Who was the worst president in the postwar period?
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:
“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.