By Captain Jerry Hendrix, USN (PhD)
Director, Naval History and Heritage Command
It is a curious fact of history that of the first 35 commanders in chief, 23 served in either the Army or in a state militia. Of those men, 12 achieved the title “general” ranging from General of the Armies George Washington to Brevet Brigadier General of Volunteers Benjamin Harrison. What is even more interesting is that over the span of those first 35 presidents, not one naval officer was elected to the nation’s highest office.
However, beginning with our nation’s 35th president, John F. Kennedy, there began a line of six Sailors in the White House that ran from Kennedy to George H.W. Bush, broken only by Army Capt. Ronald Reagan.
Each of these presidential Navy officers had served with honorably and some with high distinction in a naval officer’s uniform. Lt. j.g. Kennedy had appeared on the national stage earning the Navy and Marine Corps Medal as a dashing hero, saving the lives of his crew following the sinking of the PT-109. Lyndon Johnson had taken a leave of absence from the House of Representatives to serve in the South Pacific, earning a controversial Silver Star while flying as an observer on a B-26 bombing mission. Richard Nixon headed up a series of Navy cargo handling units around the Pacific during World War II, achieving the rank of commander in the Naval Reserve. Lt. Cmdr. Gerald Ford served onboard the light aircraft carrier Monterey, surviving Typhoon Cobra and earning 10 battle stars. Jimmy Carter is the only president to graduate from the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis. He went on to be selected for service in nuclear submarines by the legendary Admiral Hyman G. Rickover. George H.W. Bush was one of the youngest pilots ever to earn his aviation designation in the Navy, receiving his wings of gold at age 19. Bush flew torpedo bombers from the deck of the USS San Jacinto, earning a Distinguished Flying Cross and numerous Air Medals before being shot down by anti-aircraft fire. Each of these men was indelibly marked by their experiences, perhaps more than they, or we, have previously understood.
Service in the U.S. Army creates a land-centered outlook, which was important to the developing nation during the 18th and 19th centuries. From its founding till the early 1890s, the United States was intent on conquering its portion of the North American continent, and as such its foreign relations and military strategy were focused on questions rooted in competition for land. In this environment, an Army background had a natural political advantage; the nation needed this particular expertise. However, with the closing of the American frontier and the gradual shift in strategic focus to overseas resources as well as foreign markets for U.S. manufactured goods, knowledge of seapower and oceanic commerce began to come to the forefront. It was into this environment that the maritime-minded Roosevelts, Theodore and his distant cousin Franklin, paved the way towards the United States emerging as a global power.
However, it was the six Sailors who occupied the White House between 1961 and 1993 who forever altered the balance of American foreign policy from a continental to globally focused effort. Each, unconsciously or consciously, drew upon their experiences in the Navy to view the world not from the confines of land and artificial borders, but rather from the expansive, globalized perspective that can only be derived from the vantage point of a ship at sea.
Their values, as evidenced in by their adherence to such norms as free trade and free navigation on the high seas, are maritime values. At the dawn of the 20th century, naval theorist Alfred T. Mahan defined the sea lanes of communication as a vast interlocking web of alliances.
Where there is a chokepoint or a heavily travelled commercial sea lane, there lay American national interests, and, probably, a partnership or alliance. When the Soviet Union fell in 1989 and a new paradigm emerged with the United States sitting atop a new international system, it was a system defined by the seas that connect the planet rather than oceans that divide continents.
Three presidents have come and two have gone since the last Sailor sat in the White House. The Resolute desk – crafted from the timbers of the HMS Resolute – remains in the oval room in the West Wing, but the feelings it evoked when PT boat skippers and Avenger pilots sat behind it have begun to fade. However, the lessons they learned when they were young about the importance of the oceans still echoes. As another great power emerges and plots its course upon the world’s blue waters, the commander in chief of the United States armed services will not be able to escape the knowledge that the oceans have long ceased to be a defensive barrier and that only by remaining strong at sea will the nation remain secure. This is the instinctive knowledge of the six Sailor presidents, and their enduring legacy.