General of the Armies

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Shoulder strap of a General of the Armies[N 1]

General of the Armies of the United States, or more commonly referred to as General of the Armies, is the highest possible military rank in the United States armed forces.[1] The rank is informally equated to that of a six star general and is the highest possible of the United States Army.

The rank has only been held twice in history - once by an active duty officer with a further posthumous promotion to George Washington in 1976. The rank of General of the Armies is senior to General of the Army, General of the Air Force and Fleet Admiral. The appointment is superior to General of the Army, General of the Air Force and Fleet Admiral.

Initial concept and history[edit]

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. 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 intended for bestowal upon George Washington, who held the rank of "General and Commander-in-Chief" which was a grade senior to all American major generals and brigadier generals from the American Revolutionary War. However, only a few months after the Congressional proposal, Washington died on December 14, 1799. The United States Army at that time had also drastically reduced in size and there was no practical need for a superior General rank, thus the proposal for General of the Armies was soon forgotten.

George Washington's rank insignia

In 1865, after the close of the American Civil War, Congress again revisited the idea of a superior General rank. The result was the creation of a special rank called "General of the Army of the United States", which was held by Ulysses S. Grant.[2] This early version of General of the Army was in fact a four star general officer rank although, unlike in modern times, Congress intended for only one Army officer to hold the position thus granting the rank the same authority as the initial concept of General of the Armies. William T. Sherman,[2] and Philip Sheridan[2] would also hold the position. By Sheridan's tenure, the insignia had been changed to that of a major general superimposed upon a golden national eagle. This change was made since the United States army of the 1880s had no rank of lieutenant general, thus creating an insignia gap between two and four stars.

Civil War era insignia for "General of the Army of the United States"

The rank of General of the Army of the United States ceased to exist upon the death of Sheridan in 1888. The next proposal to create a superior general rank would occur thirty one years later during the First World War. In the interim, the highest possible general officer rank of the United States Army was that of two-star major general. Within the United States Navy, three and four star ranks continued into the 20th century, leading to the creation of the Admiral of the Navy rank in 1903. George Dewey was appointed this rank which, at the time of its creation, was considered a four-star admiral with an added honorary title. A comparison between Admiral of the Navy and General of the Armies was first made in 1944, although the rank of Admiral of the Navy was never declared equal in seniority.

During World War I, the United States Congress authorized the appointment of three and four star lieutenant generals to be granted temporarily for service in the National Army. Tasker H. Bliss and John J. Pershing were promoted to 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. In 1919, by Congressional directive, the rank of General of the Armies was formally established and John J. Pershing became the first person to hold the rank.

After the close of the First World War, the highest active grade in the U.S. Army again became major general with all lieutenant generals and generals (except for Pershing) reverted to this permanent rank of major general.[3] Pershing then 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.[4]

John Pershing's gold star insignia

Four-star generals were reauthorized in 1929, starting with Charles Pelot Summerall. Pershing at this time was no longer on active duty, but his rank was regarded as senior to a full general outside the regular promotion tier. 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, this new rank was clearly a five-star position, whereas the old version was considered a four-star rank; the five star rank was also intended to be held by more than one person rather than a single supreme rank for the head of the U.S. Army.

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 date of promotion into that rank. 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.[5][6]

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 at which time Douglas MacArthur was considered for promotion to General of the Armies. Efforts to promote MacArthur, although never successful, would continue for the next twenty years and lapse only with his death in 1964.

The rank of General of the Armies would then be revisited with a posthumous promotion of George Washington in 1978. In 1981, upon the death of Omar Bradley, brief consideration was given for another posthumous promotion; however, no action was taken beyond designing a potential "modern day" insignia for General of the Armies.

The most recent reference to the rank of General of the Armies occurred in 2008 when the Army authorized the Army Service Uniform as the new standard uniform for United States soldiers. As part of the first presentations of the uniform to Army leadership, the Institute of Heraldry created an insignia chart with officer ranks ranging from Second lieutenant to General of the Armies of the United States. This 21st century insignia chart, showing both a five and six star general officer, was considered unofficial by the Army and was later refined to show insignia only to four star general.[7]

John Pershing[edit]

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

John J. Pershing was the only person in history to hold the rank of General of the Armies while serving on active duty. In 1919, to honor his service in World War I, Congress authorized the promotion of Pershing to the rank of "General of the Armies of the United States" and allowed him to design his own insignia.[8] On September 3, 1919, President Woodrow Wilson, in accordance with Public Law 66-45, promoted Pershing to that same rank. The rank was primarily intended to recognize Pershing's performance as commander of the American Expeditionary Forces. The 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" was itself only an Army rank.

General Pershing chose to wear the four stars of a general, but in gold, to signify his new position. A bureaucratic loophole in Army regulations did not recognize this insignia, however, thus Pershing's gold stars did not appear on Army rank precedence charts and were considered an unofficial rank insignia.[9] The matter was not resolved until after Pershing's retirement when the Army declared that the four gold stars worn by Pershing were the official insignia for General of the Armies of the United States, thus creating the following hierarchy of Army general officer ranks.

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

Douglas MacArthur[edit]

General Douglas MacArthur proposed for promotion to rank in 1945.

Douglas MacArthur was considered for appointment to the rank of General of the Armies 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.[10][11] Supporter of MacArthur would lobby for over two decades to have the general promoted to "six star general".

World War II[edit]

Unofficial insignia for 6 star general

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.[12] 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.

At the beginning of August 1945, a member of MacArthur's staff drew a single sketch of a five star general insignia superimposed in its center with a sixth star of rank. This sketch was the first known design for a "six star general" insignia, but was never seriously considered since, just a few weeks later, the proposal for MacArthur's promotion was dropped. The United States Army formally closed the file on MacArthur's promotion on August 18, 1945, four days after Japan's surrender announcement which rendered the planned invasion of the Japanese home islands unnecessary. MacArthur's service record was then annotated that the promotion package had been closed due to "lack of necessity for such a rank".[13]

As this proposal to promote MacArthur was simply "on the drawing board", the United States Army firmly stated for the next twenty years that there was never an officially recognized six-star general rank in the United States military hierarchy. John Pershing's status also remained in a very gray area, in particular because of 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.[6]

Renewed efforts[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.

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".

Failed posthumous promotion[edit]

When MacArthur died in 1964, proponents for his promotion petitioned both the Army and Congress to grant a posthumous promotion to General of the Armies, and even went so far as to obtain a vote of neutral support from Harry Truman (meaning he would neither support nor attempt to scuttle the promotion). In 1965, the Deputy Chief of Staff for Army Personnel contacted the Institute of Heraldry and requested the feasibility of creating a six star general insignia in the event that MacArthur was in fact posthumously promoted. At the same time, the Army Personnel Office began attempting to resolve the confusion surrounding the status of General of the Armies.[14]

The Army Personnel Office determined that, because of the number of living five-star generals still on the Army rolls in 1964, to introduce a rank of General of the Armies would require a formal regulation dealing with seniority, insignia, and retirement benefits. The Army Judge Advocate General also advised that, should MacArthur receive promotion to rank of General of the Armies, salary and benefits associated with the much more firmly established rank of five-star General of the Army would have to be reexamined. The Joint Chiefs of Staff further stated that because George C. Marshall was senior to MacArthur on the Army rolls, that should MacArthur be made a General of the Armies, a similar measure would have to be passed posthumously promoting Marshall as well (Marshall had died in 1959).

Due to various logistical and administrative difficulties, as well the United States having recovered from the John F. Kennedy assassination coupled with the expansion of the Vietnam War, efforts to promote MacArthur were ultimately dropped and no further petitions to the Army were received after 1966.

George Washington[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).

As part of the American bicentennial celebrations, a proposal was raised in Congress to commemorate the leadership and historical importance of George Washington by appointing him to the grade of General of the Armies of the United States.[1][15] In his own day, Washington had been appointed and served as "General and Commander in chief of the Army of the [United States]".[16][17][18] but only wore the three-star insignia of an Army lieutenant general. As of 1782, when Washington was listed as a lieutenant general on the rolls of the United States Army, his rank was informally called "three-star general". The United States at this point had no four-star general rank until 1866 (in Europe, the rank was known as captain general until the early 19th century and then simply as general) and there would be no lieutenant generals in the American army until Winfield Scott was "brevetted" to the rank of lieutenant general in 1841.

Since Washington had technically retired as a lieutenant general (three stars), he was as a result outranked by later four and five-star generals and admirals of the Civil War, World War I, and World War II. To rectify this discrepancy, and to acknowledge Washington's unique role in military history as serving as a military commander-in-chief not answerable to either the Continental Congress or its President, Congress in 1976 felt it only fitting that Washington be granted a supreme rank to signify that he actively commanded with complete authority all branches of military forces within the United States.[16][17]

On March 13, 1978, Washington 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 and further declared that no officer of the United States armed forces should ever outrank George Washington.

Orders 31-3.jpg

The formal promotion order signed by Secretary of the Army Clifford Alexander, Jr., while not addressing six-star status, did include the phrasing "such grade to have rank and precedence over all other grades of the Army, past or present" and by implication thus clarified the relationship of Washington's rank to Pershing's. Public Law 94-479, which codified the rank of General of the Armies of the United States, did not create a separate rank from Pershing's but rather simply clarified that, while Washington and Pershing held the same rank, Washington was to be considered senior although having obtained the rank at a later date.

Promotion Legislation[edit]

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

Omar Bradley[edit]

Omar Bradley
Proposed insignia as published by the Institute of Heraldry in 1981

Upon the death of Omar Bradley in 1981, Congress considered a special recognition to commemorate the passing of the last of the Second World War five star officers. Six weeks after Bradley's death, the House Armed Services Committee sent a letter to the Institute of Heraldry and the Army requesting to know the feasibility of promoting Bradley to the rank of six star general.[19] A brief was issued which repeated much of the concerns raised in 1964 when Douglas MacArthur had been considered posthumously for the rank.

The Institute of Heraldry released two insignia designs for the rank of the General of the Armies which incorporated a sixth star into the standard five star general design. In response to a concern regarding seniority amongst five star officers, Congress also requested clarification as to the procedures should a United States Navy or Air Force officer be promoted to six star rank. The response to Congress stated:

"Should an officer of the Air Force or Navy be promoted to six star rank, that officer should be entitled to the six star insignia with a service specific crest"[20]
Cross branch insignia for General of the Armies of the United States
(Army, Navy, and Air Force)

The notion of promoting Bradley was never agreed upon within Congress and by 1982 the proposal had been dropped. There have been no further efforts since to promote a member of the United States armed forces to the rank of General of the Armies of the United States.

Chronology[edit]

Admiral of the Navy insignia
  • June 1775: George Washington appointed as General and Commander-in-Chief
  • November 1783: Highest rank in United States rank declared as Major General
  • March 1799: Congress proposes George Washington be appointed as "General of the Armies of the United States"
  • December 1799: Washington dies; proposal to promote to higher rank is dropped
  • March 1847: Winfield Scott promoted to lieutenant general, technically the same rank as George Washington
  • July 1866: Congress established the rank of "General of the Army of the United States" and promotes Ulysses Grant to the position
  • March 1869: William Sherman promoted to General of the Army
  • June 1888: Philip Sheridan promoted to General of the Army
  • August 1888: Sheridan dies. Highest rank in Army is again Major General
  • March 1903: George Dewey promoted to "Admiral of the Navy", with date of rank from 1899
  • October 1917: John J. Pershing promoted to four star general, now known simply as "General"
  • October 1918: First promotions to lieutenant general since the American Civil War
  • September 1919: John J. Pershing promoted to General of the Armies of the United States
  • September 1924: Pershing retires. Two star Major General again highest rank in Army
  • February 1929: Three and four star general ranks again issued on a temporary basis
  • November 1930: Douglas MacArthur becomes a four star general and Army Chief of Staff
  • December 1941: United States enters World War II
  • December 1944: Five star "General of the Army" rank established
  • July 1945: Douglas MacArthur considered for promotion to six star "General of the Armies"
  • August 1945: World War II ends. Promotion proposal for MacArthur is closed
  • July 1948: John J. Pershing dies
  • January 1955: Congress considers a bill to promote MacArthur to General of the Armies.
  • April 1964: MacArthur dies. No further efforts for promotion after 1965
  • March 1978: George Washington posthumously promoted to General of the Armies of the United States with seniority over all other officers of the United States armed forces
  • April 1981: Omar Bradley, the last five star officer of World War II, dies. Congress briefly considers the feasibility of promotion to six star rank
  • November 2008: The Institute of Heraldry releases an insignia chart displaying a "six star general" rank. The Army states that the insignia is not official

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 or
Brigadier general
Air commodore
Captain Colonel Group captain
Commander Lieutenant colonel Wing commander
Lieutenant
commander
Major or
Commandant
Squadron leader
Lieutenant Captain Flight lieutenant
Sub-lieutenant Lieutenant or
First lieutenant
Flying officer
Ensign Second
lieutenant
Pilot officer
Midshipman Officer cadet Officer cadet
Enlisted grades
Warrant officer or
Chief petty officer
Warrant officer or
Sergeant major
Warrant officer
Petty officer Sergeant Sergeant
Leading seaman Corporal Corporal
Seaman Private Aircraftman

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b Public Law 94-479 of 1976 to provide for the appointment of George Washington to the grade of General of the Armies of the United States
  2. ^ a b c 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. 
  3. ^ Only Major Generals Now; March, Liggett and Bullard Lose War Rank The New York Times, June 30, 1920
  4. ^ "How many U.S. Army five-star generals have there been and who were they?". United States Army Center of Military History. 
  5. ^ http://usmilitary.about.com/library/milinfo/armyorank/blgoa.htm retrieved 17 August 2014
  6. ^ a b https://army.togetherweserved.com/army/servlet/tws.webapp.WebApp?cmd=ShadowBoxProfile&type=Person&ID=7151 retrieved 17 August 2014
  7. ^ "IOH chart shows five and six star generals", Army Times (2008)
  8. ^ "5 Star Generals". Militaryfactory.com. Retrieved 2013-08-14. 
  9. ^ Army Regulations 600-35, Personnel: The Prescribed Uniform, October 12, 1921
  10. ^ Senate Joint Resolution 26 of January 21, 1955
  11. ^ 84th Congress 1st session, S.J.Res.26
  12. ^ "Hell to Pay: Operation Downfall and the Invasion of Japan", D.M. Giangreco, Naval Institute Press (October 2009)
  13. ^ Service Record of Douglas MacArthur -- National Personnel Records Center.
  14. ^ Army Message Traffic 5/5/64, Washington, DC; "Request for Preliminary Designs for a 6 Star General insignia", Office of the Chief of Staff for Personnel
  15. ^ Public Law 66-45 of September 3, 1919 to revive the office of General of the Armies
  16. ^ a b Cont'l Cong., Commission for General Washington, in 2 Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789 96-7 (Library of Cong. eds., 1905).
  17. ^ a b Cont'l Cong., Instructions for General Washington, in 2 Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789 100-1 (Library of Cong. eds., 1905).
  18. ^ Cont'l Cong., Resolution Changing "United Colonies" to "United States", in 5 Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789 747 (Library of Cong. eds., 1905).
  19. ^ Congressional Record 1981, Cong. 97 Sess. 1 – Parts 6-8, "Comparison and Promotion Procedures for General of the Armies and General of the Army of the United States".
  20. ^ Congressional Record 1981, Cong. 97 Sess. 1 – Part 8, "Promotion of other service branches to General of the Armies of the United States".

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ This insignia was published in 2008 by the Institute of Heraldry, but was never considered official by the United States Army

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]