals have involved themselves into political debates in myriad other ways. Ten years ago, in what came to be called the “revolt of the generals,” when several just-retired generals, most of whom had been “in the inner circle of policy formation or execution of the Administration,” openly lambasted Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, with whom they’d had disagreements while in uniform, over the Iraq War.  And, of course, the nickname of the controversy was a play on the “revolt of the admirals” of 1949, in which active and retired flag officers squared off against President Harry Truman over a decision to cut an aircraft carrier to fund a new strategic bomber.

The ethical norms around each of these political interventions differs and none of them are particularly well-settled. There is no serious question whether they have a legal right to do any of these things; they clearly do. Yet there is reason to be concerned about the impact on civil-military relations when the most senior officers join the political fray.

Clearly, there’s a distinction between declaring oneself a candidate for office and endorsing a candidate.   As Duke political scientist Peter Feaver notes, “When you stand for office you officially cross over and become a politician — you are viewed as a partisan politician and thenceforth can only speak as a partisan.”

But what about endorsing? Obviously, it makes no sense to declare a moratorium on any veteran or former soldier ever speaking about politics. That would disenfranchise a huge number of people and deprive the public debate of an important perspective.  And, indeed, it would be an odd argument for me to make, since I’m a former Army officer.

While there is no clear standard, the rank at which one separated from the service and the proximity of said separation are part of the equation.  Nobody seriously thinks someone who left active duty as a first lieutenant, as I did, represents the service.  And, even for very senior officers, that presumption fades with time.

Dempsey took a stab at laying out the distinction while he was still chairman. In a May 2014 session at the Atlantic Council, he observed:

If you want to get out of the military and run for office, I’m all for it. But don’t get out of the military – and this is a bit controversial, I got it – don’t get out of the military and become a political figure by throwing your support behind a particular candidate.

His rationale is spot on

[I]f somebody asks me, when I retire, to support them in a political campaign, do you think they’re asking Marty Dempsey, or are they asking General Dempsey? I am a general for life, and I should remain true to our professional ethos, which is to be apolitical for life unless I run.

Retired Navy Vice Admiral Doug Crowder, writing in Proceedings last November, expanded that argument, contending that those who wear stars on their shoulder boards “are not merely private citizens after retirement” but rather part of a unique vanguard:  a general or “admiral for life.”

Crowder explains that his view on the issue was informed by his experience serving on the Joint Staff early in the Clinton administration when a civilian staffer, annoyed at being told that an issue being proposed would be opposed by the chairman, responded, “Well, maybe it’s time we got some Clinton generals in here.”

He was aghast at the notion that the civilian leadership would think senior officers would fail to support the elected commander-in-chief for partisan reasons, until he remembered that Crowe had in fact joined the fray in endorsing Clinton during the campaign. Crowder writes, “I have never met a finer officer and gentleman, but I could see how the public could misunderstand why an admiral was making a public political endorsement of a presidential candidate.”

As Crowder notes, “the Crowe endorsement opened the floodgates for future retired flag and general officer political endorsements.” They are now routinely trotted out by both parties. During the 2012 cycle a full page newspaper ad ran “listing the well over 300 retired flag and general officers who ‘Proudly support Governor Mitt Romney as our nation’s next President and Commander-in-Chief.’”

Certainly the Republic has not crumbled as a result. And the military continues to be near the top of all institutions in terms of the confidence of the American public. Still, the next president will surely have cause to wonder about the loyalty of the senior officers upon whose “best military advice” they are counting.

There are few general officers, active or retired, whose judgment on national security matters I respect more than John Allen’s. While there are things in his convention speech with which I disagree, I share his assessment that Hillary Clinton is more fit to serve as commander-in-chief than Donald Trump (granted, a low bar).

But Allen didn’t simply present himself as a seasoned policy hand.  His very first words in his convention speech were,

My fellow Americans, I stand with you tonight as a retired four-star general of the United States Marine Corps, and I am joined by my fellow generals and admirals, and with these magnificent young veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan” [emphasis mine].

He thus wrapped himself not only in his own substantial personal credibility but in that of his profession.

That continued after the speech. Trump, as is his wont, counterpunched, calling Allen “a failed general.” In response, Allen invoked the prestige of his profession, retorting, “He has no credibility to criticize me or my record or anything I have done.” He continued, “If he’d spent a minute in the deserts of Afghanistan or in the deserts of Iraq, I might listen to what he has to say.”  Worse yet, he termed Trump’s comments “a direct insult to every single man and woman who’s wearing the uniform today.”

Now, Trump’s assertion that Allen is a “failed general” because we haven’t defeated the Islamic State is at best simplistic and arguably absurd. But, having joined the political fray in such a full-throated way, Allen is fair game. Hiding behind the armor of the uniform he proudly wore and the troops who now serve is highly problematic for the institution, which holds such high prestige and has such tremendous value in our system of government precisely because it is viewed as a loyal servant of the nation rather than a partisan tool.

Further, it makes Allen’s warnings that electing Trump could result in “a civil military crisis, the like of which we’ve not seen in this country,” especially ominous.  He was, rightly, pointing out the moral dilemma that would face the uniformed leadership were Trump to assume office and actually try and enact some of the off-the-cuff musings on international relations as policy. Were Trump to assume the mantle of commander-in-chief and issue an order the brass believed unlawful, they would have a duty to advise him accordingly and to abide by the laws of this nation and the laws of war. There are appropriate venues for airing that discussion, such as a Congressional hearing. A national political convention is not one of them. But, in context of a retired general who has just spoken as a party convention, it comes across as a warning that the military would be disloyal if a president of the wrong party were elected. This could lead to a calamitous state of affairs.

Meanwhile, Flynn not only spoke at the Republican convention but was purportedly on the short list to be Trump’s running mate. Even though he was not selected for the ticket, he has taken on an attack dog role, even carrying the fight to Twitter where, in what one hopes was a newbie’s incompetence, he enthusiastically retweeted an anti-Semitic attack on Clinton. That is, to say the least, not a good look.

Flynn, who retired as the three-star head of the Defense Intelligence Agency just shy of two years ago, has been an active opponent of the Obama White House almost from the moment he hung up his uniform. He declared last year that, “The people in the United States have lost respect and confidence in their government to be able to solve the problems that we face now and in the future.” Feaver warned at the time that Flynn’s aggressive criticism could undermine policymakers’ confidence in the brass: “If they suspect ‘this guy’s going to retire and then go on MSNBC and bash me,’ [they might decide] ‘let’s not have that person in the room when we’re really discussing the issues.’” That would be both understandable and catastrophic.

It is technically true, as Richard Swain argues, that “retired officers remain members of the armed forces by law and regulation” and it is therefore reasonable to assume that “they remain at least ethically obliged to observe the limitations imposed by commissioned service.” But there has been little precedent for holding them to that standard. Nor is it reasonable to expect, for example, a retired lieutenant colonel, who already rendered at least two decades of service, to continue to abstain from the full rights and privileges of citizenship for the remainder of his life.

Still, we can nonetheless formalize professional norms for retired generals and admirals. Don Snider, a retired Army colonel and longtime scholar of the profession, argues:

While retirement from active duty does make each one a newly nonpracticing professional, in the world of public perceptions they still act and speak, and are seen and heard, as an esteemed member of the military profession.

As such, they continue to have an obligation to ensure that officership is perceived as “a real profession as opposed to just another governmental bureaucracy.” Otherwise, they undermine the confidence of the civilian leadership, the American public, and rank-and-file soldiers.

We can begin with the distinction that holds for active duty officers and, to a lesser extent, civilian employees of the Defense Department between partisan politicking and issue advocacy. It’s perfectly reasonable and likely valuable for retired officers to weigh in on public debates on controversial issues, like gender integration or proposed military action, where it would be inappropriate or difficult for serving generals to weigh in where their civilian masters have spoken.  (Although, here, the rule may well be the opposite as that for partisan endorsements: the longer the officer has been out of uniform, the less valuable his expertise.)

At the same time, it’s clearly inappropriate for retired generals and admirals to endorse or oppose the re-election of officials they’ve recently served or worked alongside. It simply smacks of disloyalty and brings into retrospective question the advice they rendered while in uniform. Further, it gives the impression, true or otherwise, that their views are shared by their successors — especially those who were protégées. Relatedly, if the endorser is later appointed to a plum post in the administration, as Crowe was, then it looks very much like the imprimatur of the military profession has been auctioned off for advancement.

We already impose a statutory moratorium on certain senior officers from lobbying or accepting a contract from their former agency for two years after retirement. Adding a ban on using their title in partisan political activity for, say, five years would serve the same purpose — removing the appearance of impropriety — without permanently taking them out of the arena. This wouldn’t solve the problem entirely but would put some space between an individual’s time in uniform and partially mitigate the impression that they are speaking for those with whom they recently served.

In an ideal world, retired generals and admirals would simply refrain, as non-practicing members of the profession of arms, from endorsing political candidates or otherwise engaging in partisan activity.  A Flynn or Allen could still speak out on national security issues that concern them, including those that are part of an ongoing campaign, without explicitly endorsing candidates or appearing at a party convention.  Few would criticize them if they had instead appeared at a think tank or before Congress arguing for a more aggressive approach to fighting ISIL, warning of the dangers to embracing torture, or abandoning protections for non-combatants.

It is essential that our generals and admirals are perceived as loyal to the Constitution, not a political party. A commander-in-chief should have every confidence that they are receiving the best military advice from the chairman, the service chiefs, combatant commanders, and other senior military leaders. Otherwise, it would absolutely be appropriate for the next president to look for “Clinton generals” or “Trump admirals” to fill the top billets. And we clearly do not want that to happen.


James Joyner is a security studies professor at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow with the Brent Scowcroft Center for International Security at the Atlantic Council. These views are his own.  

 Image: Public Domain

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9 thoughts on “Generals and Political Interventions in American History

  1. Well said, Dr. Joyner. I think you raise several very interesting angles on this issue. Rather than arguing that former officers should remain apolitical–an impractical, and frankly unhealthy restriction–I believe the direct endorsement of a POLITICIAN, rather than a political ISSUE, should be avoided. It could be as simple as refraining from introducing (parading?) a political supporter as a “general” and instead use only his name (as General Dempsey implies) or, maybe more realistically, demand that retired officers refrain from speaking (directly or indirectly) as though they represent serving members of the armed forces. Unfortunately, the former option essentially makes the individual practically useless as a supporter and the latter allows opponents to marginalize “your general” as a heretic. Tough issue…

  2. Not a tough issue at all — just a matter of professional integrity. You nailed the solution: treat your rank and last position in retirement like you treated it beforehand — don’t use it to endorse or defame any political person, position, or issue. Certainly introduce or present yourself as a veteran — that should be enough to establish where your views are coming from and who you identify with. In the age of Google, anyone who’s interested will find out who you were while in uniform…the difference is that you’ve staked out the boundary between your professional and your personal positions.

    As a veteran, I think this was a great article.

  3. I couldn’t disagree more with this author as well as “Marty Dempsey”.

    All Presidents are entitled by the Constitution and Federal law to have their own generals and admirals. That’s what it means to be truly “Commander in Chief” as well as their power to appoint all flag officers. A US President must have that full power and authority and control or he or she is not the CinC.


    If a President has a fear that one or more of his senior officers are or might be disloyal – then fire them, then and there. And if the President retains those who later change their stripes – as clearly happened with Gen. McClellan and President Lincoln – fire them then and there, and deal with the consequences (with Lincoln having to face “little Mac” as his Presidential opponent in an uncertain 1864 election, and with Harry Truman possibly having to face MacArthur in the 1952 election that Truman declined to enter).

    The Republic is built upon freedom of speech and freedom of association. No matter how high or low the generals and admirals are in the eyes of the public, the republic benefits from their participation. After all, nothing is more important than the defense of the nation. Those who are in the best position to judge the policies of one or another candidate or incumbent are in the best position to speak their mind. If in opposition to the incumbent, then the general officer must of course resign first before politicking.

    Advocating that we restrict the right of the People to hear from those they most respect on matters of the greatest importance to the nation is simply un-American, and flies in the face of 227 years of Constitutional history and practice. Presidents are not kings and therefore must not be shielded from criticism. Candidates for the office must be able to withstand full and free Constitutional discourse in our electoral process, from all quarters except the men and women they already command.

    1. It seems to me that the postulate: ‘presidents get the generals they want’ is incorrect, and misses the point of General Dempsey’s critique. Presidents do not get the generals they want; they get the generals they want that the Senate will confirm — see the case of General Peter Pace’s reappointment for a second term as Chairman. In fact even individual senators have blocked the President’s desires on appointment for both substantive and arbitrary reasons. The question here, however, is quite different. The question is not whether the President gets the generals he wants, but whether the generals get the President they want–with the corollary that if the military becomes politicized by participating publicly in the political process, their full willingness to serve loyally Presidents elected contrary to their wishes will be suspect. Likewise the view that failure to participate in the nominating process denies relevant professional advice to the public is misguided. What General (Ret) Allen and LtGeneral (Ret) Flynn provided was not dispassionate advice based on professional study and experience. What they both provided were barn-burning partisan recommendations in highly partisan venues. Hardly in keeping with the discretion expected of former heads of NSA, or the gravitas of four star generals (or General Allen personally). Hard to imagine George Marshall doing the same.

      1. Confirmation by the Senate is a requirement, but only to be appointed to a specific grade of rank … the President is totally free to gather generals and admirals he or she wants into his or her confidence … the Senate has no role in matter of advisory roles. A president can simply dismiss any flag officer at any time for any reason or no reason. That is well established in our Constitutional government as right and proper for a Commander in Chief.

        You cannot circumscribe the proper kinds of commentary by retired flag officers, as you attempt to do. That is unconstitutional – the First Amendment guarantees the rights of free speech and free association, and those rights are treasured elements of our political and social culture in the United States.

        When on active duty, all flag officers and indeed all members down to the lowest buck private or seaman or airman are proscribed from political activities. Once no longer serving, despite all the “general for life” pablum, all Americans become full citizens with all the rights and privileges applicable thereto.

        We NEED the input and perspective of retired senior military members in order for the citizens to be able to fully and reasonably assess the military policies of the current and future administrations.

        1. Article II, Section 2.
          He shall have power, by and with the advice and consent of the Senate, to make treaties, provided two thirds of the Senators present concur; and he shall nominate, and by and with the advice and consent of the Senate, shall appoint ambassadors, other public ministers and consuls, judges of the Supreme Court, and all other officers of the United States, whose appointments are not herein otherwise provided for, and which shall be established by law: but the Congress may by law vest the appointment of such inferior officers, as they think proper, in the President alone, in the courts of law, or in the heads of departments.

          1. And your point is?

            Are you suggesting that Harry Truman acted unconstitutionally when he fired MacArthur? Or that Abraham Lincoln acted unconstitutionally when he fired McClellan? Or that GW Bush acted unconstitutionally when he fired his SecDef and caused his favorite anti-insurgent General Petraeus to rise to command in Iraq?

            The power of the President to fire anyone in his administration is unlimited by the Constitution, and the power of Presidents to take advice from whom they desire, whether inside the military hierarchy as defined by the Joint Chiefs of by promoting some young whippersnapper above all others – as Lincoln did with Grant and Bush did with Petraeus – is completely established.

            A President is free to choose his advisors and his commanders, whether it is formally through Senatorial confirmations of flag officers and the Joint Chiefs, or informally by simply firing the under performers and raising up others who fit the CinC’s desire for a general who will fight and win.

            Your point in arguing this is silly – give it up. You are arguing against reality.

          2. The President’s power to fire is unlimited. His power to appoint is not. That does not mean a President can’t take his strategic advice from whomever he will. All of that, however, is beside the point of the argument, which involves the propriety of retired professional officers intervening in partisan politics, particularly in the venue chosen by Generals Allen and Flynn.

            There is an interesting article in the Military Law Review of March 2003 (Vol 175) “Court-Martial Jurisdiction Over Retirees Under Articles 2(4) and 2(6): Time to Lighten Up and Tighten Up? by Lieutenant Colonels (Retired) J. Makey Ives & Michael J. Davidson. Within the article they address President Woodrow Wilson’s ideas about the responsibility of retired officers in terms of principles which might be useful for consideration of that issue. .

          3. dtr,
            Clearly, I must apologize for failing to acknowledge your point on appointment of officers to command. You are correct, as reference to Title 10 would have showed me before I hit the send button for what followed. On the issue of the propriety of retired general officers intervention in in partisan politics, we must differ. I will ‘go and sin no more.’