Although the Constitution states that the U.S. military is subordinate to civilian authority, presidents and top military commanders have clashed periodically throughout American history. Presidents, who often have little or no military experience, are tasked leading and providing orders to professional warfighters with decades of experience. Still, the relationship is usually respectful and both sides work together to do right by the American people.
But, when policy disputes erupt into the public eye, it can get ugly quick. The president has a few options when this happens, the most extreme of which is to either fire the officer directly or request their resignation.
Here are 7 times that presidents felt the need to fire top military officers:
1. Fremont got canned for going rogue against slavery
Maj. Gen. John C. Fremont was known for his explorations in the American West. (Portrait: Public Domain)
John C. Fremont was a famous explorer with multiple expeditions to the American west under his belt. Lincoln tapped him to administrate the west during the Civil War and had him commissioned as a major general.
That proved to be a mistake. Fremont’s department was riddled with corruption and Fremont attempted to free all slaves in Missouri whose owners wouldn’t swear allegiance to the U.S. This created a political crisis for Lincoln. When Fremont refused to rescind the order, Lincoln overruled him and began preparations to fire him.
Knowing that Fremont would try to avoid being fired for as long as possible, Lincoln had two officers dress up in disguises to deliver notices to both Fremont and his replacement. It took the messenger multiple attempts to deliver the orders but Fremont was eventually canned.
2. McClellan was fired for rarely attacking
When the Civil War broke out, the Union Army was being commanded by the 75-year-old Maj. Gen. Winfield Scott. It was obvious that he would have to be replaced quickly, and the only general racking up victories in the early days was Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan.
So, McClellan got the top job despite misgivings from Lincoln. It turned out Lincoln was right as the former railroad executive frequently failed to attack, even when he had technological and numerical advantages and the best ground. Frustrated by McClellan’s lack of progress on executing the war, Lincoln replaced McClellan on Nov. 5, 1862.
3. Richardson got sacked for arguing against the fleet staying at Pearl Harbor
Japan and the U.S. were the “Will they, won’t they?” couple of 1940-1941. Japan’s ever-growing war against China was ratcheting up tensions with America, especially after Japanese planes bombed a U.S. ship evacuating American citizens from a Chinese city. As the two powers stumbled towards war, President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration ordered the Pacific Fleet to stay at Pearl Harbor.
The commander of the Pacific Fleet, Adm. James O. Richardson, disagreed with Roosevelt and the chief of the Navy. He argued, forcefully, that the U.S. was not ready for a war in the western Pacific and that the fleet should return to the mainland U.S. coast. In Jan. 1941, Richardson was replaced by Rear Adm. Husband E. Kimmel.
4. Kimmel and Short were booted for not properly preparing for the Pearl Harbor attack
Of course, basing the fleet at Pearl didn’t go swimmingly for Kimmel either. Kimmel and his Army counterpart, Lt. Gen. Walter Short, were fired in the immediate aftermath of the Pearl Harbor attacks for not preparing for the attack.
In his defense, Kimmel did know that an attack in the Pacific was likely, but he thought that Wake Island or Midway was the more likely target. He had requested additional assets for those locations. Amid rumors of a possible court martial after Pearl Harbor, Kimmel asked to retire and was allowed to leave the Navy.
5. MacArthur was recalled for triggering war with China
While other officers on this list were fired for speaking out or for resisting presidential policy, Gen. Douglas MacArthur was fired for drastically expanding the scope of a war.
MacArthur was immensely popular in the U.S. as a bona fide war hero who came out of retirement to fight World War II. But Truman found him overly aggressive in his role as the supreme leader of United Nations forces in Korea, pressing his attack too far north despite Truman’s warnings and orders.
When China jumped into the war, MacArthur asked for permission to expand the fight even further by bombing forces within China. The arguments between MacArthur and Truman went public and Truman recalled MacArthur in Apr. 1951.
6. Fallon was retired early because he wanted out of Iraq
Adm. William “Fox” Fallon was the head of Central Command during the Surge in Iraq. As the war dragged on, Fallon became convinced that Iraq was a waste of resources. President George W. Bush’s administration continued to believe that they could salvage a victory there.
What resulted was a public debate with Fallon on one side and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Gen. David Petreaus, the commander of forces in Iraq at the time, on the other. As the last of the Surge units were leaving Iraq, Gates stated that there would be a pause in the drawdown after they left and Fallon publically contradicted him (in a cover feature in Esquire magazine). Fallon was pressured into resigning within a couple of weeks.
7. Obama fired two war commanders in two years
The public sacking of Gen. Stanley McChrystal for insulting comments he and his staff gave to Rolling Stone dominated the news for days in Jun. 2010. But McChrystal’s infamous firing was the second time the U.S. commander in Afghanistan had been fired by President Barack Obama.
Gen. David McKiernan held the job before McChrystal and was pressured into resigning by Secretary Gates in 2009 due to concerns that he was waging the war too much like a conventional military conflict instead of an anti-insurgency campaign.