It is becoming increasingly common to read comments like Eric's, saying that George W. Bush is or may be the worst president ever. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said so forthrightly a few days ago. Although I am strongly tempted to agree, I know it's not true--not because I have a higher opinion of Bush than people like Reid, but only because I've looked a little more carefully at some of the disasters of the past.
Before one can begin to make a judgment about this question of who is the worst president, I think one has to have some objective criteria on which to do an evaluation. Too many of the presidential ratings that have been done over the years are just popularity polls that tell us absolutely nothing of substance. For myself, I think the most important criteria ought to be how many people did a president kill unnecessarily?
Obviously, this means making a judgment about which of our wars were justified and which weren't. Among the big ones, I would say that the Civil War and World War II were justifiable. But I have never been able to figure out what vital interest we had at stake in World War I or why we got involved. For that reason, I consider every American death in that war to have been unnecessary. At more than 100,000 deaths, this makes Woodrow Wilson our worst president in my book.
Of course, we have also had lesser wars that were motivated by nothing but imperialism--the Mexican War and Spanish-American War, for example. But very few people died in these wars and at least they were successful in the sense of accomplishing their purpose. Other wars fall somewhere in the middle--they may not have been motivated by imperialism or other base motives, but neither do they fall clearly into the "good war" category. These would include Korea and Vietnam. People can make their own judgments about those. War casualty data can be found here.
Of course, there is also the question of killing foreigners unnecessarily. This raises the difficult question of Truman's use of the atom bomb against Japan. Today, incidentally, is the day the first bomb was dropped on Hiroshima in 1945. Thursday will be the anniversary of the Nagasaki bomb.
My feeling is that the Hiroshima bomb was clearly justified and I think Truman was right to use it. But I have always had problems with the Nagasaki bomb, especially since it came so soon after the first bomb. I think a strong case can be made this bomb constituted unnecessary overkill. Therefore, one might reasonably say that Truman killed 74,000 Japanese unnecessarily.
Finally, there are certainly other issues on which we reasonably judge the success or failure of our presidents. The economy is an important one. In this regard, it is hard to put anyone except Herbert Hoover at the top of the list for failure. His signing of the Smoot-Hawley Tariff was one of the great blunders in American history and it is doubtful he will ever have any competition for incompetence in the economic area because his policies essentially brought on the Great Depression.
Thus without even considering the merely incompetent presidents who did no lasting harm, we see that George W. Bush has very heavy competition for the title of worst president. Of course, he still has time to make a bigger mess of Iraq and maybe bring on an economic crisis. But absent that, I just don't see how he can be considered the worst when there is so much stronger competition for that title.
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