To part one.
To part two.

February 11, 2001

   Strakon Lights Up, No. 96

The twelve worst
Part three

Onward and downward with my list of the worst U.S. presidents. In the first half of my list, "U.S." could stand for either of two things, but from here on in, it stands for "United State" without exception.


6. William McKinley.

McKinley is the man who wanted war with Spain so badly that, as writer David T. Wright puts it, "he would not take yes for an answer from the desperate Spaniards." Anyone still victimized by the fairy tale that McKinley was a naive, hand-wringing peacenik forced into war by Teddy Roosevelt and the yellow press needs to rush out to a good library — or a large used-book store with some unusually deep nooks and crannies — and find historian Walter Karp's Politics of War.  Or, failing that, and it's in the nature of our times that the searcher probably will fail to find Karp's long-out-of-print masterpiece, consult Wright's essay-review of it, right here at TLD.

Author's note. Before writing that, I should have checked to see what Amazon's used-book contractors were offering. The Politics of War is available. You should still read Mr. Wright's piece, though! — NS, February 15, 2010
McKinley needed some splendid little war to distract Americans from their growing revulsion with the corrupt, collusive, and decaying party system at home. And Wall Street, slavering as always for unjust privilege and monopoly concessions, was impatient to start major construction on the U.S. world empire in the Pacific and Asia, now that the continental empire was secure and exhaustively exploited. Seizure of the Spanish Philippines would be a good thing in itself for the moguls, but, more importantly, it would also put American power on the doorstep of China. As Murray N. Rothbard shows in Banks, Wall Street, and American Foreign Policy,  the Morgan interests started agitating for war with Spain during the last part of the second Cleveland administration, two years before McKinley took office.

The president who occupies the ultimate place of dishonor at the end of this list — president no. 1 — pioneered the American homicidal humanitarianism that has run like a bright red river of blood through all of our subsequent history, and McKinley extended it from the domestic to the foreign arena. Open, swaggering, forthright imperialism is bad enough, but at least it's honest. Imperialism masquerading as humanitarianism turns ordinary men's virtuous impulses to the service of viciousness, and it ends — as indeed as it has ended with us — in fatally confusing and corroding away the moral sense of a people. McKinley's part in all of that is quite enough to earn him a place in the second half of my list.


Before proceeding to president no. 5, I need to interpose a word about McKinley's successor. I didn't find a place on my Suetonian list for the wild man Theodore Roosevelt. He would have made it easily had only he been able to find a war of his own while president. (Imagine his frustration!) That is not to say he was harmless, with his naval expansion, glorification of the state, and meddling in the economy — most notoriously to the detriment of the Rockefellers at the behest of the Morgans, his senior partners and rivals of the Rockefellers. Roosevelt's Panama Canal was a shining monument to man's creative powers when seen outside any political-economic context, but when seen in context, it amounted to a ruthless bullying and dismemberment of Colombia, a foundation stone of worldwide U.S. naval imperialism, a vast state-building public-works project, and a massive subsidy to the shipping and export industries. If people want canals or space stations or anything else, they should pony up and build the confounded things themselves.

But the damage Roosevelt did after leaving office makes his destructive accomplishments as president pale by comparison. As Karp demonstrates, in the period 1915-17 the former chief executive stood on the sidelines capering and shrieking for American intervention in the great European civil war — permitting my homicidally humanitarian president no. 3 to disguise himself as a mild-mannered peacemonger! Poor, hapless Charles Evans Hughes — Roosevelt helped the Republican presidential candidate impress voters in 1916 about as much as Lenora Fulani helped Pat Buchanan in 2000. And that was only four years after Roosevelt helped elect president no. 3 in the first place by running on the Bull Moose ticket in 1912. But it was all accidental, of course, as examination of the Secret Morgan Archives will no doubt confirm when they are opened for public examination in A.D. 5001.


5. Harry Truman.

In the 1970s it made me retch when the established media raised up Honest, Plain-speaking Harry as a heuristic counter-example to Tricky Dick. See, kids — that's  what a real president should be! Boy, if we only could have a man like Truman again!

I thought one Truman was enough — more than enough. I thought it was more than enough that the self-satisfied little savage made the last chapter of the "last good war" an atomic war, grinding obscene filth onto the visage and into the soul of my unfortunate country for all time. More than enough that Americans went straight from having a befuddled, moribund, mass-murdering dupe of Stalin and Stalinism in the Presidential Palace to having a cold-eyed, energetic, mass-murdering Cold Warrior who was eager to incinerate hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians in order to intimidate and keep at bay the very Stalin whom his predecessor had rescued.

It may all have been more than enough for us, but it wasn't enough for Truman. The U.S. rescue of Stalin and Stalinism led to the communization of China and the northern part of Korea, and so it came to pass that Truman got his own splendid little state-building war and a chance to practice his own brand of homicidal humanitarianism. Men whose older brothers hadn't been able to find Guadalcanal and Okinawa on the map before being sent there to die now had to wonder where their own unchosen destination, the exotic land of Korea, might be. Too many of them came back permanently brainwashed — not by the Red Chinese, but by the government of the United State — to believe, in the words of one veteran interviewed on the History Channel, "It was a war we had to fight."

Truman's state building involved more than his outright enslavement of sons, brothers, husbands, and fathers, and their transformation into cannon-fodder, as tremendous a crime as that was. NATO and the Marshall Plan, both of which he promoted as part of the Truman Doctrine, were linchpins of the new style of American imperialism. The finance-imperialists' plotting at Bretton Woods occurred late in his predecessor's regime, but the IMF and the World Bank, two other linchpins of empire crafted at Bretton Woods, actually started up on Truman's watch. So did the CIA, and Truman had a more direct hand in that. He also ordered the manufacture of the H-bomb.

Truman re-established wage, price, and production controls; temporarily nationalized the steel industry; threatened to draft striking rail workers into the Army; and told the media that his inherent power to confiscate and control extended even to them  if push came to shove (though his admiring biographer, David McCullough, insists that this time the famously "plain-speaking" Truman didn't really mean it). We should thank our lucky stars that Korea was only a "little" war. And, oh, yes, Truman doubled Social Security payments and accelerated the destruction of American higher education through his GI Bill.

His predecessor, president no. 2 on my list, tended to conduct his tyranny with a lighthearted, aristocratic air — resembling Hermann Göring or Winston Churchill, say, more than Stalin or Hitler. He was a worse tyrant than Truman, but Truman had more of the gutter instincts of Stalin and Hitler. Truman made the fullest and most energetic possible use of the machinery erected by president no. 2, within the limitations imposed — during two of his years in office — by a Republican Congress that actually did, it seems, provide a little real opposition. (That miracle alone, occurring deep into the "me, too" era, ought to tell you something about how tyrannical Truman was.) President no. 2 ridiculed and brushed off opposition with a wave of his hand; Truman was infuriated by opposition in principle, and he didn't make any secret of that. If there had been no limitations on Truman, he would have made Richard Nixon — with whom he would later be so favorably compared — look like George Washington.

A final point about the trouble with Harry. The good press Truman received long after leaving office — and he left it as an unpopular president — had a lot to do with the ethnic makeup of the American communications industry, which ethnic makeup steadily became, er, more so as the years passed. Pressed by the rich and influential Jews surrounding him, including his former business partner, Truman saw to it that the United State was the first nation to recognize Israel. Worse, the whole "special relationship" with that high-maintenance socialist enclave dates from Truman's regime. Just look what that's  led to.

Author's note. Although I wrote this column precisely seven months before September 11, I hereby proffer a formal declaration that I was not among the multitude who seem to have had foreknowledge of those events. — NS, June 2002
4. Lyndon Johnson.

Coming as late as he did in the history of the American nation-state, after so much of our patrimony had already been destroyed and so many of our contradictions had been resolved in the direction of darkness, this man had to excel in evildoing in order to win himself the dishonor of position number four on my list. After reading Robert Caro's account of Lyndon Johnson's formative years, I doubt he even had to break a sweat doing so.

Johnson was the first president I hated while he was still in office. That had a lot to do with the fact that I came to a fuller political awareness during his regime; and that, in turn, had a lot to do with the fact that I turned 18 in 1967. Kennedy had hardly been innocent when it came to conscription, but the Emperor Lyndon was my generation's first mass kidnapper, enslaver, and butcher of youth. I lived in fear that his blood-slimy hands would eventually close around my neck, too, yanking me out of my life and perhaps out of any life whatsoever.

Johnson even imitated president no. 1 in projecting a sanctimonious melancholy as he rounded up America's sons and sent them off to slaughter and be slaughtered. He practically drowned the TV cameras in crocodile tears. At least the crocodile, if not the tears, was genuine. Such a sad and reluctant mass-murdering reptile was he! Unfortunately for Johnson, his impersonation of president no. 1 at last fell flat, as his little imperial war turned out to be not so splendid. Unfortunately for the cause of justice, and unlike president no. 1, no John Wilkes Booth ever found him.

I'd been a Goldwater fanatic in 1964, so I was inoculated against the mental self-destruction I saw many of my generation engaging in by 1968, to wit: "What a tragic figure LBJ is! He started off so gloriously in his first couple of years, implementing the Great Society, and then mysteriously turned into an evil warmonger!" Probably the first Big Connection in political thinking I ever made occurred during the summer of 1964 while Congress was debating the Civil Rights Bill. I was all for implementing equal rights for everybody, but — nudged by Goldwater's opposition to much of the bill — I suddenly realized that forcing some people to associate with other people at gunpoint was the exact opposite of equality before the law.

Once I'd made that connection, two subsequent connections were easier. The first was that politicians of the day could do, in public, the exact opposite of what they said they were doing — and almost no one would notice! The second connection, taking a little longer to formulate and requiring a little more reading of history, was that tyrannical empire-building abroad goes hand in hand with tyrannical state-building at home. Johnson was the greatest practitioner of War Socialism to occupy the Presidential Palace since his hero, president no. 2, spent 12 years there.

In time the guns fell silent, and Americans stopped dying in Vietnam. But Johnson's other legacy, the Great Society, continues to kill the body and the spirit of Americans 30 years after Johnson joined his hero and their horned Father in the principality of eternal fire.

Next time: the ultimate unholy trinity.

February 11, 2001

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