Could a Military Coup Happen in the U.S.?

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The U.S. military knows there are legal and constitutional ways to remove a sitting U.S. president.
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The recent citizen uprising and ultimate military takeover of the Egyptian government has been highly scrutinized by the Obama administration. The question that remains in the minds of some Americans is, could the same thing happen here?

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Although it may seem far-fetched, past presidents of the United States did warn about a potential usurping of power by the military. In his farewell address to the American people, Dwight Eisenhower said, “In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.”

Was Eisenhower’s concern really warranted?

“The historical context is important here,” said Stephen Griffin, professor of constitutional law and author of the new book, “Long Wars and the Constitution.”

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At that time, President Harry Truman had ordered a military buildup after North Korea invaded South Korea. All parts of the military were expanded, and the military budget was something like 75 percent of the total national budget. Furthermore, the military built strong relationships with Congressional leaders so that none of their money would be cut. There was a perception that enormous money, power and influence flowed to the military.”

That is not the case now, according to military and political science experts. There was a trimming back under President Dwight D. Eisenhower, once the Korean War settled. Eisenhower relied more on nuclear weapons and air power, which led to tensions and a potentially dangerous situation, Griffin said. That resulted in Eisenhower’s concern, expressed in his farewell speech.

Today, a military coup in America similar to what happened in Egypt seems unlikely, largely due to the military’s allegiance to the Constitution, according to Christopher Fettweis, associate professor of political science at Tulane University.

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“The military here buys into the system -- they don’t fight it out,” said Fettweis. “They know there are legal, constitutional ways to remove the president. Even if the citizens initiated something like what happened in Egypt, when orders come down to the military, you salute and move on.”

Presidents Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy were dealing with military personnel who had been promoted during World War II, Fettweis said. “They rose to power because they merited it during war. But the post-Vietnam military is different in character, and much more restrained. It would be hard to compare our situation with that in Egypt, because the Egyptian army is trying to model itself on the Turkish model -- to not have an Islamist democracy.”

Still, U.S. presidents have kept a watchful eye on military growth and power since the beginning of our nation. Even George Washington addressed the issue in his 1796 farewell address: “Overgrown military establishments, under any form of government, are inauspicious to liberty, and are to be regarded as particularly hostile to republican liberty.”

That concern permeates contemporary international leaders’ reactions to the takeover in Egypt. President Barack Obama has expressed his own deep concern over what happened there, particularly about the suspension of the country’s constitution. He is now on record with his encouragement to the Egyptian military to restore civilian rule, as is U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who issued a statement that said “…it will be crucial to quickly reinforce civilian rule in accordance with principles of democracy.”

Closer to home, the takeover scenario seems unlikely, Griffin agreed. “The military here would want to stay on the sidelines -- they do not mix up in politics.”

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