Donald Trump’s refusal to concede to, or cooperate with, President-elect Joe Biden continues to keep the nation on edge. No one can be quite sure what Trump may next attempt to hold power. Some Americans express fear of military interference.

Won’t happen.

Granted, the president serves as commander-in-chief. Presidential authority includes appointing and removing military leaders. History offers us a number of examples, one of which stands out.

On April 11, 1951, President Harry S Truman removed General Douglas MacArthur from his post as commander of United Nation and U.S. forces in Korea. In autumn 1950, MacArthur wanted to push into North Korea and assured Truman that China and Russia would not intercede. Truman agreed to the advance. In November and December, hundreds of thousands of Chinese troops attacked and drove back U.S. forces across the 38th Parallel into South Korea.

MacArthur wanted to bomb China and use Nationalist Chinese forces from Taiwan against North Korea. In order to keep the war limited, Truman refused. MacArthur’s disagreement with Truman went public. While MacArthur was a brilliant strategist, Truman feared an attempt to take over policymaking, a president’s responsibility. Finally, Truman removed MacArthur. The decision was unpopular, but MacArthur had no choice but acceded. He returned to the U.S. a hero but eventually faded from view.

Truman maintained a long-standing principle: A civilian—the president—sets military policy because geopolitical and national considerations are complex and limitations properly belong on our armed forces.

Conversely, military personnel take no part in politics. This establishes a key safeguard for our—or any—democracy.

So, on Wednesday, November 11—Veterans Day—Gen. Mark Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told it like it is: “We are unique among militaries. We do not take an oath to a king or a queen, a tyrant or dictator. We do not take an oath to an individual.” Milley emphasized, “In the event of a dispute over some aspect of the elections, by law U.S. courts and the U.S. Congress are required to resolve any disputes, not the U.S. military.”

Gen. Milley remains in his post—for now. His integrity is to be commended. It represents longstanding tradition.

When I entered the Army as an enlisted man in July 1966 and again in May ’67, when I was commissioned a second-lieutenant after being graduated from Infantry Officer Candidate School at Fort Benning, Georgia, I swore the oath to protect and defend the Constitution. Just before graduation, my OCS class received sage advice regarding the oath and our responsibilities.

Our battalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel Bert Bishop, a combat veteran of World War Two and Korea, told us we were duty-bound to refuse illegal orders. The American army was not a mirror image of Germany’s, which enabled the Holocaust and so much more slaughter. Conscience and principle must guide every officer’s actions.

States will soon certify their elections. On December 14, despite Trump’s cries of fraud—defined as an election Donald Trump loses—306 electors will select Joe Biden as the nation’s 46th president.

Our military leaders, often denigrated by Trump, who once said “I know more than the generals,” will resist any suggestion that they overturn our democratic process. Their oath is sacred. Donald Trump can besmirch the Oval Office but not that.


  1. Joan Sutton on December 5, 2020 at 12:09 am

    I remember (hopefully correctly) that MacArthur said “Old soldiers never die; they just fade away.” Also I’m sorry to point out that I suspect strongly if trump could order a military coup, he would.

    • David Perlstein on December 5, 2020 at 12:32 am

      He did say that, Joan… and he did. Re a coup, you wisely said “if.” But our officer corps would never allow that. In this light, if Trump could write an order making him president for life, he would. But that wouldn’t go, either.

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