Presidents that Served in the Military

Updated: July 11, 2021
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    Here is a list of the 31 presidents who served in the U.S. military. It would be easy to assume that an American President must have some background in military service–the President is the Commander-In-Chief, after all. But the reality is that military service is NOT a prerequisite to hold the highest office in America. That said, a significant number of U.S. Presidents did serve in some capacity.

    How many American Presidents served in the United States military? The U.S. Constitution specifies civilian control of the armed forces, and no sitting general may also hold the office of President. But a former military member can, and many did. The actual number of sitting presidents who have served may surprise you – of the 46 Presidents, a whopping 31 also had military service.

    That means that 15 did not serve. Which presidents did NOT serve? Most notably, Presidents Joe Biden, Donald J. Trump, Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, and Franklin D. Roosevelt.

    Roosevelt’s entry is notable as he served as Assistant Secretary of the Navy during World War One. He tried to resign in order to enter uniformed service but his resignation was not accepted and he did not join.

    The last president to serve in the military was George W. Bush who served in the Texas Air National Guard. The last president to see combat was George H. W. Bush.

    Thirty-One Presidents With Military Backgrounds

    Many of the U.S. presidents who served prior to World War Two served in the Army, but since WW2 many have served in the Navy. President George W. Bush served stateside duty in the Texas Air National Guard during Vietnam, Ronald Reagan served in both the Army Reserve and U.S. Army Air Forces.

    At the time of this writing, no member of the U.S. Marine Corps or the United States Coast Guard has ever held the office of President. At least five Presidents served in state militias including Chester Arthur, Abraham Lincoln, and James Buchanan (in no particular order).

    Among the youngest of those who served at time of entry, President William Henry Harrison started a military career at 18 years of age. A dozen of the Presidents who served were Generals including George Washington, Andrew Jackson, Ulysses S. Grant, Rutherford B. Hayes, and Dwight D. Eisenhower.

    Eight presidents served during World War II, while seven served in the military during the American Civil War.

    The Most Recent President To Experience Combat

    The last U.S. President to see combat at the time of this writing was President George H.W. Bush, who earned the Distinguished Service Flying Cross as a member of the Navy Reserve. President Ronald Reagan served during World War Two, but his service was stateside-based.

    President Jimmy Carter served aboard submarines and battleships as a Navy Lieutenant and Richard Nixon earned two Service Stars for his work as a Reserve Commander in the U.S. Navy.

    President Lyndon Johnson was awarded the Silver Star for his work as an aerial combat observer when his aircraft was attacked over New Guinea. President John F. Kennedy not only served as a Lieutenant during World War Two, but was also awarded the Purple Heart for his efforts.

    In terms of military service, it doesn’t get any more “up there” than the record of General Dwight D. Eisenhower, who before he became President served as a General during World War One, and as the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe during World War II.

    The three presidents to hold the highest military ranks were: George Washington, Dwight D. Eisenhower and Ulysses S. Grant, respectively.

    James Buchanan, the 15th president, held the lowest rank among Veteran U.S. presidents. He was a private (E-1) in the Army, and the only president who enlisted without becoming a commissioned officer.

    Presidents Who Served: 1700-1800

    1. George Washington 1775-1783
    General and Commander-in-Chief, U.S. Continental Army

    2. Thomas Jefferson 1770-1779
    Colonel, Virginia Militia

    3. James Madison 1775-1781
    Colonel, Virginia Militia

    4. James Monroe 1775-1778
    Major, Continental Army

    Presidents Who Served: 1800-1900

    5. Andrew Jackson 1814-1821
    Major General, U.S. Army

    6. William Henry Harrison 1812-1814
    Major General, Kentucky Militia

    7. John Tyler 1812
    Captain, Virginia Militia

    8. James K. Polk 1821
    Colonel, Tennessee Militia

    9. Zachary Taylor 1805-1815, 1816-1849
    Major General, U.S. Army

    10. Millard Fillmore 1861
    Major, Union Continentals

    11. Franklin Pierce 1846-1848
    Brigadier General, New Hampshire Militia

    12. James Buchanan 1814
    Private, Pennsylvania Militia

    13. Abraham Lincoln 1832
    Captain, Illinois Militia

    14. Andrew Johnson 1862-1865
    Brigadier General, U.S. Army

    15. Ulysses S. Grant 1866-1869
    General, U.S. Army

    16. Rutherford B. Hayes 1861-1865
    Major General, U.S. Army

    17. James A. Garfield 1861-1863
    Major General, U.S. Army

    18. Chester A. Arthur 1858-1863
    Brigadier General, New York Militia

    19. Benjamin Harrison 1862-1865
    Brevet Brigadier General, U.S. Army

    20. William McKinley 1861-1865
    Brevet Major, U.S. Army

    21. Theodore Roosevelt 1898
    Colonel, U.S. Army

    Presidents Who Served: 1900-2021

    22. Harry S. Truman 1919-1945
    Colonel, Army Officer Reserve Corps

    23. Dwight D. Eisenhower 1915-1948, 1951-1952
    General of the Army, U.S. Army

    24. John F. Kennedy 1941-1945
    Lieutenant, U.S. Naval Reserve

    25. Lyndon B. Johnson 1940-1964
    Commander, U.S. Naval Reserve

    26. Richard M. Nixon 1942-1966
    Commander, U.S. Naval Reserve

    27. Gerald R. Ford, Jr. 1942-1946
    Lieutenant Commander, U.S. Naval Reserve

    28. Jimmy Carter 1946-1953
    Lieutenant, U.S. Navy

    29. Ronald Reagan 1942-1945
    Captain, U.S. Army

    30. George H.W. Bush 1942-1945
    Lieutenant JG, U.S. Navy

    31. George W. Bush 1968-1973
    First Lieutenant, Texas Air National Guard

    Presidents That Did Not Serve In The Military

    1. John Adams

    2. John Quincy Adams

    3. Martin Van Buren

    4/5. Grover Cleveland (served two non-consecutive terms)

    6. William Howard Taft

    7. Woodrow Wilson

    8. Warren G. Harding

    9. Calvin Coolidge

    10. Herbert Hoover

    11. Franklin D. Roosevelt

    12. Bill Clinton

    13. Barack Obama

    14. Donald Trump

    15. Joe Biden

    Joe Wallace is a 13-year veteran of the United States Air Force and a former reporter for Air Force Television News

    Written by Team