Many people have called attention to Donald Trump’s nomination of former generals to his Cabinet, and nearly all of this attention has been negative. Three particular claims have been advanced: this is an unusually high concentration of ex-generals in a Cabinet, not enough time has elapsed since the generals’ retirement from their military careers, and appointing a former general as Secretary of Defense is inconsistent with the founding principle of civilian control of the military. So far, however, no one appears to have done a complete review of historical precedents to support or refute these claims.1
We have therefore undertaken an exhaustive review of all generals who have served in Cabinet or Cabinet-level positions. First, we must define terms:
1. We take “general” to mean a general or an admiral; it would seem arbitrary to include the Army, Air Force, and Marine Corps but exclude the Navy just because of a difference in terminology. (No Coast Guard admiral has served in the Cabinet.) In practice, however, admirals in Cabinet or Cabinet-level positions are extremely rare.2
2. We exclude those who became generals only after they served in Cabinet or Cabinet-level positions. There are nine people fitting this description: six who later became generals in the Civil War (three for the Union, three for the Confederacy3) and three who served in the 20th century.
3. We include recess appointments, but we exclude all other acting or interim Cabinet members, even if they served for long periods of time. Among the more interesting people excluded by this are two of the most famous generals in U.S. history (Ulysses Grant and William T. Sherman as interim Secretaries of War) and the only Coast Guard admiral who would have made the list (James Loy as acting Secretary of Homeland Security). We include brevet generals because they have officially received the rank of general; however, this is relevant to only four people.
4. We will clearly distinguish the Cabinet proper (currently consisting of the Vice President and the heads of the 15 Cabinet departments) from other Cabinet-level positions (such as White House Chief of Staff, EPA Administrator, and U.S. Trade Representative), although we will compile numbers for both. The latter set is more difficult because whether these positions are designated as Cabinet-level varies by President, and sometimes it changes within a President’s term. As a practical matter, from here onward, we will ignore Vice Presidents in this article because they are not appointed and dismissed by the President as other Cabinet members are.4
5. With the exception of Zbigniew Brzezinski’s Cabinet-level status in the Carter Administration, the Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs, commonly called the National Security Advisor, has never been a Cabinet member or a Cabinet-level position. To date, Trump has made no statements to suggest that he plans to elevate this position to Cabinet-level. Nonetheless, to give Michael Flynn due attention, we will discuss him and his predecessors separately. (His predecessors included four other generals, one of whom served in two non-consecutive administrations.)
6. Figures for the Trump Administration are necessarily tentative because some of Trump’s nominees still require Senate confirmation, but we will count his announced nominees as if they are his administration.
Now for the analysis.
First, as a direct comparison for Trump’s nominees, we count how many generals served at the start of each President’s administration. Nineteen Presidents appointed at least one general to their initial Cabinets. Five, including Trump, appointed more than one. However, instead of the raw number, it is more appropriate to consider what percentage of positions were filled by generals because the Cabinet has nearly quadrupled in size since Washington’s time: one general in Washington’s four-member Cabinet represents a much larger presence than one general in Obama’s 15-member Cabinet. The increase in the number of positions is even more dramatic if Cabinet-level positions are included: this expansion has gone from four Cabinet members under Washington to 15 Cabinet members and eight Cabinet-level positions under Trump.
We compile two tables: one reflecting only the core Cabinet, and one reflecting both Cabinet and Cabinet-level positions. (The designation of Cabinet-level positions outside the core Cabinet is a mid-20th-century development, so the numbers for earlier Presidents are identical between the two tables.)
As expected, Trump is on the high side, but he is not in or near first place; he is ninth in the left table and fourteenth in the right table. If we limited our discussion to Presidents who had at least one general among their initial appointments (thus disregarding the Presidents shaded in gray), then Trump would be at the median in the left table, while he would be below the median in the right table.
However, this ignores the fact that Cabinets change over time, and it ignores generals who were appointed later in a President’s tenure. It is therefore also useful to look at the entirety of each President’s administration, then sort the results by what percentage of all their Cabinet and Cabinet-level officials were generals. (If a person held multiple positions during the same administration, that person is counted only once.) Obviously, we cannot yet compile these numbers for Trump because we cannot predict who will join his Cabinet in the future, and it would be unrealistic to think that Trump will keep his initial Cabinet unchanged. Nonetheless, compiling the data for all previous Presidents will give us the most complete picture of how often generals hold these positions.
Benjamin Harrison deserves comment because he tops all four tables. In his initial Cabinet, three of the eight positions were held by former generals, all of whom had served in the Civil War a quarter-century earlier; these generals remained in place for Harrison’s entire term, and they were later joined by a fourth general as Secretary of State. Harrison’s administration has even greater military distinction when we note that one of his Cabinet members (Benjamin F. Tracy) later received the Medal of Honor, and Harrison himself was a former general (though not reflected in the totals above, of course). William Windom, a Quaker who served as Harrison’s first Attorney General, may have felt out of place in such a military-oriented Cabinet.
It is also relevant to identify periods when there were two or more generals serving in Cabinet or Cabinet-level positions at the same time. Trump is the eighth President under whom this has happened:5
If we include the non-Cabinet-level position of National Security Advisor, then three additional Presidents make the list:Of course, once we expand beyond the Cabinet and Cabinet-level positions, then it would be misleading to include the National Security Advisor while excluding other non-Cabinet-level positions that are at least as powerful. (Obviously, we exclude powerful positions that are inherently military, such as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.) For example, if we include the Director of National Intelligence and the CIA Director, which are Cabinet-level under Trump but were not Cabinet-level6 under his two immediate predecessors, then there have been five periods under the last three Presidents when three generals served simultaneously:
We have addressed this issue from several angles, all of which have shown that Trump’s administration is not extraordinary, much less unprecedented, in the proportion of his initial Cabinet made up of generals, nor in having multiple generals among his senior advisors at the same time. The first of the three claims is therefore found to be false.
Next, we review generals’ time since retirement. For each general, we research when he retired from military service and when he began his first Cabinet or Cabinet-level position. We then sort the table in increasing order of the difference between these two dates. (Alexander Haig appears twice because he held one position while on active duty and the other after retirement.)
We present the table of National Security Advisors separately: partly because it is not a Cabinet or Cabinet-level position, and partly because most of the five generals were active-duty when they began, unlike those in the previous table.These two tables do not support the second claim that Trump’s nominees have collectively been out of the military for unprecedentedly short periods of time. John F. Kelly’s retirement was much shorter than average, giving him the sixth-shortest retirement time on the list, but even this was longer than the retirements of two Secretaries of War. James Mattis’s retirement time is shorter than average but still roughly in the middle of the pack, while Michael Flynn has been retired from the military longer than any other general who became National Security Advisor.
As an incidental observation, generals have so far headed 10 of the 15 present-day Cabinet departments. The five Cabinet departments that have not yet been headed by generals are Labor, Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, Transportation, and Education.
Lastly, we consider the claim that appointing a former general as Secretary of Defense is a dangerous deviation from America’s founding tradition of civilian control of the military. James Mattis is only the second general appointed as Secretary of Defense, the first being George C. Marshall, but this is partly because Secretary of Defense is a fairly new position, created in 1947. To get a long-term historical context and infer the Founders’ views, we must instead examine the position of Secretary of War, which the Secretary of Defense replaced in the order of succession.
This third claim is put to rest by the observation that 14 Secretaries of War were former generals, representing roughly one-quarter of the 57 distinct people to have held that post. In the following table, those 14 generals are highlighted in yellow. (As always, this total excludes those who subsequently became generals: for historical interest, however, those people are marked by asterisks, or double asterisks in the case of Confederate generals.) Indeed, before the 20th century, there were only two decades (the 1850s and 1880s) in which a general did not serve as Secretary of War.
Of particular note, the very first Secretary of War, Henry Knox, was a former general. He was appointed by George Washington, a signer of the Constitution, and was confirmed by the initial Senate, nearly one-quarter7 of whose members were signers of the Constitution, so it is clear that the people most familiar with the founding of the U.S. government had no objection to an ex-general being in charge of the military department within the Cabinet. (The Department of the Navy did not yet exist.) Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence, and James Madison, the author of the Constitution, also appointed ex-generals as Secretary of War. Nor was this tradition limited to the 18th and 19th centuries: before the position was replaced by Secretary of Defense in 1947, four of the last five Presidents had ex-generals as Secretary of War, Herbert Hoover being the sole exception.
In summary, all three claims have turned out to be false.
1. Trump’s nomination of two former generals to his initial Cabinet is not unprecedented, and it is not extraordinary to have two or more generals serving at the same time in Cabinet or Cabinet-level positions. If this is broadened to include non-Cabinet-level positions such as National Security Advisor and others of equal importance, then it is not extraordinary for him to have three generals among his appointees.
2. His appointees are not being named to civilian posts within an unprecedentedly short time after their retirement from the military.
3. Appointing a former general to head a military Cabinet department is consistent with U.S. historical precedent across a long timespan, and it is consistent with the precedent set by the Founders.
1. The closest we found was a partial discussion of some recent Presidents, done by the Washington Times, which accurately noted that Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama also each appointed three or more generals to senior civilian posts. Even for recent Presidents, the Washington Times discussion was far from exhaustive, however.
2. Only three admirals have served as non-acting members of the Cabinet: Lewis L. Strauss, James D. Watkins, and John W. Weeks. (Strauss was a recess appointment; when the Senate reconvened, he was not confirmed.) As some consolation, Navy admirals were overrepresented as Director of Central Intelligence, accounting for four of the six military officers to have held that position before it was superseded by the Director of National Intelligence.
3. Not surprisingly, no Confederate general ever went on to serve in the U.S. Cabinet. However, as part of his pledge to name a Southerner to his Cabinet, Rutherford B. Hayes considered appointing Joseph E. Johnston, a former Confederate general, as Secretary of War in 1877.
4. For the record, five Vice Presidents were ex-generals (George Clinton, Andrew Johnson, Henry Wilson, Chester A. Arthur, and Charles Dawes), and one subsequently became a Confederate general (John C. Breckinridge). All of them were Vice Presidents during the period when Vice Presidents were not considered part of the Cabinet. We will also ignore people who have been given Cabinet rank with the position of Counselor to the President, for four reasons: there have often been several of them at a given time, particularly in the Nixon-Ford era; they do not normally head offices or agencies, unlike typical Cabinet-level positions; they do not require Senate confirmation, unlike almost all Cabinet-level positions; and, as a practical matter, historical documentation of these positions is scattershot at best.
5. Astute readers may be wondering about the omission of 1922-1925, under Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge, when John W. Weeks was Secretary of War and Herbert M. Lord was Director of the Bureau of the Budget. Although the latter position (now known as Director of the Office of Management and Budget) is Cabinet-level today, it did not become Cabinet-level for the first time until 1953.
6. Although news articles have often referred to the Director of National Intelligence as Cabinet-level since its inception, the position was conspicuously absent from the White House website’s official Cabinet lists under George W. Bush and Barack Obama, whereas those lists exhaustively included all Cabinet-level positions such as OMB Director, EPA Administrator, and U.S. Trade Representative. Searches through executive orders and White House press releases likewise found nothing to indicate Cabinet-level status under either of those two Presidents. By contrast, Trump truly did give the position Cabinet-level status, and he did the same for CIA Director, which had last held Cabinet-level status under Clinton.
7. At the time of Knox’s confirmation on Sep. 12, 1789, the Senate had 22 members because North Carolina and Rhode Island had not yet ratified the Constitution. Of those 22, the five signers of the Constitution were Richard Bassett, Pierce Butler, John Langdon, Robert Morris, and George Read.
When this article was posted on January 16, 2017, it noted that Trump had not yet nominated a Secretary of Agriculture; after Sonny Perdue’s nomination, the article was updated to remove that caveat, though none of the figures changed because Perdue is not a former general. Also, the hyperlink for the official webpage of Obama’s Cabinet was updated after it moved from whitehouse.gov to an archived location.
On February 8, 2017, the Trump Administration announced that the Director of National Intelligence and the CIA Director would be given Cabinet-level status, while the Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers would not. Under our default placeholder presumption that the list of Cabinet-level positions would remain unchanged from the Obama Administration, we had anticipated that generals would account for 2 of the 22 Cabinet or Cabinet-level positions under Trump, or 9.1%; the second table in this article therefore had to be updated to reflect the ratio as 2 of 23, or 8.7%. This did not affect Trump’s ranking within that table, nor did it affect any of the article’s conclusions. The non-elevation of the Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers also affected the paragraph about unfilled Cabinet-level positions, which in turn changed the numbering of the footnotes. In retrospect, we should have anticipated that Trump would not give that position Cabinet rank because no Republican President had ever done so; the only three Presidents to designate the Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers as Cabinet-level were Carter, Clinton, and Obama. There was no way, however, that we could have foreseen Trump would elevate the DNI to Cabinet-level status for the first time ever, nor that the CIA Director would be given Cabinet-level status for the first time since 2001.
A spreadsheet of Cabinet members was initially generated from the 1996 Universal Almanac, pages 95-98; of all the almanacs at Quiznox Headquarters, this one uses the most convenient format for Cabinet members. The spreadsheet was then updated and double-checked using William A. DeGregorio’s “The Complete Book of U.S. Presidents” and the websites listed below, almost all of which are official government websites.
Researching which Cabinet members were generals was a time-consuming, one-at-a-time process, done in large part with Gale’s “Biography in Context” meta-database (paid subscription); within Gale’s meta-database, the largest single source used was “The Dictionary of American Biography” (1936 edition). Military ranks were also obtained from “The United States Executive Branch: A Biographical Directory of Heads of State and Cabinet Officials,” edited by Robert Sobel and David B. Sicilia (2003). Additional verification of military ranks, including establishing exact dates for most of the military retirements, was done using the “Complete Regular Army Register” edited by Thomas Holdup Stevens Hamersley. Dozens of articles from the New York Times and Washington Post archives (paid subscription) were useful as well.
Secretary of State: https://www.state.gov/secretary/former/
Secretary of the Treasury: https://www.treasury.gov/about/history/Pages/edu_history_secretary_index.aspx
Secretary of War: http://www.history.army.mil/books/Sw-SA/SWSA-Fm.htm
Secretary of the Navy: http://www.navy.mil/navydata/people/secnav/secnavs.html
Secretary of Defense: http://history.defense.gov/DOD-History/Secretaries-of-Defense/
Attorney General: https://www.justice.gov/ag/historical-bios
Postmaster General: https://about.usps.com/who-we-are/postal-history/list-of-postmasters-general.pdf
Secretary of the Interior: https://www.doi.gov/whoweare/past_secretaries
Secretary of Agriculture: https://www.usda.gov/wps/portal/usda/usdahome?navid=FORMER_SECRETARIES
Secretary of Commerce & Labor; Secretary of Commerce: https://www.commerce.gov/page/commerce-history
Secretary of Labor: https://www.dol.gov/general/aboutdol/history/sec-chrono
Secretary of HEW; Secretary of HHS: https://www.hhs.gov/about/historical-highlights/index.html
Secretary of HUD: https://archives.hud.gov/pastsecretaries.cfm
Secretary of Transportation: http://cabinet-members.insidegov.com/d/b/Secretaries-of-Transportation (no list available at the department’s official website)
Secretary of Energy: https://energy.gov/management/history/secretaries-energy
Secretary of Education: https://answers.ed.gov/link/portal/28022/28025/Article/1070/List-of-Education-Secretaries
Secretary of Veterans Affairs: http://cabinet-members.insidegov.com/d/b/Secretaries-of-Veterans-Affairs (no list available at the department’s official website)
Secretary of Homeland Security: https://www.dhs.gov/secretaries-homeland-security
Chairman of Council of Economic Advisers: https://www.whitehouse.gov/administration/eop/cea/about/former-chairs
Administrator of EPA: https://www.epa.gov/history/chronology-epa-administrators
Director of Central Intelligence, Director of CIA: https://www.britannica.com/topic/list-of-Central-Intelligence-Agency-directors-1787118
Director of FEMA: https://www.fema.gov/former-administrators
National Security Advisor: https://www.britannica.com/topic/list-of-national-security-advisers-of-the-United-States-1788874 (Note: This source is atypical in its spelling.)
Director of Bureau of the Budget; Director of OMB: https://www.whitehouse.gov/omb/organization_former_directors
Administrator of Small Business Administration: https://www.sba.gov/sites/default/files/SB_administrators.pdf
U.S. Trade Representative: https://ustr.gov/about-us/history/list-past-ustrs
Ambassador to UN: https://www.state.gov/documents/organization/104312.pdf
White House Chief of Staff: http://www.discovery.com/tv-shows/the-presidents-gatekeepers/chiefs-of-staff-by-president/
Another time-consuming process was determining, outside the core Cabinet departments, which officials were Cabinet-level. Astonishingly, this information did not appear to be available in one place in accurate form, and many books and websites carried misinformation. The history often seems haphazard: for example, John Deutch and George J. Tenet were Cabinet-level as Director of Central Intelligence under Clinton, whereas R. James Woolsey was not, and Tenet lost his Cabinet rank under George W. Bush despite remaining in the same position.
Beyond the sources listed above, eleven pages of references and citations were compiled in researching and fact-checking this article. Many of the citations were used for individual facts, such as one general’s retirement date or the Cabinet-level status of a single person. Some Presidential libraries had useful materials, most notably the biographies of Cabinet-level officials in the Ford Administration.
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