Cover Story: Why Civilian Control of the Military?

James Wilkinson Charles Willson Peale, c.1797, Portrait Gallery

WASHINGTON -- Civilian control of the military is so ingrained in America that we hardly give it a second thought. Most Americans don’t realize how special this relationship is and how it has contributed to the country.

The framers of the U.S. Constitution worked to ensure the military would be under civilian control. They did not want to emulate the European experience. The colonies had just fought a war for freedom from Britain. The king controlled the British military, and the framers had no interest in duplicating that system.

When they wrote the Constitution, they separated the responsibilities for the military, placing the responsibilities firmly in civilian hands.

Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution states that Congress shall have the power "to raise and support Armies …" and "to provide and maintain a Navy." In addition, Congress must provide for the state militias when they are called to federal service.

Article II, Section 2 states, "The President shall be the Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the Militia of the several States when called into the actual Service of the United States."

Congress has the power to declare war and to make the rules for governing the military.

So the framers spread responsibilities for the military around. The president and Congress had to work together to use the military.

Turncoat General

In the early days of the Republic, before the concept of civilian control of the military sank in, some military officers actively plotted against the government.

General James Wilkinson was the senior military officer from June 15, 1800 to January 27, 1812. He fought in the Revolutionary War and outfitted the Continental Army. He was forced to resign rather than answer charges he embezzled funds. After the Revolution he allied himself with Aaron Burr and went back on active duty.

Wilkinson became a key figure in the plan to induce what was then the "southwest United States" to form a separate nation allied with Spain. He took an oath of allegiance to Spain, spied for his secret new patron, and received an annual Spanish pension of $4,000. He was the governor of the Louisiana Territory from 1805 to 1806.

When his involvement with Burr became common knowledge, Wilkinson turned informant, telling President Jefferson that Burr was plotting to disrupt the Union. He was the chief prosecution witness against Burr and narrowly escaped indictment himself.

He continued as the ranking officer in the Army through 1812, when his incompetence and scheming were finally recognized and he was relieved. Once again an official inquiry left him untouched. He spent his remaining years in Mexico receiving the Spanish stipend.

With the growth of political parties, an officer’s political allegiance became important. President John Adams appointed Federalist officers to the military. As Jefferson’s private secretary, Army Captain Meriwether Lewis vetted the "Republican" (later Democratic) credentials of his fellow Army officers.

This reinforced the belief in the U.S. military that officers should not participate in politics. They should follow the orders of the president and the wishes of the Congress no matter who was in power.

The U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York, did much to promulgate this idea. Still, even as more West Pointers joined the Army, some officers played politics.

During the war with Mexico from 1846 to 1848, newspapers made charges that Democratic President James K. Polk did not want to entrust the military to General Winfield Scott or General Zachary Taylor, two Whigs. The papers were right.

Taylor, the hero of the Battle of Buena Vista, never voted in an election. He never sought or campaigned for any office. Because he hadn’t been expecting any good mail from Washington, he refused delivery of the Senate’s letter telling him he’d been elected president: in 1848, recipients paid the postage, not senders.

Risking Dictatorship

The Civil War of 1861-1865 was the period of greatest danger to civilian control of the military. As the war progressed, more and more people called for a military dictatorship. One prime proponent of this was Major General Joseph Hooker.

After the Union defeat at the Battle of Fredericksburg, Virginia, President Lincoln decided to appoint Hooker as commander of the Army of the Potomac -- the leading army of the Union. He wrote Hooker one of the most amazing letters in American civilian-military relations.

Lincoln said in part: "I have heard, in such way as to believe it, of your recently saying that both the Army and the Government needed a Dictator. Of course it was not for this, but in spite of it, that I have given you the command. Only those generals who gain successes, can set up dictators. What I now ask of you is military success, and I will risk the dictatorship."

Hooker led the Army of the Potomac to defeat in the Battle of Chancellorsville, and he resigned the position just before the Battle of Gettysburg.

General Ulysses S. Grant, on the other hand, had a completely different take on the situation. In 1863, following victories at Vicksburg, Mississippi, and Chattanooga, Tennessee, Democrats tried to recruit Grant as their nominee for president against Lincoln in 1864. Some Republican leaders also tried to get Grant to replace the president. He categorically refused. Grant was elected president in 1868, after he had resigned from the Army.

The country survived the Civil War with the idea of civilian control of the military intact. The military shrank in size and was stationed mostly in the West. Military officers shied away from politics and many even refused to vote, feeling that this would somehow influence their service.

This held true through World War II. There was such separation that after World War II, Democratic President Harry S. Truman offered to facilitate the Democratic nomination for president in 1948 for General of the Army Dwight D. Eisenhower. Ike, a graduate of West Point, had never voted. People did not know his party affiliation. He turned down Truman’s offer, but in 1952 did run for president -- as a Republican.

Today, service members of all ranks are encouraged to vote. The military vote in Florida in this past election proved to be crucial. Once they vote, however, soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, and Coast Guardsmen are expected to forget their party affiliations and follow the orders of the civilian leaders regardless of the party.

Military members swear under oath "to support and defend the Constitution of the United States." One of the more successful aspects of that document is civilian control of the military.

SOURCE: American Forces Press Service via Veterans News & Information Service

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