Civilian Control of the Military

Who will guard the guardians? How will society be protected from the protectors? To defend society from threats, we create military institutions capable of wielding deadly force. Once created, how can we ensure that those institutions will serve the society they are intended to protect and not become a threat themselves? Democracies meet this goal by preserving civilian control of the military.

The military needs to be effective in order to defend the state from foreign aggression, but domestically, this places force majeure (the strongest force/irresistible physical power) in the hands of a well-organized caste, nominally within but capable of moving apart from society. When divisions inevitably arise within the polity and paralysis of responsive government threatens the integrity of the state, the military holds a position of great advantage—to be final arbiter, kingmaker, or coup plotter as it chooses.

The Founders of the American Republic worried a great deal about this problem. Indeed, having seen the British military as a tool of British imperial oppression, the Founders were adamant that the military not become a threat in the new Republic. Anti-Federalists were especially concerned about the rise of a national professional army over state militias. At the same time, the Founders recognized that some military capability was needed to protect the new republic. Ensuring that the military would not abuse this power—ensuring that civilian control of the military would be preserved—was a central preoccupation for the Framers of the US Constitution, and their solution was to keep the military small and to make it constitutionally subordinate to both the executive and the legislative branches. This “invitation to a struggle,” described in Edward Corwin's The President: Office and Powers ( 1957 ), has characterized civilian control of the American military ever since.

The foundational work for the modern study of American civil-military relations as a political phenomenon is Samuel P. Huntington's Soldier and the State ( 1957 ). It defined the problem as a “complex balancing of power and attitudes” in order to “maximize military security at the least sacrifice of other social values” ( 1–2 ). Huntington argued that the traditional method by which Americans assured civilian control had been to keep the military tiny except during periods of extreme emergency. With the apparently permanent threat of Soviet communism and the global responsibilities of a superpower, this solution no longer made sense. The challenge, as Huntington saw it, was to reconcile the tension between American liberal values and the need for a large, powerful, conservative-oriented military institution. The solution, according to Huntington, was to maximize the professionalism of the military—giving the military enough autonomy to develop a professional corporate identity in exchange for the military embracing the professional value of subordination to civilian control.

Overall, the historical record shows Americans have coped successfully with the inherent tensions between sustaining an effective military and maintaining civilian control, even though the country never followed Huntington's prescriptions precisely. The United States has steered well clear of a military coup d'état thanks in part to decentralized governmental institutions and a liberal, highly individualistic, political culture. General George Washington, leader of the Continental Army, sought to settle the question of a permanent military order at Newburgh, outside of British-occupied New York, during the final months of the Revolutionary War. Once the Army rendered its essential service, breaking the United States free of the British monarchy, a cash-strapped American Congress, already in arrears, could not agree on how much to pay its soldiers, or when. Washington, in a famous speech to his officers, cut off the movement to abandon Congress or turn arms against it by reconfirming the social contract between democratic government and the officer corps. This contract, of course, went far beyond fee for service. The glory, honor, and professionalism of the Army were forever alloyed to moderation and patience accorded civilian authorities. An Army called into existence in order to win freedom for a providential experiment in self-government could never intervene politically in order to “save the Confederation” or its successor Republic under one flag, without introducing civil discord into a rising empire of liberty and mortally wounding the last best hope of earth.

This code of ultimate military restraint held through momentous crises and institutional changes, including centralization and the gradually concentrating authority in American governance from the original confederative system of the revolutionary decade. The American Constitution of 1787 created a single commander in chief, astride an executive branch that could exercise immediate control of forces independent of the fractious national legislature. The war to save the Union ( 1861–1865 )—to compel rebellious southern states by force of arms to remain within the Union and under the US Constitution—abruptly placed civilmilitary relations between President Abraham Lincoln and his battlefield commander for the Army of the Potomac in sharp relief. Even under intense pressure of an existential crisis and unprecedented bloodletting on American soil, Union general George McClellan ( 1826–1885 ) may have resisted President Lincoln's attrition strategy of doggedly attacking the Confederate Army, but he never threatened a military coup. Instead, McClellan challenged Lincoln—and accepted eventual defeat—within the confines of American political institutions, as the Democratic Party nominee for president in the 1864 election.

As strategic stakes for the nation evolved during the twentieth century, American civil-military relations were punctuated by often intense and public disagreements between the president and senior military officers: General Leonard Wood ( 1860–1927 ) publicly challenged President Woodrow Wilson ( 1882–1945 ), leading the military preparedness movement and advocating for universal military training before World War I; General George C. Marshall ( 1880–1959 ) privately chafed at President Franklin D. Roosevelt's concession to allied Britain, delaying the timing for a cross-channel invasion of occupied France during World War II; General Douglas MacArthur ( 1880–1964 ) was fired for publicly criticizing President Harry S. Truman's political restrictions on offensive military operations out of Korea during the Cold War; and in 2010 General Stanley McChrystal's disagreements with President Barack Obama ( 1951–

Actors Kirk Douglas and Burt Lancaster on the set of the 1964 political thrillerSeven Days in May, in which Lancaster's character plans a coup to take control of the federal government while Douglas's character works with the president to stop him.

Actors Kirk Douglas and Burt Lancaster on the set of the 1964 political thriller Seven Days in May, in which Lancaster's character plans a coup to take control of the federal government while Douglas's character works with the president to stop him.

On several occasions, senior officers availed themselves of checks and balances in American government and engaged Congress as a means to pressure the commander in chief. In other instances, they availed themselves of a free press eager to report dramatic controversy. However, they stopped well short of unlawful insubordination. In nearly all cases of public disagreement during the Cold War, Congress deferred to the president—that is, executive civilian authority eventually got what it wanted from the military, once opposition in Congress exacted a political price. The specters of a military coup or a nuclear holocaust induced by an itchy trigger finger have been favorite themes of Hollywood movies, but both have been averted by cooler heads, failsafe governing institutions, and lack of public support.

Constitutional separation of powers and liberal political culture may have worked, in effect, as a relief valve, abetting commotion between America's uniformed military leadership and civilian authority while precluding the accumulation of passions, including fear for the country, which could seriously threaten democratic control. Around the world, other republics have not fared as well ( see, for example, Finer [1962] 2006 ). Moreover, the rise of bureaucratic authoritarianism that toppled several important democracies in South America during the 1970s, interventions of the Turkish military after 1960 to protect the secular republican vision of Kemal Atatürk ( 1881–1938 ), and present-day military rule in Egypt demonstrate that even for middle-income countries at peace, navigating dilemmas of civil-military relations has presented daunting challenges against balanced political institutions and philosophical liberalism.

Most scholars today reject the notion that, in the American case, civil-military relations could produce a similar existential crisis for democratic governance. Nevertheless, the first decades of the twenty-first century find the United States still a leading state in the international system and now de facto guarantor of an international order based on the rule of law: there are plenty of opportunities for principled disagreements between military and civilian officials over high-stakes national security policy. The greatest dangers, then, remain much as Huntington identified them over fifty years ago. Without proper education, the next generation of officers and civilian decision makers might not fully appreciate the linkage between civil-military organization and culture at the institutional level and successful grand strategy at the operational level. Responsible parties on either side of the civil-military divide might not be adequately prepared for the delicate balancing act demanded of them by the American Constitution, which mitigates against concentration of power in any civilian's hands, and the nation's liberal-democratic creed, which is antithetical to command-and-control governance in general and military hierarchy in particular. For optimal civil-military relations under American governance, the military must know when to stand down—after having been invited to dissent wholeheartedly against illconceived civilian designs—and civilians must not press as far as they might in their unequal dialogue with military professionals.

SEE ALSO Constitution ; Limited Government ; US Bill of Rights .


Cohen, Eliot A. Supreme Command: Soldiers, Statesmen, and Leadership in Wartime. New York: Free Press, 2002.

Corwin, Edward S. The President, Office and Powers, 1787–1957: History and Analysis of Practice and Opinion. 4th rev. ed. New York: New York University Press, 1957.

Feaver, Peter D. Armed Servants: Agency, Oversight, and Civil-Military Relations. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003.

Finer, Samuel E. The Man on Horseback: The Role of the Military in Politics. London: Pall Mall, and New York: Praeger, 1962; repr., New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 2006.

Huntington, Samuel. The Soldier and the State: The Theory and Politics of Civil-Military Relations. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1957.

Kohn, Richard H. Eagle and Sword: The Federalists and the Creation of the Military Establishment in America, 1783–1802. New York: Free Press, 1975.

Kohn, Richard H., ed. The United States Military under the Constitution of the United States, 1789–1989. New York: New York University Press, 1991.

Owens, Mackubin Thomas. US Civil-Military Relations after 9/11: Renegotiating the Civil-Military Bargain. London: Continuum, 2011.

Damon Coletta
US Air Force Academy

Peter D. Feaver
Duke University