Retired Admiral John B. Nathman, surrounded by other retired military personnel, addresses the Democratic National Convention in September.
Retired Admiral John B. Nathman, surrounded by other retired military personnel, addresses the Democratic National Convention in September.
Jonathan Ernst / Courtesy Reuters

In September, retired Admiral John B. Nathman took center stage at the Democratic National Convention to endorse President Barack Obama. He did so with serious support: behind him stood more than 30 other veterans and retired officers from several branches of the military. Republican nominee Mitt Romney soon countered by publishing a list of more than 300 retired officers and 40 Medal of Honor recipients who endorsed him for the highest office in the land.

Such endorsements, now a regular feature of presidential campaigns, threaten one of the most cherished principles of the U.S. military: its independence from partisan politics. A close look at three sources -- a 2009 survey we conducted of Army officers, a database listing campaign contributions made by retired four-star officers, and a 2012 survey we conducted of registered voters measuring the effectiveness of these endorsements -- clearly indicates that veterans, especially retired generals and admirals, are involved in U.S. electoral politics in a way that could erode the public’s powerful support for the country’s armed forces. 

What’s happening in the current election is only the most recent example of what is a long-term development in U.S. politics. Obama and Senator John McCain competed for military endorsements in 2008. Before that, the Swift Boat veterans’ controversy shaped the 2004 election. The 2000 election saw competing narratives about Vietnam-era service, and so on, back at least to Admiral William J. Crowe’s endorsement of Bill Clinton in 1992.

Endorsements from retired military influence independent voters and voters who do not pay close attention to foreign policy, even when they do not move aggregate vote totals that much. In a close election when partisan support is extremely solid, shifts among independent voters could prove critical. But in the long run, the more important effect is how such involvement can create the public perception that the military is a partisan institution.


The rules governing the involvement of the U.S. military in American politics are clear. The Uniform Code of Military Justice tightly regulates political activity of active duty service members: Department of Defense Directive 1344.10 bars members of the active duty military from engaging in partisan political activity. But once an officer retires, he or she enjoys the same full rights to free speech and political association as any other civilian. According to a 2009 random-sample survey of more than 4,000 active duty Army officers, most serving today embrace the notion of one code of behavior governing active duty military and another governing retired military. Although 70 percent of officers said it was inappropriate for members of the active duty military to criticize senior civilian leaders in the government, only 20 percent thought it was inappropriate for retired officers to do so.

Then there are donations. The 2009 survey revealed that only about 20 percent of serving Army officers had given money to a campaign or political party at some point during their career. After retirement, however, senior officers become very likely to donate funds to national-level campaigns. According to data from the U.S. Federal Election Commission, 62 percent of the 382 retired generals and admirals appointed to four-star rank from 1977 to 2002 made campaign contributions to federal campaigns.

Although the law is clear about the right of retired senior officers to play an active role in politics, some prominent military leaders have argued that veterans should refrain from exercising those freedoms to their fullest extent. General Martin Dempsey and retired Admiral Michael Mullen -- the two men to most recently hold the position of Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff -- have publicly challenged veterans to live by a more restrictive norm. In a speech at the National Defense University when he was chairman, Mullen called for the nonpartisan ethic to extend into retirement. And Dempsey recently made waves when he scolded a group of retired Navy SEALs for publicly criticizing Obama, arguing that such partisan behavior undermines the American public’s trust in the military.

Since Dempsey’s remarks, the debate over veterans’ political involvement has spread across the pages of the mainstream press, the professional military journals, and social media. Most commentators, reflecting the majority view among serving Army officers, feel there should be no limits on political expression once members of the military have hung up their uniforms. Retired naval officers Steven B. Kantrowitz and Lawrence B. Brennan, for example, made the case in a Wall Street Journal op-ed that the voices of retired officers are important to public debate because they bring unique expertise about national security policies. They argued that it is important for military experts to share that information with voters before the public selects a commander-in-chief.

There are several problems with these arguments. First, it is not clear that the political support of retired officers is based purely on military expertise. There is evidence that they often support candidates for reasons that seem more grounded in subjective partisanship rather than objective professionalism. According to the FEC data on the contributions of retired four-star officers, retired officers were more likely to support candidates from the party of the president who appointed them to four-star rank. Although Republicans enjoyed an overall advantage in contributions from retired four-star officers, generals and admirals appointed by the Carter and Clinton administrations were more likely to contribute to Democratic candidates than they were to contribute to Republican candidates.

Second, there is a difference between participating in partisan politics as a private citizen and participating in such a way that implies that the military as a whole supports a particular party or candidate. As far as we know, neither Dempsey, Mullen, nor any other senior officer opposes the right of veterans to participate politically as private citizens. Their real concern is that these veterans use public esteem of the professional and nonpartisan military to give greater weight to their own partisan political views. By playing up their status as former military, they imply broader support among those still in uniform; this straddling of nonpartisan professionalism and partisan political activity can, over time, erode Americans’ trust in the military. 

The military is the most respected institution in the United States today, with the confidence of nearly eight in ten Americans. But levels of trust break along partisan lines. Only seven in ten Democrats have confidence in the military as an institution, compared with more than nine in ten Republicans, according to a representative national poll we conducted in July 2012. This partisan gap in trust may be due to a public perception that the military itself has a partisan cast. According to the same poll, a majority of U.S. citizens already thinks that most members of the military tilt toward the Republican Party. 

Trust in a public institution seems to be a function of whether the public views that institution as nonpartisan. Irredeemably partisan institutions like Congress score very low, whereas traditionally nonpartisan institutions like the military and the Supreme Court have usually scored better. When those institutions take on a partisan persona, as happened to the Supreme Court this year in the controversy over health care reform, public confidence in the institution erodes. Any involvement in partisan politics, whether for Republican or for Democratic candidates, can contribute to the perception of a politicized military.

In our polling, partisan activity by the military seems to improve confidence in the military among Republicans while reducing it among Democrats and independents. It could be that the lack of trust has something to do with the polarization of the institution, and not just the partisanship of the institution. However, over time, with both parties vying to politicize the institution in their direction, these short-term effects could cancel each other out and leave in place a generalized erosion in trust.


Evidence from a nationally representative survey experiment we conducted this summer suggests that it was in Romney’s short-term political interest to counter Obama’s endorsements with his own. Prior to a standard vote choice question about the election, we spoke with more than 2,500 registered voters, telling some that “according to recent reports, most members of the military and veterans” supported Obama and others that most supported Romney; to a third group we mentioned no endorsement. (For more information on our study, read the report published by the Center for New American Security.) While the supposed endorsements did not affect overall support levels, they did matter among pure independent voters. Among this group, Obama received a nine-point bump when voters were told about veterans’ endorsement of Obama. Romney did not receive such a bump in support. Nevertheless, if he had ceded this ground to President Obama and not countered with endorsements of his own, our research suggests that he may have paid a price. 

Once started, the cycle of military endorsements is hard to break, especially within the context of a closely fought campaign. Yet because the activity can contribute to public perceptions of a partisan military institution, it is worth trying to reverse the cycle.

There aren’t a lot of policy options available to influence the activity of retired military. It would be inappropriate -- and beyond that, unconstitutional -- to put any formal restrictions on what they can and cannot do once they have retired from active military service. Retired military are fully citizens and should enjoy their full rights as citizens. But citizens regularly restrain themselves in the interests of serving the public good, and the same approach of self-restraint could profitably be applied to the partisan activity of senior retired military. 

First, to underscore the break between active service and politics, retired senior officers should voluntarily accept a four-year cooling-off period that would keep them from actively participating in partisan politics (with the exception of voting). The government currently requires similar cooling-off periods for senior federal employees, including retired general and flag officers, before they can lobby their former department or agency. A waiting period would also prevent retired senior officers from speaking out during an election against a president or an administration for whom they served.

At the same time, any retired general or admiral who wishes to enter the political fray -- by making campaign contributions, offering public endorsements, or running for office -- should not be allowed to use his rank, position, or title in an official capacity during a political advertisement or endorsement. Of course, when veterans of any rank explicitly or implicitly suggest that they are speaking on behalf of the military as an institution, they are risking damage to the trust the American people place in a nonpartisan military. Nevertheless, retired generals and admirals are the most important group to rein in, because their ranks confer more legitimacy.

Several critics of Dempsey’s statements have cited an eloquent quote by George Washington. In a letter to the New York Provincial Congress in June of 1775, he wrote, “When we assumed the Soldier, we did not lay aside the citizen.” The critics use his line to argue that there is a long tradition of overt political activity by veterans and retired military officers. But they have ignored the context of Washington’s statement and thus have missed its point. Washington was responding to a letter from Peter Van Brugh Livingston, then president of the New York Congress, who feared that Washington -- and the Army he led -- might not lay down his guns at the conclusion of the war. Van Brugh Livingston’s letter told Washington of his hope that an American officer would “readily lay down his power when the general weal requires it.” The address and Washington’s reply became one of the first symbols of the tradition of civilian control and self-restraint by military officers in America. Upon the conclusion of the Revolutionary War, Washington officially resigned his commission. It is that kind of restraint that would strengthen the republic today.


You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • JAMES GOLBY, a major in the U.S. Army, is an assistant professor at the United States Military Academy at West Point. HEIDI URBEN, a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army, is an assistant professor at the United States Military Academy at West Point. KYLE DROPP is a Ph.D. candidate in political science at Stanford University. PETER D. FEAVER is a professor of political science at Duke University. The views expressed here are those of the authors and do not reflect the position of the United States Military Academy, the U.S. Army, or the Department of Defense.
  • More By James Golby
  • More By Heidi Urben
  • More By Kyle Dropp
  • More By Peter D. Feaver