General of the Armies

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search
General of the Armies insignia chosen by John J. Pershing in 1919
Unofficial sketch for the insignia of a general of the armies, in the event of a future requirement

General of the Armies of the United States, or more commonly referred to as General of the Armies, is the highest possible grade in the United States Army.[1]

Only one man has been appointed General of the Armies in his lifetime, and one other posthumously:

Douglas MacArthur was considered for appointment to the rank, both during and after World War II, but a formal promotion order for his appointment "to the office of General of the Armies of the United States" was never issued.[4][5]

The appointment is superior to general of the Army, general of the Air Force and fleet admiral and equal to Admiral of the Navy, and in Pershing's case signified service directly under the president.

Creation and early usage[edit]

George Washington was the first person considered for the rank of General of the Armies in 1799. He was posthumously promoted in 1976 (177 years after his death).

Appointment to the rank or grade of General of the Armies of the United States has a history spanning over two centuries. In the course of its existence the authority and seniority of the rank, and perceptions by both the American public and the military establishment, have varied. In all, there have been six versions of the rank General of the Armies, of which only three were ever formally bestowed:

  1. A rank created in 1799 (but never bestowed) to replace the rank of lieutenant general.
  2. A version revived for Ulysses S. Grant after the American Civil War, named "General of the Army of the United States."
  3. A version revived in 1919 for John J. Pershing for services rendered during World War I.
  4. A proposed rank during World War II (never approved), which would have been an actual six-star general rank.
  5. A further proposal in 1955, also seen as a six-star rank and also never approved.
  6. A final version in 1976, which ensures that no officer of the United States Armed Forces will ever outrank Lieutenant General George Washington.

The first mention of the rank "General of the Armies" was in an Act of the United States Congress on March 3, 1799. Congress provided:

That a Commander of the United States shall be appointed and commissioned by the style of General of the Armies of the United States and the present office and title of Lieutenant General shall thereafter be abolished.

The rank of General of the Armies was created to be bestowed upon George Washington, who had held the generic rank of general during the American Revolutionary War and, as of 1782, was listed as a lieutenant general on the rolls of the United States Army. Washington's rank was as the result of his having been regarded as a "three-star general" during the revolution, and the United States military using European style general ranks which incorporated a three-star rank of lieutenant general. The United States at this point had no four-star general rank (in Europe, the rank was known as captain general until the early 19th century and then simply as general). The rank of General of the Armies, however, was never bestowed on Washington, and, upon his death, the United States Army's highest general rank was that of major general.

General of the Army of the United States[edit]

The second version of General of the Armies was called "General of the Army of the United States", which was held by Ulysses S. Grant,[6] William T. Sherman,[6] and Philip Sheridan[6] after the American Civil War.[6] This rank was revived as a third version of General of the Armies, which was held by John Pershing in 1919. Pershing's rank was the same as Grant's, though it used the full title "General of the Armies of the United States."[6]

World War I and John Pershing[edit]

General John Pershing depicted with four gold stars on his epaulette.

John Pershing's promotion to General of the Armies is rooted in the former title "General of the Army" from the days of the American Civil War. The Civil War version of this rank was considered the same as a "four-star" general, unequal in status to the later version of General of the Army, which was used during World War II.

After the Civil War, the United States military lapsed into a period where the highest possible general officer rank was that of the two-star major general. During World War I, the United States Congress authorized the appointment of three-star lieutenant generals and four-star "full" generals. The four-star rank was considered the "successor rank" to the Civil War title "General of the Army" in that both were considered four-star positions.

Tasker H. Bliss and John J. Pershing were promoted to Army general in October 1917, and Peyton C. March was promoted in May 1918. Hunter Liggett and Robert Lee Bullard were both promoted to Army lieutenant general on October 16, 1918.

On September 3, 1919, President Woodrow Wilson, in accordance with Public Law 66-45, promoted Pershing to the rank of "General of the Armies of the United States"[7][8] in recognition of Pershing's performance as commander of the American Expeditionary Forces. The peculiar wording of Pershing's new rank (i.e. "of the Armies") was to distinguish that this held authority over all armed services, as opposed to the Civil War title "General of the Army" (itself an Army rank).

General Pershing was authorized to create his own insignia. He chose to wear the four stars of a general, but in gold. However, Army regulations of the time did not recognize this insignia, and Pershing's gold stars were never authorized as an official insignia.[9]

With Pershing's appointment to General of the Armies in 1919, the general officer rank structure of the United States Army appeared as follows:

General of Armies insignia.svg
General of the Armies of the United States
US-O10 insignia.svg
US-O9 insignia.svg
Lieutenant general
US-O8 insignia.svg
Major general
US-O7 insignia.svg
Brigadier general

After the war, in 1920, lieutenant generals and generals reverted to their permanent rank of major general.[10] Pershing, however, maintained his position as "General of the Armies" even though there were no longer any lieutenant generals or generals in active service. Pershing retired from the United States Army on September 13, 1924, and retained his rank on the U.S. Army retirement rolls until his death in 1948.[11]

Four-star generals were reauthorized in 1929, starting with Charles Pelot Summerall. Pershing, by this point, was no longer on active duty and his rank was regarded as senior to a full general but a rank which was no longer in the regular promotion tier. In many ways, Pershing's rank was at this time synonymous with a five-star general; however, this would come to change during World War II when the Army appointed five-star Generals of the Army under Public Law 78-482.

World War II and six-star rank[edit]

General Douglas MacArthur proposed for promotion to rank in 1945.

On December 14, 1944, the United States Army established a five-star general position and named this new rank "General of the Army", which was a title that had not been used since the 1880s after the Civil War. Unlike the Civil War version, however, the new rank was clearly a five-star position, whereas the old version was considered a four-star rank.

General of the Armies Pershing was still living during World War II, although he was very elderly. Nevertheless, the question was immediately raised by both the media and the public as to whether Pershing's rank "fit in" with the new five-star position. The situation was touchy from a diplomatic viewpoint, since the five-star General of the Army rank had been created largely to give American officers equal rank with British Army field marshals. The United States government was very hesitant to declare that Pershing held a senior rank to General of the Army, since this would elevate him to six-star status, the same as a grand marshal or generalissimo in Europe and possibly offend not only the British but also the French.

To solve the situation, it was decided that Pershing would outrank all five-star generals by order of seniority, meaning that even if he did not have a higher rank, he was considered senior by virtue of an earlier commissioning date. There was still rampant speculation, however, that Pershing was a six-star general, and the media put the matter directly to the War Department for a clear and concise answer.

In response to a direct question as to whether Pershing held six-star rank, the then Secretary of War, Henry L. Stimson stated:

It appears the intent of the Army was to make the General of the Armies senior in grade to the General of the Army. I have advised Congress that the War Department concurs in such proposed action.[12][13]

Stimson's answer was very carefully worded and nowhere did he ever actually state that Pershing held six-star rank. The situation with Pershing was seemingly solved, but the matter of a six-star general in the United States military would reappear in only a few months during the summer of 1945.

As part of the preparation for Operation Downfall (the planned invasion of Japan), the United States War Department began drawing up invasion manpower requirements for a large force organized into several Navy fleets and Army groups. The Army also saw the need for a possible promotion of more officers to the rank of General of the Army, depending on the size of the invasion force, as well as the participation of American allies in the Pacific (such as the Royal Navy and the Chinese Army) all of which maintained their own equivalents to five-star rank.

It became obvious that the Supreme Commander for the attack of Japan would hold an enormous amount of power and would command an invasion force larger than any seen to date in the Second World War. It was also clear that whoever this commander was would have direct command authority of not one, but several five-star officers. To that end, a proposal was discussed in the War Department to appoint Douglas MacArthur to the rank of "General of the Armies" and have this position be considered a six-star general rank.

The proposal for MacArthur's promotion to a new rank was begun on July 23, 1945.[14] The Army draft for the promotion specified three key points regarding the renewed proposal for General of the Armies:

  1. The position would clearly be a six-star general rank
  2. The rank would be senior to General of the Army
  3. The rank would require a new insignia which incorporated a sixth star into the five-star design of General of the Army.

The proposal for MacArthur's promotion was dropped by the United States Army on August 18, 1945, four days after Japan's surrender announcement, rendered the planned invasion unnecessary. MacArthur's service record indicates the promotion package was closed due to "lack of necessity for such a rank".[15]

As this proposal to promote MacArthur was simply "on the drawing board", the United States Army firmly states (to the present day) that there has never been an officially recognized six-star general rank in the United States military hierarchy. John Pershing's status remains in a very gray area, in particular due to the vague statements made by Secretary of War Stimson and the fact that Pershing was never on active duty at the same time as a five-star General of the Army. Pershing's rank has thus been interpreted as a senior version of a four-star general, an earlier version of a five-star general, or a six-star rank that has never been officially recognized.[citation needed]

Douglas MacArthur and the renewed effort[edit]

Senate Joint Resolution for Douglas MacArthur to assume the rank of General of the Armies

In the early 1950s, supporters of Douglas MacArthur began to petition the United States government to authorize a "promotion" to the rank of General of the Armies. MacArthur was at this time a retired five-star general and, with the movement to promote him, it was clear that (Army regulations notwithstanding) the general public felt that the rank of General of the Armies was a six-star position.

In 1955, the United States Congress considered a bill authorizing President Dwight D. Eisenhower to promote MacArthur to the rank of General of the Armies. The language used in the bill states that the rank was to be "re-activated" and that MacArthur was to be "promoted" to the position. With such terms, the Congressional legislation all but confirmed that General of the Armies was a senior rank to that of General of the Army. However, the Army itself still did not declare that General of the Armies was a six-star rank, and Congress did not actually pass, or even vote on, the proposed legislation.

Had Douglas MacArthur actually been promoted, much of the confusion regarding the status of General of the Armies would in all likelihood have been resolved. This would have been the case due to the number of five-star generals still on the Army rolls, and to introduce a rank of General of the Armies would have required some type of formal regulation by the Army dealing with seniority and insignia. However, the Army Judge Advocate General warned that, should MacArthur accept promotion to rank of General of the Armies, he would lose a large amount of retirement pay and benefits associated with the much more firmly established rank of five-star General of the Army. The Joint Chiefs of Staff was also concerned because George C. Marshall was senior to MacArthur and that, should MacArthur be made a General of the Armies, a similar measure would have to be passed promoting Marshall as well.

Because of the various complications, MacArthur advised Dwight Eisenhower that he wished to decline promotion and the bill to promote MacArthur was dropped. Supporters of MacArthur continued with further petitions, however, and the MacArthur Memorial in Norfolk, Virginia possesses numerous letters from 1962 through 1964 attempting to obtain MacArthur a "six-star promotion". In the letters, as well as a congressional record appendix from February 1962 (pages A864-A865), this promotion was referred to as both "six-star general" and "general of the armies."

Proponents for MacArthur's promotion even obtained a vote of neutral support from Harry Truman (meaning he would neither support nor attempt to scuttle the promotion). The promotion attempts were ultimately scuttled by the John F. Kennedy assassination and then MacArthur's death in 1964.[citation needed]

George Washington[edit]

Since his death, George Washington had been listed on the United States Army rolls as a retired lieutenant general. During the American Revolution, George Washington was not answerable to the Continental Congress (or its President) and actively commanded with complete authority all branches of military forces within the United States.[16][17] In this respect, he had the same authority as a General of the Armies of the United States, although he never held that exact title in his lifetime.

Washington retired as a lieutenant general (three stars) and, as a result, was technically outranked by later four and five-star generals and admirals of the Civil War, World War I, and World War II.

In recognition of Washington's permanent place in United States history, on March 13, 1978, he was posthumously promoted to the full grade of General of the Armies of the United States, with effective date from July 4, 1976. The promotion was authorized by a congressional joint resolution on January 19, 1976 which recommended Washington's promotion. It further declared that no officer of the United States Army should outrank Washington on the Army list.

Orders 31-3.jpg

The formal promotion order signed by Secretary of the Army Clifford Alexander, Jr. does not address six-star status; however the phrasing "such grade to have rank and precedence over all other grades of the Army, past or present" by implication clarifies the relationship of Washington's rank to Pershing's. The full text of the legislation was:

Whereas Lieutenant General George Washington of Virginia commanded our armies throughout and to the successful termination of our Revolutionary War;

Whereas Lieutenant General George Washington presided over the convention that formulated our Constitution;

Whereas Lieutenant General George Washington twice served as President of the United States of America; and

Whereas it is considered fitting and proper that no officer of the United States Army should outrank Lieutenant General George Washington on the Army list;

Now, therefore, be it

Resolved by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That
(a) for purposes of subsection (b) of this section only, the grade of General of the Armies of the United States is established, such grade to have rank and precedence over all other grades of the Army, past or present.
(b) The President is authorized and requested to appoint George Washington posthumously to the grade of General of the Armies of the United States, such appointment to take effect on July 4, 1976.

Approved October 11, 1976.
Public Law 94-479

Other service versions[edit]

US Admiral of Navy shoulderboard.svg

The United States Navy maintains one "super rank" known as Admiral of the Navy. The rank of Admiral of the Navy has only been held by one person, George Dewey, and at the time of its creation this rank was considered little more than a four-star admiral with an added honorary title.[citation needed] George Dewey was deceased by the time John Pershing was appointed to the rank of General of the Armies, and no formal attempt was ever made by the military to compare the two ranks.[citation needed]

During World War II, naval tradition declared that admiral of the navy was senior to the rank of fleet admiral; however, since there has never been any attempt to promote another officer to the rank, the relative ranking of this grade has never been confirmed.[citation needed]

See also[edit]

Navies Armies Air forces
Commissioned Officers
Admiral of
the fleet
Marshal or
Field marshal
Marshal of
the air force
Admiral General Air chief marshal
Vice admiral Lieutenant general Air marshal
Rear admiral Major general Air vice-marshal
Commodore Brigadier Air commodore
Captain Colonel Group captain
Commander Lieutenant colonel Wing commander
Major or
Squadron leader
Lieutenant Captain Flight lieutenant
Sub-lieutenant Lieutenant or
First lieutenant
Flying officer
Ensign Second
Pilot officer
Midshipman Officer cadet Officer cadet
Enlisted Grades
Chief petty officer or
Warrant officer
Sergeant major or
Warrant officer
Warrant officer
Petty officer Sergeant Sergeant
Leading seaman Corporal Corporal
Seaman Private Aircraftman


  1. ^ a b Public Law 94-479 of January 19, 1976 to provide for the appointment of George Washington to the grade of General of the Armies of the United States
  2. ^ "5 Star Generals". Retrieved 2013-08-14. 
  3. ^ Public Law 66-45 of September 3, 1919 to revive the office of General of the Armies
  4. ^ Senate Joint Resolution 26 of January 21, 1955
  5. ^ 84th Congress 1st session, S.J.Res.26
  6. ^ a b c d e Office of the Judge Advocate General, United States Army (1915). The military laws of the United States, 1915, Volume 1, Issue 915 (also The military laws of the United States, 1915, Volume 1, Issue 915). Washington, DC: Government Printing Office. 
  7. ^ Archival military service record of John Pershing, National Personnel Records Center, St. Louis, Missouri
  8. ^ Register of the United States Army and Air Force, published 1948
  9. ^ Army Regulations 600-35, Personnel: The Prescribed Uniform, October 12, 1921
  10. ^ Only Major Generals Now; March, Liggett and Bullard Lose War Rank The New York Times, June 30, 1920
  11. ^ "How many U.S. Army five-star generals have there been and who were they?". United States Army Center of Military History. 
  12. ^ retrieved 17 August 2014
  13. ^ retrieved 17 August 2014
  14. ^ "Hell to Pay: Operation Downfall and the Invasion of Japan", D.M. Giangreco, Naval Institute Press (October 2009)
  15. ^ Service Record of Douglas MacArthur -- National Personnel Records Center.
  16. ^ Cont'l Cong., Commission for General Washington, in 2 Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789 96-7 (Library of Cong. eds., 1905).
  17. ^ Cont'l Cong., Instructions for General Washington, in 2 Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789 100-1 (Library of Cong. eds., 1905).

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]