During the more than twenty years that I taught strategy and policy at the Naval War College, I had many occasions to think about the military plot that attempted to assassinate and overthrow Adolf Hitler in July 1944. That plot actually went back at least until 1938, when some high-ranking officers discussed overthrowing Hitler to prevent a disastrous war with Britain and France. The plot revived again after that war broke out in the fall of 1939, but it collapsed completely after Germany defeated France. It revived in 1943-4 when the war against the USSR began to go badly and the British and Americans had landed, first in Italy and then in France. While the most senior officers involved had already lost their commands, many others were still active. They paid for their complicity with their lives. The question I wondered about from time to time--but never, I think, raised in class--was, if the American presidency had fallen into comparably evil hands, would senior American officers be willing to do something similar? I was not confident that they would, because of the respect for civilian authority that is so much a part of their outlook.
Things never got anywhere near that far under Donald Trump, partly because he is clearly a coward who would shy away from actual military action or even a declaration of martial law. He did however exercise disastrous leadership on a variety of fronts. It now turns out that at the turn of the year 2020-2021, after Trump had lost the election, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Mark Milley, worried that Trump might begin war with China to try to save his presidency. Bob Woodward has now reported--and Milley has not denied--that Milley made two calls to a senior Chinese general to try to avoid a Chinese reaction to a possible US attack. In the first call, he assured the general that no attack would take place. In the second he assured him that if an attack was imminent, he, Milley, would let the Chinese general know in advance. We shall see that Milley was not simply worried that the Chinese might falsely believe that war might be imminent, and that he took the possibility of American military action seriousy. I do not agree with Republicans who suggested that these calls were treasonous. The Constitution defines treason as giving aid and comfort to the enemies of the United States, and I interpret enemies to mean nations with whom the US is at war. We were not at war with China. I am very curious to know exactly why Milley was worried about what Trump might do, and I hope that Senators will ask him that in detail when he testifies before them later this month. I do not think, though, that he found the appropriate means to try to head off a possible war waged for political purposes.
A little less than two years ago, I discussed the issue of how senior military officers should have responded to the Trump presidency here, describing a public exchange I had at the JFK School of Government at Harvard with General James Mattis (retired), who at that time had just stepped down as Secretary of Defense. I argued that I had been taught both during my own military service in the 1970s and again at the War College that if a soldier is serving under a commanding officer who is behaving in an illegal or disastrous manner, that soldier has not only a right but a duty to let higher authority know about what is happening. I had confirmed that belief with some of my old colleagues who were still serving officers. If the commanding officer were the president of the United States, the higher authority would be either the Congress--which retains the power to remove him--or, in an election year, the American people. Mattis made clear that he did not agree with me, but this is still what I think. Donald Trump was trying to stage a coup in late December and early January, and Milley feared that he might use war to help make it happen. He owed it to his countrymen to let us know. Had he done so, it might even have persuaded Mitch McConnell to vote for conviction in the subsequent impeachment trial, thus relieving the nation of the nightmare of Trump's threatened return to office. But he didn't.
It seems that Milley genuinely worried that Trump might initiate war, including nuclear war. According to an AP story, "Milley, according to the book, called the admiral overseeing the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, the military unit responsible for Asia and the Pacific region, and recommended postponing upcoming military exercises. He also asked senior officers to swear an “oath” that Milley had to be involved if Trump gave an order to launch nuclear weapons, according to the book." That was important because Milley himself had no authority to stop anything that Trump ordered. None of the press accounts of this incident that I have seen have mentioned this, but under the Goldwater-Nichols Act, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, while designated the president's senior military adviser, is not in the chain of command. The chain of command runs directly from the President to the Secretary of Defense, and then to the local theater commander--in this case, the commander of what is now the Indo-Pacific Command (formerly CINCPAC), headquartered in Honolulu. That was Admiral Philip S. Davidson, who should also appear before the Senate to give his perspective.
Milley did apparently discuss Trump's deteriorating mental state with Speaker Pelosi, although it's not clear that he mentioned his fear of war. The AP story also suggests that one US military exercise in the Far East was canceled. But like General Mattis as Secretary of Defense, or one-time White House Chief of Staff General John Kelly, or National Security Adviser H. R. McMaster, he did not share his concerns about Trump's leadership with the American people, and preferred to try to avert disaster behind the scenes, both within the miltiary chain of command and in conversations with a foreign general. In so doing, I think, he contributed to the catastrophic decline of American democracy, which still threatens us with authoritarian rule in another few years.