History is full of examples of generals who became the leaders of nations. Simón Bolívar, called The Liberator, led successful campaigns against Spanish rule in what would become Venezuela, Colombia, Peru, Ecuador, Panama, and Bolivia, before becoming their overall president. Napoleon Bonaparte became emperor of France after subjugating most of Europe. Germany turned to aging WWI hero Paul Hindenburg to be the democratically president of the Weimar Republic.
None of the one-time generals who became president of the U.S. can claim to have been an emperor or to have held the title of Liberator, but they all clearly demonstrated leadership qualities that enabled them to ascend to the White House. Their exploits in battle or behind the scenes would serve as fodder for their presidential campaigns. (See each president’s path to the Oval Office.)
Half of the presidents on this list served in the Civil War. Three of those generals – Ulysses S. Grant, Rutherford B. Hayes, and James A. Garfield – served with valor and distinction. (At whatever rank, these are the 31 presidents who served in the military.)
The last man to win the presidency after serving as general, Dwight D. Eisenhower, understood the qualities of leadership. When the Western Allies launched the invasion of Normandy, success was not guaranteed. Eisenhower, the Supreme Commander of Allied Forces, drew up a letter accepting all responsibility if Operation Overlord failed. “Leadership consists of nothing but taking responsibility for everything that goes wrong,” he said later in his career, “and giving your subordinates credit for everything that goes well.”
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