I have had the distinct pleasure of hosting Michael Cohen on my show The Advocates over the past few years. I read with interest his piece regarding who were the best and the worst foreign policy presidents.
First of all no one could disagree with FDR being number one. From his warnings regarding the threat from the totalitarians in his 1937 Quarantine Speech, to his battle against the America First isolationists and appeasers, to his embargo of critical material to Japan, to his excellent strategy regarding Germany First, FDR was a master of judgment, strategy and negotiation. He kept the Allied coalition together; he selected excellent commanders on both land and sea, and was willing to forget ideology with regard to his cabinet (Stimson, Knox) and with the creation of the OSS (Donovan). He was the central force behind all of critical meetings from the Quebec Conference, to Casablanca to Teheran and through to Yalta. At the end he was the creator of the United Nations and the Bretton Woods Conference on Monetary reform was critical to the post war economic structure. He had a problem with the London Monetary Conference on gold, but scored high marks regarding his Good Neighbor Policy in Latin America.
Truman had a distinct disadvantage following FDR, but he gets high marks for continuing his policies. His decision to drop the A-Bomb was correct and even though it is impossible to know for sure, I believe FDR would have come to the same conclusion. The Marshall Plan, NATO and the Truman Doctrine give him high marks along with the firing of the recalcitrant MacArthur. MacArthur’s invasion at Inchon and his run up north to the Yalu River was not wrong-headed or against Truman’s directives. The problem was his failure to heed warnings regarding China’s motives that were clearly given him and his poor dispersal of his troops. Truman and the US were almost helpless in regards to the Chinese Civil War, which was almost decades old by 1945. Though FDR did not trust the corrupt Chiang Kai-Shek he was able to work with him because of the Japanese threat to the existence of an independent China, but after the war, Truman was stuck with a loser.
Eisenhower was an overrated president who made many foreign policy mistakes. His going to Korea didn’t change the dynamic of the truce, but it put a lie to the baseless and oft used Republican political cry of, “who lost China?” He was not well enough to be an active engaged president and he failed with the Suez Crisis, and after being bluffed by the Soviets, he let down our allies; the British, French, and yes the Israelis. He embargoed arms to Israel, and also did not capitalize on the aborted Hungarian Revolution. He was embarrassed at the summit over the U2 Incident, and was upstaged by the bellicose Khrushchev. His South American policies reversed excellent relationships developed by FDR’s successful Good Neighbor policies. (Nixon’s disastrous trip to South America in 1958.) He also fouled up the Vietnam situation by not recognizing Ho Chi Minh’s efforts against the Japanese, underestimated their aspirations for a unified country, and half-heartedly supported the French colonial rule, which FDR opposed. The CIA’s coup and their replacing Mossadegh with the Shah in Iran set the stage for long-term problems that have not ended. He allowed the ascendency of Castro, and the planning for the Bay of Pigs.
George HW Bush, deserved high marks for creating the coalition against Saddam Hussein, but failed miserably in the end. His failure to destroy the Baathist regime set the stage for the next round of warfare, which we are still entangled. Over all he was an uninspiring leader who achieved his office by the “Peter Principle.” His allowing Sadaam the use of helicopters enabled him to put down revolts in 90% of the provinces that resisted his totalitarian rule. He was generally seen as ineffectual and naïve.
Wilson’s policy of organizing our first effort as a real world power succeeded. His selection of Pershing was excellent and our effort won the war. But his inability to compromise with Senate “irreconcilables” led to his political failure. He gets high marks for the Fourteen Points, the World Court and the League of Nations, but underestimated the virulence of the Allies toward Germany and the opposition here to foreign entanglements. Conservative German-American revisionist historians in the 1920’s did a lot to sully Wilson’s efforts.
Lyndon B. Johnson forgot FDR’s adage on “guns and butter,” was sucked into the “who lost China” canard by the GOP, and fought an insincere foolish war. According to Art Buchwald, the late humorist and journalist, he could have bought off the North Vietnamese for a fraction of the cost of the war. His policies of containment followed the Truman model, but were unachievable because unlike Korea, Vietnam was not a peninsular and the Ho Chi Minh Trail could outflank our forces by going through Laos and Cambodia. He wasted blood and treasure in an unwinnable effort. As to his other actions, they paled in comparison.
Nixon politically exploited the Vietnam War with his “secret plan” for victory in the same way Eisenhower did in Korea. Nixon’s efforts in Vietnam were worse than Johnson’s. He allowed more of our forces to be killed, he spent more money, and he caused more damage to the region. As to China and the USSR he certainly opened the door to a different level of negotiation. But few people remember that it was Nixon whose Senatorial career and advice to Eisenhower as Vice-President was to not recognize Red China. It was that policy that delayed normalization with them. He supported the failed Eisenhower policy of supporting the French before the Dien Bien Phu defeat. Basically he was a paranoid hypocrite who spent the last years of his life rationalizing his whole disastrous career.
As to JFK being in the top five, that conclusion is disputable. He allowed the Berlin Wall to be built; he aligned himself with the corrupt Catholic minority in Vietnam, organized their downfall and was indecisive about how to handle that country. His “Ich Bin Ein Berliner,” speech got high marks, his South America policy was better than Eisenhower’s and he was able to be well-liked in Europe and the 3rd World. His efforts on Nuclear Arms limitations deserve high marks, but his shortened presidency left too many unanswered questions about the future. His actions in the Cuban Missile Crisis after the disaster with the Bay of Pigs deserve very high marks.
Carter was a poor president and his failure with the Iranian Hostage Crisis showed his weakness, but at least they were released alive. We were sucked into the Iranian Revolution by our past support of the corrupt Shah, and Carter’s ambivalence and his dalliance with him started the mess with the Iranian Mullahs and militants. But, he did get high marks regarding Israeli-Egyptian Peace Treaty.
Clinton’s foreign policy was under-rated with strong successes in Haiti, Northern Ireland, ending the Balkan War and containing Sadaam Hussein with relatively inexpensive air containment.
Reagan was overrated on foreign policy. The fall of the Soviet Union was on the way long before the expensive and unnecessary 600 ship navy and the foolish “Star Wars” expenditure. The revolt at Gdansk along with liberalization of Hungary which opened the door to the West for East Germany refugees set the stage for the USSR’s collapse.
George W. Bush was our worst president, home and abroad, enough said.
Top Five: FDR, Truman, Clinton, Wilson, and JFK. The bottom five: GW Bush, GHW Bush, Eisenhower, LBJ and Carter.