After Eisenhower, every American president until Bill Clinton was a veteran of the World War II era. John Kennedy and Richard Nixon entered national politics immediately after the war. Lyndon Johnson returned to politics after a brief stint in the service during the war. He ran in 1964 against Barry Goldwater, a veteran of the Army Air Forces. In 1972, Nixon beat George McGovern, another veteran of the Army Air Forces. Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, and George H.W. Bush all became public figures and politicians in the decades after their service in the military during or shortly after World War II. Prominent postwar senators Bob Dole, Daniel Inouye, Strom Thurmond, William Knowland, Herman Talmadge, Paul Douglas, Fritz Hollings, Lloyd Bentsen, Jesse Helms, and Speakers of the House Carl Albert and James Wright all got their start in politics after serving in the military in World War II.And:
The veterans’ dominance in politics extended far beyond a few prominent examples. In 1946, 183 veterans of World War II ran in the primaries to represent the major parties in Congress. Eventually, sixty-nine veterans were elected, roughly 14% of the members of the new Congress. The statistical domination only grew in the 1950s, especially within their age cohort. Between 1950 and 1954, veterans constituted 55% of those who won elections for the House of Representatives, even though veterans only made up 40% of all males over the age of twenty-five. In the general elections veterans did not necessarily have an advantage over non-veterans. However, both major political parties increasingly nominated veterans to run for political office, indicating that they believed the veterans had a better chance to win. In the late 1950s, veterans made up half of the members of both the House and the Senate. By 1969, according to one study, “over 90 percent of the members of Congress who were eligible for service in World War II or Korea were veterans.” Whether or not veterans disproportionately held political office because they had an advantage in elections or because both parties nominated mostly veterans was irrelevant. The effect was the same: veterans dominated national and local politics in the years after World War II. Veteran status had become an almost indispensable condition for political office.
In August 1946, a commentator noted that a Catholic would struggle to win a statewide primary in heavily Lutheran Wisconsin. Marine Corps veteran and Catholic Joseph McCarthy won the Republican primary, and then won election to senator later that year. In 1949, Herbert Lehman, a World War I Navy veteran and father to a pilot who was killed in World War II, became the first Jewish senator from New York. In 1956, World War II veteran Jacob Javits—who had been elected as a representative in 1946—became the second. In 1954, Navy veteran Edmund Muskie became the first Catholic and first Polish American elected governor of Maine. In 1954, Army veteran Richard Neuberger became the first Jew elected senator from Oregon. In 1956, Navy veteran Foster Furcolo became the first Italian American elected governor of Massachusetts. In 1956, Army Air Force veteran Stephen O’Connell became the first Catholic to win a statewide office in Florida when he was elected chief justice of the state supreme court. In 1956, Navy veteran Steve McNichols became the first Catholic elected governor of Colorado. In 1958, World War I veteran David Lawrence became the first Catholic elected governor of Pennsylvania. Czech American and World War II veteran Otto Kerner became governor of Illinois in 1960.
The ascension of ethnic and religious minorities to statewide offices began to extend beyond veterans. In 1945, Rhode Island’s John Pastore became the state’s first Italian American governor; five years later he became the country’s first Italian American senator. In 1945, Slovenian American Frank Lausche became the first Catholic governor of Ohio. In 1954, Abraham Ribicoff became the first Jewish governor of Connecticut. In Washington state in 1956, Albert Rosellini became the first Catholic and first Italian American elected governor west of the Mississippi. In 1958, Michael DiSalle became the first Italian American governor of Ohio. In 1958, Eugene McCarthy—who served as a civilian in the War Department during the war—became the first Catholic elected senator from Minnesota.