Of the 46 men elected president of the United States, 14 had no prior military service experience. So which presidents did not serve in the military? They include:
- John Adams
- John Quincy Adams
- Martin Van Buren
- Grover Cleveland
- William H. Taft
- Woodrow Wilson
- Warren G. Harding
- Calvin Coolidge
- Herbert Hoover
- Franklin D. Roosevelt
- Bill Clinton
- Barack Obama
- Donald Trump
- Joe Biden
Table of Contents
- U.S. Presidents Who Never Served in the Military
- Frequently Asked Questions
U.S. Presidents Who Never Served in the Military
1. President John Adams
John Adams was a Founding Father who served as the first Vice President and second President of the United States from 1797 to 1801. He is also the first US president to not serve in the military.
Even if he had no military experience, John Adams was one of the leaders of the American Revolution who fought towards achieving independence from Great Britain. He also contributed to drafting the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.
John Adam’s work as an attorney, diplomat, and statesman has been essential in avoiding a full-scale war against France in 1800, the expansion of the Navy, and overall relations with Great Britain and other countries after the American Revolution.
2. President John Quincy Adams
John Quincy Adams was the sixth President of the United States.
Like his father John Adams, President John Quincy Adams didn’t serve in the military. But he also played a significant role in shaping U.S. military policy and diplomacy during his presidency from 1825 to 1829.
John Quincy Adams contributed to the expansion of the country’s borders and numerous infrastructure projects, including the first passenger railroad in America.
3. Martin Van Buren
Martin Van Buren was the eighth President of the United States from 1837 to 1841.
Like other presidents who never served in the military, Martin Van Buren’s leadership role still had some military-related elements. He was instrumental in helping the US avoid wars with Mexico and Canada and contributed to the signing of the Webster-Ashburton Treaty.
Throughout his presidency, Martin Van Buren strengthened foreign policy and stood his ground in opposing the expansion of slavery, though the abolition of slavery happened years after his term.
4. Grover Cleveland
Grover Cleveland was one of the most criticized U.S. presidents for his lack of military background. Unlike other presidents that dodged military service due to medical reasons, Cleveland avoided being drafted into the Civil War by paying someone $300 to substitute on his behalf.
Cleveland ran 3 presidential campaigns and won two, serving as the 22nd president from 1885 to 1889 and the 24th president from 1893 to 1897. As a leader, Grover Cleveland focused on fiscal conservatism, civil service reform, and preserving several national parks.
5. William H. Taft
William Howard Taft didn’t serve in the military, but he had valid reasons. Then-president William McKinley appointed Taft as the civil governor of the Philippine Islands in 1900. The next president Theodore Roosevelt then summoned Taft to become Secretary of War from 1904 to 1908.
William H. Taft became the 27th U.S. president from 1909 to 1913. His leadership focused on enforcing trust-busting policies and expanding America’s influence overseas by signing foreign trade agreements with Asian and Latin American countries.
6. Woodrow Wilson
Woodrow Wilson, the 28th President of the United States, finished his political career without military background.
Wilson was the commander-in-chief throughout World War I. His critics pointed out that his lack of military experience played a role in his delayed decisions or neutral stance.
Wilson championed peace, preferred to be neutral at the start of WW1 and serve as a mediator. Woodrow Wilson had the Spanish Flu to think about during this time, too!
The former president created the League of Nations after World War I. He also supported or signed important legislation, including women’s right to vote (via the 19th Amendment) and prohibiting child labor.
7. Warren G. Harding
Warren G. Harding had 2 senate terms under his belt before becoming the 29th U.S. President. He didn’t have a military background or played any active role in military affairs.
Unlike other presidents without military service who then proved their leadership during their terms, Warren G. Harding’s presidency was overshadowed by numerous scandals like the Teapot Dome Scandal and the corruption surrounding the newly-established Veterans Bureau.
Although Harding wasn’t able to finish his term as president due to his sudden death, he was able to sign the Budget and Accounting Act. This Act gave the country its first formal budgeting process and led to the creation of the Accounting Office.
8. Calvin Coolidge
Calvin Coolidge was a Governor of Massachusetts and Warren G Harding’s Vice President in 1920. When Harding died in office in 1923, Coolidge took over as President and served until 1929.
Coming from the scandals of Harding’s administration, Calvin Coolidge restored the public’s confidence in the government. His tenure was marked by a period of economic growth and government efficiency.
Calvin Coolidge didn’t serve in the military, but he was involved in military affairs as early as 1899 when he was a city councilman securing an armory for the town where he worked.
As president, Coolidge focused on reducing the country’s massive war debt.
9. Herbert Hoover
Herbert Hoover had no military experience but played a significant part in humanitarian efforts in 1914. After heading the Commission for Relief in Belgium at the outbreak of World War I, Hoover led the American Relief Administration post-war.
As the 31st President of the United States, Hoover’s tenure was defined largely by the start of the Great Depression. His focus was to create jobs and stimulate the economy with agricultural assistance, public works projects (such as the Emergency Relief and Construction Act), and labor reforms.
10. Franklin D. Roosevelt
Franklin D. Roosevelt, often referred to as FDR, was one of the presidents who never served in the military.
FDR did have plenty to show for, starting with a role as Assistant Secretary of the Navy under President Woodrow Wilson during World War I.
Franklin D. Roosevelt became the 32nd president in 1933. By his third term, the U.S. was already in the Second World War, and FDR was hands-on in developing the country’s military strategies. He also established the War Production Board and the Office of War Mobilization.
Roosevelt also built strong ties with Britain and the Soviet Union during WWII, which led the US to victory against Nazi Germany.
11. Bill Clinton
Bill Clinton was found to have avoided the Vietnam draft by receiving education deferments and enrolling (but never actually attending) the Army ROTC (Reserve Officer Training Corps).
As the 42nd President of the United States, Clinton was heavily criticized for authorizing airstrikes against Iraq in 1998 and deploying the military into combat to Bosnia and Kosovo without military background himself.
President Clinton, however, also helped in modernizing the military with programs like the development of the Joint Strike Fighter. His tenure also oversaw several notable reforms in welfare, education, and health care.
12. Barack Obama
Barack Obama was upfront about being one of the presidents without military service. He talked about his family’s history of serving in the armed forces as he worked to support military families and veterans with programs like the GI Bill.
As the 44th U.S. President, Obama also oversaw the end of the Iraq War, decreased the veteran homelessness rate by 50%, and supported modernizing the U.S. arsenal even if he opposed nuclear weapons.
Obama also dealt with the Great Recession during his tenure and came up with several policies that led to economic recovery. By the end of Obama’s second term, the employment rate had fallen from 10% to 4.7% over just 6 years.
13. Donald Trump
Donald Trump is one of the more recent presidents that dodged military service. Like many young men from influential families who could afford a college education, Trump received 5 draft deferments during the Vietnam War.
As a highly-polarizing president, Trump had controversial policies (such as restricting immigration and travel from Muslim countries). But he continued the campaign against ISIS in Syria and Iraq and brokered historic peace agreements in the Middle East.
It was also during the Trump administration when the Space Force was created for the U.S. military’s space exploration efforts.
14. Joseph Biden
Joe Biden didn’t serve in the military. He received 5 educational deferments and 1 medical deferment for his asthma during the Vietnam War.
Winning the presidency in 2021 when the U.S. was recovering from the coronavirus pandemic, Biden’s first two years focused on COVID-19 pandemic response, the American Rescue Plan stimulus package, and a $2.3 trillion Infrastructure and Jobs Plan to create jobs.
Biden also invested heavily in America’s mental healthcare system and canceled federal student loans for around 20 million people.
Frequently Asked Questions
Did Thomas Jefferson become a president without military background?
Yes, Thomas Jefferson didn’t serve in the military before or after becoming the third President of the United States. However, this didn’t hinder his ability to lead.
Thomas Jefferson served as Governor of Virginia throughout the Revolutionary War, even if he wasn’t at the forefront of the war.
Why isn’t Ronald Reagan included in the list of presidents without military service?
Ronald Reagan didn’t fight in World War II, but he did have some military experience working for the Army Air Force’s First Motion Picture Unit. At the time, he was responsible for producing films for training and military propaganda.
Which presidents did not serve in the military? Did their military background have anything to do with how these presidents lead?
As you can see from the list above, not joining the military does not necessarily mean that a president wasn’t a strong supporter of the military or had zero military involvement. Many of them served their presidencies in meaningful ways.
On the other side of the coin, there are 31 U.S. presidents who had military backgrounds. As of 2023, George W Bush was the last one. Here are the other American presidents who served in the military.
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