The United States has a long military tradition, spanning back before the Revolutionary War for Independence. Since the genesis of the country, America has almost always been at war and a sophisticated relationship between the military and the American people has evolved. One enduring aspect of this relationship originates from the Revolutionary War: America's love-hate relationship with its military leaders. Many Americans have an innate respect of their military leaders and many military leaders have become powerful political figures. The most beloved military and political figure, George Washington, championed the cause of independence and won despite the colossal odds against him. Americans, however, also have a deep distrust of absolute authority. They fear military leaders and their potential to take absolute power. This fear goes back to the Revolutionary War over a British monarch's refusal to give the colonies rights equal to Englishmen. This fear of authority has guided policies such that an elected civilian leader controls the military. Over time there has been a visible trend toward increasing civilian control of the military. This trend is apparent from examination of three military leaders: Andrew Jackson, George McClellan, and Douglas MacArthur. All three generals either refused or exceeded orders of the president. Progressively the civilian leaders gained control through specific orders, and reprimanded generals more severely for disobeying their directives.
Andrew Jackson acted beyond his constitutional powers and disregarded government control throughout his military career. At the start of the War of 1812, he was given command of 2,071 volunteers and was ordered to move to New Orleans to await further orders. After Jackson and his men had moved 500 miles without pay and without supplies, Secretary of War John Armstrong unexpectedly relieved him of command of his force. Initially the force had been meant for a planned invasion of Spanish-controlled East Florida. But the invasion was canceled when Russia allied with the Spain because the US and Russia were also allied. Jackson, however, refused to leave his command and dismiss his men until he returned his troops safely home. While his act was insubordinate, it made him immensely popular with Americans and he was never punished. In the Creek War in 1813 he also went beyond his powers. The War resulted from a series of Creek Native American attacks on American border settlements. In the campaign, Jackson inflicted a devastating blow to the belligerent Creek tribes, the Red Sticks, in the Battle of Horseshoe Bend, effectively ending the Creek War. Jackson personally orchestrated the peace treaty and war settlement so that the Creek nation would be completely cut off from the Spanish, whose influence Jackson thought responsible for the recent violence. The treaty demanded 23 million acres of land on an unconditional basis. Either the Indians agreed, or Jackson would annihilate them. Ironically, almost all the Indians chiefs present at the peace conference were allied with Jackson, since most of the antagonistic tribes had fled south to Spanish-controlled Florida. Yet Jackson demanded that the whole Creek nation pay for what the few enemy tribes had done. As general, Jackson had no right to dictate the peace treaty, which was for the civil authorities to decide. Moreover, the treaty violated the ninth article of the Treaty of Ghent that was being negotiated at the same time, in which the United States agreed that individual Indian tribes would be treated as nations and had the right to retain their ancestral lands. By exacting 23 million acres, Jackson flagrantly violated the treaty. But like the first case, Jackson was not punished for his actions.
The civil administration consistently gave Jackson vague orders or no orders at all, explaining his acting beyond his powers. Following the Creek War, Jackson asked Secretary of War Armstrong to authorize the seizure of Florida not only to strike against the Indians but to ensure the future security of the area. After more than half a year Armstrong finally issued a vague reply, writing that if the Spanish
feed, arm, and co-operate with the British and hostile Indians, we must strike on the broad principle of self-preservation: -under other and different circumstances, we must forbear. In the meantime, Jackson took it upon himself to take Pensacola, the center of Spanish control in Florida. He sent a second letter to the new secretary of war, James Madison, explaining the reason for his action. He claimed that the Spanish at Pensacola had
permit[ted] the place to assume the character of a British Territory by resigning the command of the Fortresses to them [British], Permitting them to fit out an expedition against the U.S. and after its failure to return to the Town refit, and make arrangements for a second expedition. At the same time making to me a declaration that he (the Spanish Governor) had armed the Indians and send them to our Territory. Knowing at the same time that these very Indians had under the command of a British officer captured our citizens and destroyed their property within our own Territory. Once the British and hostile Creeks left Pensacola, Jackson returned the town to the Spanish. Although Jackson wound up doing exactly what the US government later ordered, he had acted on his own initiative and could have easily triggered war with Spain, a war that the civil authorities were unprepared for.
In a second case, the civil authorities gave extremely vague orders that could have been misconstrued. During the Seminole War in 1817, President James Monroe sent a purposefully ambiguous letter to Jackson stating:
Great interests are at issue, and until our course is carried through triumphantly and every species of danger to which it is exposed is settled on the most solid foundations, you ought not withdraw your active support of it. Interpreting
great interests as the American seizure of Florida, Jackson took the letter as an invitation to wipe out the hostile Seminoles and seize Florida from Spain. Meanwhile Monroe told Secretary Calhoun expressly to write Jackson and order him to avoid confrontation with the Spanish, but Calhoun never sent the order for reasons that are unknown. With 3,000 regulars and volunteers, and 2,000 Indian allies, Jackson terrorized the Seminoles on Spanish territory, seized the Spanish fort at St. Marks by coercive means, and captured and put to death two British subjects, Robert Ambrister and Alexander Arbuthnot, who had been helping the Seminoles. Before taking Pensacola, Jackson sent a letter to Calhoun justifying his intended actions. Jackson claimed that the Spanish were inciting Indian violence by selling arms to belligerent tribes and that the only way permanently to stop the violence was to make the Indians dependent exclusively on the United States. The Spanish quickly surrendered Pensacola and Jackson agreed
under the terms of capitulation to allow the Spanish garrison to retire from the Fortress with full honors of war, transport them to Cuba, and to respect Spanish rights and property. With Spanish authority gone in Pensacola, the United States essentially had complete control over Florida.
Based on vague orders from Washington, Jackson had attacked both British and Spanish subjects and property, acts that could easily have elicited formal declarations of war from both Britain and Spain. The situation was saved by John Quincy Adams, who claimed that Jackson's actions had been a military necessity to rout the Seminoles. Adams also claimed that the Spanish commanders at St. Marks and Pensacola had not been doing their duty in that they were not preserving order in Spanish territory. Adams' response placated the Spanish and negotiations for the purchase of the territory began. In the end Jackson was never seriously reprimanded. The extent of punishment was a letter written by Monroe accusing Jackson of going beyond his powers.
In Jackson's era, generals in the field in many ways had powers superior to the president. Instead of reprimanding Jackson for his disobedience in refusing to relinquish his command or for exceeding his constitutional powers to conclude the Creek War Peace Treaty, the president did nothing. Not only that, instead of giving Jackson straightforward orders, the civil authorities often gave him ambiguous orders which Jackson then used for his own motives to justify politically dangerous actions, like putting to death Ambrister and Arbuthnot, both British subjects. In part, Jackson had superiority in the field because of slow communications. Naturally the government could not preside over its generals several hundred miles away with a communication system that took days or even weeks to transmit a single order. At the same time however, the government did nothing to reprimand unruly generals like Jackson who acted impulsively, and thereby risked war.
Abraham Lincoln and George McClellan during the American Civil War demonstrate a change in civil-military relations. While Monroe had no direct control over Jackson, giving Jackson superior powers, the relationship between Lincoln and McClellan was much closer and put the president and general on a more equal footing. Initially, however, McClellan was very much given the powers of the superior. Although Lincoln made very explicit suggestions he deferred to McClellan's own course of action. It is unclear whether this treatment stemmed from Lincoln's humility and his lack of war experience, or from a belief that McClellan would be more capable with the powers of the superior. Either way, Lincoln's approach only encouraged McClellan's egotism, his disrespectful behavior towards his civil superiors, and his over-cautiousness.
By constantly deferring to McClellan, Lincoln only reinforced McClellan's feelings of superiority. Being so pampered and inflated by favorable public opinion, McClellan became obsessed with the idea that God had appointed him to his station to save the Union. Given this state of mind, he kept all control of strategic planning and information to himself and away from his superiors. Before he became general-in-chief of the Army of the Potomac, Winfield Scott, the general-in-chief at the very beginning of the Civil War, complained bitterly about McClellan's making public information that McClellan even refused to tell him. Similarly on January 12, 1862, in a war council that included the president and secretary of state, McClellan refused to disclose his war plans on the grounds that
there are many here [at the meeting] entirely incompetent to pass judgment upon them ... no plan made known to so many persons can be kept secret an hour. Instead of forcing McClellan to tell the war council, Lincoln simply asked him if he had some sort of timeline for his plan. When McClellan answered in the affirmative, Lincoln ended the war council. The following day McClellan gave a reporter of the New York Herald a three-hour briefing on his war plans. All the confidential information was then published, constituting the largest information leak of the entire war. McClellan was not reprimanded in any way.
Lincoln's deference also encouraged McClellan's disrespect towards his superiors. After a conversation with Secretary of State William Seward about then general-in-chief Winfield Scott, McClellan wrote to his wife:
How does he [Seward] think that I can save this country when stopped by Genl Scott - I do not know whether he is a dotard or a traitor!... I am leaving nothing undone to increase our force - but that confounded old Genl always comes in the way - he is a perfect imbecile. He understands nothing, appreciates nothing & is ever in my way Beyond demonstrating his disrespect of his superiors, the letter also reflects McClellan's inflated view of himself. Similarly, in his letters to his wife, he referred to Lincoln as the
original gorilla and
nothing more than a well-meaning baboon. McClellan's actions spoke as loudly as his words. In one case, Lincoln, Seward, and Lincoln's personal secretary John Hay waited for an hour at McClellan's home for him to arrive. When McClellan finally came home, he immediately went to bed without meeting them.
Finally, Lincoln's deference encouraged McClellan's over-cautiousness. McClellan relied exclusively on the reports of Allen Pinkerton, the head of his intelligence department, even though Pinkerton's statistics consistently and grossly exaggerated Confederate forces. McClellan, in his prima donna belief that he would be the savior of the Union, wanted to believe the absurd statistics for his own self-image, and by not questioning them, Lincoln seemed to be silently accepting the faulty statistics. In one letter to his wife, McClellan claimed that
I am here in a terrible place - the enemy have 3 to 4 times my force - the Presdt is an idiot, the old General in his dotage - they cannot or will not see the true state of affair... In fact McClellan's force always outnumbered the Confederate forces. In another case, McClellan received information that there were between 120,000 to 150,000 Confederate soldiers in northern Virginia alone and a total enemy strength of approximately 385,000 men. In fact there were 200,000 Confederates total. As a result, McClellan perpetually fought on the defensive and refused to move his men. On January 27, 1862, after nearly three months of complete idleness, Lincoln issued the President's General War Order No. 1 directing McClellan to move the Union armies on February 22, George Washington's birthday. McClellan's intended amphibious assault for his Peninsula Campaign then pushed things so far back that Lincoln issued the President's War Order No. 3, instructing McClellan to move by March 18. Not only was McClellan's refusal to move the Army of the Potomac based on faulty information but it also benefited the Confederacy which gained more time to build up its army and fortify its position.
Lincoln gradually took control as it became evident what kind of military commander McClellan was. In the President's General War Order No. 2, Lincoln directed McClellan to divide the Army of the Potomac into four corps each led by a senior division commander, limiting McClellan's control over the Army of the Potomac. Likewise, immediately before McClellan's intended Urbanna Campaign, Lincoln removed him as general-in-chief when he learned that the Confederates had moved south of the Rappahannock River, making McClellan's plan useless. Initially, McClellan's plan had been to flank the Confederates at Manassas Junction and Centreville by making an amphibious landing at Urbanna, behind enemy lines. McClellan's power was further limited after his Peninsula Campaign failed and he was completely removed from command. McClellan was then given his command again at the Battle of Antietam, his final chance to redeem himself, but was removed permanently after he first failed to pursue General Robert E. Lee's army directly following the battle and second refused to follow Lincoln's direct order to move south to Richmond to force final confrontation with Lee.
After McClellan, Lincoln strictly acted as commander-in-chief to his generals. He replaced his senior-generals frequently and went through another four generals until he found Ulysses S. Grant. When he did promote Grant, Lincoln reportedly said to him
You are not to decide, discuss or confer with any one or ask political questions; such questions the President holds in his own hands, and will submit them to no military conferences or conventions. In response, Grant wrote
So long as I hold my present position, I do not believe I have the right to criticize the policy or orders of those above me, or give utterance to views of my own, except to authorities in Washington. After McClellan, Lincoln left no room for doubt on who made policy.
The evolution of civil-military relations, from Jackson to McClellan to Grant shows a steady progression to more civil control of military. From Jackson to McClellan, the change came in the form of more explicit directions from the president. While Jackson received few orders, and those that he did receive were ambiguous, McClellan received explicit suggestions from the president. As McClellan continued to refuse to listen to Lincoln's suggestions and his own plans were ineffective, Lincoln began to give explicit orders. By the time Grant appeared on the scene, there was no question of whether Lincoln was suggesting or ordering, by then Lincoln acted as the absolute superior over the general. A second change was the threat of the civil authorities punishing their generals. Jackson was never severely reprimanded for any of his actions. Initially McClellan too avoided any punishment for his misconduct. However, Lincoln slowly adjusted his policy and began to punish McClellan more and more severely until he relieved him completely. Thereafter Lincoln refused to indulge his generals and would immediately punish them (by relieving them) for failing.
The relationship between President Harry Truman and General Douglas MacArthur during the Korean War was a case of serious military opposition to civilian authority. Their disagreement stemmed from differing views on the Constitution. While Truman believed that the civil administration was in charge of the military because it was elected popularly by the people and the Constitution made him commander-and-chief of the military, MacArthur believed his military expertise allowed him to defy the civil administration if he believed his solution would be better for the people. By maintaining this interpretation, MacArthur seemed to believe that he was superior to Truman and his administration, and he constantly defied orders.
MacArthur's treatment of the civil authorities reflected his sense of superiority. When Truman and MacArthur met at Wake Island in October of 1950 to discuss the Korean War, MacArthur greeted Truman in informal clothing, not befitting such a formal conference. Truman was deeply offended, and later said that
if he'd been a lieutenant in my outfit going around dressed like that, I'd have busted him so fast he wouldn't have known what happened to him. Not only that, when they met, MacArthur did not salute to the President, but shook hands. While it seemed minor, the refusal to salute reflected MacArthur's sense of superiority.
Likewise, MacArthur also was known for expressing his views on international politics. During the occupation of Japan, Clyde A. Lewis, the head of the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW), asked MacArthur to write an address for the next VFW annual encampment. MacArthur sent a response in which he explicitly expressed his views on Formosa (now Taiwan), claiming the United States had to maintain control because
the geographic location of Formosa is such that in the hands of a power unfriendly to the United States it constitutes an enemy salient in the very center of American control of the Pacific. The timing of the address could not have been worse. Truman had just asked the United Nations to investigate the
Formosa question in order to limit the areas of fighting in the Far East. Truman felt that
General MacArthur's message - which the world might mistake as an expression of American policy - contradicted this, and that he [Truman]
gave serious thought to relieving General MacArthur as our military field commander in the Far East. Truman immediately ordered MacArthur to
withdraw your [his] message for National Encampment of Veterans of Foreign Wars, because various features with respect to Formosa are in conflict with the policy of the United States and its position in the United Nations. MacArthur immediately complied with the order, but a copy was still published.
Unlike the previous relationships, the Truman administration gave very explicit instructions to MacArthur, which he defied. Following MacArthur's successful Inchon Landing in September of 1950 into Communist-held Korea, the Joint Chiefs ordered MacArthur to
conduct military operations north of the 38th Parallel to complete
the destruction of the North Korean armed forces. There were only two major restrictions in the order: first they forbade him to fly aircraft over Sino-Russian territory, and second they allowed only South Korean troops to be used to approach the Yalu River in northern Korea, on the Korean-Chinese border. The US government wanted to avoid Chinese intervention to keep the conflict contained to a regional theater. Truman warned MacArthur to avoid
military action against objectives in Chinese territory on several occasions. MacArthur however, defied these orders. Four days after seizing Pyongyang on October 24, MacArthur forged ahead toward the Yalu with the US Eighth Army of the X Corps, in direct violation of the order given to him by the Joint Chiefs. MacArthur claimed that the South Koreans were without
strength and leadership. MacArthur's decision, just as the Joint Chiefs had feared, led to Chinese intervention, the failure of MacArthur's offensive, and the rout of US troops. The civil administration had given MacArthur explicit directions and he brazenly ignored the order, causing exactly what the Truman Administration wanted to avoid.
Truman eventually relieved MacArthur for insubordination after giving him straightforward orders concerning public addresses. In response to MacArthur's Veterans of Foreign Wars speech, Truman issued his December 6 Directive (1950). In it, he said that military officials could not issue public statements unless cleared first by the government to insure that the information made public is accurate and fully in accord with the policies of the United States Government, and that
officials overseas, including military commanders and diplomatic representatives, should ... exercise extreme caution in public statements ...clear all but routine statements with their departments, and ... refrain from direct communication on military or foreign policy with newspapers, magazines or other publicity media in the United States. Only a few months later, on March 15, 1951, MacArthur blatantly violated the directive and committed
a major act of sabotage.
After China became involved in the Korean War, MacArthur issued a public declaration mocking the Chinese, claiming that China
lack[ed] the industrial capacity for
the conduct of modern war, and that China had demonstrated
its complete inability to accomplish by force of arms the conquest of Korea. The enemy therefore, must by now be painfully aware that a decision by the United Nations to depart from its tolerant effort to contain the war would doom Red China to the risk of imminent military collapse. MacArthur issued this declaration as Truman was coordinating peace talks with China. Not only had MacArthur misrepresented US foreign policy, but his insulting tone utterly compromised the peace talks. Later Truman wrote that
if I allowed him to defy the civil authorities in this manner, I myself would be violating my oath to uphold and defend the Constitution. Truman relieved MacArthur of his command for his address and replaced him with Lieut. Gen. Mathew B. Ridgway.
Compared to the previous relationships, Truman asserted even greater civil control over the military. He issued very specific orders to MacArthur giving him clear limits to his command. In contrast to previous generals, the civil authorities responded more rapidly to MacArthur's misconduct, and attempted either to correct or reprimand him. Another layer of control, Truman curbed the general's freedom of speech. With MacArthur's Veterans of Foreign Wars speech and his final address to the Chinese, he did not have the authority to make policy. Once again, with better communications, the opinions of a general like MacArthur would have been heard around the world in a day. So Truman limited his general's freedom to make public pronouncements.
The US government is remarkable because of its great flexibility. The trend towards greater civil control of the military is an ongoing process, most recently evident in the resignation of General Stanley A. McChrystal for his staff's derogatory comments about the civil administration in June of 2010. While the trend itself could be the result of the American love-hate relationship with their generals, technology has affected the trend. Better communications have been instrumental for the US civil authorities to assert control over their generals, especially since the scope of warfare has expanded immensely in a relatively short time, from the local wars of Jackson, to the national civil war of McClellan, to a distant global war of MacArthur. It is unclear whether the trend is based on the ability to manipulate technology for greater control, or the necessity to do so to prevent global escalation. Or reality could be a combination of both. The continuing advancement of technology promises even greater civil control of the military. The military is becoming civilianized in a number of ways as technology becomes more sophisticated. Whole sectors of the military are now dominated by personnel who fly UAVs and other unmanned aircraft from the safety of the United States. Opposed to the traditional view of soldiers fighting hundreds or thousands of miles away, these new civilianized military personnel commute to work from home and wage war on the enemy from the office. Meanwhile in the last year in Afghanistan for first time in history more civilian contractors died than soldiers. Not only are the civil authorities more in control of the military, but with technology the military is becoming more civilianized itself. Just as the US military began as a civilian-based militia in the Revolutionary War, it seems to be drifting back to its origin, forsaking a standing army for an army of white-collared warriors whose primary weapon is now the computer.