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Who was the worst president in the postwar period?

October 9, 2010

Who was the worst president post World War II?  Of course that all depends on your perspective.  So, who was the worst president since World War II from a left of center perspective?

The first to come to mind is of course George W. Bush.  W was a deep embarrassment to this country and he’s responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands if not more Iraqis.  He intensified US imperialism in the middle east and handed his inherited surplus to the wealthy.  But his militaristic policies were not the sharp break many on the left think and his economic policies were in some respects more tame than Reagan.  I don’t think W was the worst president in post war history.

Most past presidents have some reason to be nominated.  Clinton for his attacks on ex-Yugoslavia (well documented by David N. Gibbs in his book “First Do No Harm: Humanitarian Intervention and the Destruction of Yugoslavia“) and his neo-liberal policies which were a total betrayal of the left; Bush I for resisting substantial disarmament after the fall of the USSR and his wars in Iraq and Panama; Reagan for his vast contribution to neo-liberalism, his wars on Latin America, and his attacks on the working class; Nixon for extending the Vietnam war and his domestic surveillances; and Johnson for Vietnam.

But I believe the worst president by far from a left perspective was Harry Truman.  Truman’s administration was instrumental in establishing the basic dynamics of US policy that’s been with us ever since.  The US was involved in imperialist war prior to Truman but the great expansion of the US military began under his watch, as did the intensified war against the left.  This is well documented in Joyce and Gabriel Kolko’s classic book “The Limits of Power: The World and United States Foreign Policy, 1945-1954” which is highly recommended.  Kolko clearly shows that the period 1945 to 1954 was the crucial era and that everything following was just an extension.  Our current problems – lack of an international left, the expanded power of capital, militarism and endless war can be traced back to decisions made during the Truman administration.

For starters, Truman was the only president to drop an atom bomb and he did it twice in just four days, right smack in the middle of two cities.  This despite the evidence that Japan was already defeated and seeking a negotiated end to the war.  This alone could win him the prize of worst president.  Here’s various quotes from key military leaders at the time:

Dwight Eisenhower:

“In 1945 Secretary of War Stimson, visiting my headquarters in Germany, informed me that our government was preparing to drop an atomic bomb on Japan. I was one of those who felt that there were a number of cogent reasons to question the wisdom of such an act. During his recitation of the relevant facts, I had been conscious of a feeling of depression and so I voiced to him my grave misgivings, first on the basis of my belief that Japan was already defeated and that dropping the bomb was completely unnecessary, and secondly because I thought that our country should avoid shocking world opinion by the use of a weapon whose employment was, I thought, no longer mandatory as a measure to save American lives.”

Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, Commander in Chief of the US Pacific Fleet:

“The Japanese had, in fact, already sued for peace. The atomic bomb played no decisive part, from a purely military point of view, in the defeat of Japan.”

Fleet Admiral William D. Leahy, Chief of Staff to President Truman:

“The use of [the atomic bombs] at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was of no material assistance in our war against Japan. The Japanese were already defeated and ready to surrender because of the effective sea blockade and the successful bombing with conventional weapons… The lethal possibilities of atomic warfare in the future are frightening. My own feeling was that in being the first to use it, we had adopted an ethical standard common to the barbarians of the Dark Ages. I was not taught to make war in that fashion, and wars cannot be won by destroying women and children.”

Not being satisfied with the atomic bomb, Truman subsequently ordered the development of the hydrogen bomb.

But beyond the bombs, Truman is responsible for establishing the fundamental groundwork for the world we live in today.  No other president had such a hand in creating this world.  The Truman Doctrine closed off conventional diplomacy, encouraged the abandonment of the UN, and justified increased US interventionism.  It set the tone for a long anti-communist struggle which has so very neatly extended into a long “anti-terrorist” struggle.

As Kolko demonstrates, the postwar US objective was to restructure capitalism so that US business could operate everywhere without restriction.  This precluded the left from being in power and explains the continuous wars and covert interventions to come.  The Cold War in this view was not about the Soviets but about US and capitalist expansion.  The greatest danger to US based capitalism was not the USSR but profound social change.  Forces of the left were rising in many places, including Europe and much of the third world, and the goal of US policy would be to put it down.  It was never about democracy – most regimes the US supported were dictatorships; it was about US hegemony and a reinforced global capitalism.

It was determined during this period that a substantial military was required to cement US domination and to subvert radical change.  Kolko shows that the US elite desired tensions at home and abroad in order to generate support – not war but not peace either.  The military industrial complex Eisenhower complained about was created under Truman.

The Korean War, started under Truman, was the first of an endless series of wars in mostly third world countries – Vietnam, Nicaragua, Grenada, Panama, Iraq I and II, Bosnia, and now Afghanistan, Pakistan, and maybe soon Iran.  This is not to even mention the many covert actions in Latin America, the middle east, Europe, and elsewhere.

After the depression and World War II, the US was undisputed hegemon and could largely create any type of world it desired.  Truman decided to build one of expanded military domination and war against social change.  He is the ultimate father of our current world and for that and his atomic destruction of two cities, he aptly deserves the title of worst president in the postwar period.

  1. Nixon ranks right up there by continuing the Vietnam war for political purposes. Johnson should be nominated for getting us deep in the war for political purposes. Ford for pardoning Nixon. Reagan for tripling the federal debt, arming what would become Al Qaeda as well as arming Iran and Iraq. Clinton for signing bills that deregulated media companies, repealed Glass-Steagall, and commodities (although it was Republican legislation). Bush Jr. for the tax cuts that doubled the federal debt, not taking the threat of terrorism seriously and using the attack for political purposes. Kennedy for the botched Bay of Pigs invasion.

    Uh, boy… We’ve had some bad presidents.

  2. Ben,

    You are so right – and made me laugh! All our presidents are eminently worthy of nomination. I still have to give it to Truman.

  3. Michael Rogers permalink

    Jim, i’m enjoying, and learning much, from your posts. I appreciate your views, and the your intention to “understand the world and change it”. In addition to disastrous presidential leadership, we have created a dysfunctional congress, supreme court, that creates a system in which elites dominate our society for their own gain. We all collude by sitting on our hands, not demanding progressive, structural change. Seems this is, and has been, the way of the world. I had such high hopes for President Obama, and now realize, one person, even in the “most powerful position” must still play by rules set within this structure. You might like “billyblog”

    • Thanks Michael and much appreciated. You aptly sum up our sad state of affairs. It’s certainly structural but I do think we have some agency to change things. How to do so is the question…


  4. Michael Rogers permalink

    See Lessig’s site! and especially his latest post on Nov 3. He has a great strategy on “how”!

    • Thanks Michael for the link.

      I looked at the site and it seems that it’s going in the right direction but I think it falls way short in some critical areas. I don’t think we really have a democracy in this country, it’s far more a plutocracy. To overcome that, we need to totally take money out of politics. Fixcongress suggests providing some public funding for those who accumulate small donations – but why should democracy require any money? Requiring money to reach the public is by definition regressive. I think the push should be for full public financing for any candidate who can accumulate a certain number of signatures.

      The rules of election need to be changed so that 3rd and 4th party candidates can compete. I see nothing on that site which pursues that essential goal. Maybe I missed it?

      Another reform should be prohibiting any representative from ever working for or collecting from any corporate interest in the future. We need to try to stop the revolving door. I think representatives should receive a decent pension after he/she leaves office but not be allowed other income unless the opportunity is clearly unrelated to the public office that was held.

      Television and newspapers need to be required to print a full range of views and TV especially should be required to provide substantial free time.

      And how about that most unrepresentative body – the senate? How can congress be considered fixed when all legislation requires a super majority of 60% from a body that’s grossly unrepresentative? I’d certainly vote to eliminate this carryover from the House of Lords.

      And how about the House? The number of representatives is way too low and is reflective of a society much smaller in size. We need to vastly increase the size of the House so that we have more personal contact with our legislator. Modern internet technology could greatly facilitate this.

      How about public referendums on key topics?

      I’m sure there’s other things we should add but these are some which come to mind. The website’s name “fixcongressfirst” implies that it’s promoting a fairly complete package that will finally “fix” congress. If we’re going to try to make meaningful change, I think we need to set our sites much higher.


  5. Michael Rogers permalink

    Great suggestions, Jim, I’d like to offer them to the folks at ‘fixcongressfirst’. Let’s see how serious they are.

  6. kevin permalink

    Truman messed things up pretty bad. He bended the truth and people to this day still believe his bs. Anybody who disgreed with him was terrorist, from the media to the people in cabinet. He dropped a bobms because he wanted to intimidate the russians and because he just hated the japanese. Its a fact that the russians attacking made the japanese surrender, not trumans war crimes.

  7. Mark S permalink

    Truman was a terrible President but the one thing he did get right was dropping the bombs, thereby saving 100’s of thousands of US soldiers who would have been killed in a ground invasion of Japan. With Dean Rusk as his right hand man the idiotic UN was born and our military was fighting for the first time in our history with no objective for victory and thousands of US soldiers lost. Communists were all over the Truman government and his and Roosevelt’s inept handling of Russia and Stalin to go along with Truman’s support of Mao over Chiang Kai-Shek helped bring about the slaughter of 100 million people by the hand communists in the 20th century.

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