In a country as disposed to war as the United States has been, the relationship between the commander in chief and his admirals and generals is as critical as that between the president and Congress. Just how critical that relationship may be is the theme of this book, the first full-length history of its subject. It should be required reading in the White House, the Pentagon, and Foggy Bottom—in this, and every succeeding administration. The history it relates is sobering.
Matthew Moten is the kind of authority you’d want for a guide through the subject: As the former head of West Point’s history department, an Iraq war veteran, and a former legislative aide to the Army chief of staff, he has the broad field and staff experience essential for understanding political-military relations in their many forms—and from inside. He’s thorough, disenthralled, critical, and balanced in his judgments. No one can dismiss what he writes.
Moten isn’t the first historian, the first military officer, or the first elected official to bewail the current state of civil-military relations. Among historians, Richard H. Kohn has preceded him with the greatest authority and urgency, although not with Moten’s narrative sweep or particular focus. Moten concentrates on what he calls political-military relations, a narrower set of connections than those between the military and larger society. Even then, Moten has unfortunately little to say about the mutual responsibilities that Congress and the military may have to each other: Presidents and Their Generals focuses hard on the office of the president and the top officers of the major armed services.
High-level American political-military relations, Moten believes, have gone through three phases in our history. The first, lasting from George Washington’s presidency in the 1790s until Abraham Lincoln’s in the 1860s, was a kind of exploratory season when roles and conventions were cobbled into being, and senior military and civilian officers gathered a sense of what might and might not work to create and implement military strategy. The second, from Lincoln’s presidency through Franklin Roosevelt’s in the 1940s, was the high point—the classical age—of relations between presidents and their senior commanders, decades during which understanding between the White House and the military services was functional and firm, and roles were clear. From the Truman presidency on—the third phase—things have fallen apart.
At the heart of the best relations between presidents and their generals, Moten emphasizes, is “mutual trust born of candor, respect, demonstrated competence, a shared worldview, and an expectation that each partner would take responsibility for the decisions made.” Conflicts, “both natural and inherent,” will exist. But mature professionals—the presidents representing political society and the generals (Moten specifically emphasizes generals, not admirals) representing an institutional hierarchy—can work through them. The best have done so.
As he did in so many respects, George Washington established the template for the entire history of political-military relations in his bearing and acts during the American Revolution. Resisting pressure from others, fending off a prospective putsch, and swallowing his pride, Washington resolutely kept military leadership subordinate to political authority. Had he not done so, the nation’s history, to say nothing of the military clauses of the Constitution, would have been vastly different. Not that Washington had it easy, or avoided serious mistakes; but his great stature ensured that he would not face opposition during his presidency from his top military officers—or be held to account publicly, as his successors were.
Once Washington left the scene, presidents were in deeper waters. John Adams faced a disloyal secretary of war, whom he eventually had to fire, as well as the opposition of one of Washington’s great revolutionary military aides, Alexander Hamilton. It did not help that, until West Point had graduated many young men, military officers did not think of themselves as professionals who had to comport themselves accordingly. Commissions and service assignments were as political as they were military, based on favoritism as much as competency. Even when a president—James K. Polk being a good example—had first-class generals to fight his wars, he could not be sure that they weren’t angling for a presidential nomination under the opposition party. Polk, a Democrat, was justified in his suspicions: Both Winfield Scott and Zachary Taylor sought the presidency as Whigs. Trust in one’s senior officers did not come easily under such circumstances.