Polls tell us that the U.S. military is the most admired of America’s public institutions. Seventy-two percent of those asked say they have confidence in the military—outpolling organized religion, public schools, unions, and even the police. That stands to reason: Our soldiers, sailors, Marines, and airmen (and women) volunteer to serve, and nearly 7,000 of them have died in combat since 9/11. We’ve asked them to sacrifice, and so they have. The same respect is accorded to our military leaders: George Washington is revered, the funeral of Ulysses S. Grant drew millions, Gen. George Marshall is seen as a military giant, while public esteem for soldier-president Dwight Eisenhower has grown with each passing year.
So it is that when Donald Trump appointed Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster and retired Generals John Kelly and James Mattis to senior policy positions in his new administration, the public breathed a sigh of relief. The three, it was thought, would serve as “an axis of adults” for an untested administration. Now, nine months after Trump’s inauguration, our expectations are even grander: If things get really bad (it is believed), this military triumvirate will intervene to dampen his “fire and fury,” will calm him in the midst of an international crisis, and even say “no” when, finger poised above “the button,” he says, “I order you to . . .”
No military officer has ever defied a president and not one of them, when given a direct order, has ever said “no.” Abraham Lincoln fired any number of commanders during the Civil War, but none of them actually disobeyed his directives—they just weren’t successful. And in World War II, Franklin Roosevelt only overruled the military when George Marshall argued against the invasion of North Africa. Jimmy Carter fired Army Gen. John Singlaub in 1977 after he criticized the president’s decision to withdraw some troops from South Korea and, in 2010, Barack Obama fired Gen. Stanley McChrystal when his staff aired embarrassing opinions about senior administration personalities. Of course, the worst case came in 1951, when Harry Truman fired Korean War commander Douglas MacArthur when MacArthur questioned the administration’s Korea policies. So it is that the U.S. military prides itself on obeying the orders of the nation’s commander-in-chief, though not simply because it’s the law. Civilian control of the military is a pillar of our democracy and in 240 years has never once been trifled with.
Except once. In November 1992, the nation’s most senior military officers not only stood up to a president, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Colin Powell implied that he would resign unless he got his way. The issue was Clinton’s decision that, after he was inaugurated, he would allow gays to serve in the military. Powell and the JCS openly and vehemently disagreed. Their defiance undermined the new administration’s public standing and made the president look weak. This was Colin Powell, the hero of Operation Desert Storm, vs. Bill Clinton, a “smooth-talking, gay-loving, draft dodging, pot-smoking” commander-in-chief. This was not your typical Washington controversy: It was a donnybrook.
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The first salvo in this battle came during a speech on veterans that Clinton gave in Little Rock on November 13, 1992. The president-elect knew he faced a challenge with the military so he went out of his way to reassure them that while he would “continue the build-down of our military forces consistent with the end of the Cold War,” he would “keep this country the strongest in the world.” But while talking to reporters later, he happened to mention that he would also “reinstate members of the military who have been removed from service because they are homosexual.”
The members of the JCS were aghast. But it was not simply Clinton’s views on gays that bothered them, but the fact that Clinton symbolized what his generation had gotten away with: he’d dodged the draft, committed adultery, used drugs, and chosen the soft life at home over a wet foxhole in Vietnam. News of Clinton’s announcement reached Gen. Powell while he was traveling in Argentina, along with word that his colleagues were up in arms. The most outspoken anti-Clinton voice belonged to Marine Corps Commandant Carl Mundy. Mundy wasn’t simply conservative, he was from another era. Women not only didn’t belong in combat, he believed, but gays were promiscuous. His views were reflected in a front-page article in the New York Times which cited an unnamed senior Marine as saying that the president-elect’s announcement on gays would “upset the good order and discipline” of the military.
“This is a political decision,” Powell told reporters when he returned to Washington. This was a damning criticism. The military was supposed to be above politics, but Clinton was using it to pay off a campaign pledge. Powell went further in private. “The military isn’t some kind of social experiment,” he told a colleague, “that can be used to score political points.” Powell had a chance to tell this to Clinton in person, when he met with him on November 19 at Washington’s Hay-Adams Hotel. Powell was blunt. “There are strong objections to this,” he told Clinton. “It’s a bad idea.” Powell added that future controversies could be avoided if only Clinton would confer with the JCS before deciding military policy. “I will do that,” Clinton said. Powell then suggested a solution he thought would satisfy everyone. “Give yourself some breathing space,” he said. “Get this out of the Oval Office. Don’t make the gay issue the first horse out of the gate with the armed forces.” Clinton shook his head. He was committed to his policy.
Nine days before the inauguration, on January 11, 1993, Powell gave an address at the U.S. Naval Academy designed to dampen the controversy. But that’s not what happened. During his remarks, Powell regaled the midshipmen by referring to the Navy’s tradition of producing “virtuous sailors” with an ability to “charm the young ladies,” a not so subtle reference to the gay issue. Then, when taking questions, Powell was asked what sailors should do if they disagreed with a White House policy. “If after those decisions are made you still find it completely unacceptable and it strikes at the heart of your moral belief, then I think you have to resign,” he said. Powell’s answer hung in the air, but the implication was clear. If Clinton allowed gays in the military, the JCS would consider resigning.
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On January 21, Clinton’s Defense Secretary, Les Aspin, met with the JCS at the Pentagon. It was less than 24 hours since Clinton had been sworn in as president, with much of Washington still recovering from the round of parties the night before. Aspin told the chiefs that Clinton had agreed to postpone his decision on gays for six months, during which time it would be a subject of extensive consultations with them. But Aspin mishandled the meeting. The president, he announced, was determined to lift the ban on gays. The chiefs were puzzled: why ask their opinion if Clinton had made up his mind? What followed was one of the stormiest meetings in JCS history. Aspin had never heard such anger. Afterwards, Aspin shook his head. “That was a disaster,” he said.
Four days later, Clinton and Vice President Al Gore met with the JCS at the White House. “We were on one side of the table, all of the JCS, including the vice chairman, and Clinton and his team marched in and sat across from us,” Air Force chief of staff Merrill McPeak remembers. “It was gays in the military. That was the whole thing. That’s all we talked about.” At one point, Al Gore looked squarely at Powell and compared the civil rights movement to Clinton’s advocacy for gays. Powell got testy: “That’s off base,” he responded. Gore pressed him. “What is your underlying theory of homosexuality?” he asked. Powell said he didn’t have an “underlying theory.” Powell was exasperated. “I’m not making a moral judgment,” he said. The meeting did not go well: Nothing was decided, and both sides dug in for an even more divisive debate.
Into this morass stepped Charles Moskos, a Northwestern University sociologist and close friend of powerful Georgia senator and Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sam Nunn. The previous year, Moskos had sent a memo on gay military service to him. The problem wasn’t whether gays were actually in the military, Moskos argued, the problem was whether to openly acknowledge them. Moskos, a brilliant if glib policy wonk, suggested that gays be allowed to serve so long as they kept their sexual orientation a secret. That such a policy made military officers hypocrites didn’t bother Moskos in the least, he wrote, since “a little hypocrisy may be the only thing that allows imperfect institutions to function in an imperfect world.” Moskos had a phrase that he used to explain his solution. Don’t ask gays whether they’re gay, he said, and don’t require them to tell you. If you don’t ask, they won’t tell.
On the night of January 28, and just as the crisis seemed about the get worse, Clinton told Nunn that he would adopt “don’t ask, don’t tell” as military policy and would make the announcement the next day. “This compromise is not everything I would have hoped for or everything I have stood for,” Clinton said, “but it is plainly a substantial step in the right direction.” Clinton touted the announcement as a victory for gay rights, but few observers were fooled. The policy was a concession to the JCS, set a marker for civilian-military relations during the Clinton presidency, and reasserted Colin Powell’s influence on military policy.
Powell’s triumph added to his luster in the military and his standing inside the administration. In fact, over the next years Powell’s influence on military policy was nearly unprecedented. For the first time in history, the head of the military had a veto: Clinton believed he couldn’t successfully promote a military policy decision without his concurrence. Within weeks of his inauguration, the new president appointed openly gay members to sensitive posts in his administration, but he never again crossed the JCS. During a particularly chilly meeting between Clinton and Powell in the Oval Office in the midst of the debate, Powell had told Clinton that if he insisted on issuing an executive order on the issue, he’d go to Congress to get it overturned. “I don’t want that,” Powell said, “but I’ll do it. And if I lose, I’ll resign.” The threat was clear: Powell had the votes, Clinton didn’t. Nunn confirmed the message: “You’re going to have to figure out a way to get along with this guy,” Nunn warned Clinton. “He can beat you.”
“Clinton was apoplectic on the subject of Colin Powell, terrified of Colin Powell,” former secretary of labor and Clinton insider Robert Reich later observed. Clinton solicited Powell’s views on the military budget, cleared command nominations with him, and promoted senior officers on his recommendation. On military issues, Powell didn’t have the final word, but nearly so. Clinton didn’t dare cross him. Even on seemingly minor issues, and well after Powell’s departure as JCS chairman, Clinton looked over his shoulder at the military, seeing the ghost of Colin Powell in every corner. When a group of nongovernmental organizations lobbied the White House to ban land mines, a weapon the military rarely used, Clinton was paralyzed. The argument was made during a White House dinner by former JCS chairman David Jones, who noted that 15 senior retired military officers had endorsed a land mine ban. Clinton agreed, but he couldn’t do it—not so long as the joint chiefs disagreed. “What can we do to help you?” Jones asked. Clinton shook his head, clipping off his bitter instruction. “You can get the joint chiefs off my ass,” he responded. “I can’t afford a breach with the joint chiefs.”
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Since the end of the Cold War, no single senior military officer of any service has ever told a president “no” or even “yes, but.” Except for one: Colin Powell told Bill Clinton “no”—and that was on the issue of gays in the military, hardly as momentous a decision as sending men and women to their deaths—in Bosnia, Somalia, Afghanistan, Iraq, or Niger. On the issue of war and peace, no senior military officer has ever insisted that our civilian leaders question their assumptions or rethink their options. No one even raised their voice. Not once, Not ever. What do we think the chances really are that now James Mattis, John Kelly, or H.R. McMaster will break that tradition?