Top 10 Greatest US Presidential Acts
This will undoubtedly be a controversial list and I should suggest that everyone readies themselves for an onslaught of “too American” comments. But regardless of the controversy it is an interesting list that is definitely worth a read. So, read on and for the sake of fun and balance, why don’t all of our non-US readers post the greatest acts of their heads of state?
As we have seen frequently throughout history, not just in the U. S., a war hero fresh from a war is a shoe-in to become the leader of his country. Some have been good. Some have been lousy. Most are in the middle. But all the scholars agree Washington was the greatest, and he routinely sits in the top 3 of greatest president lists. He led by example more than anything, because the country was just getting started and did not yet have terrible internal problems such as civil war, civil rights, etc.
He was probably the humblest president, lacking a college education, and very polite to everyone. But once he won the war, the gossip was already heavy that he was the man to lead everyone. At first he considered refusing it altogether, but when his friends and the Congress persisted, he agreed. Then they said, “Would you like to be king?”
He answered, “That, gentlemen, is one thing I should be disgusted to be. It must not be so with us. Kingdoms and empires have never lasted indefinitely. We must. As we trust in God, we must.”
So he deemed himself President, for a finite duration. He suggested a duration of 4 years, and after his first term, he reluctantly served a second term, and refused to run for a third. This set an unofficial precedent of 2 terms for any one person, that was not constitutionalized until 1951. Were it not for him, the Presidency might have become lifetime.
On 2 May 1803, the U. S. paid France about $15 million for the Louisiana Territories, stretching from New Orleans northwest to Michigan in the East and western Montana and eastern Idaho in the west. Jefferson ideally wanted the entire continent to belong to the U. S., because he did not trust any other country to establish territory close to the western borders of the nation. He specifically needed about half of modern Louisiana, surrounding the New Orleans port, out of French or Spanish control, lest they dream up a blockade of the fledgling U. S.
So he corresponded with Napoleon, and the U. S. ambassadors were prepared to pay $10 million, but preferably less, for this half of Louisiana. Napoleon then offered them the monumentally generous purchase as we know it for the price of 60 million francs, plus permanent erasure of France’s war debts, an additional 18 million. The United States ambassadors could not believe what they were hearing, and quickly sent word to Jefferson, who pushed it through Congress, which voted in his favor by a margin of 59 to 57. Jefferson was smart enough to know that doubling the area of the United States was worth a possible insult to Spain, who might have argued their claim to the land. So what might easily have taken 100 years of tooth-and-nail conquest against Spain and/or France was achieved in one transaction: 23% of the modern nation we know as the United States of America, 14 of those states included, was acquired all at once without a shot fired.
Consider that the United States is not, at the moment, exactly on the finest diplomatic terms with China, and that for much of the 20th Century, Egypt and the U. S. have not been on very friendly terms either. The relationships are amiable enough to allow tourism and trade, but Egypt, in particular, has always been a hotbed of religio-political unrest, and during Nixon’s time, the Yom Kippur War made politics in the Middle East even worse than they are at present. Nixon’s administration supported Israel (which means supporting Jews, which tends to irritate Muslims), primarily because Israel was and still is the most powerful country in the Middle East and makes a fine ally.
Nixon authorized the shipment of arms to Israel to help in the fight against Egyptian invasion, and after the war was over, most of the Arab nations took a hard-line stance against the United Sates for helping Israel. Egypt, led by Anwar El Sadat, remained fairly peaceable with the U. S. The reason was Sadat, who wanted peace among the Middle eastern nations as much as Nixon (and the rest of the world). Nixon succeeded in befriending Sadat, and a direct result of the aftermath of the Yom Kippur War was the Camp David Peace Accords in 1978. Sadat managed to secure a temporary peace with Menachem Begin of Israel, and although Islamic extremism and terrorism has since ruined that peace, Nixon proved that it is indeed possible to achieve.
He also wanted to secure peace with Asia in the time of the Vietnam War. Everyone asks the question today of why the U. S. did not simply drop nuclear warheads on Vietnam and be done with it. The reason fro that is Chinese reprisal, since China and North Vietnam were both Communist. And if China intervened on N. Vietnam’s behalf, the U. S. might have had to defend itself with nukes in China, which would have brought the Soviet Union into the fight. Then it would have been a bad day for everyone. So Nixon took him upon himself to secure some measure of peace with China. By 1972, Mao-Zedong had seen that Nixon could be a man with whom to striek treaties, and Mao did not want an impossible war with the U. S. So the Chinese ping pong team invited the U. S. ping pong team for a friendly visit, which was accepted and went very well.
During their stay, Nixon managed to open excellent diplomacy with Mao’s China, and the relationship continues today. He also secured during his presidency a detente with the Soviet Union, under Brezhnev, on the subject of nuclear weapon proliferation. Nixon accomplished the first bi-national limitation of nuclear armaments, especially ballistic missiles.
When Nixon died in 1994, Egypt and China flew black flags in his honor.
The Great Emancipator may have been the finest rhetorician to have sat in the Oval Office; such status is contested primarily by Washington and Jefferson and J. Q. Adams. The question of slavery had long since been boiling over by the time Lincoln gained office, and his inauguration, coupled with other events such as John Brown’s raid on Harpers ferry finally broke the southern camel’s back, and the South seceded. What followed is a war that killed about 100,000 more Americans than WWI and WWII combined. The population of the country in 1860 was about 31,400,000. 620,000 died from the War, which means that if the war had been fought today, and the casualty rate had increased proportionally, then for 300,000,000 total, 60,000,000 Americans would have died.
Lincoln was thus tested more intensely than any President to date. He came through magnificently, with a hard-line opposition to slavery at a time when the issue had polarized American politics to the point of destruction. In 1856, SC Congressman Preston Brooks severely beat MA Senator Charles Sumner over the head with a hardwood cane on the floor of the Senate chamber, until Sumner was unconscious and bleeding all over the aisle. Brooks did not stop until the cane broke. The reason: insults spewed from both sides over slavery. The South actually championed Brooks. The North condemned him. The act of freeing the slaves was quite a brave one, indeed, in the midst of such turmoil.
On 22 September 1862, Lincoln proclaimed his Emancipation of all slaves in Confederate states that had seceded. On 1 January 1863, he amended the proclamation with specific states named. Lincoln’s act loses rank on this list, however, for two reasons in particular: the Proclamation never accounted for the border states, which were neither Confederate nor Union, and were allowed to keep the institution of slavery; and the Proclamation came far too late to be worth anything, since the War had already been raging for 2 years, and the Confederates had no intention of honoring Lincoln’s orders until forced to do so.
In 1825, Adams raised taxes for the purpose of improving roads throughout the country, founding a national bank, and instituting a national currency, founding universities, creating waterways, including the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, the connection of the Great Lakes to the Ohio River system, the expansion of the Great Dismal Swamp Canal in NC, the Portland to Louisville Canal, etc., all to improve maritime shipping and commerce. In those days, travel by boat was much easier than by horse and carriage, and Adams saw that maritime travel was essential to the country remaining an economic power. The policy of raising taxes did not make him particularly popular, however, and he was destined for a single term. This makes the list, in addition to the fine, nationwide modernization Adams oversaw, because Presidents have historically raised taxes to good ends and bad ends. This was one of the most sensible.
In very basic terms, the Square Deal was designed around 3 points: protection of the consumer; control of big businesses; and conservation of natural resources. It succeeded in destroying business monopolies, especially those of railroad transportation and meat packaging. The Elkins Act saw to the railroad situation, as for years the railroads had been allowing unfairly lower prices to major farm producers, and severely hurting the livelihood of small, local farmers. By means of the Act, Roosevelt rearranged commerce throughout the country in order that it benefit the middle class.
Meat packaging had been controlled by countless monopolies in every major city, and these companies had no one to answer to for sanitation purposes. People were dying and getting severely sick from spoiled or diseased meat, and the Square Deal destroyed these monopolies and gave the power back to large meat companies, which meant fewer companies, making it easier for Roosevelt to maintain control of sanitation, combat price gouging, etc.
And with the Antiquities Act of 1906, Roosevelt barred the use and abuse of public lands, especially wild lands. The first such use of the Act was the protection of Devil’s Tower in Wyoming. No one is allowed to build on this property, or alter the landscape in any way, and the Act has been used over a hundred times since 1906 for the purpose of establishing national parks.
Reagan is still one of the most divisive presidents in America’s history. The Republicans and Conservatives love him of course, and most of the Democrats and Liberals loathe him. His foreign policies remain extremely controversial: Soviet Communism was falling apart and Reagan gave it a final knock-out punch to send it on its way. But opponents have considered Russia as a state of abiding anarchy ever since. They have attempted over and over to establish and maintain a democracy of sorts, and yet the state seems very oppressive. Most of its leaders have been cited as corrupt or incompetent since 1989, and Reagan is routinely cited as the primary culprit.
Aside from that, he is even more frequently cited as the reason for worldwide Islamic terrorism, of a guerrilla nature, which resulted in the 9/11 plane bombings on U. S. soil, as well as numerous other bombings and terrorist incidents. The jihadists always cite the United States as “the Great Satan,” etc. and Reagan’s opponents still blame his hard-liner policies for instilling a repulsed, fuming hatred of the U. S. across much of the world.
But put all this into perspective: the Roman Empire was not too popular among Gaul, Germania, Persia, Parthia, or most of the rest of Europe and the Near East. During the Pax Romana, Rome was the single state in charge of most of the Western world, and it achieved this based on the principle of pacification by force. There were few and paltry challenges to this peace, because no foreign power dared.
Reagan achieved the same thing in our modern world by the same means: “Our enemies may be irrational, even outright insane, driven by nationalism, religion, ethnicity, or ideology. They do not fear the United States for its diplomatic skills or the number of automobiles and software programs it produces. They respect only the firepower of our tanks, planes, and helicopter gunships.” The question is often asked as of late, “What would have happened had Reagan been President when 9/11 transpired?”
He meant both Communists and terrorists, and he coupled his hard-line rhetoric with the audacity to carry it out in reprisals against Gaddafi’s Libya, Grenada, Iran, everybody that dared open hostilities with the United States. As a result, the U. S. had very few serious problems abroad.
The Monroe Doctrine was actually written by John Q. Adams, while Secretary of State. But President Monroe authorized it, and it states that no European power may declare sovereign territory anywhere in the Western Hemisphere, out of concern for the security of the United States. It was introduced on 2 December 1823, and stipulated that any such colonization of land, or interference of any kind with the affairs of the United States in the Western Hemisphere would be deemed an act of aggression and dealt with militarily.
The Doctrine has been invoked and has saved the United States many times. The immediate threat at its inception was from the Holy Alliance of Russia, Prussia and Austria, which intended to reclaim Spanish colonies all over the world. There were quite a few in the Caribbean, and the United States did not want any more European trouble, a la the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812. It is because of this Doctrine that the United States is not beset on all sides by a host of nations intending to gain more “living room” as Hitler called it. The Doctrine had a crucial role to play in the #1 entry.
Rumors persist that Franklin Roosevelt knew that the Japanese were going to attack Pearl Harbor, but elected to let it happen in order to boost the country out of its decade-long Depression. But that is a conspiracy theory, and unless it is confirmed, he must remain innocent until proven guilty.
What is known is that once Pearl Harbor was over, the whole country stood behind Roosevelt, and he didn’t disappoint. He declared war of Japan, knowing full well that Germany and Italy would follow suit against him. But he had wanted this for years, because he knew as well as Churchill that Hitler was a monster who wanted nothing less than the whole world under his foot. So the last good war was good because of the universal enemy of mankind. Today, the “War on Terror” has all the makings of a good war to fight and finish, but Bush, Jr. didn’t handle it right. Obama hasn’t done much better. The one thing missing is a president who knows how wars have to be won: let the generals do as necessary. It won’t be pretty, but it will be quick, and then it will be over. FDR did just that.
At the outset, the United States was by far the most powerful industrial giant in the world, but not with the most powerful military. FDR is the man most responsible for the superpower the USA is today. Japan had nearly absolute control of the Pacific. Germany had nearly absolute control of continental Europe. By the end, the USA was king in all military respects. This cannot all be attributed to one man, but FDR deserves by far the lion’s share of the credit. He rallied the country like never before, behind patriotism the intensity and purity of which the world is not likely to witness again.
The most difficult part of a war is paying for it. FDR agreed with his Secretary of the Treasury, H. Morgenthau, that a program of national defense “War” bonds would fill the government’s coffers fast. Once the money was there, the United States “in its righteous might” as FDR said, “won through to absolute victory.” He told General Chief of Staff George Marshall, “I want Hitler and Mussolini stopped where they war. You see to that, and I will have Nimitz and MacArthur see to Japan.” At the time of the attack on Pearl Harbor, the U. S. had 9 battleships and 3 aircraft carriers, to the Japanese’s 11 and 9 respectively. On 8 December 1941, the U. S. had only one functioning battleship in the Pacific, and its 3 carriers; the Japanese had lost none. But by December of the next year, the sleeping giant was fully awake and fully pissed, and the U. S. had 12 battleships, plus 3 under repairs, to the Japanese 10, and the Japanese had lost 4 carriers at Midway and built a new one. They now had a distinct disadvantage as the U. S. put all its monstrous industry to use, and FDR’s generals obeyed him to the letter: Marshall relayed his order to Eisenhower, “You will enter the continent of Europe and render the Germans and Italians incapable of waging war.”
It goes without saying that political lists are inevitably controversial, because Democrats love Democrats, and Republicans love Republicans. But this is one of those rare times when everyone on all sides of the event should stand in awe of what a president did. We mere mortals of Planet Earth came closer to our own idiotic self-annihilation, by means of the Cuban Missile Crisis, than we ever had, and possibly ever will.
In 1963, nuclear warfare and the proliferation of its weaponry had reached its all-time peak. Even the laypeople who don’t know a thing about nuclear physics understood with an abiding trepidation that we now had the power–and we always had the malicious stupidity–to obliterate ourselves very efficiently. The Soviets then took things up another notch by placing medium and intermediate range ballistic nuclear missiles in sites in Cuba, deliberately aimed at the East Coast of the United States, for the sole purpose of targeting its major cities, from Miami to Boston.
In keeping with the Monroe Doctrine, Kennedy dared not allow the Soviets to continue this, but he did not threaten nuclear holocaust. Reagan may well have done so. Truman probably would have. Bush, Jr. definitely would have. If a Presidential hard-liner had been in Office, the outcome might well have been global destruction. Kennedy handled the Crisis with the utmost political acumen. He would be a hard-liner if necessary, but was absolutely determined to exhaust all diplomatic avenues first. Too much hung in the balance to take any risks.
Nikita Krushchev, the Soviet Premier, was by far a hard-liner, infamously banging his shoe on the table of the U. N., screaming, “We will bury you!” But his cabinet understood well enough to convince him that any nuclear attack would result in both sides losing. There was no victory to be had, because there would be no one left to celebrate. His cabinet spoke to Kennedy’s cabinet for a duration of 13 days, a time when the world needed only one good leader, and got it in Kennedy, who finally got the message through to Krushchev that war was hopeless. Krushchev finally sent a letter asking what terms for truce could be reached. The next day, some hard-liners in his cabinet sent a second letter supposed to be in his hand making impossible demands.
Kennedy simply pretended to ignore the second letter. It was his idea through and through, and in the meantime, he offered to compromise of removing American missiles from Turkey. This compromise saved everyone, and by his political wrangling, America didn’t even lose face. It appeared as if the Soviets backed down. Political scholars the world over still sit in quiet horror these days, wondering what might happen if the situation should arise again, and the President is anything less than John F. Kennedy.