The Best and Worst Foreign Policy Presidents of the Past Century


Presidential candidate Richard Nixon meets with Lyndon Johnson at the White House, July 26, 1968 / LBJ Library

Who were the best and worst presidents in American history? It's the sort of barstool conversation bandied about amateur historian and policy nerds like myself on a semi-regular basis. But as this question has come up in recent weeks around the blogosphere it got me thinking about a slightly more discrete question: Who are the best and worst foreign policy presidents of the last 100 years?

After reaching out to host of historians, foreign policy experts, academics and various think tankers here's one stab at answering a question which, in many respects, has no right answer. How you choose the best and worst foreign policy President depends in large measure on what values inform your vision of what a good foreign policy looks like. If you're a foreign policy idealist, Wilson would seem pretty good; a foreign policy realist; you might cast a vote for George H.W Bush or even Richard Nixon. If you prefer your presidents to talk tough, Harry Truman might be your man; if you prefer a more modest and less partisan figure, Dwight Eisenhower might float your boat.

As my list suggests, I tend to lean toward the more restrained, pragmatic realists who are suspicious about the use of force. Conversely, I'm more wary of not only the idealistic and ideologically driven presidents, but also those who use foreign policy, most destructively, as a tool of domestic politics. For the purposes of brevity, I've gone back 100 years from today, and restricted the selections to eleven presidents who fall in the best to worst spectrum (that means no TR, no Clinton and no Taft, Ford, Coolidge, Hoover and Harding). These are the five best, the five worst and the one who is in a category all his own. But half the fun of assembling a list like this is in the writing; the other is in listening to people tell me all the reasons I'm wrong. So have at it.

The Five Best Presidents

#5 The Incomplete: John F. Kennedy

Cohen jfk.jpg

Was John F. Kennedy the worst president of the 20th century as defense blogger Tom Ricks suggests? Not even close. His foreign policy record is a tale of crucial mistakes, significant accomplishments and perhaps above all an evolution in thinking (an unusual trait among presidential office holders). He came into office having dangerously ratcheted up the Cold War rhetoric with his blatantly false warnings of a missile gap with the Soviet Union. His inaugural address, though deservedly praised, pointed the way toward greater US militarism and intervention in the periphery of the Cold War.

His presidency got off to a terrible start with the Bay of Pigs, an epically bad example of presidential mismanagement. But not long after he resisted calls for military action in Laos: an example of bold and assertive leadership from a young president. The Vienna Summit with Khrushchev was amateur hour and contributed to the Cuban Missile Crisis. But JFK's handling of the one incident that brought the world as close to nuclear Armageddon as its ever come is an accomplishment that outweighs any negatives on Kennedy's record. Crisis management is a fairly essential part of the job of president and few of the holders of the top job did it as well as Kennedy did in the Fall of 1962.

The big unknown with Kennedy is, of course, Vietnam.  Clearly he ramped up US engagement in the conflict, although clearly never took the step of sending ground troops to fight there - as his successor so flagrantly did.* Would he have escalated? We'll never know. Although the evidence that he would have been perhaps more rigorous in his analysis and decision-making than Johnson is compelling. Also the American University speech given only six months before his death suggests that Kennedy had softened, in part, his hard-line Cold War thinking. It's impossible to fully judge Kennedy's presidency and the detractors and supporters have strong cases to make, but it's easy to imagine that had he lived and continued the foreign policy transformation that was emerging near the end of his life, he could have been one of the great ones.

Presented by

Michael Cohen is a Senior Fellow at the American Security Project. He is currently writing a book on the 1968 presidential election. 

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