America’s Worst President Ever

If you wanted to identify, with confidence, the very worst president in American history, how would you go about it? One approach would be to consult the various academic polls on presidential rankings that have been conducted from time to time since Harvard’s Arthur M. Schlesinger Sr. pioneered this particular survey scholarship in 1948. Bad idea.

Most of those surveys identify Warren G. Harding of Ohio as the worst ever. This is ridiculous. Harding presided over very robust economic times. Not only that, but he inherited a devastating economic recession when he was elected in 1920 and quickly turned bad times into good times, including a 14 percent GDP growth rate in 1922. Labor and racial unrest declined markedly during his watch. He led the country into no troublesome wars.

There was, of course, the Teapot Dome scandal that implicated major figures in his administration, but there was never any evidence that the president himself participated in any venality. As Theodore Roosevelt’s daughter, Alice Roosevelt Longworth, put it, “Harding wasn’t a bad man. He was just a slob.”

The academic surveys also consistently place near the bottom James Buchanan, of Pennsylvania. Now here’s a man who truly lacked character and watched helplessly as his country descended into the worst crisis of its history. He stepped into the presidency with a blatant lie to the American people. In his inaugural address, he promised he would accept whatever judgment the Supreme Court rendered in the looming Dred Scott case. What he didn’t tell the American people was that he already knew what that judgment was going to be (gleaned through highly inappropriate conversations with justices). This is political cynicism of the rankest sort.

But Buchanan’s failed presidency points to what may be a pertinent distinction in assessing presidential failure. Buchanan was crushed by events that proved too powerful for his own weak leadership. And so the country moved inexorably into one of the worst crises in its history. But Buchanan didn’t create the crisis; he merely was too wispy and vacillating to get control of it and thus lead the nation to some kind of resolution. It took his successor, Abraham Lincoln, to do that.

That illustrates the difference between failure of omission and failure of commission—the difference between presidents who couldn’t handle gathering crises and presidents who actually created the crises.

In the realm of commission failure, three presidents come to mind—Woodrow Wilson, Richard Nixon and George W. Bush. Bear in mind here that nearly all failed presidents have their defenders, who argue, sometimes with elaborate rationales, that the perceived failure wasn’t really failure or that it wasn’t really the fault of this particular president. We see this in stark reality in our own time, with the ongoing debates about the presidency of the second Bush, reflected in the reaction to senator Rand Paul’s recent suggestion that GOP hawks, with their incessant calls for U.S. intrusion into the lands of Islam, contributed to the rise of the violent radicalism of the Islamic State.

The prevailing view of Bush is that his invasion of Iraq, the greatest example in American history of what is known as “preventive war,” proved to be one of the most colossal foreign policy blunders in all of American history, if not actually the greatest. According to this view, Bush destabilized the Middle East, essentially lit it on fire and fostered the resultant rise of the Islamic State and the deepening sectarian war between Sunni and Shia Muslims in the region. Where this all leads, nobody can tell, but clearly it is going to play out, with devastating consequences, for a long time to come.

But of course there are those who deny that Bush created all this chaos. No, they say, Bush actually had Iraq under control and it was his hapless successor, Barack Obama, who let it all fall apart again by not maintaining a U.S. military force in the country. This is the minority view, embraced tenaciously by many people with a need to gloss over their own complicity in the mess.

There is little doubt that history eventually will fix upon the majority view—that Bush unleashed the surge of chaos, bloodshed and misery that now has the region in its grip. As Princeton’s Sean Wilentz wrote in 2006, when Bush still sat in the Oval Office, “Many historians are now wondering whether Bush, in fact, will be remembered as the very worst president in all of American history.” And bear in mind that Bush also presided over the emergence of one of the most devastating financial crises in the country’s history.

Then there’s Nixon, whose Watergate transgressions thrust the nation into one of its most harrowing constitutional crises. There are some who argue that Nixon’s transgressions weren’t actually as egregious as many believe, particularly when viewed carefully in the context of the maneuverings and manipulations of many of his people, some of them conducted behind the president’s back. There may be some truth in this. But in the end it doesn’t matter. He was president and must take responsibility for the culture and atmosphere he created in the West Wing and the Old Executive Office Building. If his people were running around and breaking the law, he must bear responsibility, whatever his knowledge or complicity. And we know definitively that Nixon himself set the tone in his inner circle—a tone so dark, defensive and menacing that wrongdoing was almost the inevitable result. Also, there can be no dispute that the president himself stepped over the line on numerous occasions.

Which brings us to Woodrow Wilson, whose failures of commission probably had the most dire consequences of any U.S. president. His great flaw was his sanctimonious nature, more stark and distilled than that of any other president, even John Quincy Adams (who was no piker in the sanctimony department). He thought he always knew best, because he thought he knew more than anybody else. Combine that with a powerful humanitarian sensibility, and you get a president who wants to change the world for the betterment of mankind. Watch out for such leaders.

Even during his first term, with war raging in Europe, he sought to get the United States involved as a neutral mediator, fostering a peace agreement to break the tragic stalemate that had the nations of Europe in its grip. When that effort was rebuffed, he ran for reelection by hailing himself as the man who kept the United States out of the war.

But, immediately upon entering his second term, he sought to get his country into the war by manipulating neutrality policy. While proclaiming U.S. neutrality, he favored Britain by observing the British blockade of Germany (imposed, said a young Winston Churchill, to starve Germans, including German infants, into submission) and by allowing armed British merchant ships entry to U.S. ports, which in turn fostered a flow of U.S. munitions to the Allied powers. At the same time, Wilson declared that Germany would be held to a “strict accountability” for any American loss of life or property from Germany’s submarine attacks. This policy applied, said Wilson, even if affected Americans traveling or working on British or French ships. He declined to curtail what he considered Americans’ “right” to travel on vessels tied to France or Britain (but not Germany).

Wilson was warned, most notably by his secretary of state, William Jennings Bryan, that these lopsided policies inevitably would pull America into the war. When he ignored those warnings, Bryan resigned from the Wilson cabinet on a stand of principle.

As Bryan predicted, America did get pulled into the conflict, and it certainly appears that that was Wilson’s intention all along. Then three things happened.

First, Wilson conducted the war in ways that devastated the home front. Prices shot up into double digits, and then came a potent economic recession that lasted three years. He accepted the suppression of civil liberties by his notorious attorney general, A. Mitchell Palmer. His government nationalized many private industries, including the telegraph, telephone and railroad industries, along with the distribution of coal. Race riots erupted in numerous cities that claimed nearly 150 lives in two years.

Second, America’s entry into the war broke the stalemate, allowing the Allied powers to impose upon Germany devastating armistice terms. Third, when Wilson went to the Versailles peace conference bent on bringing to bear his humanitarian outlook and making the world safe for democracy, he promptly got outmaneuvered by the canny nationalist leaders of Britain and France, whose agenda had nothing to do with Wilson’s dreamy notions about a harmonious world born of his humanitarian vision.

The result was a humiliation of Germany that rendered another war nearly inevitable and created in that country a sump of civic resentment and venom that would poison its politics for a generation. We can’t say with certainty that Adolf Hitler wouldn’t have emerged in Germany if the stalemate of World War I had been settled through negotiations rather than diktat. But we can say that the world spawned by Wilson’s naïve war policies certainly created a political climate in Germany that paved the way for Hitler.

That’s a big load for Wilson to carry through history, though the academic polls consistently rank him quite favorably. That’s probably because most academics are progressives who like Wilson for his own progressive sentiments. But the two Roosevelts also were progressives and left the country better off when they left office. Such a case can’t be made for Wilson, who left the country in shambles. The 1920 Republican victories in the presidential and congressional elections constituted of the greatest political repudiations in U.S. history. Thus, Wilson’s failures of commission render him, arguably, the worst president in American history.


2015-05-31

About the author:

Robert W. Merry, longtime Washington political reporter and publishing executive, is the author of books on American history and foreign policy.

Source: The National Interest

Save

Save 

RELATED POSTS
President John F. Kennedy delivered his inaugural address on Jan. 20, 1961.
I won’t ever forget hearing the news – working in Pittsburgh as a marketing analyst, returning from lunch with colleagues when we it was announced. November 22, 1963 was a Friday. The working day ended once the news broke, everyone in my department stunned, unable to focus on anything else. It was too early to know what evidence later revealed. Lee Harvey Oswald was a convenient patsy, uninvolved in what happened, a state-sponsored assassination, CIA and secret service dirty hands likely responsible. Killing him mattered. Things might have been different had he lived, at least for a time. November 22, 1963 remains a ...
READ MORE
“Making America Great Again” by Reducing the World to Ashes?
“In the event of a nuclear war, there will be no chances, there will be no survivors – all will be obliterated… nuclear devastation is not science fiction – it is a matter of fact. The world now stands on the brink of the final abyss. Let us all resolve to take all possible practical steps to ensure that we do not, through our own folly, go over the edge.” Former First Sea Lord, Lord Louis Mountbatten (1900-1979) Strasbourg, 11 May 1979.” As US threats ratchet up towards North Korea, the latest hinging on the accusation that the country attempted a ...
READ MORE
Confession Of A CIA Agent: They Gave Us Millions To Dismember Yugoslavia
Confession of a CIA Agent: They gave us millions to dismember Yugoslavia November 26, 2015 We bribed parties and politicians who have enticed hate between the nations. Our ultimate goal was to enslave you! WebTribune publishes their interview with former CIA agent Robert Baer during his promotion tour in Quebec for upcoming book “Secrets of the White House” last week. My boss, who was formerly a US Senator, stressed repeatedly that some kind of scam would go down in Bosnia. A month before the alleged genocide in Srebrenica, he told me that the town would be headline news around the world and ordered us ...
READ MORE
U.S. Airstrikes are Wiping Out Entire Families in Yemen and Syria
The United States is killing entire families in Raqqa, Syria, and enabling Saudi Arabia to do the same in Yemen. In June of this year, the U.S. led a campaign to retake the city of Raqqa from ISIS fighters while the Russian and Syrian militaries were also attempting to do the same thing. In the first week of fighting, U.N. war crimes investigators warned that the U.S. had already killed 300 civilians from air strikes alone in that seven day period. Rather than heed that warning, the U.S. has continued the same strategy of pounding Raqqa into the ground despite the likelihood of civilian casualties. Pentagon ...
READ MORE
Netanyahu Victory Lays Bare Israel As Racist, Colonial State
SHARMINI PERIES, EXEC. PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I'm Sharmini Peries, coming to you from Baltimore. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is elating after his right-wing Likud Party secured a firm victory in the Israeli elections on March 17. It was a very close race against the Zionist Union Party, led by Isaac Herzog. Our next guest, Shir Hever, in an interview he did with us last month, predicted that Prime Minister Netanyahu would win in spite of many strikes against him at the time. So, defying election polls leading up to the election, Prime Minister Netanyahu has ...
READ MORE
Anglo-America: Regression and Reversion in the Modern World
What does it mean when the US and British financial systems launder hundreds of billions of dollars of illicit funds stolen by world leaders while their governments turn a ‘blind eye’, and yet the very same Anglo-American officials investigate, prosecute, fine and arrest officials from rival governments, rival banks and political leaders for corruption? What does it mean when the US government expands a world-wide network of nuclear missiles on bases stretching from Poland, Bulgaria, Romania, the Gulf States to Japan, surrounding Russia, Iran and China, while the very same US and NATO officials investigate and condemn rival defense officials from Russia, China ...
READ MORE
US Sponsored Coups and Regime Change, NATO Expansionism, Washington Interferes Globally: Ukraine, Mexico, Korea, Venezuela…
On February 2014, a United States-sponsored coup was initiated in the Ukraine in which President Viktor Yanukovych was illegally ousted from power. (1) Over three years later, the putsch has done nothing but plunge the Ukraine, a tortured country plundered throughout modern history (by the West), into another abyss. In a 2015 interview with CNN, then US president Barack Obama openly confessed that “we had brokered a deal to transition power in Ukraine”. Around 10,000 people have been killed in the time since, with the conflict generating 2.5 million refugees who relocated to Russia. The putsch led to Crimea’s annexation a month after ...
READ MORE
Orwell At The UN: Obama Re-Defines Democracy As A Country That Supports U.S. Policy
In his Orwellian September 28, 2015 speech to the United Nations, President Obama said that if democracy had existed in Syria, there never would have been a revolt against Assad. By that, he meant ISIL. Where there is democracy, he said, there is no violence or revolution. This was his threat to promote revolution, coups and violence against any country not deemed a “democracy.” In making this hardly-veiled threat, he redefined the word in the vocabulary of international politics. Democracy is the CIA’s overthrow of Mossedegh in Iran to install the Shah. Democracy is the overthrow of Afghanistan’s secular government by ...
READ MORE
Kosovo’s Mafia: How the US and Allies Ignore Organized Crime
PRISTINA, Kosovo — It was the fall of 2000, just over a year after the end of the war in Kosovo, when two NATO military intelligence officers produced the first known report on local organized crime, painting the former political leader of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), Hashim Thaci, as having “established influence on local criminal organizations, which control [a] large part of Kosovo.” The report, the existence of which has not been previously reported, was widely distributed among all NATO countries, according to former NATO sources interviewed by GlobalPost. And year after year as the nascent democracy of Kosovo struggled ...
READ MORE
Killing a Republic – Kissinger and Cyprus
In July 1974 the US-controlled Athens military junta organized a coup d’état in Cyprus and an assassination attempt against the President of Cyprus Archbishop Makarios. Everything was executed in exactly the same way as it had been a year before in Santiago Chile. (Cyprus is an island of great strategic importance, now a member of EU and Eurozone. 82% of his population are Greek by nationality and 18% Turkish Cypriots. The country obtained its independence from Britain in 1960, after one of the most successful national-liberation struggles after the 2nd World War). Unlike Salvador Allende, Makarios escaped death and with him ...
READ MORE
Neoliberalism and The Globalization of War. America’s Hegemonic Project
The world is at a dangerous crossroads.  The United States and its allies have launched a military adventure which threatens the future of humanity. Major military and covert intelligence operations are being undertaken simultaneously in the Middle East, Eastern Europe, sub-Saharan Africa, Central Asia and the Far East. The US-NATO military agenda combines both major theater operations as well as covert actions geared towards destabilizing sovereign states. America’s hegemonic project is to destabilize and destroy countries through acts of war, covert operations in support of terrorist organizations, regime change and economic warfare. The latter includes the imposition of deadly macro-economic reforms ...
READ MORE
The NATO campaign against freedom of expression
This is a long story which extends over fifteen years. NATO first attempted to silence those citizens who were trying to discover the truth about the attacks of 11 September 2001. Then it turned on those who contested the oficial version of the «Arab Springs» and the war against Syria. One thing leading to another, it then attacked those who denounced the coup d’état in Ukraine. Now NATO is behind the accusations by a pseudo-NGO that the people who campaigned for Donald Trump are Russian agents. The attacks of 11 September 2001 were followed by a permanent state of emergency and ...
READ MORE
Euromaidan: Anatomy of a Washington-backed coup d’etat
In late November 2013, the ‘Euromaidan’ in Kiev began as a popular protest against a generalized state of corruption and cronyism in Ukraine. The spark that ostensibly ignited the protests was the inability of then President Yanukovych to sign an EU Association Agreement that would cut Ukraine’s economic and military ties to Russia in favor of a closer relationship with the EU and NATO. The EU had made the release of former Ukrainian prime minister and “gas princess” Tymoshenko a precondition for signing the agreement. But the fact that Tymoshenko was/is a convicted embezzler of state funds, combined with the rather ...
READ MORE
The Destabilization Of Macedonia? Greater Albania And The Process Of “Kosovization”
Introduction The last open armed conflict in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia – FYROM (former Socialist Republic of Macedonia as one of six federal republics of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia) in the May 2015 was just an expected continuation of constant tensions between the ethnic Albanians and the Macedonian Slavs during the last quarter of century.[i] However, these tensions are time to time transformed into the open armed conflicts of the Albanian extremists, usually coming from Kosovo, with the Macedonian security forces. The most notable conflict incidents in Macedonia after the Kosovo War in 1998−1999, when the Kosovo Albanians ...
READ MORE
Video: The Dirty War on Syria – Prof. Tim Anderson on GRTV
Government propaganda and NGO misinformation have coloured the story of the war on Syria from its inception. Stepping in to set the record straight, Dr. Tim Anderson explores the real beginnings of the conflict, the players behind it, and their agenda in his new book, “The Dirty War on Syria: Washington, Regime Change and Resistance.” The Dirty War on Syria has relied on a level of mass disinformation not seen in living memory. In seeking ‘regime change’ the big powers sought to hide their hand, using proxy armies of ‘Islamists’, demonising the Syrian Government and constantly accusing it of atrocities. In ...
READ MORE
North Korea vs the United States: Who are the Demons?
The American people should, in the words of Vietnam War Veteran Brian Willson  “place themselves in the position of people living in targeted countries. That North Korea, a nation of 24 million people, i.e., one-twentieth the population of the U.S., many of them poor, a land slightly larger in area than the U.S. state of Pennsylvania, continues to be one of the most demonized nations and least understood, totally perplexes the Korean people.” What most people in America do not know –and which is particularly relevant when assessing the “threats” of the DPRK to World peace– is that North Korea lost thirty percent ...
READ MORE
A Brief History of Fascism in the United States
“We could become the first country to go fascist through free elections.” — William Shirer, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich Generally, we avoid using the word “fascism” in polite company, and until recently, a person pointing out parallels between Nazi Germany and the current United States would invite elevated eyelids along with the outworn charge of sounding like a “conspiracy theorist“. The current electoral cycle seems to be changing that, so I will trust that now is the right time to convey some ideas I’ve been marinating regarding fascism in my US Homeland. The ruling plutocrats are clearly ferrying the ...
READ MORE
November 22, 1963: Remembering JFK’s State-Sponsored Assassination
“Making America Great Again” by Reducing the World to Ashes?
Confession Of A CIA Agent: They Gave Us Millions To Dismember Yugoslavia
U.S. Airstrikes are Wiping Out Entire Families in Yemen and Syria
Russia’s President Vladimir Putin Honors In Kremlin Afghan Mujahedin Fighters – Photographs Of Evidence
Netanyahu Victory Lays Bare Israel As Racist, Colonial State
The US Has Invaded 71 Nations Since 1776 – Make 4 July Independence From America Day (2014)
Anglo-America: Regression and Reversion in the Modern World
US Sponsored Coups and Regime Change, NATO Expansionism, Washington Interferes Globally: Ukraine, Mexico, Korea, Venezuela…
Orwell At The UN: Obama Re-Defines Democracy As A Country That Supports U.S. Policy
Kosovo’s Mafia: How the US and Allies Ignore Organized Crime
Killing a Republic – Kissinger and Cyprus
Neoliberalism and The Globalization of War. America’s Hegemonic Project
The NATO campaign against freedom of expression
The U.S. War Crimes in North Korea: Video
Euromaidan: Anatomy of a Washington-backed coup d’etat
The Destabilization Of Macedonia? Greater Albania And The Process Of “Kosovization”
Video: The Dirty War on Syria – Prof. Tim Anderson on GRTV
North Korea vs the United States: Who are the Demons?
A Brief History of Fascism in the United States