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Naval History: Presidents with Naval Experience

President's Day, originally established in 1885, honors individuals who have served as President of the United States. Today, we'll take a closer look at the modern-day U.S. presidents who served in the Navy prior to their presidency.

Sailors posing by their ship
Photo Credit: USN

John F. Kennedy

John F. Kennedy was born in Brookline, Massachusetts in 1917. He graduated from Harvard University, where he majored in international affairs. A year later, Kennedy joined the U.S. Naval Reserve, attending the Naval Reserve Officers Training School at Northwestern, University. During World War II, he served in the Navy, commanding a patrol torpedo boat in the Pacific theater. In 1960, Kennedy was elected as the 35th President of the United States, serving until his assassination in 1963. As President, he initiated the establishment of the Navy SEALs, a special operations force designed to conduct unconventional warfare.


“Any man who may be asked in this century what he did to make his life worthwhile, I think I can respond with a good deal of pride and satisfaction, ‘I served in the United States Navy.’”
-John F. Kennedy, August 1963

Lyndon B. Johnson

Lyndon B. Johnson was born in Stonewall, Texas in 1908. He graduated from Southwest Texas State Teachers College (now Texas State University), studying history and earned his high school teaching certificate. Johnson served as a lieutenant commander in the U.S. Naval Reserve during World War II, earning the Army Silver Star, Asiatic Pacific Campaign, and World War II Victor medals for his service. He was elected Vice President in 1960 and became the 36th President following Kennedy's assassination in 1963. As president, Johnson is considered controversial: while he was pivotal for advancements in civil rights, healthcare, welfare, and education for all including veterans, he also signed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which authorized the use of military force in Vietnam.


Richard Nixon

Richard Nixon was born in Yorba Linda, California in 1913. He graduated from Whittier College with a Bachelor of Arts and from Duke University School of Law with a Bachelor of Laws. During World War II, Nixon served in the Naval Reserve in the South Pacific, primarily as the Officer in Charge of the South Pacific Combat Air Transport Command at Guadalcanal in the Solomons and later at Green Island. Nixon was elected as the 37th President in 1968, serving until his resignation in 1974. As President, he oversaw the end of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War.


Gerald Ford

Gerald Ford was born in Omaha, Nebraska in 1913. He graduated from the University of Michigan with a focus on economics, followed by Yale University for law. Ford served in the Naval Reserve during World War II, initially as an instructor at the Navy Preflight School in North Carolina, and later the USS Monterey stationed in the South Pacific. Ford was appointed Vice President following the resignation of Spiro Agnew and became the 38th President following the resignation of Richard Nixon in 1974.


Jimmy Carter

Jimmy Carter was born in Plains, Georgia in 1924. He attended the United States Naval Academy, graduating in 1946. He served active duty in the Navy for seven years, both in the Atlantic and Pacific fleets primarily on submarines. Carter was elected the 39th President in 1976, serving until 1981. As President, he created the Department of Energy and focused on energy conservation and the development of renewable energy sources.


George H.W. Bush

George H.W. Bush was born in Milton, Massachusetts in 1924 and graduated from Yale University. During World War II, Bush served as a naval aviator, flying 58 combat missions and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. After the war, he continued his service in the Navy Reserve. Bush was elected the 41st President in 1988, serving until 1993. In 1989, he signed the Department of Veterans Affairs Act, which elevated the Veterans Administration to a cabinet-level department.


These U.S. presidents all served in the Navy, with varying levels of involvement and experience. While each individual had their own priorities and initiatives while in office, it is clear that their military service played a significant role in shaping their leadership styles and perspectives.


Do you want to learn more about the Navy and its history? Check out the wonderful archive from the Naval History and Heritage Command: https://www.history.navy.mil/.


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