Tuesday 2 July 2013

Was James Buchanan the worst US president? No, George W. Bush and Abraham Lincoln were worse


A very interesting article from the BBC asks if James Buchanan was the worst US president?
I think George W. Bush was the worst president of all except for Lincoln, but it is too tedious to talk about Bush, the gambler who won the 2000 election by the narrowest of margins but then kept on losing. We know the story too well. He paid insufficient attention to Al  Qaeda before September 11, he greatly over-reacted to that incident, he did not get out of Afghanistan quickly, as he should have done after an old fashioned imperialistic punitive exhibition, he started an unnecessary and unjust war in Iraq in which more, perhaps many more, than one hundred thousand died, most of them innocent civilians, although soldiers, sailors and airmen are equally innocent. He destroyed the prestige and respect that the world's only superpower enjoyed when he became president by these follies, by permitting prisoners to be detained indefinitely without trial and permitting torture. These were all grave blunders and some were crimes. There is no need to dwell on how he overspent, the cronyism, the lax immigration policy, his failure  in the New Orleans flood. His period in office was a crucial stage in the decline of the  imperial USA. He destroyed for a time American conservatism - we shall see for how long.

Lincoln should have allowed the South to secede and thus prevent civil war and hundreds of thousands of unnecessary deaths. Contemporary Great Britain would have prevented Ireland from leaving the U.K. by force and Russia, Austria and Prussia prevented the Poles and Hungarians from becoming independent in 1846 and 1848-49, but these powers were not democratic republics which had themselves rebelled only eighty years earlier from their king. No one with an ounce of decency can argue that states whose population overwhelmingly voted to secede should have been prevented from doing so. This is so even if some legal justification for the Unionists can be cobbled together by a rather strained interpretation of the US Constitution. The war which Lincoln could have prevented  killed many more people than George W. Bush's Iraq War and they were Lincoln's own compatriots. He killed the republic at the same time. There began the imperial American state that we have today.

Buchanan is greatly to blame for contributing to Lincoln becoming president, but from the point of view of the world as a whole, Woodrow Wilson, about whom I blogged here, did even more harm than the younger Bush, who is in spirit Wilson's son, not George H.W. Bush's. Wilson was a liberal who idolised Gladstone (and prevented coloured men from studying at Princeton while he was president of that  university). If only he had idealised Disraeli the history of the twentieth century might have been less tragic. Wilson is responsible for the break up of Austria Hungary and thus did a very great deal to make Hitler's rise to power possible. 

The harm these three did, Lincoln, Wilson and W, far outweighs the harm done by triflers such as Johnson or Harding.  

Coolidge and Eisenhower now look two of the best - who would have expected that? - though I dislike Coolidge for liking eugenics (as did Churchill). Nixon and Ford also look good. F.D.R. was one of the greatest from the British standpoint but not if you are an isolationist, which I might be were I an American, and especially not if I thought he knew about Pearl Harbor in advance. Truman is one of the very greatest if you are not an isolationist and are glad America stayed in Europe, became the world's policeman and dished out Marshall Aid. If not, not. I am glad to see John Tyler described as the best of all. He tried to keep the Union together then rightly sided with the Confederacy. Remarkably for someone who was president in the 1840s, he has two grandsons still living.

Zachary Taylor was my favourite as a young boy. He conquered large swathes of Mexico before he reached the White House, no doubt in breach of all international law but it was a famous victory, as old Kaspar would have said. To set against this there is nothing much to put in the debit side since he was President for only sixteen months. When I was eight I also liked him because I liked the name Zachary.

The worst president the USA never had was Henry Wallace. That was a close shave.

Where to place F.D.R. and L.B.J.? That would require two very long blog posts and depends on your political position and a lot of disputed facts. In brief, they created modern America and the modern world. 

It is not true that America never had socialism. L.B.J. was de facto a socialist, as socialist  as Clement Attlee. Nor was Huey Long the nearest the U.S.A. came to a fascist leader. In some respects F.D.R. resembles a fascist, even though he fought fascists.


  1. I am commenting spontaneously therefore possibly prematurely. I agree with Eland in that
    histerians criterion is often wrong. I say possibly always wrong. Historians are generally opinionated or very opinionated people. Interesting that the author calls T. Roosevelt a conservative nationalist which he was. Now neo-conservatives (American) are calling him a progressive. Neo-Conservatives are unlike old conservatives in numerous ways. After all they
    are former Trotskyites and their students. I am pretty well in agreement with you as to the worst. I think the leader of a nation should take the Hippocratic Oath. First do no harm. Of course there would be endless disagreement on what that means. Did you notice my misspelling of my 1'st use of historians here. It is truly a mis-type but happens with me periodically. I decided to leave it because in fact I like it.
    It amuses me.

  2. It's more than a shame3 July 2013 at 09:38

    The sad thing is that Woodrow Wilson's presidency was never his
    own. His campaigns both first and second terms were near entirely financed by a cadre of very like minded persons. When
    elected he was blackmailed by this cadre joined by a handful of
    other like minded persons and after the war he fell ill. Most
    likely because of the like minded persons and all they had handed to him and demanded from him.
    We can never know if without these manipulators he would have campaigned for or would have become president or what kind
    of president he would have been.

  3. It's more than a shame3 July 2013 at 09:45

    FDR was fascist socialist. There's a whole new and improved
    wave of them today.

  4. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  5. Jimmy Carter was the ABSOLUTE WORST President we ever had.
    President Lyndon B. Johnson pronounced in 1964: "What is going on in Iran is about the best thing going on anywhere in the world". Then Jimmy Carter decided he didn't like the Shah of Iran's human rights policies - result was the Shah deposed, right-wing Mullahs take over; fundamentalist terrorists are funded by Iran all over the Middle East and The Taliban and al-Qaeda are born and funded
    Jimmy Carter's prudish assholish forced implementation of human rights policies not only indirectly led to overthrow of the Shah of Iran, but also paved the way for loss of millions of lives, Iran's rule by Ayatollahs, the Iran-Iraq War, Iraq's Invasion of Kuwait and Desert Storm, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the Taliban, Al Qaeda, Osama bin Laden, and the mass murder of Americans and destruction of the World Trade Center towers on September 11, 2001.

    1. Had Eisenhower allowed Eden to take back the Suez Canal things would have been different too. But George W. Bush is in a league of his own - much worse than Johnson.

    2. Much worse than Andrew Johnson, I meant, but worse than LBJ too.