With “Bush’s Last Day” fast approaching and media commentators spending considerable air time debating Bush’s legacy, it’s the perfect opportunity to re-visit a handful of the worst presidential decisions in our nation’s history. So without further ado, following is my list of the five greatest presidential failures.
1. Escalating the war in Vietnam, Lyndon B. Johnson, 1964
In the 1950s and ’60s, the dominant idea in foreign policy circles was the Domino Theory, which postulated that if one nation fell to the Communists, the surrounding countries would fall, too. This is precisely what happened in Eastern and Central Europe after World War II, and with Communist governments already in place in North Korea and North Vietnam, the West feared that the collapse of South Vietnam would lead to the collapse of Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines. Once the dominoes started to fall, there was no telling where they would stop.
President John F. Kennedy embraced the Domino Theory, which explains why he sent military advisors and troops to South Vietnam. President Johnson accepted it too, and after North Vietnamese and U.S. ships exchanged gunfire in the Gulf of Tonkin in August 1964, LBJ urged Congress to approve a resolution that would permit the nation “to take all necessary steps, including the use of armed force, to assist any member or protocol state of the Southeast Asia Collective Defense Treaty.…” The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, as it was known, passed 416-0 in the House of Representatives, and 88 to 2 in the Senate.
As we all know, the ensuing war did not go well. No matter how many troops LBJ sent to Vietnam, the North Vietnamese would not give up the fight. As U.S. casualties mounted and Americans began to sense that the war was unwinnable, anti-war protests—many of them violent—erupted across the country.
Johnson’s decision to increase U.S. involvement in Vietnam hamstrung his presidency and ruined his reputation. By the time the United States withdrew in 1973, more than 1.5 million Vietnamese had perished, and more than 58,000 U.S. troops had been killed.
2. The Bay of Pigs Invasion, John F. Kennedy, 1961
Like his predecessor, Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy was uncomfortable with the presence of a Communist government only 90 miles from the U.S. mainland. Eisenhower had planned to send CIA-trained Cuban exiles into Cuba to overthrow the government of Fidel Castro, and JFK subsequently adopted the plan after being assured that the invasion would work.
The 1,400 Cuban exiles who stormed the beach at the Bay of Pigs on April 17, 1961, expected air cover from the U.S. Air Force, and imagined that U.S. Marines would be dispatched to support them. But the air cover lasted only a short time, and support from the Marines was not forthcoming. As a result, sixty-eight invaders were killed and approximately 1,200 were captured. After twenty days of interrogation, the captives were given show trials and sentenced to life in prison.
In the end, Kennedy’s bargain basement attempt to overthrow Castro further entrenched the Communists and initiated 50 years of animosity between Cuba and the United States. Relations with China and Vietnam have improved, but that has not been the case with Cuba.
3. The Embargo, Thomas Jefferson, 1807
While France and Great Britain engaged in a protracted war in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the U.S. merchant marine suffered greatly from their combined efforts to restrict neutral shipping. Among other things, the warring nations stopped American ships, confiscating their cargo, and even pressed American sailors into service. Presidents George Washington and John Adams both attempted to resolve this ongoing problem, but met with no success. Finally, in 1807, the British and French declared their intent to step up their respective efforts to keep American goods from reaching enemy ports.
In response, President Thomas Jefferson asked Congress to pass the Embargo Act of 1807, which, among other things, barred American vessels from carrying cargo to foreign ports. By bottling up every foreign-bound merchant ship, Jefferson imagined the British and French would come to realize how much they needed American goods, particularly agricultural supplies.
Jefferson was dead wrong. Meanwhile, in America, the embargo put tens of thousands of American sailors out of work overnight. And they were not the only ones hurt. Farmers could not sell their surplus cornmeal and flour overseas; ship owners watched as their boats sat idle at anchor; dockworkers had no cargo to load or unload; and bartenders at waterfront grog shops lost their hard-drinking seafaring clientele.
The embargo strangled the U.S. economy, ruined private businesses, eviscerated family fortunes, and created a new class of criminals (smugglers). It also cost Jefferson his reputation as an enemy of centralized government and champion of the common people. As he prepared to leave the White House the 65-year-old president said, “Never did a prisoner, released from his chains, feel such relief as I shall on shaking off the shackles of power.”
4. The Internment of the Japanese, Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1942
After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, Californians feared they would be the next target. In a fit of paranoia, state officials and ordinary citizens alike imagined that their Japanese-American neighbors were spies and saboteurs. Before long, Governor Culbert L. Olson demanded that the federal government do something about this perceived threat to national security.
During a congressional hearing on February 4, 1942, General Mark Clark, the deputy chief of staff, and Admiral Harold R. Stark, chief of naval operations, observed that Americans living on the West coast were unduly alarmed. General Clark estimated the chances of a Japanese invasion of California as “nil.” Meanwhile, U.S. Attorney General Francis B. Biddle regarded the relocation plan as “ill-advised, unnecessary, and unnecessarily cruel.” And FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, dismissed relocations as “utterly unwarranted.”
Nevertheless, calls for the relocation of Japanese-Americans continued unabated. On February 19, 1942, FDR issued Executive Order 9066, which authorized Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson to designate military exclusion zones from which the United States could bar any person without having to prove that individual’s disloyalty or ill intent. Later, Congress unanimously passed a bill authorizing the removal of Japanese-Americans from the West Coast.
Over the ensuing three months, U.S. troops systematically removed approximately 120,000 Japanese-Americans from their homes and relocated them to assembly centers, internment camps and detention camps. In most cases they were given no more than ten days to store their possessions and sell or rent their homes, farms, and businesses.
When Japanese-Americans returned to their neighborhoods in 1945, many found that their possessions had been looted and their residences and businesses purchased for pennies on the dollar by white neighbors.
5. The Alien and Sedition Acts, John Adams, 1798
The 1790s witnessed a surge of French immigration to the United States. Most of the émigrés were refugees from the violence of the French Revolution, and included French aristocrats and Catholic priests, two favorite targets during the Reign of Terror. President Adams and Federalist members of Congress feared, however, that among the French immigrants were clandestine groups that intended to lead a violent insurgency against the government. Adams said as much in a speech before Congress on May 16, 1797, when he warned that agents of France were at work in America stirring up “aggressions dangerous to the Constitution, union, and independence of the nation.”
In the summer of 1798, the Federalist-dominated Congress passed four new laws (known collectively as the Alien and Sedition Acts) that: Raised the residency requirement for citizenship to 14 years (The Naturalization Act); authorized the president to deport any resident alien believed to be “dangerous to the peace and safety of the United States” (The Alien Friends Act); authorized the president to deport resident aliens if their country was at war with the United States (The Alien Enemies Act); and made it a crime to “print, utter or publish … any “false, scandalous, or malicious” writing about the government (The Sedition Act).
Of course, the French invasion never came, nor did a coup against the government, and only a handful of men were tried for seditious libel. Meanwhile, the Federalists became notorious for passing legislation that ran roughshod over the First Amendment.
Thomas J. Craughwell is author of the book, “Failures of the Presidents” (Fair Winds Press).