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 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. 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.
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 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.
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.
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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.
When Ronald Reagan came into office in he had a reputation as perhaps the most stridently anti-Communist presidential candidate in the Cold War era. As President he failed to disappoint. He turned up the anti-Communist rhetoric; branded the Soviet Union an 'evil empire'; raised defense spending significantly; and increased support for anti-Communist rebels, and authoritarian regimes in Latin America, the Far East, Africa and perhaps most enduringly, Afghanistan.
By escalating the containment doctrine to one of "rollback" his first term as President saw the Cold War reach, perhaps, its most fever pitch with both sides seriously entertaining the potentiality of nuclear conflict. An ABC television movie, The Day After, which portrayed a post-apocalyptic United States seemed like more than mere fantasy, but a distinct possibility.
Yet, in retrospect, for all his political bluster Reagan turned out to be quite the political pragmatist. When Mikhail Gorbachev took office in , Reagan shelved the tough talk and got down to business, almost making a deal with the Soviet leader to eliminate all strategic nuclear weapons at the Reykjavik summit.
But the very fact that he was willing to work with the Soviet premier; that he ignored the heated claims of many of his advisers that the US should remain on heightened sense of alert with the Soviets gave Gorbachev the political space he needed to enact reforms that eventually toppled his country. It's a telling reminder that sometimes restraint is the most effective foreign policy option.
Moreover, for all of Reagan's hawkish image he only ordered one major military intervention during his presidency, Grenada, and he wasn't afraid to cut his losses when necessary as he did in Lebanon after Marines were killed on a peacekeeping mission. While the Iran-Contra affair would become a black mark on his second term in office and it's hard to look past the human toll of his support for anti-Communist and un-democratic groups around the world, he deserves enormous acclaim for helping peacefully end the Cold War though not 'win' as Reagan partisans are prone to argue.
Generally speaking when "president" and "Bush" are used in the same sentence these days, rarely does the word "success" also appear more on that later. But when it comes to the foreign policy performance of the elder President Bush the track record is actually pretty good. He handled the Iraq War with great deftness; of particular note was the assembling of a multi-national coalition and getting a UN Security Council imprimatur to turn Saddam out of Kuwait.
Nonetheless, the Gulf War bolstered the notion of collective security in the international system and offered a warning to other countries intent on conducting cross-border invasions in the post-Cold War world. Speaking of the Cold War, while Bush might have been a bit late in supporting Russian reformers, he was able to, in part, manage an international process that brought Soviet troops out of Eastern Europe, reunified Germany and eventually saw the demise of America's greatest strategic threat. All this was achieved with no violence and unfolded in such a way that saw vibrant democracies take root across Europe if not Russia.
That's no small accomplishment even if the lion's share of credit belongs to European and Russian leaders. In the Middle East, the political pressure he put on Israel after the Gulf War which hurt his re-election chances led to the Madrid Peace conference. Even more important, open conflict with the Israeli government contributed, in part, to the election of Yitzhak Rabin and defeat of Yitzhak Shamir in ; these were two moves that helped pave the way for Oslo.
On the negative side, Bush's hands-off policy toward the Balkans while true to his realist impulses likely undermined the possibility of resolving the conflict before a full-scale civil war emerged. His encouragement of uprisings in Iraq that he failed to back up with use of force not to mention a terrible cease fire deal with Saddam that allowed him to suppress Shiite and Kurdish revolts are black marks on the Bush record.
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Criticism is perhaps also due for his failure to try and stabilize Afghanistan after the Soviet departure, but it's highly questionable as how to much the United States could have done to alter the situation. His post-Tiananmen support for Chinese leaders was morally dubious but may have, in the long-run, strengthened the process of reform in China. All in all Bush's success in his one-term suggests that had he served another his final ranking might have been even higher.
Everybody likes Ike it seems well except of course the Guatemalans, the Iranians, and the Indonesians, and for good reason. His presidency gets high marks from historians and foreign policy analysts alike - and deservedly so. He played nuclear poker beautifully to end the Korean War and also convinced the Chinese from keeping their hands off Taiwan.
His policy of ratcheting up the nuclear arms race lessened the chances of US-Soviet conflict and also prevented the military budget from spiraling out of control. His remainder method for defense spending after domestic priorities the remainder would go to the Pentagon brought some sanity to what he later dubbed the military-industrial complex.
Ike also gets points for his handling of the Suez crisis and staring down those in his own administration who wanted to support the French militarily when they were getting their clocks cleaned in Indochina. And he used Cold War fears to push for national highway system and more money for higher education, two smart national security investments. From the a political standpoint he quietly helped usher in the downfall of Joseph McCarthy; and more prominently his campaign had the intended effect of burying the isolationist wing of the GOP and enshrining an internationalist vision in US foreign policy.
He was also a non-partisan on foreign policy issues; a far cry from Truman or the presidents who would follow in his footsteps. As Sean Kay, a professor at Ohio Wesleyan University and Eisenhower devotee said to me; "what really made him a great President on foreign policy was his capacity to see American power in more than military terms, and to see the essential relationship between domestic programs, like education, and national security.
I could not think of a more appropriate worldview today. On the strength alone of winning World War II and handling the delicate diplomacy of dealing with wartime US Allies, like Churchill, Stalin, de Gaulle and Chiang Kai-Shek Roosevelt is far away the greatest foreign policy president of the 20th century. With this record of accomplishment it's hardly even a contest. When one considers also that he laid the groundwork for the international system, via the United Nations and the Bretton Woods institutions, he practically floats into the stratosphere. But even Roosevelt's lesser well-known achievements stand out.
The Good Neighbor policy ended at least temporarily US military interventions into Latin America and solidified the support of Western Hemispheric leaders for America's larger foreign policy goals. Critics will rightfully complain that Roosevelt stumbled into conflict with Japan or manufactured the war in order to ensure a US entry intro to the larger European conflict ; or that he sold out the Eastern Europe countries at Yalta.
All fair charges, but then they are also reflective of the hard-nosed pragmatism that bookended Roosevelt's idealism. Obviously no president is perfect and even the best ones have their downsides. Indeed, few American presidents fall easily into the great or even really good category - in the 20th century Roosevelt is clearly the one who does. Richard Nixon is generally considered one of the worst American Presidents - impeachment and resignation tends to have that effect. But his foreign policy record is more mixed.
Considering that these had been his two overriding priorities upon taking office it's even more impressive. Of course the ledger on the other side is pretty ugly. It took Nixon four years to wind down the Vietnam War with tens of thousands more American dead as a result. This came after he and his top foreign policy adviser, Henry Kissinger, had scuttled a potential breakthrough only days before the presidential election an act that to the less charitable might be considered borderline treason.
His decision to bomb and then later invade Cambodia led to the ascendance of the Khmer Rouge and the death of a million Cambodians. He escalated the bombing of North Vietnam to get a final peace deal, which led to horrible civilian casualties; and then when that deal was reached his political problems at home over Watergate helped to undermine the case for continuing to support South Vietnam. There was also the deposing of Prime Minister Allende in Chile, Nixon's virtual nervous breakdown during the Yom Kippur War although Kissinger's subsequent shuttle diplomacy paved the way for the Camp David Accords and, the stain of Watergate badly undermined the US image in the world.
From the narrow perspective of US interests, Nixon had important successes and might even be considered an above average presidency; but with the fuller range of human consequences of his policies is considered it's much harder to give him a passing grade. Harry Truman has in the nearly 50 years since he left the White House grown significantly in the estimation of both the public and many historians. These records alter the conventional narrative in important respects.
The handling of events did not epitomize a "wonderfully coordinated and error-free 'crisis management'" between policy makers and the intelligence community, as Bundy would later have it. It was largely the opposite: a close call stemming directly from decisions made in a climate of deep distrust between key administration officials and the intelligence community. Almost every standard account of the crisis has essentially ignored the tension and rampant uncertainty between these entities and within the CIA itself, to the detriment of depicting the full complexity of what actually occurred.
At the time of the missile crisis, and for the first time in its short history, the CIA was led by a man whose political affiliation and ideology were widely viewed as being at direct odds with the administration he served. Liberals in the administration were appalled. For starters, McCone, a California engineer-turned-tycoon, was the embodiment of the wealthy, conservative Republican businessmen who had overwhelmingly populated Dwight D.
Eisenhower's administration although McCone had also served as Truman's undersecretary of the air force. More important, while chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission during Eisenhower's last term, he had earned a reputation as a "militant" anticommunist and "real [bureaucratic] alley fighter. His relations with the scientific community, which generally supported arms control and disarmament efforts, had also been problematic, and he seemed out of sync with the Kennedy administration's dominant ethos, which, while ill-defined, was supposed to be distinct from the brinksmanship that characterized the s.
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In fact, McCone would probably have been the leading candidate for secretary of defense had Richard Nixon won the election. The opposition to McCone's permanent appointment badly unnerved him. When his wife suddenly died, he seriously contemplated declining the nomination. In January , he asked associates at the CIA to consult with the White House about the possibility of withdrawing his name; however, administration aides assured him this was "unnecessary and undesirable" from the president's point of view.
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His credentials, and good ties to Eisenhower, were considered important in protecting Kennedy's right flank. It was hoped that McCone's involvement would temper the former president's criticism, which was considered very problematic given Eisenhower's popularity and reputation. Apprehension inside the CIA was nearly as great as among liberals. The agency had enjoyed a period of enormous growth in the s, the consequence of having been run by a director—Allen Dulles—who had a patron in the form of his brother, John Foster Dulles, who just happened to be the secretary of state for most of the decade.
In addition, of course, McCone was virtually a novice with regard to the craft of intelligence, his experience limited largely to being a consumer of intelligence while undersecretary of the air force and, later, chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission. Inflicting an outsider on the agency was considered even worse than saddling it with a dogmatic man known for his "slide-rule mind" and molten temper.
And early on, McCone appeared imperious to staffers, overly interested in bureaucratic status symbols. McCone," noting that he had "instructed them to put as much pressure on General Motors as they could to get this done. The Senate approved McCone's nomination on January 31, , with only twelve members voting no. However, the unease over his appointment was deeper and more widespread than this number suggests; by comparison, all three of the CIA's previous directors had been unanimously confirmed. It was against this backdrop of doubt and distrust that the untested McCone faced his first real crisis late in the summer of Starting in February , U-2 surveillance of Cuba had followed a regular schedule of two overflights a month.
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The first of the two August overflights occurred on the fifth—too early, by a matter of days, to capture any telling evidence about the Soviet military build-up to come. Nonetheless, reports from other sources prompted McCone, during a Special Group Augmented SGA meeting on August 10, to raise the specter of offensive missiles being placed on the island. The Soviet Union was "in the red [behind in terms of nuclear missiles] and knew it," he declared, arguing that Khrushchev was likely to try to redress the imbalance via Cuba. McCone came across as "too hard-line and suspicious," as Undersecretary of State George Ball later put it, and was too cavalier about the connection between Cuba and the East-West face-off in Berlin.
A sixty-year-old widower, he was about to be married for the second time and planned to honeymoon on the French Riviera until late September. Kennedy's advisers would later criticize McCone for not warning the president before leaving for the Mediterranean and for being absent during what turned out to be such a critical period.
The first charge was demonstrably false, as the president well knew, and McCone had also expressly sought Kennedy's consent for his absence. But whether his physical presence in Washington would have made a marked difference during those crucial weeks in September is an open question. McCone was able to exert some influence via the so-called honeymoon cables that went between Langley and Cap Ferrat.
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On August 29, after several delays because of bad weather, the second August overflight took place. Analysis of the August 29 film revealed at least eight SA-2 sites in the western half of Cuba. Soon, it appeared, the CIA would not be able to overfly the island with impunity, its regimen restricted only by weather forecasts. As McCone reportedly observed after being informed about the SAMs, "They're not putting them in to protect the cane cutters.
They're putting them in to blind our reconnaissance eye. For virtually every other senior official and analyst, however, the SA-2 deployment came "as a problem to be dealt with deliberately," as one later recalled. President Kennedy was inclined toward the view held by the overwhelming majority of senior officials in his administration: that the Soviet military aid, though unprecedented in the hemisphere, was for the purpose of ostentatiously defending Cuba while setting up the island as a model of socialist development and bridgehead for subversive activities in the region.
By this reasoning, the SA-2 deployment did not signal a foreign policy crisis as much as a domestic political one. With a midterm election fast approaching, pressure to "do something" about Cuba was bound to mount and would have to be managed carefully. Marshall "Pat" Carter, that he wanted the SA-2 information "nailed right back into the box" until the White House decided to make it public which it did on September 4. He also pressed the Pentagon for an assurance from the Joint Chiefs of Staff that US military flights would not be conducted in a provocative manner.
These precautions left the vexing issue of the intrusive bimonthly U-2 surveillance unaddressed, though not for long. This would enable the U-2s to reach a higher altitude over Cuba and reduce pilot fatigue and the stress placed on fragile mechanical equipment, including the plane itself.