The Five Great Presidents of The Last Century

by Seymour Schechtman

The five greatest presidents of our last, very fateful century were the two cousins, Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Harry Truman and Ronald Reagan. In all instances a combination of foreign and domestic events combined to challenge their leadership and they and the country prevailed. During their tenure in the White House the policies they instituted to deal with these events in most cases subtly or materially changed the direction of the country and the outlook of the people positively, at least as we look backward with the accumulated wisdom of hindsight.

In domestic affairs Theodore "Teddy" Roosevelt is most famous for his conservationist achievements, creating over 150 million acres of national parks and forests. Surprisingly, for a wealthy aristocratic he was a "radical" in well publicized anti big business campaigns, successfully mediating major strikes and opposing, at times, legendary billionaire J. P. Morgan. A record plurality reelected him in 1904. His foreign policy was an elaboration of his famous dictum "Speak softly and carry a big stick." And yet he strongly reaffirmed the Monroe Doctrine, warning European nations to keep hands off our Latin American neighbors. He was the first American to win the Nobel Peace Prize for helping end the Russo Japanese War. He considered his greatest achievement was the beginning construction of the Panama Canal, the site for which was determined and purchased under his administration.

He retired after two terms, thus honoring a pledge he had made to respect the two term limit. But four years later he entered the political fray again to oppose his successor, William Howard Taft. While now running as a "spoiler" on a third party ticket he was not able to win, but he effectively split the Republican vote and enabled Woodrow Wilson, the democrat, to become president.

Wilson was not as popular as Teddy Roosevelt. An ex president of Princeton University, and also ex governor of New Jersey, he managed to pass important legislation on the domestic front; the Underwood Tariff slashing taxes on imported goods substantially for the first time since the civil war, and also including the beginning of a graduated income tax, small then, but of course something that is now a major factor in most peopleís calculations. Also the Federal Reserve Act, The Federal Trade commission, and the Clayton Anti Trust Act. In foreign affairs, however, his main effort was a valiant, indeed glorious, failure.

World War One started midway in his first term, and he ran for reelection in l916 on the slogan that "he kept us out of war." Upon his narrow reelection he soon had to rally the country and "make the world safe for democracy", in the face of an increasingly hostile Germany, declaring war in April, l917. At the peace conference at Versailles, Wilson was disappointed at the cynical, opportunistic bargaining that the Allies indulged in, ignoring Wilsoní idealistic "fourteen points" for a just peace. Worse still, Wilson, who would have been satisfied with half a loaf, saw the Senate refuse to ratify the Versailles Treaty. And the country never joined the League of Nations, then the precursor of our universal diplomatic forum, the United Nations. Wilson suffered a stroke vainly trying to stem the growing isolationist spirit that was also fed by our countryís frustrated ideals about the warís aftermath.

A short fifteen years later Franklin Delano Roosevelt was confronted with the bitter fruit of the non participation of our country in Europeís affairs with the chaos of Nazism, Fascism, and the demonic rise to power of Hitler. But first Roosevelt had to confront the worst economic situation of this century, possibly the worst inaugural economic crisis and ensuing depression since Abraham Lincoln. Jaunty, with a magnetic smile, and his perennially uptilted cigarette in his cigarette holder, he declared that "we have nothing to fear but fear itself". In his first 100 days he set a breakneck pace of legislative accomplishment , as his compelling motive was "above all, try something".

Through many landmark acts the basic principle established was that the government cared for the fate and welfare of the average person. Especially the farmers, workers and the unemployed, and to a certain extent would try to regulate the economy to prevent another crash. Some of the legislation was beneficial and long lasting, as the Social Security Act, and Roosevelt was reelected easily for three more terms, breaking all prior precedent. Primarily this was the overwhelming response of the electorate to the perception that the government now cared about the common man and that most people welcomed the apparent beginning of a sort of modified welfare state. The upper classes decried all this as "communist"; especially the deficit spending, small by our current standards, that now became routine. However, the depression persisted and only the overwhelming events overseas shifted our national attention from our self absorbed isolationist stance.

Rooseveltís greatest achievement, indeed, was rallying us to face the threat from overseas, as the Germans and Japanese were defeating our traditional allies in Europe and Asia. A bill to rearm this country was passed by only one vote in Congress, and much isolationist and even pro Nazi sentiment was rife. Indeed, the greatest anti-Semitic rally outside of Nazi Germany was held in Madison Square Garden in l939, led by Fritz Kuhn and his German American Bund., But even before the outbreak of war Roosevelt was able to help Great Britain with the destroyers for bases deal in l940 and the Lend Lease Act of l941. Also, sub rosa, convoying with our submarines Allied shipping to forestall predatory German submarine torpedoes.

Roosevelt rallied the country after the near disaster of Pearl Harbor, mobilizing over ten million troops and even more importantly, becoming the "arsenal of democracy." A vast outpouring of arms and military equipment resulted and hastened the end of World War Two with the unconditional surrender of the Nazi Fascist axis. Roosevelt, unfortunately died just days before the end of the war, on April 12, l945. Not many realized how tired and frail he was then, ---how ill equipped physically,---- to deal with the crucial business of negotiating with "uncle" Joe Stalin, the erstwhile Russian ally, at the various conferences that went on to settle the peace after the war. And the dubious arrangements we were forced to make because of Rooseveltís misguided optimism about Stalinís good will and essentially hostile intentions.

It was left for the accidental, afterthought vice president, Harry Truman, to deal with these anti democratic, anti western communist expansionist tendencies of Stalin. Truman literally was the new David against the seasoned political Goliath of Stalin. A product of the last of the political machines---the Prendergast machine of St. Louis--he told his first press conference "Pray for me, boys". Utterly unprepared, he did not even know about the Manhattan project-- the atomic bomb. But he certainly did all right!. His motto, the Ďííbuck stops here" was applied unflinchingly as major legislation was called for almost unceasingly from the very beginning of his term.

Truman approved the United Nations, accepted the German surrender, met with allied leaders at Potsdam, and ordered atomic bombs dropped on Japan. As the Soviet Russian Communist iron curtain descended and the cold war began, Truman talk tough with the them, and in l947 proclaimed the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan to aid European recovery and contain communism. At home Truman made progress on civil rights, and desegregated the army and kept the Republican congress from reducing the scope of the "New Deal" welfare programs of his predecessor. Indeed, he was able, on the strength of this record to win a surprise reelection against the overwhelming favorite, Thomas Dewey, even though at midnight of that election night Dewey was already declared the winner by the Chicago Tribune, an edition now treasured by many Democrats, including Harry Truman!

Truman also recognized the State of Israel against the opposition of the State Department and General Marshall, and sent troops to South Korea when communist North Korea invaded. Also he literally "fired" the commander of the army in Korea--Douglas MacArthur-- for publicly disagreeing with Trumansí policy. Unfortunately, after the Chinese entered the war on North Koreaís side, the probable outcome became very uncertain and Trumansí popularity became marginal at best. His last years in office resulted in much vetoed legislation overridden and also a rather hostile press. His poll ratings also suffered; only Jimmy Carterís were lower. "He did his damnedest" was the only eulogy he wanted on his death. The passing years have treated his presidential legacy much more kindly than his peers did.

Ronald Regain had the dual task during the eighties of confronting a failing economy and a hostile "evil empire" that ripened to fruition after years of the policy of detente the somewhat friendly containment of expansionist Soviet communism. On the home front he inherited from Jimmy Carterís failed presidency "stagflation"-- high prices and high unemployment. On the international front, Soviet Russia had invaded Afghanistan and we had suffered the embarrassment of impotently unable to obtain the release of our employees held hostage for many weeks by Iran. Both of these negatives were overcome. The Iranians released the hostages as a good will gesture to Reagan, and he got the economy on track by what has come to known as Reaganomics, a still controversial blend of higher interest rates (to stem inflation) and lower taxes(to spur the economy and reduce unemployment).

Higher interest rates finally brought the inflationary spiral under control, but only after first causing a recession in l982, and the tax cuts stimulated the economy, and by l984 the economy was rolling again and government revenue increased significantly over the next few years, due mainly to the almost 18 million new jobs created during the next few years and the taxes paid by these new jobs and new business enterprises. However, Reagan also embarked on a massive military rebuilding effort, increasing spending from 134 billion in 1980 to 290 billion in l988. And although domestic spending was supposedly curtailed at first, Reagan faced a Democratic Congress in his second term and had to compromise and increase social spending then to get his military agenda passed.

The net result was a ballooning federal deficit, from 904 billion in 1980 to 2.6 trillion in l988. Because of the great growth in revenues due to the Reagan prosperity the annual interest on the debt which had to be paid remained at about 15% of the total budget, essentially unchanged from the days when there was much less debt but much, much less revenue.

And lo and behold! the Soviet Union imploded before our eyes. Coincidence? Or did their system, exhausted with overspending militarily to keep up with Reagan, and thus depriving their citizenry with many domestic necessities, not to say amenities, just roll over and die, plagued with massive alcoholism, absenteeism and cynicism with their "workerís paradise". We may never know if Reaganís deficits were an early symptom of his impending Alzheimerís disease, and that we defeated this really "evil empire" not by plan but haphazard circumstance. If such was the case then perhaps we should update Lincolnís sage advice when told that Grant was very bibulous. A keg of the same brew to all his generals! Perhaps a little early Alzheimers to all current politicians, strategists, and pundits. Without a shot and no fatalities the worst evil of the 20th century after Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy: no more! In their place now a vital Italian democracy and an embryonic one, ( we hope! ) in Russia, and in all of eastern European countries liberated from the communist yoke.

But, of course, there were valid questions unanswered. The Iran-Contra episode was particularly embarrassing. White House staff (Ollie North among others) had secretly sold arms to Iran in hopes of freeing American hostages held in Lebanon, using the profits illegally to fund contra fighters in Nicaragua. Many aides in the White House had to resign, but faithful Reagan adherents were more upset by Reaganís insistence that he knew nothing about this key behind the scenes illegal maneuver. Under oath Reagan insisted he knew nothing about the scandal, responding 130 times that "I donít know" or "I doní t remember. "

In l989 Reagan left office with the highest approval ratings of any departing president since FDR. In l995 he revealed that he was suffering from incipient Alzheimers disease.

Five very disparate people, from different areas geographically, culturally---Truman had no college education, Reagan went to Eureka College ----and economically. Both Roosevelts were very well off financially and decidedly of upper class upbringing. Both Truman and Reagan were of decidedly middle class backgrounds and had to sink or swim based on their own abilities and chances. But all were bathed in that magic elixir of the American mystique that transcends all venality and that we call freedom. "Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness", "By the people, for the people, and of the people", and The Bill of Rights and our Constitution, these are our political birthright, joined at the hip to our Judeo Christian heritage that states emphatically that we are created in Godís image and that we are our brotherís keeper and shall not do anything to him (or her) that would be hurtful to us.

We may be only free to fall on our face in achieving these essentially holy goals but the priceless opportunity to try is still the glory and hope of all humanity. And makes us, and certainly our leaders, that much taller in all our endeavors.