Presidents in WWII

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Alex Kershaw
February 19, 2024

It is a telling sign of our times that I approach the subject – US presidents who served in WWII – with some caution. In this polarized age, even to mention figures such as Richard Nixon or John F. Kennedy is to invite heated debate and starkly different views, especially in an election year.

But as Presidents’ Day approaches, I’m going to dip my toe into the torrents come what may. I’m not going to rank the commanders in chief who were formed by their time in uniform. That would be dangerous indeed. Suffice it to say that my favorite is Dwight D. Eisenhower, Allied Supreme Commander eighty years ago. I’ll return to why I love him, as so many Americans did, later.

Dwight Eisenhower, 34th President of the United States.

Here are a few reasons why I admire the other presidents from the Greatest Generation, not because of their politics, but because of what they did as young men who answered the call to duty. Seven served in all, some with extraordinary courage.

Having enlisted in the US Army Reserve in 1937, Ronald Reagan spent the war in California. He produced over 400 training films for the USAAF, learning how to lead others, and how to inspire. Unlike his fellow actors Clark Gable and Jimmy Stewart, Reagan did not see combat, but not for lack of courage: poor eyesight prevented him from serving overseas. Like so many from his generation, he understood for the rest of his days the true price of freedom. Few have ever disputed that he had a profound, infectious love for the United States.

Ronald Reagan during WWII.

The exploits of John F. Kennedy in the Pacific have been oft told, exaggerated and seemingly endlessly mulled over. Some have criticized JFK for the incident that led to the death of two of his crew aboard PT-109 in August 1943. On revisiting this legendary chapter, above all I was impressed by Kennedy’s indomitable courage in saving the life of another of his crew, Patrick McMahon. A reckless youth? Perhaps. A genuine hero? Undeniable.

JFK in the South Pacific.

What more can one say about George H. Bush, the tall patrician who enlisted in the US Navy the day he turned eighteen and flew 58 combat missions, receiving the Distinguished Flying Cross and three Air Medals? Bush would forever wonder: “Why me? Why was I spared?” As president, he found his answer.

George H. Bush, 41st President of the United States.

Lyndon B. Johnson had already served for four years in Congress when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Knowing his political prospects would be greatly improved if he had a war record to run on, Johnson volunteered in 1942 to be an observer during an air strike on New Guinea, for which he would receive a Silver Star.

Controversy still swirls around what actually happened aboard Johnson’s plane. Some say it was never attacked by Japanese fighters. According to the bombardier, however, Johnson was “cool as a cucumber” as Japanese Zeroes strafed the plane.

Johnson had been under fire, if only on one day of the war. Yet that would prove more than enough. One biographer has written: “The mission was a temporary exposure to danger calculated to satisfy Johnson's personal and political wishes, but it also represented a genuine effort on his part, however misplaced, to improve the lot of America's fighting men."

Richard Nixon also served in the US Navy, later reminiscing that his stint in the South Pacific in 1943, surviving intense Japanese shelling, was one of the happiest periods in his life. He was genuinely popular with other men in the South Pacific Combat Air Transport Command, running a hamburger stand when he wasn’t supervising the loading and unloading of transport aircraft, also winning thousands of dollars playing poker by keeping his “cards close to [his] chest."

Richard Nixon, lieutenant commander, US Navy, 1945.

Nixon’s successor in the White House and fellow navy veteran, Gerald Ford, famously pardoned Nixon following the Watergate scandal. Ford had served from June 1943 to December 1944 - as assistant navigator, athletic officer, and anti-aircraft battery officer - aboard the USS Monterey.

Gerald Ford, 38th President of the United States.

Ford was the real deal, almost losing his life during a typhoon, finishing the war after no less than forty-seven months of active duty. He had been “right there where everything was going on”, he said, aboard a vessel which traveled more nautical miles in the Pacific than any other flying the Stars and Stripes.

Of all the commanders in chief who served in WWII, Dwight D. Eisenhower was by far the most acclaimed by the end of hostilities. Although he had never been a soldier on the frontlines, “Ike” led the Allied coalition in Western Europe to victory with extraordinary skill, tenacity and almost superhuman resilience.

On D Day, 6 June 1944, it was Ike alone who was fully prepared to take responsibility if the most ambitious invasion in history failed. The fate of millions rested on his shoulders. “If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt,” Eisenhower wrote in a draft statement, “it is mine alone."

Eisenhower won the Presidential election in 1952 in a landslide, becoming the oldest president-elect at age 62 since James Buchanan in 1856. The 34th President of the United States became the third commanding general of the Army to serve as president, preceded by no less than George Washington and Ulysses S. Grant.

Eisenhower was the only president not to have held political office before becoming commander in chief - until Donald Trump was elected in 2016. As with his fellow presidents who served in WWII, Eisenhower was irrevocably forged by history’s greatest global conflict - as an American and as a public servant. He disagreed with isolationism and hated “war as only a soldier who has lived it can”, as he put it. The last president to have been to war was George H. Bush, who lost to Bill Clinton in 1992.

In the fifty years that followed WWII, even when the US was deeply divided, it was possible to find consensus and to “cross the aisle” for those who had once put country, not party, first. Many politicians had served a cause greater than themselves – many had indeed come of age in a country that had united in a battle for national survival. Once you have laid your life on the line for your fellow Americans, it is difficult to despise those who have done the same.