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Superior To Any Five-star General/Admiral

Nine Americans have been promoted to five star rank, one of them in two services. (General Arnold actually was awarded this rank twice. In 1944, he received his fifth star while the air force was still part of the Army. It was then known as the U.S. Army Air Forces (AAF). After the AAF separated from the Army in 1947 and was renamed the United States Air Force, Arnold became the new service's only five-star General of the Air Force.) George Washington was permanently made superior to any other five-star general/admiral with his title General of the Armies effective on July 4, 1976. The grade of General of the Armies of the United States is associated with two officers in our history, George Washington and John J. Pershing, although only General Pershing actually held it.

After Washington's death, an Act of May 14, 1800, specifically authorized President Adams to suspend any further appointment to the office of General of the Armies of the United States, "having reference to economy and the good of the service." Although the office was not expressly referred to in any of the actions taken to reduce or disband forces that had been raised in contemplation of war with France, it ceased when it was not mentioned in the Act of March 16, 1802, which determined the peacetime military establishment.

Congress enacted legislation authorizing the grade of General of the Army on July 25, 1866, and on that date the new grade was conferred on Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant. The grade was recognized and continued in various acts until the Act of July 15, 1870, which contained the requirement that "the offices of general and lieutenant general shall continue until a vacancy shall exist in the same, and no longer, and when such vacancy shall occur in either of said offices shall become inoperative, and shall, by virtue of this act, from thence forward be held to be repealed."

William T. Sherman, Grant's successor as Commanding General of the Army, was appointed as General of the Army on March 4, 1869, and upon his retirement in February 1884 was placed on the retired list as General of the Army. Under the provisions of the Act of March 3, 1885, authorizing the appointment of a "general of the Army on the retired list," this grade was also conferred on General Grant shortly before his death on July 23, 1885. The title ceased to exist as a grade of military rank at Sherman's death on February 14, 1891.

Sherman's successor was Lieutenant General Philip H. Sheridan, who could not be promoted to General of the Army because of the 1870 law. Congress, however, enacted legislation on June 1, 1888, shortly before Sheridan's death, that discontinued the grade of lieutenant general and merged it with that of General of the Army. The grade of General of the Army was conferred on Sheridan and was discontinued when he died, while still on active duty on August 5, 1888.

War Department General Orders No. 75, September 5, 1866, prescribed that the insignia for the newly authorized General of the Army grade would be four stars. General Grant wore this insignia, as did General Sherman until War Department General Orders No. 92, October 26, 1872, changed the insignia to two silver stars with the arms of the United States in gold between them. General Sherman, and later General Sheridan, wore the new insignia.

Congress revived the grade of General of the Armies of the United States by Public Law 45, approved September 3, 1919, to honor General John J. Pershing for his wartime service. He retired with that rank on September 13, 1924, and held it until his death on July 15, 1948. No other officer held this specific title until 1976, when President Ford posthumously appointed George Washington General of the Armies of the United States and specified that he would rank first among all officers of the Army, past and present.

When General Pershing was appointed General of the Armies, he continued to wear the four stars that he, as well as Generals Tasker H. Bliss and Peyton C. March, had adopted under the provisions of then current uniform regulations, which permitted them to prescribe the insignia denoting their grade. Army Regulations 600-35, Personnel: The Prescribed Uniform, October 12, 1921, and all subsequent editions during General Pershing's lifetime, made no mention of insignia for General of the Armies but prescribed that generals would wear four stars. General Pershing at no time wore more than four stars.

Following the establishment of the General of the Army grade on December 14, 1944, Army Regulations 600-35 were changed to prescribe that Generals of the Army would wear five stars. Although General Pershing continued to wear only four, he remained preeminent among all Army personnel, by virtue of Congressional action and Army Regulations governing rank and precedence, until his death on July 15, 1948.

Symbols matter.  Every nation has a flag.  Police officers normally wear uniforms and badges.  So too with military officers who wear the symbol of their rank on their uniforms.  With Dwight David Eisenhower the most significant symbol of his rank was a fifth star.

People often wonder where the five star rank came from and how it was awarded to Ike.  Unlike all of his previous military promotions, his fifth star had little to do with superior performance. It had everything to do with an irascible British General, Sir Bernard Law Montgomery, and the agenda of some high ranking Admirals of the United States Navy.

Throughout World War II  America's President Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill did their best to maintain the strongest possible military alliance between the United States and Great Britain. They encouraged close relationships between the British Chiefs of Staff and their American counterparts.  In 1942 the British Chiefs of Staff consisted of General Sir Alan Brooke, Chief of the Imperial Staff, Fleet Admiral Sir Dudley Pound, and Air Marshal Sir Charles Portal.  On the American side sat General George C. Marshall, Admiral Ernest King, and Lieutenant General Henry H. Arnold of the U.S. Army Air Forces.  The highest rank attainable in any U. S. military service was four stars (General and Admiral).  The British, however, had a five star rank (Field Marshal, Fleet Admiral, and Air Marshal).

Retired Admiral William D. Leahy was recalled to active duty to serve as Chief of Staff to the Commander in Chief, U. S. Army and Navy and presided as Chairman of the Combined Chiefs of Staff even though the office was never officially created.  The British recalled retired Field Marshal Sir John Dill to serve as a Washington-based member of their Chiefs of Staff.  Thus, each side of the Combined Chiefs of Staff had four members.

At the first meeting of the Combined Chiefs of Staff in February, 1942, all the British Chiefs, except one, had five star ranks thereby "out ranking" the four stars on the shoulders of their American counterparts.  By January, 1944 when General Brooke was promoted to Field Marshal all of the British Chiefs outranked all of the American Chiefs.

In early January 1944 President Roosevelt startled Admiral Leahy by telling him he was going to be promoted to five stars with the title Admiral of the Fleet.  Stunned, Leahy replied that if such a promotion was under consideration the rank ought to be given to each member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.  A few days later a Navy Captain informed the Army Chief of Personnel that the chairman of the House Naval Affairs Committee would be introducing a bill in Congress, prepared by the Navy Department, to provide two new ranks; Admiral of the Navy (six-star rank) and Admiral of the Fleet (five stars).  According to the Navy messenger, President Roosevelt had approved the plan and expected similar action to provide higher ranks for the Army with a six star General of the Armies and a five star General of the Army.

General Marshall""a man who could be firm""opposed the idea.  A Washington columnist suggested (with tongue in cheek) that Marshall disliked the plan because five stars was the rank of Field Marshal and the Chief of Staff could then be addressed as "Marshal Marshall."  Actually General Marshall was embarrassed by the possibility of higher ranks being handed out at this stage in the war. He believed that such promotions should take place after the conflict had ended as had been the case with General Pershing after World War I and Generals Grant, Sherman, and Sheridan after the Civil War.  He also felt that he didn't need a higher rank to deal with the British on an equal basis and he worried that General Pershing, now aged and ailing in Walter Reed Army Hospital, might think he was trying to elevate himself above the old soldier.

Secretary of War Henry Stimson agreed with General Marshall and was not happy that the President had already approved the ranks for the Navy without even discussing the possible new Army ranks with him. Stimson met with the President and forcefully denounced the idea of a six star rank for anyone.  He emphasized that it would make America look silly because everyone would know the only reason would be to elevate our generals and admirals above their British counterparts and not because of their earned service to the country.  Roosevelt agreed. But the President continued to believe the American Chiefs should be promoted to the same ranks as the British Chiefs.  Never the less, the congressional committees tabled the matter. 

General Marshall believed that ended the proposal, but on September 1, 1944, the British government elevated General Sir Bernard Law Montgomery to the rank of Field Marshal.  As one of two Army Group Commanders, Montgomery was subordinate to General Eisenhower, Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in Europe.  It was now the case that a British subordinate outranked his American commanding officer. 

President Roosevelt immediately notified Congress that he wanted the five star bill passed.  Secretary Stimson knew he couldn't stop it this time.  But what about General Pershing?  The solution was to leave Pershing alone the title "General of the Armies" and the new five star ranks would carry the title, "General of the Army."  The Navy agreed to drop the six star rank and settle for the five star rank of Admiral of the Fleet.  Congress went back to work on the revised bill and passed it on the 12th of December. 

Since the British promotion of Montgomery was the trigger to resurrecting the five star plan, Congress had to expand the five star rank beyond the Chiefs of Staff to include the three major theater commanders, MacArthur, Nimitz, and Eisenhower. George Washington was the highest ranking officer in American history, whose title is forever General of the Armies.

Raymond Oliver. Why is the colonel called "kernal"?: The origin of the ranks and rank insignia now used by the United States armed forces. Published by the Office of History, Sacramento Air Logistics Center, McClellan AFB. August 1983. Naval Historical Center. Rank: The Story Behind Names of Different Rank.


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