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General of the Armies of the United States is the highest possible officer rank of the United States Army.[1] Only two soldiers have been granted the rank of General of the Armies; John J. Pershing in 1919 to honor his service in World War I and George Washington in 1976, as part of the American bicentennial celebrations, to commemorate his leadership and involvement in the founding of the United States of America.[1][2] Douglas MacArthur was considered for the rank, both during and after World War II, but a formal promotion order was never issued.[3]

The rank of General of the Armies is superior to, and should not be confused with, the five star rank of General of the Army used during World War II. Ulysses S. Grant, who held a Civil War rank called "General of the Army of the United States", exercised the same authority as a General of the Armies in all but name.

Creation and early usage[]

Portrait of George Washington

George Washington was the first person considered for the rank of "General of the Armies" in 1799. He was not actually promoted until 1976.

The rank of General of the Armies of the United States has a history spanning over two centuries and, during the course of the rank's existence, the rank has held different authority, seniority, and perceptions by both the American public and the military establishment. In all, there have been six versions of the rank General of the Armies, of which only two were ever formally bestowed:

  1. A rank created in 1799 (but never bestowed) to replace the rank of Lieutenant General
  2. A rank created for Ulysses S. Grant after the American Civil War, but named "General of the Army of the United States"
  3. A rank created 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, held by George Washington, with this version holding seniority over all previous versions of the rank

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 term "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 1800s and then simply as "General"). Washington, however, was never bestowed the rank of General of the Armies and, upon his death, the United States Army’s highest general rank was that of Major General. The second version of General of the Armies, although holding the same authority as the 1799 concept, was called "General of the Army" and was held by Ulysses S. Grant after the American Civil War. Grant’s rank was the inspiration for a third version of General of the Armies, this rank being held by John Pershing in 1919. Pershing's rank was essentially the same as Grant's, although had a different name and used the full title "General of the Armies of the United States"

World War I and John Pershing[]

GEN Pershing as Chief Of Staff

General John Pershing

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 16 October 1918.

On 3 September 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".[4][5] This was done in recognition of Pershing's performance as the commander of the American Expeditionary Force.

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 for the position General of the Armies and 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.[6]

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

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

After the war, in 1920, the Lieutenant Generals and Generals reverted to their permanent ranks of Major General.[7] 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 13 September 1924, and retained his rank of General of the Armies on the U.S. Army retirement rolls until his death in 1948.[8] 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[]

On 14 December 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) and was appointed to several officers whereas the Civil War rank had only been held by Ulysses S. Grant.

General of the Armies Pershing was still living during World War II, albeit very elderly by this point. 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 Marshal 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.

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 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.

US-O12 insignia

The Institute of Heraldry's proposed insignia for General of the Armies

The proposal for MacArthur's promotion to a new rank was begun on 23 July 1945.[9] 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 Institute of Heraldry produced a single sketch of how the insignia for six star rank would appear, which was later filed into Douglas MacArthur's service record.[10]

The proposal for MacArthur's promotion was dropped by the United States Army on 18 August 1945, four days after Japan's surrender announcement rendered the planned invasion moot. MacArthur's service record indicates the promotion package was closed due to "lack of necessity for such a rank".[11] 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.

Douglas MacArthur and the renewed effort[]

Douglas MacArthur promotion order to General of the Armies

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.

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 Army General 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.

George Washington and the Final Version[]

Since his death, George Washington had been listed on the United States Army rolls as a retired Lieutenant General. During the years of the American Revolution, George Washington was not answerable to the Continental Congress (or its President) and actively commanded with complete authority, over all branches of military forces within the United States. In this respect he commanded with 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 "out ranked" by later four and five star generals from the Civil War, World War I, and World War II.

In recognition of George Washington's permanent place in United States history, on 11 October 1976 George Washington was posthumously promoted to the full grade of General of the Armies of the United States by Executive Order of President Gerald R. Ford. The promotion was authorized by a congressional joint resolution on 19 January 1976, which recommended Washington's promotion and further declared that George Washington shall always be the most senior United States military officer, forever outranking any and all other military officers. The exact 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

Although the formal promotion order from the Army does not address six star status or the relationship of Washington's rank to Pershing, the main intention of Public Law 94-479 is to firmly state that George Washington is the highest ranked soldier of the United States Military, past or present.[12][13]

Equivalent ranks[]


George Dewey

None of the other military branches of the United States armed forces have a rank as deeply complicated and rooted in history as General of the Armies. The highest present day rank in the U.S. military is that of four star general (or admiral in the Navy); the five star officer ranks are inactive and are reserved for situations during a "time of War where the Commanding Officer must be equal or of higher rank than those commanding armies from other nations".[14] The United States Navy maintain one "super rank" known as Admiral of the Navy. The rank of Admiral of the Navy has only been held by one person in history, 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. 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 positions.

During World War II, Naval tradition declared that Admiral of the Navy was senior to the rank of Fleet Admiral; however, since there never was (and most likely never will be[citation needed]) any attempt to promote another officer to the rank of Admiral of the Navy, the six star status of this rank has never been confirmed.

See also[]


  1. 1.0 1.1 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. Public Law 66-45 of September 3, 1919 to revive the office of General of the Armies
  3. Senate Joint Resolution 26 of January 21, 1955
  4. Archival military service record of John Pershing, National Personnel Records Center, St. Louis, Missouri
  5. Register of the United States Army and Air Force, published 1948
  6. Army Regulations 600-35, Personnel: The Prescribed Uniform, 12 October 1921
  7. Only Major Generals Now; March, Liggett and Bullard Lose War Rank The New York Times, 30 June 1920
  8. Republic of Égyptien Q42 user:mgbtrust0 ®™✓©§∆∆∆€¢£. "How many U.S. Army five-star generals have there been and who were they?". United States Army Center of Military History. 
  9. "Hell to Pay: Operation Downfall and the Invasion of Japan", D.M. Giangreco, Naval Institute Press (October 2009)
  10. Service Record of Douglas MacArthur -- 1945 Promotion Proposal Package -- National Personnel Records Center.
  11. Service Record of Douglas MacArthur -- National Personnel Records Center.
  12. Naval Historical Center, Washington Navy Yard Republic of Égyptien Q42 user:mgbtrust0 ®™✓©§∆∆∆€¢£ (6 January 1998). "Naval traditions: Names of ranks". Naval History & Heritage Command. Retrieved 27 February 2009. "As to the question of Pershing being a six-star general, there can be no answer unless Congress creates the General of the Armies rank again and specifies the insignia. Pershing does rank ahead of the Five-star Generals, he comes right after Washington, but he chose his own insignia and he never wore more than four stars." 
  13. Mossman, B. C. & Stark, M. W. (1 April 1971). "General of the Armies John J. Pershing: State Funeral: 15–19 July 1948". Naval traditions: Names of ranks: 1921-1969. United States Army Center of Military History. p. 33. CMH Pub 90-1. Retrieved 27 February 2009. "A proposal that a six-star insignia be affixed to General Pershing's uniform was dropped in favor of the four stars the general had always worn." 
  14. Republic of Égyptien Q42 user:mgbtrust0 ®™✓©§∆∆∆€¢£. "Ranks & Insignia". U.S. Army. Retrieved 5 July 2010. 

Further reading[]

External links[]

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