Commander in Chief

British Prime Minister Winston S. Churchill, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin at the Yalta [Crimea] Conference, February 1945
Courtesy of Library of Congress

The framers of the Constitution wanted to preserve civil authority over the military, and designated the president "Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy." During national crises and war, the power of the presidency has increased to include approval of military tactics, control of the economy, and authority to limit the civil rights of Americans at home.

This responsibility has grown dramatically from the time George Washington took up his sword during the Whiskey Rebellion to the day Harry S. Truman authorized dropping an atomic bomb on Japan. The burden of such awesome power rests heavily on every president.

Washington reviewing the troops
As commander in chief, George Washington reviewed the western army at Fort Cumberland, Maryland, during the 1794 Whiskey Rebellion in western Pennsylvania. The military might available to a president has increased ever since. This painting is by Frederick Kemmelmayer.
Courtesy of Winterthur Museum
Pillow cover with World War I imagery
On April 2, 1917, President Woodrow Wilson went before Congress to ask for a declaration of war against Germany, entering the United States in World War I: "The world must be made safe for democracy.... It is a fearful thing to lead this great peaceful people into war, into the most terrible and disastrous of all wars, civilization itself seeming to be in the balance. But the right is more precious than peace, and we shall fight for the things which we have always carried nearest our hearts."

President Bill Clinton in the White House situation room, being briefed by members of the National Security Council (NSC) in 1998. Established in 1947, the NSC is the president's principal forum for considering and coordinating security policy.

With any military decision, the president must balance strategic and operational issues with diplomatic, economic, and even environmental concerns. The Clinton-era NSC included the vice president, secretary of defense, secretary of state, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, director of the Central Intelligence Agency, secretary of the treasury, United Nations representative, assistant to the president for national security, assistant to the president for economic policy, and president's chief of staff.

Courtesy of the White House

Abraham Lincoln and General George McClellan
During the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln, frustrated by the slow advance of General George McClellan's Union forces, personally scouted river landings into Virginia. Lincoln is shown here in 1862, reviewing the troops at Antietam, Maryland.

While the commander in chief is expected to set strategic military goals and approve major tactical decisions, military leaders discourage presidents from meddling in day-to-day operations. Several presidents, however, have felt the urge to command.

Lyndon B. Johnson and General William Westmoreland
One hundred years after the Civil War, President Lyndon B. Johnson selected bombing targets during the 1964 Rolling Thunder campaign of the Vietnam War. In this picture, Johnson is at Cam Ranh Bay with General William Westmoreland, October 26, 1966.
Courtesy of Lyndon Baines Johnson Library

As commander in chief, presidents have been able to implement social policies not otherwise available to them. A striking example of this was in 1948 when Harry S. Truman signed Executive Order 9981 desegregating the armed forces. The order stated "It is hereby declared to be the policy of the President that there shall be equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed services without regard to race, color, religion, or national origin."

George Bush in Saudi Arabia
Most Americans do not welcome the idea of becoming policemen around the globe. But as world leaders, U.S. presidents are taking on more international responsibilities than ever before.

Following Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in August of 1990, President George Bush, through personal diplomacy, brought together a coalition of thirty nations to restore Kuwaiti sovereignty. With the success of Operation Desert Storm, Bush hoped to demonstrate the possibilities for collective security in what he called a "New World Order."

Courtesy of George H.W. Bush Presidential Library