The Executive Celebrity: John F. Kennedy (1961-1963)

John F. Kennedy was a new kind of president, a charismatic who used television for the first time to become an executive celebrity. His assassination made him a folk hero. But hero worship fades over time, and by 1988 historians had judged Kennedy to be the most overrated figure (let alone president) in American history. His detractors slam him for the Bay of Pigs invasion, the Cuban Missile crisis, escalating conflict in Vietnam, going too slowly on civil rights, and his meager legislative accomplishments. Some of these charges are valid, some are not, and I’ll take them in turn. In fact, Kennedy was an okay president, average on whole, deserving neither hero worship nor overreactive censure.

1. Peace (Foreign Policy)

Bay of Pigs

It was an absurd plan: to land 1,500 Cuban exiles on the island, make it seem like an internal uprising, and then hope for a massive revolt against Castro and his army of 25,000. With Castro becoming increasingly popular, that would never happen. After a three-day invasion plan gone to hell (April 17-20, 1961), the exiles were left on the bay fending for themselves; Kennedy didn’t intervene to help them, and they were either killed or captured.

The most enduring outcome of the Bay of Pigs is that Cuba became entrenched as a communist state. The goal had been to rid the hemisphere of a potential Soviet base, but all it did was make Castro declare himself a communist and ally with the Soviets (and with China too). Far from undermining Castro’s revolution, the Bay of Pigs consolidated it. It is of course the largest stain on Kennedy’s record.

The Cuban Missile Crisis

A year and a half later came the threat of Armageddon. With Cuba now an ally, Khrushchev decided to put long-range nuclear missiles on the island. On October 16, 1962, an American spy plane discovered this, and Kennedy wasted no time quarantining Cuba so that no additional missiles could be brought in. On October 22, he ordered the Soviets to remove the missiles that were already in Cuba, and he broadcast to the American public that he was prepared to use force if necessary to neutralize any threat to national security. For six days every American sweated bullets, fearing Armageddon. Kennedy’s advisors (military and civilian) kept telling him that he should order an air strike or an invasion of Cuba. Kennedy wisely resisted the hawkish counsel, and the issue was resolved on October 28: Khrushchev removed the missiles in exchange for Kennedy’s (public) promise not to invade Cuba and his (private) agreement to remove U.S. missiles from Turkey.

Opting for a naval blockade instead of air strikes and invasion was a moderately commendable act. But it was still an act of war, and Kennedy is rightly criticized for brinksmanship, though I think he sometimes overly censured on this point. To his credit, he resolved the situation  admirably, by giving Khrushchev a face-saving way out the crisis — by trading a withdrawal of missiles from Turkey for a removal of missiles in Cuba — Kennedy kept the crisis from escalating into a war of obliteration. Though he was largely to blame for causing the crisis (with the Bay of Pigs fiasco), he redeemed himself in the end.

The Berlin Wall

In June of 1961 Kennedy went to Austria to debate the question of Berlin with Khrushchev. The U.S. supported a free West Berlin, while the Soviets supported a communist East Berlin, but Khrushchev wanted all of Berlin unified and added to East Germany. Kennedy refused to abandon U.S. commitments to West Berlin. Two months later in August, the Soviets started building the Berlin Wall, abandoning their plans to take over West Berlin. The Berlin Wall was a true embarrassment for the Soviets, showing that communism was so damn awful that it needed to jail in its citizens to keep them from leaving. Kennedy is to be commended for preserving freedom in a strategically important location.

Southeast Asia

In Vietnam, Kennedy didn’t want to commit a large amount of land combat forces. He favored diplomacy, economic aid, the use of South Vietnam forces, and U.S. air and naval forces, and a very small U.S. ground force. He was clearly reluctant to make a firm commitment to South Vietnam, but he feared that a communist takeover of the south would make him look weak in the eyes of conservatives. The specter of Harry Truman lurked in the background here: he was blamed for “losing” China to the communists in 1949, and the Democratic Party would never live down this image of supposed weakness throughout the Cold War.

For Laos, Kennedy negotiated a neutral coalition government, accepting that the U.S. would not get involved in Laos even though Laos would probably fall to communism. On this logic, Kennedy should have accepted a communist Vietnam too. Both countries are backwater and of no strategic significance to the U.S. But again, Kennedy’s honor as a Democrat was at stake. He felt he had to do “something against communism”.

The moment of true escalation came with Kennedy’s decision (in November ’63, weeks before his assassination) to overthrow South Vietnamese president Ngo Dinh Diem. The South Vietnamese hated Diem for his rabid Catholicism and anti-Buddhist policies, and Kennedy unwisely got on board with the coup. Most U.S. politicians felt that Diem’s fall effectively made America responsible for developments in South Vietnam from that point on.

The Peace Corps (and Moon Missions)

Humanitarian outreach and space exploration seem to share little in common, but for Kennedy they served the same purpose: to show the Soviets that whatever they did, America could do better. Regardless of his propagandist motives, creating the Peace Corps (in March 1961) and endorsing the Apollo missions (in September 1962) produced positive and important results.

It’s interesting about the Peace Corps. Few people today understand that Kennedy was using outreach to one-up the commies:

“Kennedy described Americans serving abroad as a tool with which to defend a free society. The Soviet Union ‘had hundreds of men and women, scientists, physicists, teachers, engineers, doctors, and nurses prepared to spend their lives abroad in the service of world communism,’ Kennedy exclaimed at a stump speech in California. America did not. The Peace Corps was the answer. A corollary may have been peace, but the intent was to counter communist campaigning at a grassroots level.”

His tune changed by the time he signed the executive order. Now he insisted that peace and humanitarian motives were the driving force: “Our Peace Corps is not designed as an instrument of diplomacy or propaganda or ideological conflict. It is designed to permit our people to exercise more fully their responsibilities in the great common cause of world development.” Obviously, Kennedy protested too much.

What matters are the results. For over 50 years now, throughout Latin America, Africa, Asia and the Middle East, Peace Corps volunteers have taught in schools, assisted in developing new crops and agricultural methods to raise productivity, built sewer and water systems, and engaged in other projects. Kennedy deserves immense credit for creating the Peace Corps, however poorly he arrived at the idea. As a former Peace Corps Volunteer myself (in Lesotho, ’91-’93), I’ve witnessed how the program not only helps people in third-world nations, but fosters cross-cultural understandings which are important in today’s world. Kennedy began an American foreign policy of true peace.

2. Prosperity (Domestic Policy)

Kennedy should have been a fiscal failure. In his inaugural speech he said that he didn’t care about the national debt, and that he intended to “keep spending until businesses were hiring again.” He subscribed to the crank Keynesian model that says government spending expands the aggregate demand and thus helps economic growth. Yet for pragmatic reasons he ended up tempering those Keynesian urges. He wanted to restrain inflation so that conservatives, the Treasury Department, and the Federal Reserve wouldn’t oppose his tax cut in 1962. However, like Ronald Reagan twenty years later, he neglected the need for spending cuts, without which tax cuts are essentially an illusion. But at least he kept deficit spending under control.

The tax cut reduced the top rate from 91% to 70%, and as a result the GDP growth rate increased in the years after his assassination — to 5.8% in 1964, to 6.4% in 1965, to 6.5% in 1966. When he first announced the tax cut proposal, Keynesian critics objected to it, feeling that the government should instead spend money on welfare programs. Kennedy again deserves credit for going against his own Keynesian instincts.

Modest Legislation

Kennedy also signed a reasonable increase in Social Security benefits, from $33 to $40 a month, and enabling early retirement at 62. Also to his credit, he allowed collective bargaining among federal employees.

The Steel Crisis

The crisis emerged in April of 1962 when Kennedy leaned on steelworker unions to accept a smaller pay raise so that the White House could help keep steel prices down. But after the unions agreed, the U.S. Steel execs announced a major increase in their prices. Kennedy went ballistic: the steelmakers were barely bumping up their workers’ salaries while jacking profits way up. He slammed the steel industry publicly in a news conference, and also said famously, “My father told me all businessmen were sons of bitches, but I never believed him until now.” (Actually his father had said worse — that “all businessmen were pricks” — but never mind.) Four days later U.S. Steel backed down, thanks to Kennedy’s ceaseless bullying and threats.

It’s tempting to cheer when a president faces down a big corporation. But it’s generally not good for the government to control prices in the private sector — whether through bullying or force of law, either of which Kennedy was willing to use. Kennedy’s scare tactics led to a major stock market selloff that resulted in the worst crash since Black Tuesday in ’29. On May 28, 1962 steel stocks fell 50%.

Kennedy’s heart was in the right place in going after U.S. Steel, but he was wrong to do so. In the 21st century, Donald Trump’s campaign threats in 2016 to punish individual companies, and his current battle with Amazon.com, have drawn comparisons to Kennedy’s war with U.S. Steel.

3. Liberty

Until his final year in office, Kennedy was schizophrenic on civil rights. On the plus side he sent federal marshals to protect Freedom Riders during a siege in Alabama; on the minus side, he wouldn’t issue a statement condemning segregated transportation. On the plus, he issued an executive order to end housing discrimination; on the minus, he nominated five racists to fill judiciary spots in order to get southern support for creating Medicare and providing federal aid to education. On the plus, he called for a ban on racial discrimination in public accommodations; on the minus, he discouraged the civil rights march on Washington in August of ’63, which culminated in Martin Luther King’s famous “I have a dream” speech.

Finally, however, on June 11, 1963, he called for a real Civil Rights Act. It would be signed by Lyndon Johnson in 1964, but some of the credit for that momentous accomplishment goes to Kennedy. By the time he was assassinated, the bill had passed the House and was making it’s way through the Senate.

The Equal Pay Act

Kennedy signed this bill in 1963, which was a good step toward ending wage discrimination based on gender. It placed a high burden of proof on women filing discrimination charges, but it was a good start.

Conclusion

I wanted to score Kennedy higher. As a former Peace Corps volunteer, I’d like to be able to claim Kennedy as a solid “good” president. Alas, his scoring comes out average.

Peace. For resolving the Cuban Missile Crisis well, defending West Berlin’s freedom, and for establishing the Peace Corps, Kennedy earns gold stars. He must be downgraded for the Bay of Pigs disaster (-4), and escalating in Vietnam (-2), though not severely; it was Johnson who escalated to calamity. Kennedy also needs docking for his naval blockade which, while less hawkish than what his advisors were asking for, was still an act of war (-3).

Prosperity. For resisting Keynesian inclinations and fighting inflation, he should be commended. His tax cuts were mostly positive, though they were unaccompanied by corresponding cuts to federal spending. He had a callous disregard for the national debt. His domestic legislation was fine, but modest. His war on U.S. Steel was less than admirable, even if driven by a desire for equity. All of this weighed together, he earns 14 points.

Liberty. Kennedy could have been better on civil rights, but he was better than a lot of historians give him credit for. Weighing all the schizophrenic pluses and minuses would earn him a 10, but for getting the Civil Rights Act started for Lyndon Johnson to pass, I upgrade him 4 points, for a total of 14.

Peace — 11/20
Prosperity — 14/20
Liberty — 14/20

TOTAL SCORE = 39/60 = Average

Deconstructing Myth: Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1933-1945)

One of the reasons I began this series on the presidents is to show how upside down the mainstream views are. John Tyler and Warren Harding are placed at the bottom of most rankings, when they belong at the top. Then there is the Holy Trinity — George Washington, Abe Lincoln, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt — who are always in the top three. Only Washington belongs there. Not “Honest” Abe, and certainly not FDR.

We are told the great myth: that FDR led America into a great war for noble cause, pulled America out of the Great Depression, and championed civil rights. In fact, FDR lied and sneaked America into war, for less than noble reasons, antagonized a foreign power which got American citizens killed, exacerbated and prolonged the Great Depression, and committed some of the worst crimes against human rights and civil rights of any American president.

It’s not surprising that FDR loved John Adams. He had a quotation from Adams carved into the mantel of the White House State Dining Room, which said: “May none but honest and wise men rule under this roof.” Yet FDR was no more honest and wise than John Adams was. Both men were hypocrites, habitual liars, and trampled on peoples’ liberties. Both get the same score totals in my assessments. John Adams scores 5/9/2 = 16/60, while FDR, as we shall see, scores 10/4/2 = 16/60.

Part of FDR’s phony legacy has to do with his charisma. As Ivan Eland points out, human beings are suckers for charisma, and ever since FDR especially, American presidents have been evaluated more on their ability to impress people with speeches, than on their actual policies.

1. Peace (Foreign Policy)

Roosevelt served as president for twelve years, and for the first six of those years (1933-39) he was commendably non-interventionist. Public opinion at this time was still in line with the vision of the founding fathers that had prevailed throughout the ’20s (that is, military restraint overseas), and no one forgot the disaster of World War I. FDR stayed out of things as Italy invaded Ethiopia; he declared American neutrality during the Spanish Civil War; he accepted Mexico’s nationalization of its oil industry; he approved the Munich agreement when it was negotiated; he granted the Philippines independence; he abrogated the 1903 treaty with Cuba. During this time FDR was as non-interventionist as his three Republican predecessors — Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover — entirely to his credit.

His policy changed in ’39, when Hitler invaded Poland. FDR had by now concluded that the U.S. could not live with Adolf Hitler — though not for the same reasons we condemn Hitler — and wanted to enter the war allied with Britain and France. But the vast majority of Americans (70%) opposed the war.

Scheming America into war

Rather than make his case to the American people and Congress, Roosevelt schemed to make the Axis attack. He provoked Japan with an oil embargo, froze all their assets, knowing full well that would make the Japanese desperate for oil. (More than 80% of Japan’s oil came from the U.S.) The Japanese responded four months later at Pearl Harbor (December 7, 1941), and 2,400 Americans paid the price, some of them civilians. Congress was then forced to act, and the U.S. entered the war on that day.

But why did FDR want to enter the war, when most Americans opposed it?

Reason for entering the war

It was certainly no moral crusade against Adolf Hitler. Hitler didn’t start his mass execution of the Jews until well into 1942. In fact — as some historians point out in their more honest moments — up to the end of 1941, if you had been forced to side with either Germany or the Soviet Union on purely moral grounds, you should probably have sided with Germany. Stalin had murdered millions in the ’30s, and FDR knew of that when he decided to become Stalin’s bosom-buddy. Outrageously, he whitewashed Stalin’s image as “Uncle Joe”, and put the Soviets on the side of liberty, human rights, and justice. Given FDR’s perversion of liberty at home (as we will see), that praise could have been taken for exactly what it was worth.

FDR had no moral issues with Hitler. He simply feared Germany, worrying that if Hitler defeated the British and gained access to the British fleet, then Germany could isolate the U.S. If FDR had been honest with the American people, he would have said that Stalin was a cruel tyrant, but the U.S. had an interest in supporting him against Germany, because Hitler was dangerously expansionist. Instead he lied and schemed through the back door.

Some FDR apologists go so far as to claim that Roosevelt lied to the American public for their own good, which is absurd. In a republic, accurate and honest information is essential in deciding whether or not to approve warfare.

Running the war, and winning it

The best part of FDR’s presidency is that he won World War II, which (from our hindsight perspective) needed to be won. Having provoked an adversary into attacking first (and for less than admirable reasons), and having lied the American public into a war they didn’t want, he at least won the damn thing. Quite by accident, the U.S. ended up on the right side of the moral divide, fighting against and defeating Fascist Italy, Nazi Germany, and Imperial Japan.

FDR put excellent leaders in charge — Generals Dwight Eisenhower, Douglas MacArthur, George Marshall, and Admiral Chester Nimitz — and allowed them to do their jobs without micromanaging them. This is worth noting, because chief executives didn’t have the best track record in this regard (especially Lincoln in the Civil War).

The Yalta Agreements

Casting Stalin as a lover of liberty and human rights (one of the most outrageous presidential whitewashes in American history) made it necessary for FDR to keep lying after the war, which he surely did, by secretly allowing Stalin to set up communist regimes in Eastern Europe. This led to the Cold War almost immediately following World War II.

The seeds of this were sown in the Yalta agreements, in February 1945 (two months before the war ended in Germany, and six months before it ended in Japan). The Yalta conference heavily favored the Soviets:

  • Russia was given control of Eastern Europe, including Poland — the country that the Allies had gone to war over in the first place.
  • Germany and Austria were cut into occupation zones, and the split removed Germany as a counter-balance to Soviet Power.
  • Stalin agreed to join the war against Japan in exchange for territory lost in the Russo-Japanese War, the Kuril Islands and a pro-Soviet satellite state in Mongolia.
  • Stalin agreed to join the United Nations, but only with a secret agreement that gave Russia veto power over all measures.
  • FDR agreed to the Soviet expulsion of Germans from Poland and Czechoslovakia and the return of all Soviet POWs, even those who didn’t want to return.

Roosevelt thus bears a large measure of responsibility for the Cold War that resulted from these Yalta measures, and from his agreeable posture with Stalin after the war.

2. Prosperity (Domestic Policy)

In my assessments of Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover, I corrected the myth of the Great Depression’s origins and end. In the myth, Coolidge caused the Great Depression, which Hoover didn’t take enough action to correct, while FDR did, heroically pulling America out of depression with his New Deal programs.

That’s a gross misreading of history. The reality is that Coolidge, while on whole fiscally prudent, helped cause an initial downturn by his expansion of the money supply. Hoover then took too much action to “correct” that recession (as he thought he was doing), instead of doing what presidents had always done up to this point, by simply allowing the market to right itself on its own. It was Hoover who created the Great Depression out of a garden-variety recession that would have self-corrected on its own. FDR then expanded on Hoover’s methods with his New Deal programs, prolonging the Depression year after year after year. Not until FDR’s successor Harry Truman would Americans enjoy prosperity again.

FDR’s New Deal programs created the welfare state (which Archie Bunker rails against hilariously in All in the Family). Those programs involved retirement and unemployment benefits; labor-management relations; wages, hours, and working conditions; securities and investments; and the regulation of specific economic sectors, like radio broadcasting, agriculture, trucking, airlines, and oil and coal marketing.

As one who leans moderately left, I don’t find all of these ideas bad in and of themselves. For example, I’m not hostile to the Social Security Act (1935), and I certainly approve The Federal Labor Standards Act (1938), which prohibited child labor of anyone under 16, and established minimum wage and overtime pay eligibility. But many of the New Deal programs tried to fix economic issues in a disastrously wrong way. Consider:

  • The Agricultural Adjustment Act (1933) controlled farm production, first by burning the crops and slaughtering livestock, then later by paying farmers to restrict the output of both. This was appalling. It raised food prices at a time when people were starving, and it hurt the poorest of farmers (tenant farmers and sharecroppers), who were kicked off the land so that the land owners could receive government subsidies.
  • The National Industrial Recovery Act (1933) suspended anti-trust laws and allowed businesses to draw up codes of “fair practice” that regulated competition and wages. The act hindered economic growth by promoting the creation of cartels and monopolies. Astonishingly, these cartels were modeled on fascist Italy’s “cooperatives”: industrial trade associations which planned production, quality, prices, distribution, and labor standards and were dictated by the Italian government.
  • The Glass-Steagall Act (1933) prohibited commercial banks from engaging in investment banking. But investment bankers were a false culprit. The actual cause of the Blue Tuesday stock market crash and bank failures was due to the bad monetary policy of the Federal Reserve. FDR continued those bad (loose and expansive) monetary policies.
  • The Bank Holiday FDR declared (1933) stopped all banking activity for four days. This allowed the federal government to inspect all banks to see which ones were fit to reopen and which were not. Allowing the government to inspect businesses like this violates the Fourth Amendment.
  • The Revenue Acts of 1934, 1935, 1936, 1937 & 1940 combined to raise taxes on most revenue earners by dropping personal deductions and raising individual rates. They also increased corporate taxes. These tax increases slowed the economy by taking away available investment revenue through higher taxes, and by removing the incentive to invest by reducing the reward.

Finally, FDR tried to jump start the economy, first by going off the gold standard, second through the Thomas Amendment, which granted the president powers over monetary policy. Under FDR it would be a very loose policy indeed — putting more money into people’s hands in the short term, while causing inflation in the long term.

It’s true that FDR was able to reduce unemployment rates during his first eight years in office, but this had nothing to do with improving the economy. He simply created more work programs: The Civilian Conservation Corps, The Civil Works Administration, the Public Works Administration and the Works Progress Administration. In spite of all this job creation, unemployment was still as high as 15% in 1940, even with the increased work demand due to World War II. That was the Great Depression, pure and simple — still ongoing, still unfixed, thanks precisely to FDR’s hyper-aggressive government intervention, his welfare state, and loose money policies.

3. Liberty

FDR’s wife Eleanor was a champion for African Americans, but she seemed to wear the pants in the family. FDR himself has an appalling liberty record. He did issue Executive Order 8802 (1941), to his credit, which stated that the federal government would not hire any person based on their race, color, creed, or national origin. And that’s about all he did for the cause of liberty on his twelve-year watch.

His usual policy was to duck and run for cover whenever African American issues came up. When the Pentagon revolted against desegregating the military, FDR rolled over; when an anti-lynching bill was being argued in Congress, FDR stayed silent and allowed it to be defeated. The reason was simple: promoting civil rights for blacks would have jeopardized the New Deal programs among his white southern constituency.

Gross violation of civil liberties

FDR’s behavior during World War II was only marginally better than Woodrow Wilson’s during World War I. While FDR did not suppress free speech with arrests and jail sentences, that was only because he had a conscientious Attorney General (Biddle) who urged him not to repeat Wilson’s sins. FDR often scorned Biddle at his cabinet meetings for his unwillingness to prosecute seditionists who spoke against the war, though he didn’t push the issue. He did, however, use British agents to tap citizens’ phones, intercept their mail, crack their safes, and smear anyone who protested the war. If he was better than Wilson, he was still obscene.

Turning away Jews, Incarcerating Japanese

Let alone civil rights, FDR failed at human rights too. He denied Jews entry into America when they fled the terror of the holocaust, even though he knew they were being executed. He threw tens of thousands of Japanese American citizens (let alone resident aliens) into prison camps just because of their ethnic heritage. People lost their personal possessions and livelihoods because of this detention.

Stacking the Supreme Court

FDR was hell-bent on adding Supreme Court justices who would favor his policies. (Much like his hero John Adams, who packed the courts with like-minded Federalists.) In 1937 he proposed the Judiciary Reorganization Bill, that would add six new justices to the court, bringing the number of justices from nine up to fifteen. He failed in this attempt, thankfully, but he got his basic wish just the same. His bullying methods caused Justice Owen Roberts to switch sides and vote in favor of his desired policies. Roosevelt eventually appointed eight justices to the court — men who would uphold his desires rather than the constitution. FDR’s assault on the Supreme Court alone costs him half his liberty score.

Conclusion

FDR’s report card isn’t good:

Peace. I split him straight down the middle for 10 points. He was a commendable non-interventionist for six years, and once America was involved in WWII, he prosecuted it efficiently and won, defeating enemies who deserved to be crushed. To get to this point, however, he lied and schemed and brought down the attack on Pearl Harbor, getting both military personnel and civilians killed. He sought entry into the war for less than admirable reasons, and against the wishes of the vast majority of Americans. Worst of all, he cultivated a rosy image of Stalin, and granted him too much at Yalta and after the war.

Prosperity. Aside from a few New Deal ideas which I take as positive (and award him 5 points), most of it was disastrous to the economy and prolonged the recession.

Liberty. The only good thing he did was issue Executive Order 8802 (for 2 points). Around that, he avoided African American injustices like the plague, sent Jews back to Europe as if they were the plague, and contained Japanese Americans as if they had the plague. During the war he used agents to tap citizens’ phones, intercept their mail, crack their safes, and smear anyone who protested. He assaulted the Supreme Court, the highest law in the land, by filling it with friendlies. He was an absolute disgrace.

Peace — 10/20
Prosperity — 4/20
Liberty — 2/20

TOTAL SCORE = 16/60 = Bad

The Top 40 Films of the Twenty-Tens (2010-2019)

Here we go: my top 40 film picks of the 20-10s. It was a smashing decade of cinema, and as you’ll see from my top two choices, 2017 was a very special year. I could have gone with either Blade Runner or Twin Peaks for my number one pick.

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1. Blade Runner 2049. 2017. Not only does Blade Runner 2049 live up to its predecessor, it supersedes it in ways you wouldn’t expect. It’s a stunning visual aesthetic, and has the ambitious concepts of the original, taking them at the slow pace they deserve, so patiently that it feels like a ’70s film. I’m not surprised it bombed at the box office. Few people these days have the wherewithal — and by that I mean the intellectual wherewithal from above, and the physical fortitude from below — to sit still on their sweet asses for 2-3 hours and enjoy good artistry. There are certain plot holes which leave coincidences unexplained. For example, from the start K is investigating the farmer replicant whose home supplies the clues for Rachael, while K already has memories implanted in him that relate to those very clues. But even here the holes seem more part of the overarching Blade Runner mystique. The best character is the hologram Joi, and she serves an oblique existential function: if software can fall in love and fear death, then the objection to replicants having these soul-like traits becomes even more strained. Her merging with the woman for K’s sexual pleasure is an incredible piece of choreography, as is virtually every other scene in this masterpiece. By rights a film this good shouldn’t have been in the 21st century, and the box-office bomb proves it. I don’t why or how it came to be. I’m just glad it exists.

Al Strobel as Mike aka The One-Armed Man, Kyle MacLachlan as Agent Dale Cooper, and the evolution of The Arm in Twin Peaks: The Return (2017)2. Twin Peaks: The Return. 2017. The third season of Twin Peaks is David Lynch’s absolute crowning achievement. It counts as a film as much as a TV series, ranking on various lists as one of the best films of 2017, and screened as a film over the course of three days at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. David Lynch himself claimed that The Return is better understood as an 18-hour long film, and it was certainly shot, funded, and edited like a film. Lynch had total control, directing every episode, unlike in seasons one and two, in which he directed only six of the 30 episodes; for all the experimental innovation in those two seasons, they ultimately adhered to a series formula of cliffhangers needing resolution in following episodes. The Return is like nothing I will ever see again, and everything Lynch had been building to in his career. The fingerprints of all the mighty films are present: the road trails and character reinventions of Lost Highway, the brutal misogyny of Blue Velvet, the dreamscapes of Mullholland Drive, and a particularly stunning masterpiece episode that feels like Eraserhead in every frame. And yet this isn’t Lynch just repeating himself. Ultimately, The Return is about Dale Cooper’s attempt to rewrite the past and stop Laura Palmer from ever being killed. Whether he succeeds for better or worse (I say it’s for the worse) has been furiously debated, and will continue to be for a long time. I am completely in awe of The Return, and if you want to see how I assess each episode, see here.

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3. Little Men. 2016. I’ve seen this many times. It explores a close friendship in a social parable about gentrification. Jake’s parents are new landlords who threaten to evict Tony’s mother who can’t keep up with rising rents, but the boys’ friendship only grows the more the parents become enemies. The film doesn’t demonize the landlords (who are decent enough people and have their own financial problems) or over-extend sympathy for the poor Chilean tenant, but rather holds the adults at arms length so we can latch on to the boys and see things through their eyes. Jake is the shy introvert, Tony the bold extrovert (take a wild guess who’s who from the above picture), and it may even be that Jake is smitten by Tony. Their final scene together makes me cry every time, with Jake, who futilely begs his father not to go through with the eviction, and the epilogue is even more heartbreaking, showing that sometimes there is no way back to recover the most intimate friendships. It’s a critical masterpiece (96% on Rotten Tomatoes) for every good reason. I reviewed Little Men fully here.

4. The Tree of Life. 2011. Like Kubrick’s Space Odyssey, this is a picture-perfect film showing humanity dwarfed by celestial mysteries. It spotlights an American Catholic family within a macrocosm of evolution, and an implied dialectic of nature vs. grace. But grace emerges not as something which contradicts nature (even if it’s its conceptual opposite), rather something inherently part of it, or complementing it, or mutating from it. Every frame depends on just the right camera angle, scoring, and particular subtleties around snippets of dialogue you can barely hear. It ends on a spiritual apocalypse that could move an atheist: the yearning for reunion in some form of afterlife, a hopeless fantasy we cling to in order to cope with pain and loss. I’m turned by new surprises each time I watch The Tree of Life, and in my opinion it’s Terrence Malick’s best film to date.

5. Blue is the Warmest Color. 2013. It’s a bit sad that this has gained notoriety for the graphic lesbian scenes, which for the record are tasteful and well used. The pornographic tone fits the early part of the story where the young Adele is discovering herself, and seeing herself, in wildly adolescent terms. The film isn’t about sex anyway, but the searing power of love which becomes destructive, but with room for healing afterwards. After the break up Emma is able to forgive, and Adele obtain at least some measure of closure. The film is three hours long but I wanted it to go longer.

https://rossonl.files.wordpress.com/2016/08/true305.jpg6. True Grit. 2010. My favorite Western (even more than Tarantino’s films, see #7 and #12) is a remake of the John Wayne classic. The character of Mattie Ross is the film. Hailee Steinfeld’s performance is about the best 14-year old’s I’ve seen, second only to Ellen Page’s Hayley Stark in Hard Candy. I completely fell in love with this girl. She takes the law into her own hands after her father is murdered in 1878, and none of the Arkansas authorities are willing to go after the killer into Indian territory. And Jeff Bridges is far better than John Wayne. The final shoot-out in the open field is orgasmic; and Mattie’s loss of her arm to the rattlesnake bite the perfect ending which could never be happy anyway, given the revenge premise.

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7. Django Unchained. 2012. Tarantino was born to revive the spaghetti Western. The Italians who made spaghettis weren’t trying to glorify the American ethos, and so the civilizing forces were often portrayed as corrupt, and the American frontier a place of devastation and racism. Django Unchained harks back to this effort of destroying frontier myths, especially that of southern hospitality and the genteel antebellum. It’s set in the years of 1858-59, when Mississippi plantation owners never dreamed their world was about to end. Tarantino runs parallel the realistic violence done to slaves with the cathartic violence of overblown revenge, a dualism that he has tamed to near perfection. I honestly don’t know whose performance I like better, Leo DiCaprio as the despicable plantation owner or (as my gut tells me) Samuel Jackson as his collaborationist slave, a cranked up Uncle Tom. Then there’s Don Johnson (another plantation owner) who gets in some of the most amusing lines, as he waxes wroth over a black man who dares to ride a horse.


8. A Hidden Life. 2019. Terrence Malick had a total of five films this decade, but the three in between Tree of Life (see #4) and A Hidden Life were kind of navel-gazing films that I think arthouse critics tend to praise just because Terrence Malick made them. A Hidden Life is my #1 pick of the 2019, as Tree of Life was for 2011. Both, in very different ways, are a testimony to achieving a cinematic style that matches transcendent goals that most directors only dream of. This one is about the real-life unsung Austrian hero, Franz Jägerstätter, who refused to fight for the Nazis in World War II, executed for it, and was later declared a martyr and beatified by the Catholic Church. And like other Malick films, geographical beauty is the canvas on which human ugliness is painted and interrogated. The Austrian backdrop is breathtaking; the plight of Jägerstätter and his wife almost hard to credit in a world that can yield such beauty.


9. First Man. 2018. Like Blade Runner 2049 the year before, it stars Ryan Gosling, and was released in the month of October to high critical praise but low box office performance. Today’s audiences are simply not equipped to sit still for long periods of quality storytelling. First Man isn’t a space-race thriller. We do catch glimpses of the historical background (that space exploration was driven by the need to show up the Communists more than for any laudable scientific goals), just as we get some of the social fury over the perceived waste of taxpayer dollars (as when Gil Scott-Heron, played by Leon Bridges, recites his famous “Whitey on the Moon” poem to crowds suffering in poverty). But the film is primarily a meditation on grief. Neil Armstrong lost his two-year old daughter to a brain tumor, and his persistence in braving the dangers of space emerges as a desire to escape the world into a cold perilous silence. Whether or not he really left his daughter’s bracelet on the moon hardly matters; it’s cinematic and does no violence to history. That he is not portrayed as planting the American flag is also irrelevant. People watch films like this with the wrong eyes. First Man is a near perfect achievement.


10. First Reformed. 2018. Not exactly a remake of Winter Light (1962), it does spin off the Bergman classic, and for the most part very well. It also mimics Diary of a Country Priest (1951) with the role of the elder pastor who mentors the Ethan Hawke character. Then too I have heard it compared to Martin Scorsese’s Silence (2016). According to critic Alissa Wilkinson, both films revolve around the same question: “What if you predicated your life on God’s existence, and then God turned out to be silent, crowded out by bodily discomfort, broken relationships, plundered dreams, and external forces more interested in their own power than the unsettling implications of Jesus’s teachings?” But First Reformed goes for the jugular in some mighty surprising ways, unlike the more subdued approach of Silence. It’s also a parable about the apocalypse, with Bergman’s atomic warfare theme being changed to environmental catastrophe. I’ve seen this film three times. The only thing that sticks in my craw is the scene that replays Tomas’ cruel treatment of Marta in Winter Light, which went on for a patient ten minutes, but in First Reformed was zipped through in the blink of an eye. But that’s a small quibble. In all the ways that matter this is a near perfect film.

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11. mother! 2017. The reason people hate it isn’t because it’s a bad film, but because it was deceitfully marketed, with the trailer implying a more mainstream thriller. If you don’t like indie horror films that offend on the deepest levels, then avoid mother! at all costs. It’s about a man and woman in a countryside home, where the woman suffers intrusions from guests who gratify her husband’s ego. The intrusions get increasingly outrageous, until hell breaks loose — quite literally — and one critic has made an analogy with Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ, which suffocates the audience in torture to capture the immensity of Jesus’ sacrifice. mother! does a similar sort of thing to convey the “passion” of womankind, and the things they tolerate for the sake of men’s vanity. The indoor house becomes a battlefield of crazed strangers who commit unspeakable acts, and in the end seize the woman’s newborn infant, rip it apart into dozens of pieces, and eat it as if it were a sacrificial lamb. This is Aronofsky at his most audacious, but also at his best, and it helps that Jennifer Lawrence’s performance is so visceral and sympathetic.

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12. Silence. 2016. Scorsese’s occasional forays into religion — The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) and Kundun (1997) — have been so bad that I set my expectations low for this one, but he finally hit a home run. Silence is as brilliant as his gangster films, and a special treat for someone like myself who loves Shogun. That novel is set in 1600, in the middle of Japan’s “Christian century” (1543-1635), and portrays the complex history of the Portuguese Jesuit missionaries. Oda Nobunaga had welcomed them in 1568 in order to obtain guns and cannons for his military campaigns (though he was also genuinely impressed by the rigors of Jesuit life, while despising the hypocrisies of the Buddhist clergy); Toyotomi Hideyoshi was the next unifier who loathed Christians, issuing an edict to expel them in 1587, and then crucifying a whole bunch of them in 1597; with the ascension of Ieysu Tokugawa and the establishment of his shogunate in 1600 (to last until 1868), attitudes towards Christians became ambivalent, until finally in 1635 Christianity was banned and inquisitorial methods were devised to root out practicing Catholics. It is this “post-Christian” period in the late 1630s that Silence draws us into, and Scorsese is just as good as Clavell in resisting sides. The film is no more a liberal critique of western colonial power than it is a Mel-Gibson-like glorification of Christian martyrdom. The priests are decent and have treated the peasants with dignity in a feudal state that was hostile to the poor; yet their work for God incited massacre. Like Clavell, Scorsese shows courageous people going under the sword of honor and shame — and essentially reaped what they sowed.

https://rossonl.files.wordpress.com/2019/12/8.png13. The Hateful Eight. 2015. A bottle drama, slow burn, and murder mystery that explodes into the usual Tarantino stew. Think Twelve Angry Men, except these men will do exactly what Juror #3 pretended on Juror #8 with the knife. They are despicable killers, trapped together in a roadhouse during a blizzard; only two are alive by the end, and even those two just barely. It’s not a political film, by any means, but there is implied commentary on race relations after the Civil War, and a shocking use of the female lead as a blood-drenched punching bag. At a certain point there is a shift from a heavy deployment of the n-word to a vengeful use of the b-word, the subtext being that while men may be divided by racism, they can at least bond over a shared contempt of a woman. Naysayers are calling it Tarantino’s most indulgent film, which it certainly is, but the indulgence works for rather than against.

14. The Divide. 2012. It’s fascinating how this was made independently of The Grey (see #26) and released in the same year at almost the same time, neither having any knowledge of each other. Both are survivalist stories and both are tuned around haunting piano themes that recur at just the right moments. (Listen to The Grey’s and The Divide’s.) But where the former locates “evil” as external and impersonal (the cruel forces of nature), this one looks within. It’s set in the basement of a New York high rise apartment where nine strangers have gathered after a nuclear holocaust. They start out okay until cabin fever and radiation sickness — and their own base humanity — take over, and the cellar becomes a claustrophobic nightmare of torture, rape, sex slavery, and overblown lunacy. The Divide holds humanity completely captive to misanthropy; even I was deeply chilled by what Gens believes people are really like under our societal conditioning.

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15. The Walk. 2015. The Exorcist affected me physically more than any other film, but The Walk is a close second in this regard. Audiences suffered extreme vertigo, and I was sweating and shaking non-stop during the final act. Obviously I have an extreme fear of heights, and I can only imagine the harm my psyche would have suffered had I seen it in 3D. I still have a hard time with the fact that this story is entirely true. How anyone could want to do what Philippe Petit did on that morning of August 7, 1974, is well beyond the reach of my understanding. He walked back and forth over that wire between one tower and the next, eight times, for over 45 minutes, while spectators and police officers could only look on aghast. This man was (is: he’s still alive) an artist in the purest sense.


16. Parasite. 2019. Ever since Snowpiercer, I have vowed to see every film made by Bong Joon-ho. Snowpiecer was set on a train in a post-apocalyptic ice age, and portrayed a social class war as David Lynch might imagine it. In Parasite, there is again social skewering, showing how the rich survive on the backs of the less advantaged. But as always, Joon-ho isn’t being didactic. He’s an artist, not a preacher, and pays off viewers as they deserve, this time with a story of a family who live in a cellar and fold pizza boxes for a living. Then they get the bright idea to pose as sophisticated skilled workers (an English tutor; an art therapist; a chauffeur; and a housekeeper) and insert themselves into the lives of the wealthy, on whom they wreak mischief. Things get out of control and spiral into calamity, with twists and turns you won’t expect. Parasite is outstanding and has incredible rewatch value.

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17. ’71. 2014. This taut thriller is set in west Belfast in the early years of the Irish Troubles — a year before Bloody Sunday – but it’s less a political thriller and more a horror/suspense piece that exploits the political background to remarkable effect. I knew Jack O’Connell would become a brilliant actor (his performance as the psychopathic teen in Eden Lake, 2008, was mind-blowing), and here he plays Gary Hook, a British soldier who gets separated from his company during a street riot. He is pursued by angry Belfast residents, and runs deeper into enemy territory, barely escaping murder at every turn, and finding help in unlikely places. One character who leaves a particular impression is the young boy who brings Hook to a pub, and gets blown to pieces when a bomb goes off. This is incredibly nail-biting suspense “behind enemy lines”, with superb control of action and pacing.

18. The Pact. 2012. This is way, way underrated. It’s about a haunted house but with a truly terrorizing twist. It turns out there is indeed a ghost in the house, but also a real-life psychopath living in the cellar, and he has been there the whole goddamn time. When you learn this and reflect back to the start of the movie when some of the “ghostly” assaults began — the open closet door, the jar of food on the floor, Annie being levitated and thrown against the walls, the other girls disappearing altogether — you realize that only some of this was the ghost. That’s frightening on many levels, and the sort of thing Peter Straub pulled off in his novel Lost Boy, Lost Girl, especially with the secret room with spyholes, and the room of caged torment. Psychopathic horror usually doesn’t scare me (classics like Psycho are suspenseful but they don’t give me nightmares), but McCarthy blends the psycho with the supernatural in ways that are unnerving in the extreme.


19. Joker. 2019. Ignore the protests that Joker is grossly insensitive to the mentally ill. I honestly don’t know what kind of film the easily-offended were expecting. It portrays mental illness in the unpleasant way that it should be. Joaquin Phoenix’s incarnation of the Joker is much different from Heath Ledger’s, but just as powerful, and works well in a drama without the Batman, that focuses like a laser on what mental illness does to people in an uncaring world. It’s set in 1981 (Ronald Reagan’s first year), in the time of increased governmental neglect for the mentally ill. Funding cuts to social services leave Arthur without access to meds, and he slides deeper into the identity he carves for himself. Phoenix plays it so convincingly, and the repeated fits of compulsive laughter must have been exhausting on an actor. There are heavy shades of both Taxi Driver and King of Comedy; Todd Phillips has made a Joker film in the most Martin Scorsese way possible, and it’s a noble heartbreaking achievement.

https://rossonl.files.wordpress.com/2016/03/victoria4.jpg20. Victoria. 2015. The entire 2 hours and 15 minutes was shot in a single take and it’s not a gimmick; it’s immersive as hell. In the first hour, a Spanish woman bonds with a group of troublesome but affectionate German guys on the streets of Berlin. Frankly I could have watched their casual conversation forever; the characters are that compelling. But the second part is even better in full throttle: one of the guys passes out drunk, and Victoria gets recruited to fill his role in a bank heist which the guys are being blackmailed into doing. The best scene is their celebration after the heist in a dance club, with the loud rock music fading in favor of a minimalist piano score playing over their manic frivolity. It makes Victoria seem trapped in a naively dangerous bliss, but is strangely precious. The final sequence is the police chase on foot, and while an unhappy ending is guaranteed, it’s impossible to predict. My full review of Victoria is here.

21. Europa Report. 2013. This outer-space drama takes a quasi-documentary approach, but don’t worry, the film is neither stingy nor confusing in its visuals, and it exudes the appropriate wonder and terror. A mission to Europa inevitably falls in Kubrick’s shadow, but Cordero’s approach is his own, more gritty and less visionary than Space Odyssey. Even though all six astronauts end up dying, it’s uplifting by what they witness, recorded for posterity. Their mission was to look for organisms, and the luminous octopus-creature revealed in the last frame will forever change the context of how scientists view life in the galaxy. This film really made me want to walk on the ice moon, and to hell with the radiation levels.

22. Before Midnight. 2013. I love the conversational exercises between Jesse and Celine. They first met in Before Sunrise (1995) and then found each other again in Before Sunset (2004). Now they’ve been in a relationship for nine years. But their reflections on how they met and how their lives have changed, are just as compelling, and so organically delivered by Hawke and Delpy it’s dazzling. Here they arrive at a hotel and have a nasty argument, fearing their direction in life, entertaining break-up, and as twice before the conclusion is the right amount of open-ended. It adds up to a very rare trilogy — in fact, I cannot think of any other trilogy — in which the excellent first is followed by an even better second and then (against every odd) the third which is best of all.

23. Zero Dark Thirty. 2012. Part of me is still astonished by the vitriol that has been hurled on this film, but then nothing should surprise me anymore. After all, Spike Lee leveled ridiculous complaints about Django Unchained‘s supposed racial insensitivity, so it only follows that Zero Dark Thirty must be (wait for it) an apologia for waterboarding and other forms of torture used by the CIA in the days following 9/11. Nothing, of course, is further from the truth. The torture under the Bush administration is simply shown for what it is. It wasn’t the magic key to unlocking Bin Laden’s hideout, and even if it was, the film doesn’t imply that the ends would justify the means. By far the most impressive feature is Jessica Chastain, who since Tree of Life has become for me a new Cate Blanchett, an understated actor who compels with subtleties. Zero Dark Thirty is a lot like United 93, devoid of political bias and never preaching. That’s the way to make a 9/11-themed film.


24. The Nightingale. 2019. This isn’t a rape-revenge movie. It is about a woman who is raped (graphically, more than once) and at first seeks revenge, but finds something different that actually feels like grace. The film is by Jennifer Kent, the director of The Babadook, and she proves she can do a historical piece even better than indie horror. It’s set in 1825 in an Australian British penal colony, and holds an unpleasant spotlight on the way the Brits treated their subjects. It could have gone wrong in so many ways, not just by becoming a hollow rape revenge, but by the way Clare teams up with the aborigine. The Nightingale is no Hollywood parable of a “feminist and a black”. The guarded relationship between this Irish woman and her servant is nailed right in every scene, and doesn’t feel anachronistic. The ending on the beach is simply transcendent.

25. Room. 2015. The power of this film has to do with the way it sets fire to the imagination. The acting performances are fine (the child actor quite excellent for his age), the script adequate, and the escape scene at the midpoint incredibly intense. But I don’t think any of these elements are responsible for Room’s massive acclaim. The emotion and pain I felt for the mother and child had as much to do with imagining every possible consequence on their psyches, especially the boy’s. The five-year old Jack has lived his entire existence inside a single room (a shed) with his captive mother, believing “Room” to be the entire universe. Suddenly freed, she is reunited with family in the real world to which he is shockingly introduced for the first time. It hurts to watch this play out, but it’s worth it, and the film does end on the triumph of the human spirit.

campfire26. The Grey. 2012. First things first: wolves are outrageously misrepresented in this film. In reality the poor things are wimps, so you need to suspend disbelief and just pretend this film takes place on an alternate Earth where wolves evolved with nasty temperaments more akin to grizzly bears. The distortion makes it feel more of a horror picture, which in many ways it is, like The Birds. Demonic wolves, like Hitch’s pterodactyl-birds, are effective devices in showing our helplessness against primal and savage forces. Like the great survivalist films rarely seen anymore, The Grey has the patience to let its characters breathe and become people we care about (an even more impressive feat given the rather unlikeable group aside from Liam Neeson) before they all go down in carnage.

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27. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. 2019. This love letter to Hollywood is one of Tarantino’s most emotionally honest films. It takes place in 1969 around the plot of a has-been actor, and revises events of the Manson family, so that instead of Sharon Tate getting killed, it’s the Manson killers who die. And they die brutally: they pass over Sharon Tate’s home and crash the home of the story’s heroes played by Leo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt. The slaughter that ensues is pure over-the-top Tarantino; one of the Manson sisters gets her face bashed and pounded in twenty times over; the other gets eaten alive by a dog and roasted by a flamethrower. But leading up to this twenty-minute end-game is a sprawling two-hour walk-though of late ’60s Hollywood, when spaghetti Westerns were becoming a thing and hippies were invading Hollywood.


28. The Witch. 2016. It’s loved by critics and hated by audiences, and you need to trust the former. It was misleadingly marketed to give the impression of horror movie with loud bangs and cheap thrills, instead of a period piece. Kubrick could have easily scored this, Bergman could have shaped the characters, and either could have landed the cinematography that captures stunning wide shots. But the director owns his unique narrative about a Puritan family who leave their plantation and settle miles away in isolation from the rest of Colonial America. This forest border happens to be the home of a witch, who wastes no time lashing out at her new “neighbors”, first by snatching their newborn infant under a game of peek-a-boo and stabbing it to death, and eventually by possessing the 11-year old son who dies screaming a prayer in near orgasmic ecstasy. The film doesn’t exactly choose sides between Christian zeal and pagan blood rites. If there’s any moral contrast, it’s between the misery and liberation of the eldest daughter, who is falsely accused by her family for being a witch, and then in the end becomes one. I reviewed The Witch fully here.

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29. Autumn Blood. 2013. This underrated piece goes a long way to redeeming the rape revenge genre. Even though the girl kills her rapist, there is no glorifying of the retribution, and on top of that, she refuses to execute the man who killed her father, and whom she has loathed for many years. What really sells Autumn Blood, however, is its silent approach set in a breathtaking Austrian landscape. There is very little dialogue; the vast geography speaks instead. I posted a review in pictures.

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30. Suspiria. 2018. This one is a remake, and a good example what remakes should do, by paying homage to a great classic while telling a completely different story. The result is something much better (IMO) than the original Suspiria (1977). There is a young American woman who moves to Germany to attend a dance academy run by witches, and there are mysterious disappearances and weird behaviors in its halls. The similarities between the two films don’t extend beyond this framework. The major twist is that Helena Markos (played by Tilda Swinton) turns out not to be the Mother of Sighs, just a wannabe-witch. It is the student Suzy herself who is the reincarnation of the Mother of Sighs, and she’s been using her training with the Swinton character to come into a very horrible power. The film’s ending — a celebration of gore and orgy — stays with you forever.

31. Stake Land. 2010. A post-apocalyptic drama and one of the best vampire films of all time, Stake Land gives the middle finger to both the aristocratic version (Dracula) and juvenile pop model (Blade, Underworld, Buffy, Twilight). These are vamps as they should be, mindless savages. The story centers around a young man whose family is slaughtered; he’s taken under the wing of a hunter who now slays vampires as they can only be killed, by pounding stakes through the bastards’ hearts. The two embark on a Road-like odyssey to find a mythical refuge up in Canada, and run afoul a nasty religious cult along the way. This is the proper way to do an undead pandemic.

32. Fury. 2014. The best war movie made in a long time. Few capture soldier camaraderie with Fury’s plain authenticity that makes you alternate between hating and loving these guys by the minute. In the final days of WWII, an American tank crew of five plow across Germany, and while they know American victory is guaranteed by this point, they sure don’t feel it. The tank battles are bloody nightmares; the Nazis resist every step of the way. My favorite scene comes in the film’s midpoint, right after the tankers conquer a German town. Two of the tank crew barge into an apartment where two women are hiding; sex results, but it’s not rape, and the unexpected tenderness on display is entirely real. Then the other three members barge in, and a thoroughly unpleasant dinner ensues. Fury is my favorite war film after the sacred trilogy of Bergman (Shame), Malick (The Thin Red Line), and Kubrick (Paths of Glory). And it buries Saving Private Ryan, which I didn’t like at all.

Doctor Sleep Box Office
33. Doctor Sleep. 2019. It’s certainly no Kubrick classic, but it is a rare adaptation of a Stephen King novel that is very good. Better yet, it’s a sequel to both King’s novel and Kubrick’s film, taking the best of both worlds. Kubrick’s ending to The Shining was better than King’s. Instead of the Overlook Hotel dying and Dick Hallorann surviving, Kubrick killed off Hallorann and allowed the evil Overlook to live on (the final shot of Jack Torrance in the 1921 painting is far creepier and scarier than the explosive melodrama penned by King). So Hallorann visits Danny in visions now, and Danny makes quite a momentous return to the Overlook, where he destroys the hotel as his father did in the novel. Filling this framework is the plot of psychic vampires who prey on people, including children, and I was surprised by some of the bold risks taken. Thumbs way up to Doctor Sleep, and let’s hope more filmmakers will take cue on how to adapt King’s work. (The It movies this decade were awful.)

This film image released by Paramount Pictures shows Denzel Washington portraying Whip Whitaker in a scene from "Flight." (AP Photo/Paramount Pictures, Robert Zuckerman)34. Flight. 2012. I wish there were more films where an opening scene of heart-stopping terror becomes the base for a slow-paced introspective character film. Washington plays an exceptional air pilot who is also an alcoholic, and on one of his typically drunk mornings suffers an aircraft malfunction but manages miraculous maneuvers and softens the plane’s crash landing. The genius of the film relies in putting the moral spotlight on his addiction even though it has nothing whatsoever to do with the plane crash, nor even the cause of the six deaths (out of 102 passengers). The story makes clear that if any other pilot had been flying, everyone would have died. Washington’s character must come to terms with his disease despite his savior-like status which only fuels his pride and denial and the horrible way he treats those around him.

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35. Unstoppable. 2010. Tony Scott’s last film before he killed himself is easily his best work after Crimson Tide and Deja Vu. And it wouldn’t be a Tony Scott film without Denzel Washington, playing his more usual heroic role than in Flight (#34, above). There’s the usual fast-paced camerawork, raw energy, and frenetic cutting, on top of searing dramatic conflict despite the lack of villains. The runaway freight train carrying explosive cargo is more than enough villain, a missile barreling ahead at 70 miles/hour straight to Stanton PA, as two hostlers engage in a desperate plan to stop it. Based loosely on an actual event in Cleveland, believe it or not.


36. The Homesman. 2014. This Western is a road journey and spiritual odyssey that ends with a resourcefully independent woman killing herself and a useless man getting his second wind in life. They are transporting three crazy women from Nebraska to Iowa (it’s set in the 1850s, when the former was a territory and the latter a state), but really everyone is a bit crazy, to the extent that the mythic West feels like an alternate world where nothing really clicks. By far the strangest scene is the stop-over at a hotel in the middle of nowhere, run by an eccentric Irishman played by James Spader. The hotel is empty and chock full of gourmet food and drink, but the Irishman adamantly denies room and board to Briggs and the three women who are now starving (even though Briggs can pay) by making bullshit excuses that every single room is reserved. This weird Lynchian scene defines The Homesman for me. The West is portrayed as an unforgiving place with rare epiphanies; a horrible place for humanity to flourish, yet with the power to fire the soul — for better or worse.


37. Bone Tomahawk. 2015. This Western is a horror piece. That approach had been tried twice before, with Dead Birds (2004) and The Burrowers (2008), but with unimpressive results. Bone Tomahawk goes for the jugular and hits a home run. Not only is it savage and terrifying, it makes us care about the characters. As a result, the third act is extremely upsetting when we see people split down their middles and torn apart before being eaten by a clan of cannibal Indians. These Indians are so fearsome and obscene that they are hardly acknowledged as distant kin by other Indian groups. It’s set in a frontier town in the 1890s, where a woman is abducted by the cannibals and taken away. Four men pursue — the sheriff, his deputy, the woman’s husband, and another man who feels responsible for making the abduction possible. When they get to the Indian caves, the face-off is like nothing you’ve ever seen in the Western genre.

Image result for cracks film38. Cracks. 2011. I’m a sucker for students under the tutelage of nefarious instructors, and I’m surprised this one fell under the radar. An aristocratic Spanish girl comes to board at an Irish school off the coast of northern England in 1934, and without even trying incites jealousy and rage amongst her peers. They all crave the approval of a teacher who has eyes (and loins) for this newcomer. Things get unpleasant, naturally, and don’t end well. Jordan Scott, directs, and yes, she’s related to the great Tony (above) and the dreadful Ridley who hasn’t done anything decent since Alien and Blade Runner.

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39. Logan. 2017. Like The Dark Knight this is a rare superhero film that’s excellent, which is a way of saying that it’s not really a superhero film. Logan is more like a post-apocalyptic western, inspired by the X-Men series rather than a part of it. The year is 2029, and Logan is trying to live a normal life in Mexico as a limo driver while taking care of Charles Xavier. Then a young girl shows up brandishing adamantium claws, evidently created to be a soldier like he was. She’s being hunted and Logan naturally wants no part of her until his heart wins out. (Heavy shades of Leon the Professional here.) The two of them proceed to slice and dice the baddies on a level of ultra-violence which has never been seen before in a superhero film. Logan is a masterpiece and the perfect farewell to this iconic X-Men character.

Daniel Craig.
40. Knives Out. 2019. This is one of the most honest-to-God fun films I have ever laughed through. Rian Johnson uses an A-list cast to produce fun in every scene of this mansion-based who-dunnit. An old rich guy kills himself, or so it seems, and his family are less interested in grieving than planning on how to spend the fortune they will surely inherit. They get a rude surprise: he left everything — every single penny, and the mansion too — to his young Latina nurse who is an immigrant. When detectives and a private eye show up and won’t leave, it starts to look like the old man’s death may not have been suicide. These family members are all so hollowly shitty, and racist in varying degrees, but it’s easy to love them when they’re played with relish by actors like Don Johnson, Toni Collette, Michael Shannon, and Jamie Lee Curtis. But it’s Daniel Craig who steals the show — with a preposterous Foghorn-Leghorn accent — and when he finally fingers the guilty party in the end, it’s as satisfying as it is sad that the entertainment is over. I wish that Knives Out were a six-hour film, frankly; these characters are too wonderfully played to close the curtain on them any sooner.

“We could use a man like Herbert Hoover again — Not” (1929-1933)

Most people of my generation (Generation X) are familiar with this little ditty, in which Archie and Edith Bunker wistfully recall the “good old days” of Herbert Hoover:

You knew who you were then
Girls were girls and men were men
Mister, we could use a man like Herbert Hoover again
Didn’t need no welfare state
Everybody pulled his weight

Gee our old LaSalle ran great
Those were the days!

This theme song for All in the Family encapsulates the myth of Herbert Hoover, who supposedly did nothing to help the American people during the Great Depression, leaving citizens to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. Archie and Edith look back on this as a positive, for to them Hoover represents the last of the good presidents (like Harding and Coolidge), under whom the American people labored with integrity, and without relying on handouts from Uncle Sam. After Hoover came Franklin Delano Roosevelt — the anti-Christ in Archie Bunker’s view — who destroyed America by turning it into a welfare state.

The Bunkers, however, like many people today, got Hoover wrong. Hoover did not “do nothing” about the nation’s recession, but just the opposite, and not for the better. He took many actions that interfered with the economy’s tendency to right itself naturally. It was he who created the Great Depression, which FDR prolonged. If Hoover didn’t create the welfare state, he was certainly its precursor, paving the way for FDR. For all of his rhetoric about individual freedom, he set direct precedents for FDR’s programs. But first let’s acknowledge what Hoover did that was good.

1. Peace (Foreign Policy)

If Hoover was a disaster in economic policy, and pretty bad in liberty, you have to give him this: he was the second best foreign-policy president of the 20th-21st centuries, after Warren Harding. It’s his outstanding peace record that keeps him out of the cellar of my rankings — in the “poor” tier instead of the “bad”. In this sense, Hoover is similar to a president like Franklin Pierce, who was abysmal on peace and liberty, but elevated by excellent fiscal policies.

Like Harding and Coolidge (and unlike Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson), Hoover avoided intervening in Latin America. He rejected the use of force to maintain contracts, and repudiated Ted Roosevelt’s corollary to the Monroe Doctrine, which said the U.S. had the right to intervene in Latin America to preserve order. There were about 20 rebellions in Latin America during Hoover’s term, and to his credit he stayed out of all of them.

Hoover admonished Japan when it invaded Manchuria in 1931. His Secretary of State advised him to do more than give verbal warnings, and impose economic sanctions on Japan. Hoover wisely avoided going that far. Had he done so, Pearl Harbor might have happened ten years earlier, and the American people would have never supported a war at this stage — not with the mess of WWI still in everyone’s mind, and the recession now turning into the Great Depression. Hoover was doing all he could to withdraw American forces from occupations in Haiti and Nicaragua; he wasn’t about to turn around and send them all to China in order to fight Japan.

Under Hoover, in other words, America continued to enjoy the amazing peace it had under Harding and Coolidge. Unfortunately there wasn’t much to enjoy in the homeland, with people starving and out of jobs, and Hoover doing just about everything he could to make the situation worse.

2. Prosperity (Domestic Policy)

Hoover turned a typical recession into the Great Depression, and set a terrible precedent for Keynesian fiscal policies that would be used on-and-off until the ’70s, and then resurrected by Bush and Obama in the 21st century. If this is the case, then why is Hoover still seen as a do-nothing, who fiddled while Rome burned?

It’s mostly because as a Republican he is falsely contrasted with his Democrat successor. During the election campaign of 1932, Franklin Delano Roosevelt portrayed Hoover as a president who did nothing to provide citizens with relief, even though that wasn’t remotely true. But FDR was believed, because people were so desperate during the Great Depression and thought what Hoover was actually doing wasn’t enough for them; they wanted far more. Only when compared to FDR’s massive relief programs do Hoover’s efforts look weak by comparison. And Hoover was a Republican, from whom Democrats want to distance themselves.

It’s important to keep in mind how unprecedented relief programs were at this time. When Hoover took office, America had almost no social programs, and low income taxes targeted the wealthy. Most citizens didn’t expect the government to ensure their prosperity and employment. They expected their government to provide for their physical security; their economic well-being was their own responsibility. When recessions happened, they knew market forces would naturally realign.

Recessions occur for a simple reason: the supply of goods and services exceeds the demand for them. The problem is fixed when the market balance between supply and demand is restored. To achieve that balance, things need to be allowed to fall in the short term — employment, prices, wages, and levels of production. Hoover prevented this from happening. He pressured businesses and labor leaders to “voluntarily” maintain employment, price, wage, and production levels. Wages and farm prices were 30-40% higher than in the rest of the world. He also encouraged state and local governments to speed up their public works projects, maintain employment levels, even providing more funding for such projects. All of these policies interfered with natural market forces that would have restored economic growth in short order. That’s why the recession of ’29-’31 turned into the Great Depression.

When banks showed themselves to be in trouble (by 1931), Hoover set up the National Credit Corporation (NCC) and asked private banks to “voluntarily” lend to other banks that weren’t eligible for Federal Reserve aid. Bankers were rightly pissed at these coercive methods. The NCC saved seven hundred banks which were deadwood and should have been allowed to die. Most recently, George W. Bush resurrected Hoover’s methods in his outrageous bank bailout, which produced the Great Recession of ’07-’09. Hoover’s and FDR’s Keynesian methods had been discarded by the ’70s, but Bush and Obama brought them back in the 21st century.

Hoover went further: in 1932 he created the Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC), modeled on the War Finance Corporation (WFC) created by Woodrow Wilson during WWI. He used it to fund loans to large firms that were in trouble — banks, railroads, insurance companies, etc. — once again, instead of letting these firms die.

Hoover also expanded the money supply of the Federal Reserve. After the stock market crash of Black Tuesday in ’29, the Fed had clamped down, but only briefly, as Hoover wanted to inject more credit into the economy. It was a vain attempt to jump start the economy, and of course made the recession worse.

Taxes

Not only was Hoover the first president to adopt what would be known as Keynesian strategies to “fix” the economy, he was the first to raise taxes during a severe depression. He doubled the estate tax; restored the gift tax; put new taxes on bank checks, security transfers, and radio/phone messages; increased personal and corporate income taxes. All of this slowed the economic growth even more.

The Smoot-Hawley Tariff

It helped business owners (as tariffs usually do), but it hurt the consumer (as tariffs always do) by raising prices during a depression. Smoot-Hawley imposed the highest tariff rates in American history, and Hoover signed it over the protests of over a thousand economists and dozens of countries. By doing so he ignited an international trade war, which made the worldwide economic downturn far worse.

Norris–La Guardia Act (the Anti-Injunction Bill)

Hoover’s one positive achievement was the pro-labor bill he signed. The Norris–La Guardia Act (1932) prohibited injunctions on peaceful worker protests, and forbade employers from interfering in the rights of labor unions to organize. It also outlawed yellow dog contracts (forms that employees had to sign, pledging not to join a union before taking a job). Hoover is to be commended for this important bill.

3. Liberty

To his credit, Hoover was pretty good on race relations. He allowed his wife to entertain an African American woman at the White House, openly defying southern racists. He commuted the sentence of a black man who had been convicted of murder without receiving legal due process, and then recommended that the federal parole board have members proportionally representing blacks and women in prison.

Supreme Court

Hoover also replaced retiring chief justice (and former president) William Taft with Charles Hughes. Under Hughes, the Supreme Court shifted its main focus on protecting property rights to protecting civil rights. Hughes would write landmark opinions on free speech and freedom the press, and he would vigorously oppose FDR’s nefarious court-packing scheme.

Those are the good parts of Hoover’s liberty record. As for the bad:

Privacy

In a shocking violation of privacy, Hoover ordered the Treasury Department to publish the names of taxpayers who got large tax refunds from the government. He did this over the strenuous objections of his Secretary of the Treasury.

Prohibition

Booze became illegal under Woodrow Wilson in 1920, and would remain so under Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover. Of those four presidents, only Hoover gets penalized for Prohibition in my rankings. Wilson vetoed the Prohibition bill (and was overridden), and while it was the law of the land, Harding and Coolidge were both personally against it, but did nothing to oppose it. Hoover, on the other hand, zealously increased the enforcement of this failed policy, leading to an increase in crime. In this sense he foreshadowed Ronald Reagan, who escalated the war on drugs in the ’80s.

Prohibition was outlawed under FDR (though FDR had nothing to do with repealing it) in 1933, after 13 years. It’s a national disgrace that the War on Drugs is still going today after 48 years, and that we haven’t learned from Prohibition. Adults should have the right to decide what to put into their own bodies. That we overcrowd prisons with non-violent drug offenders and make room for them by paroling murderers, rapists, and pedophiles is a serious moral and Constitutional failing.

Immigration

Hoover catered to American xenophobia during the Depression by stopping immigration into the country. Immigration, however, is almost always good for the economy, not bad, because it brings new ideas and skills and more people needing to buy things. (Showing once again how Hoover did just about everything wrong to “fix” the economy.)

Conclusion

Hoover’s report card looks a bit schizophrenic, as he is glowingly perfect in one area, abysmal in another, and less than mediocre in the third.

Peace. For a flawless foreign policy record, he gets the full 20 points.

Prosperity. For a catastrophic domestic record, he almost gets a goose egg. His presidency marked a major turn away from private solutions to economic downturns, and federal intervention in the market. He turned a run-of-the-mill recession into the Great Depression — and then did almost everything in his power to make it worse. Contrary to the usual narrative, it is not that Hoover “didn’t do enough”. If that were true, had he done nothing, the Great Depression would have never occurred. He did plenty (though FDR would do plenty more), and all of it was wrong. His one domestic saving grace is his support for labor rights, for which I throw him 3 points.

Liberty. He had fairly good race relations and chose an excellent steward for the Supreme Court. But his sins — violations of privacy, zealously enforcing Prohibition, and stopping immigration — outweigh those positives. I score him 7 on the liberty scale.

Peace — 20/20
Prosperity — 3/20
Liberty — 7/20

TOTAL SCORE = 30/60 = Poor

It’s time to put away Hoover myths. “Do-nothing” Hoover serves a phony left-right paradigm that exalts the Democratic Party. The myth — that we still hear all the time — is that (Republican) Calvin Coolidge caused the Great Depression, which (Republican) Herbert Hoover didn’t take enough action to correct, while (Democrat) Franklin Delano Roosevelt did, heroically pulling America out of the Depression.

The historical reality is that Coolidge, while on whole fiscally prudent, helped cause an initial downturn by his expansion of the money supply. Hoover then took too much action to “correct” that recession (as he thought he was doing), instead of doing what presidents had always done up to this point, by simply allowing the market to right itself on its own; he created the Great Depression. FDR then expanded on Hoover’s methods, prolonging the Depression year after year after year. Not until Harry Truman would America taste prosperity again. That is what actually happened, no matter how many FDR apologists say otherwise. In the next post, we will examine FDR.

The Last Good Republican: Dwight Eisenhower (1953-1961)

The Republican Eisenhower succeeded the Democrat Harry Truman, and for all their differences they ended up scoring the same in my assessments. Truman’s peace/prosperity/liberty marks are 13/18/17 (=48). Eisenhower’s are 16/20/12 (=48). Both were very good presidents, and in Ike’s case, he was the last good Republican president. (Ford and Reagan were average; the Elder Bush and Nixon were poor; and the Younger Bush a complete failure.)

Some insist that Eisenhower was lazy and out of touch, but he was actually the most realistic president of the 20th-21st centuries (aside from perhaps Harding). He cultivated a vacationing and golf-playing image while working shrewdly behind the scenes for mostly excellent policies. If not for his mixed record on civil rights, he would rank as excellent on whole.

1. Peace (Foreign Policy)

Right out of the gate he set the standard for what foreign intervention should look like in the post WWII era. He realized the price of winning the Korean War wasn’t worth it and so he ended it, saving many lives on both sides of a strategically worthless conflict.

Unlike Truman before him and the Cold War presidents after him, Eisenhower never overstated the Soviet threat. As a military man, he knew what the others did not: that the basis of military power is a thriving economy, which the Soviets never had. In place of war, he used foreign aid and CIA covert action to prevent other nations from becoming communist, sometimes admittedly more than he should have.

It was Eisenhower’s military background that kept him so commendably restrained. On six occasions, he rejected the unanimous opinion of his advisors to go to war: over the Korean armistice negotiations in 1953; Dien Bien Phu in Vietnam in 1954; the Quemoy and Matsu islands in the Strait of Formosa in 1955; the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956; the Israeli, British, and French attack on Egypt in 1956 (though here he came the closest; see below); Berlin in 1959; and the downing of the U-2 spy plane in Soviet airspace in 1960. This needs massive underscoring, because presidents, absurdly, seldom get credit for avoiding wars. Eisenhower boasted that under his administration, not a single soldier had been lost, and for a military man that’s doubly impressive. Eisenhower was known for saying, “I hate war as only a soldier who has lived it can.”

The only exception to his policy of restraint was Lebanon in 1958. At the request of Lebanon’s Christian president, Camille Chamoun, he sent forces to put down a Muslim rebellion. This wasn’t necessarily a bad move, but it was a strange one for someone like Eisenhower, and he probably only did it to prove a point against his interventionist critics — and so that he could actually use the Eisenhower Doctrine that he formulated a year before in ’57. The doctrine stated that the U.S. would provide military aid in the Middle-East to those who requested it, and seems to have been Ike’s appeasement of sorts for his siding with the President of Egypt in the Suez crisis.

The Suez Crisis

In siding with Egypt against Israel in ’56, Ike knew he was jeopardizing his chances for a second term. But he believed the U.S. should honor its obligation (under the Tripartite Agreement of 1950) to guarantee existing borders between Israel and the Arab countries, regardless of which side that worked against. He even considered using U.S. forces to stop the Israelis if they didn’t halt their advance. That all sounds commendable in theory, but siding with President Gamal Abdel Nasser wasn’t a good move.

Israel, Britain, and France wanted to remove Nasser and take back western control of the Suez Canal which Britain had recently lost. Nasser was foul even aside from his nationalizing of the canal. He had been sending jihadist raids into Israel for two years (since ’54), and those guerilla fighters almost always targeted civilians. Now, with the U.S. supporting Nasser (along with the Soviets and the UN), Israel, Britain, and France had to back down. The consequence of this was that Nasserites throughout the Middle-East felt emboldened to try collapsing pro-western governments and establish a Pan-Arab state. Pro-Nasser Iraqi forces murdered the royal family in Iraq, for example. And when Lebanon’s president asked Eisenhower for help in 1958, it was on this very pretext: Chamoun claimed that he needed American help against a pro-Nasser Syrian invasion. In reality, Chamoun was dealing with Muslim street mobs.

Suez, therefore, is the small blight on Ike’s otherwise superb peace record.

2. Prosperity (Domestic Policy)

Eisenhower presided over one of the most prosperous decades in the 20th century, and some economists say the most prosperous of all. He is one of only four presidents in the 20th-21st centuries (the others being Harding, Coolidge, and Clinton) who reduced federal spending as a portion of GDP. He slashed the national debt down from 100% of GDP in 1953 to 60% of GDP in 1960. There was the Recession of 1958, but Ike did nothing to cause that, and he took the right measures to make the recession short-lived.

He didn’t want to roll back FDR’s New Deal program, as he (rightly) thought that would be political suicide for Republicans. There was much pernicious in the New Deal, but he took the more reasonable approach of managing welfare rather than trying to upend it. Once bad laws are passed, they are very hard to repeal. (A majority of both houses of Congress must vote to rescind a law; then, a minority of Senators can filibuster a repeal, or a president can veto the repeal, requiring a two-thirds override.) But also, even Republicans had by now long accepted parts of the New Deal, notably Social Security, the regulation of business practices, and the right of labor to organize — and these I take as positives anyway. The New Deal wasn’t wholly bad, though a lot of it was.

Thanks to rigorous fiscal policies, Eisenhower presided over two whole terms of prosperity and an economy with negligible inflation — something no 20th or 21st century president can boast for an eight year stretch.

3. Liberty

Ike’s liberty record is a mixed bag. Like Truman he supported the rights of African Americans, but unlike Truman he wanted slow progress, for fear of provoking riots and lynchings. To his credit he ended segregation in Washington DC, and made sure that Truman’s directives to desegregate the military would be maintained, especially in the navy.

On the bad side, he refused to support the important Supreme Court ruling, Brown v. Topeka Board of Education (1954), which said (in a slam dunk 9-0 opinion) that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional. He even went so far as to invite Chief Justice Earl Warren to a White House dinner before the justices made their ruling, in order to sway Warren to his point of view. So not only was Eisenhower wrong on a critical justice issue, he failed to respect the separation of powers. It got worse. In 1956, the University of Alabama admitted a black student, which caused rioting and the suspension of the student (allegedly for her own safety). Throughout the riots, Ike refused to send in federal troops, and the school remained segregated for another seven years. The following year, however, he reversed his policy and sent federal troops to stop similar riots an Arkansas high school. But in retaliation, Governor Faubus closed all Arkansas public high schools for the 1958 year. If Eisenhower had publicly supported the Court’s decision to begin with, he may not have had to use federal troops, which in turn provoked the school closings.

Making the whole thing harder to assess is that Eisenhower appointed Earl Warren to the Supreme Court to begin with, and is therefore largely responsible for Warren, who wrote the landmark opinion of Brown with which he disagreed. For that matter, he appointed three other excellent justices during his two terms, and the “Warren Court” would become legendary for requiring states to safeguard the same rights that the federal government had to guarantee under the Bill of Rights. (The Warren Court incorporated the Bill of Rights under the due process and equal protection clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment.)

Communist witch hunts

Also unlike Truman, Eisenhower never denounced Senator Joe McCarthy’s witch hunt for communists, as he should have, and even worse he actually fired people to appease the senator. Ike knew McCarthy was a fool but felt that he needed his support, since McCarthy controlled a lot of votes in the Senate.

Conclusion

Eisenhower gets a good report card:

Peace. I dock him 2 points for supporting Nasser in the Suez Crisis, and another 2 for some needless CIA covert action abroad, but other than that, he was excellent, and proof that it is possible for America to be militarily restrained in the post WWII era.

Prosperity. A pretty-much perfect record. He was progressive in all the right places, but also an unyielding budget hawk.

Liberty. Eisenhower’s desegregation policies in the nation’s capital and the military must be weighed against his refusal to support desegregation in schools and universities. He is however largely responsible for those decisions he disagreed with, having appointed the chief justice who argued most strongly for the right cause. His other appointees to the Supreme Court also made landmark rulings for Bill of Rights guarantees on the state level. He didn’t stand up to McCarthy’s witch hunts as he should have. Weighing all of this, I give Ike a liberty score of 12.

Peace — 16/20
Prosperity — 20/20
Liberty — 12/20

TOTAL SCORE = 48/60 = Good

Hating on Harry: Trends in Assessing Truman (1945-1953)

Harry Truman is the highest ranking Democrat in my president series. He was thrust into office when his boss FDR died, and rose to the occasion in the admirable ways of many vice presidents who assumed command this way: John Tyler, Millard Fillmore, Chester Arthur, and Calvin Coolidge. It strikes me that unexpected presidents ended up doing astonishingly well. (The two Johnsons, Andrew and Lyndon, are exceptions.) Harry Truman put his ex-boss to shame. Where FDR went to considerable lengths to damage America, Truman got things back on track and then some.

There is however an escalating trend of Truman haters these days, particularly among the regressive left and hard-core libertarians. My assessment of Truman is largely a response to these crowds. It’s time to stop the “hating on Harry” campaign. He was one of America’s best chief executives.

1. Peace (Foreign Policy)

There’s much to discuss here: Truman’s actions (a) against Japan, (b) for Israel, (c) in Greece and Turkey, and (d) in Korea. The first will require a detailed look at the final weeks of imperial Japan.

(A) Japan: the “unnecessary use” of the atomic bomb

The myth gets dragged out every August, even by professional historians: that Truman dropped the bomb on an already-defeated enemy. He knew that the Japanese were trying to surrender through the Soviet Union, and used the bomb primarily to intimidate the Soviets with a monstrous display of power. The problem with this little myth is that the Japanese were not trying to surrender. They were trying to persuade the Soviets to broker a negotiated peace (not a surrender), and on preposterous terms which no American president would have found acceptable.

I am going to detail the events between May, 1945 and the Japanese surrender in August, because for reasons that escape me, the myth of the “Japanese intent to surrender” keeps gaining ground, and the leftists who promote it only get angry when they’re told how wrong they are.

— The Japanese War Council and the Soviet Union: The events between May and July 17

From late May onward, the Japanese Supreme War Council consisted of the following six members, known as the Big Six:

  • Kantaro Suzuki (Prime Minister)
  • Shigenori Togo (Foreign Minister)
  • General Korechika Anami (War Minister)
  • Admiral Mitsumasa Yonai (Naval Minister)
  • General Yoshijirō Umezu (Chief of the Army General Staff)
  • Admiral Soemu Toyoda (Chief of the Naval General Staff)

The Big Six — two representatives of the army, navy, and civilian government each — were the men who effectively ruled Japan during the war, not the emperor, who was divine but ultimately a figurehead. Four of these men (Suzuki, Togo, Anami, and Yonai) were also part of the cabinet, the executive branch of the government consisting of 19 members total. The only member of the war council with a brain in his head was Foreign Minister Togo. The most powerful member by far was General Anami, who represented the army. The army had run the government for a long time, and it was law that the cabinet could not exist without an army minister. This meant that the army minister could veto any decision made by the cabinet by simply resigning.

In late May 1945, the Big Six began peace initiatives with Russia, at the urging of Foreign Minister Togo. This was an attempt to broker a peace, not to surrender. (General Anami and General Umezu were against even these peace initiatives, but outvoted.) The council wanted Russia to mediate with the U.S. for an end to the war that would leave Japan’s prewar empire intact, and allow Japan to be allowed to continue its military adventures in China. Obviously, this was a rich fantasy, showing how deluded and out-of-touch the Big Six were.

These peace initiatives were conducted through Ambassador Naotake Sato, who was caught between The Big Six, who refused to see things realistically, and the Soviets, who were basically toying with Japan at this point. Japan and Russia had signed a non-aggression pact in 1941, in which they had promised to stay neutral towards each other as they participated elsewhere in the war. The pact was due to expire in April ’46. But only a month ago (on April 5, 1945), the Soviets had denounced the pact, clearly wanting the treaty to go out of effect immediately rather than wait another year. When Sato pressed them on this point, the Soviets backpedaled and evasively allowed that the treaty would remain in force until April ’46. (The Soviets would of course break the pact in less than three months, on August 8, in between the American bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.) So while Japan and the Soviets were still neutral toward each other, Sato was realistic about the handwriting on the wall, unlike his bosses in Tokyo who (aside from Togo) kept on in their blissful fantasy.

That fantasy gelled into a horrific mandate on June 8, when the Japanese Army pushed the War Council into approving a document called The Fundamental Policy To Be Followed Henceforth in the Conduct of the War. This document made it Japan’s official policy to “prosecute the war to the bitter end”. It listed preparations for homeland defense, the formation of a national volunteer army, and called for national suicide — the “honorable death of the hundred million”. Foreign Minister Togo was aghast, but the resolution passed over his objections, and was then forwarded to the emperor for approval. The emperor’s advisor (Koichi Kido) was as appalled as Togo was, and on June 9 he plead with the emperor, saying that Japan had to get the US to end the war before Japan destroyed itself.

Thus, far from intending any kind of surrender, the council had ruled to carry the war to the bitter end. Truman heard these reports from Tokyo, and he had no reason to believe that this proclamation meant anything other than what it said. An American invasion of Japan would not look anything like the invasion of Germany (where Nazi armies were crushed between a three-way advance of American, British, and Soviet troops). An invasion of Japan would have meant a prolonged war costing hundreds of thousands of lives.

On June 22, the emperor summoned the Big Six to his side. He didn’t like the idea of national suicide, and suggested to keep pushing more strongly with the Soviets for the peace settlement (again, not surrender), that is, for some way to end the war. Togo, the realistic member of the council, warned everyone that Japan would have to make a lot of concessions to make a peace initiative work. At the start of July, the Big Six made overtures to Russia for renewed negotiations. Weeks passed with no reply, and Ambassador Sato twiddled his thumbs in Moscow, frustrated as usual with his Tokyo bosses. In one of his cables he made plain to Togo that the Soviets could not possibly profit from an early end to the war. Sato was more realistic than even Togo; he knew the peace initiatives were in complete vain, no matter how many concessions Japan was willing to grant.

On July 12, Togo cabled Sato, telling him that the War Council was sending an advisor from the Emperor (Fumimaro Konoye) to compel the Soviets to negotiate. By now Japan had learned about the Potsdam Conference, scheduled to take place near Berlin in about a week, between Stalin, Churchill, and Truman. On July 17 (the day the Potsdam Conference was beginning), Togo cabled Sato yet again — and this is the famous telegram which revisionists love to cite — saying:

“The Emperor himself has deigned to express his determination and we have therefore made this request of the Russians. Please bear particularly in mind, however that we are not seeking the Russians’ mediation for anything like unconditional surrender.”

What could be clearer than that? Surrender was no more an option now than it was before. For that matter (as testified by Prime Minister Suzuki and Admiral Toyoda after the war), there was no agreement among the war council members on the terms of the peace initiative. On July 14, for example, they had all had a heated confrontation in which General Anami said that he would never accept any document which concluded a peace on terms of Japan’s defeat. Togo’s cable to Sato, far from establishing that the Japanese government was seeking surrender, says the exact opposite; they were struggling for a peace, at the urging of the emperor, that would keep their prewar empire intact, and couldn’t even agree among themselves as to what conditions would be acceptable. Surrender — in Togo’s plain words — was out of the question.

On July 19 Sato again cabled Tokyo. He said that the Soviets had challenged the purpose of the emperor’s envoy (Fumimaro Konoye), and warned his bosses that it was hard for him to deny Soviet insults that Japanese authorities were completely out of touch with reality. Sato advised that instead of these vain peace initiatives, the council should consider surrender. On July 21 Togo replied to Sato:

“With regard to unconditional surrender we are unable to consent to it under any circumstances whatever. Even if the war drags on and it becomes that it will take much more than bloodshed, the whole country as one man will pit itself against the enemy in accordance with the Imperial Will so long as the enemy demands unconditional surrender. It is in order to avoid such a state of affairs that we are seeking a peace, which is not so-called unconditional surrender, through the good offices of Russia.”

Again, what could possibly be clearer? Togo is actually spelling out the distinction between a peace and a surrender — a distinction that today’s leftist revisionists are wholly unable to grasp. Togo was no doubt pained to write that cable (given that he was the only member of the Big Six with any sense), but he was bound by the council he was a part of, and he followed the collective will.

U.S. authorities, including Truman, read all of these cables (they had been intercepting Japan’s secret messages for a while now). They knew that Japan would never surrender on terms acceptable to the U.S.

— The events between the Potsdam Declaration and August 15

The Potsdam Conference took place near Berlin from July 17-August 2, and in the middle of that stretch, on July 26, the leaders (The Big Three: Stalin, Churchill, Truman) issued a declaration demanding unconditional surrender from Japan. They had privately agreed to let Japan retain its emperor, but kept that little tidbit to themselves.

Now, a corollary to the revisionist propaganda is that the Japanese would have accepted unconditional surrender if the United States had been open on this point, and guaranteed that Japan could keep its emperor. But that wasn’t true at this point. In the cable sent to Sato (above), Togo had made it clear: unconditional surrender, under any circumstances — even with the imperial throne guaranteed — was unacceptable. Regardless of individual positions among the Big Six, the war council was united by vote in holding out for terms.

The Potsdam Declaration was broadcast from San Francisco, demanding the unconditional surrender, and promising Japan that the alternative would be “prompt and utter destruction”. It was picked up by the overseas radio bureau in Tokyo, and the Big Six convened with the Cabinet (of which four of them were members, recall: Suzuki, Togo, Anami, and Yonai). After heated arguments the 21 men all agreed to release an edited version of the Declaration to the Japanese people and to wait things out. General Anami tried insisting on a strong statement of public protest as well, but Prime Minister Suzuki agreed with Togo not to fan flames, and that’s what was voted on.

Unfortunately, Suzuki’s public speech turned out to be just as inflammatory as anything General Anami would have said. On July 28 he held a press conference, saying that the Japanese government would mokusatsu (“ignore”) the Declaration — which could be interpreted as meaning to “remain in wise inactivity”, but also just as easily to “kill the document with contemptuous silence”. Suzuki’s statement was published on July 30 and picked up by newspapers all over the world. Japan, in the eyes of the entire world, had just given the Allies the middle finger.

Togo was livid at Suzuki, and desperately tried renewing negotiations with Russia, for some alternative to surrender. From Moscow, Ambassador Sato cabled Togo back, saying “there was no chance whatever” of persuading Russia to help the Japanese. In vain, Togo told Sato to keep trying. Days passed with the Big Six and Cabinet members not doing much beyond passing gas.

On August 6 came Truman’s reply: Hiroshima. Incredibly, after the devastation, little action was taken for the next two days. Finally on August 8, Togo tried convening the war council, but (again, rather incredibly) one of the six members was detained by “more pressing business elsewhere” (the records don’t say who). At the same time, Ambassador Sato was told in Moscow that Russia was now at war with Japan. The Soviets wasted no time invading Manchuria — violating their neutrality pact that was set to expire in April ’46 — and proceeded to butcher Japan’s once invincible army.

Now, one would think — after an atomic bomb was dropped by one nation, and an invasion begun by another — that surrender would surely follow. Everyone knew at this point that the only alternative to surrender was mass destruction. Yet an “honorable” mass destruction was evidently what the Japanese army wanted. On August 9, as Nagasaki was being bombed, the Big Six convened to discuss options. This was the breakdown of opinion:

The three “doves” — Foreign Minister Togo, Prime Minister Suzuki, and Admiral Yonai — advised accepting the Potsdam Declaration, with the sole provision that Japan’s emperor be retained. Historians call them “doves”, but Togo was the only true dove. Suzuki was a 77-year old gasbag who could be pacifist one day and a warmonger the next. And Yonai was a hawk like other naval officers, though he was ready to face the music by now.

The three “hawks” — General Anami, General Umezu, and Admiral Toyoda — were dead set against the Declaration, unless the U.S. would agree to four provisions:

  1. Japan’s emperor would be retained (on this point the doves agreed)
  2. Japan’s military would be retained, and not disbanded by the Allies
  3. Japanese war crimes would be judged in Japanese courts and by Japanese laws
  4. Japan would not be occupied save by a token presence

Conditions 2-4 were obviously preposterous, as no American president could have possibly accepted such a “peace” settlement that would have meant abandoning the United States’ most basic war aims. So in effect, Anami, Umezu, and Toyoda were rejecting the Declaration outright.

Then the cabinet convened to vote. (The cabinet had constitutional authority to approve the nation’s surrender.) Four of the war council members were on the cabinet (three “doves” Togo, Shizuku, and Yonai; and one “hawk” Anami), and they all repeated their earlier arguments. The cabinet vote was a three-way stalemate, with some agreeing to accept the Potsdam Declaration (with the sole provision that the emperor be retained), others insisting on the four provisions demanded by General Anami; and still others advocating for more than one provision but less than four.

With a stalemate on both the War Council and the Cabinet, Prime Minister Suzuki took a step that was unprecedented in Japanese history. He appealed to the emperor to break the tie. Though the emperor, as the Son of Heaven, was the supreme authority, he had always stayed out of politics and faction-siding. For the first time now, he stepped in as requested, on August 10, and gave his approval for unconditional surrender.

(On August 15, General Anami slit his own belly, unable to live with the national shame.)

— Summary

The whole idea that the Japanese were trying to surrender through the Soviets, and that Truman used the atomic bomb to show the Russians a display of power, is without foundation. Showing off to the Russians what American could do may have turned out to be a nice side benefit, but there is no evidence suggesting that was Truman’s primary motive. The Japanese intended to fight to the bitter end. The evidence is as clear as day.

Some revisionists get so desperate to claim that the bombing of Japan was motivated by racism. Otherwise (these stupid revisionists ask) why was nuclear devastation reserved for the Japanese but not the Germans? The obvious answer is that it was a moot point for Germany. The first atomic bomb test took place in July, two months after the Nazi surrender in May. There is no evidence suggesting that Japan was singled out for the atomic bomb for any other reason than it was still fighting. The claim that Truman or his advisors were motivated by racism can be dismissed out of hand.

If the historical record is so clear, then why does the myth of Japan’s “intent to surrender” get dragged out every August? I suspect because today’s leftists are intellectually challenged and show an increased unwillingness to deal in facts when facts become a nuisance. However, it also doesn’t help that someone like Dwight Eisenhower (one of the best presidents of the 20th century, in my view) was one of the earliest purveyors of this myth. In his later years, he told people that he had protested vehemently against using the bomb: that “the Japanese were ready to surrender and it wasn’t necessary to hit them with that awful thing”. Either Ike’s memory had become distorted by the passage of time, or he was deliberately lying. I suspect that Eisenhower’s personal revulsion for warfare (commendable in itself) later caused him to engage in revisionism.

In sum: Truman’s decision to use the bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki counts positively toward his peace score, not against. He knew the Japanese had no intentions of surrendering. He brought an end to a world war that had gone on for years, and he saved the lives of many — at least 250,000 American soldiers and over one million Japanese soldiers and citizens from an invasion of Japan. (About 200,000 Japanese were killed by the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings.)

And just imagine if Truman had not used the bomb. Today’s revisionists would be even more shrill in their indictments. World War II would have ended sometime in 1946 instead of 1945, with massive bloodshed and casualties on both sides. Truman would have eventually revealed that he had been afraid to use the bomb, because he thought it was too awful a weapon — even after a global war in which hundreds of thousands of Americans had been killed and wounded in two separate theaters, and even though he knew there was no possibility the Japanese would willingly surrender. Today we would be reading about why Harry Truman should have been impeached for his gross dereliction of duty.

(B) “Big Bad” Israel

Leftists also resent Truman for supporting the State of Israel. The issue isn’t so straightforward. I believe the creation of Israel was a disastrous mistake, not because Israel is the Big Bad in the Mid-East, but because the two-state solution made a battleground of Palestine. However, I don’t think Truman can be blamed for supporting Israel, for two reasons. One is that a homeland had to be created somewhere for the Jews, which they deserved; Truman’s heart was in the right place. Two is that the decision of where to settle the Jews wasn’t Truman’s alone, and he could have doubtfully persuaded the Allies or the UN of any other location than Palestine. In its report in May of 1946, the Anglo-American Committee stated that there was no reasonable sanctuary for the Jewish survivors except in Palestine.

That wasn’t true though. The Allies could have carved out a section of Germany for the Jewish people. The nation responsible for the Holocaust should have paid the appropriate price. But Palestine was chosen, and in the fall of 1946, Truman supported the partitioning plan. In the fall of 1947, the partition was approved by the UN. And on May 14, 1948, the State of Israel was established. Palestine has been a jihad sandbox ever since.

In supporting a State of Israel, Truman went directly against the advice of his State Department, who knew that (a) the Arabs would never accept a partition, (b) they would wage a non-stop holy war to take it back, and (c) such a conflict would allow the Soviets to come to the Arabs’ aid and give communism a foothold in the Middle-East. Truman’s advisors were absolutely correct about all of this.

Truman’s navy secretary also warned that supporting a Jewish state could compromise America’s access to Arab oil, which turned out to be a less valid objection, and to which Truman replied that neither oil nor the other concerns would deter him from doing “what is right”. But what is right from a humanitarian point of view isn’t necessarily right from a presidential point of view. The right thing to do would have been to settle the Jews somewhere in Europe — anywhere except Palestine. With Israel established, the seeds of bloodshed were planted, and there’s still no end in sight after 80 years.

Normally in my scoring system, when a president’s policy produces calamitous results, his rating takes a huge hit. But because it was absolutely right to give the Jews a homeland, and because Truman could have doubtfully persuaded the Allies or UN to settle the Jewish people anywhere other than Palestine, it’s a wash. Endorsing the State of Israel counts neither for nor against Truman’s peace score.

(C) Greece and Turkey: the Cold War begins

It was a pivotal moment in July 1947, when Truman sent aid to Greece and Turkey in the conflict against communist insurgents. By doing this he was making a serious change in U.S. foreign policy — by intervening in European affairs during peacetime. He justified his policy by the Truman Doctrine (formulated months before in March), whose purpose was to counter the geopolitical expansion of communist powers. Truman argued that threats against any free people in the world posed a threat to international peace and thus to U.S. security.

Libertarians despise Truman for this and charge him with (a) departing from the vision of the founding fathers, (b) spitting on the Monroe Doctrine, and (c) turning America into an imperial nation. According to David D’Amato, Truman represents nothing less than the fulfillment of Woodrow Wilson’s agenda:

“The Truman Doctrine’s unabashed imperialism, erected upon the foundation of the postwar United States’ new stature on the world stage, represents in many ways the culmination of the Wilsonian dream. Wilson had envisioned a world in which American military intervention would ‘make the world safe for democracy.’ Really, as a practical matter, the Truman Doctrine gave the United States a blank check to intervene militarily around the world, planting its military bases in every corner of the globe.”

That’s a serious charge. Wilson, I agree, was an atrocious president, in fact the worst of all time. But to cast Harry Truman as Wilson’s second coming is perverted in the extreme.

Ivan Eland is another libertarian, who ranks Truman as the second-worst president of all time (the worst being Wilson), largely because Truman “began the informal U.S. empire of armed interventions, alliances, and foreign aid, and military bases” as an overreaction to the Soviet menace — a menace overstated, because “the Soviet economy was never more than half that of the Unites States and was burdened with complete state ownership embedded in a nonviable communist system” (Recarving Rushmore, p 268). I agree that the Soviet menace was blown out of proportion from the start (Eisenhower was the true prophet on this point, knowing the Soviet Union was bound to implode), but the question of expanded overseas involvement hinges on more than just communism per se.

Libertarians also trash Truman for creating security agencies like the CIA and NSA. D’Amato again:

“The executive branch was aggrandized in general during the Truman presidency. Truman, more than any other President, is responsible for creating the nation’s national security apparatus. In the place of a civilian government of citizens, the United States was now governed by a permanent class of professional bureaucrats and military and intelligence officers, to whom no real restraints apply. During Truman’s presidency, the National Security Act of 1947 became law, establishing the CIA and unifying the military under the Secretary of Defense. The National Security Council and the National Security Agency, too, began during his administration. Truman played an instrumental role in the creation of the CIA from the several existing intelligence programs at the time.”

And for this he was the worst of the worst? Imagine what the U.S. would be today without its intelligence agencies. Even if Truman’s reasons weren’t the best, a superpower like America couldn’t afford to be Switzerland in the post WWII era. A national security apparatus empowered the U.S. to evolve as it needed to.

For that matter, Truman constructed security agencies within the right framework — of a republic whose founders rejected imperial and military traditions. He built the bureaucracy without militarizing the country, and without setting up a gestapo police. He got a defense secretary. He decided that the heads of the agencies (the National Security Council, the CIA, the NSA) would never report to a military superior. They had no policy-making authority; they couldn’t preempt FBI activities with their investigations, nor could they police domestic organizations or people under suspicion of being spies.

It’s true that Truman exaggerated the communist menace. But the idea that he was Woodrow II is preposterous. Wilson would have dragged out WWII as long as he could have; Truman ended it with a necessary blow. Wilson was a virulent racist; Truman crusaded for the blacks and civil rights. Wilson was interventionist for interventionism sake; Truman was realistic about the way American had to function in a world of increased communication and networks. The only truly Wilsonian thing that Truman did was…

(D) The Korean War

No question, with the Korean War of 1950-1953, Truman put America on a path to commit resources in backwater areas of the globe — foolish nation-building strategies. Korea set a precedent for worse interventions like Vietnam and Iraq. On top of that Truman didn’t get Congressional approval for the war, and most shocking of all was Congress’s abdication of power by allowing Truman to act on his own war-initiating authority. And thus began the tradition — followed by George H.W. Bush in Desert Shield and Bill Clinton in Haiti — of getting UN approval for a war, and presenting it to Congress afterwards fait accompli. Korea was the worst thing Truman did while in office.

2. Prosperity (Domestic Policy)

Responding to popular demand (and using good sense), Truman scaled back the government that had ballooned under FDR, and swiftly demobilized the armed forces. Government spending as a portion of GDP dropped dramatically, and for the next eight years there were unprecedented rises in income, standards of living, and levels of education. People hadn’t prospered like this since the days of Harding and Coolidge.

The Fair Deal

After his reelection, Truman proposed the Fair Deal (1949), based in some ways on FDR’s over-ambitious New Deal though more reasonable. It provided for a more equitable tax structure, a higher minimum wage, an expanded farm program, increased public power projects, repeal of the Taft-Hartley Labor Law, larger social security payments, national medical insurance, federal aid to education, additional public housing programs, and yet more civil rights programs.

Most of the Fair Deal was voted down by Congress, and in some cases with good reason. There were important gains nonetheless. On Truman’s watch the rise in income, housing, education, and living standards were unparalleled in American history. By the time Truman left office in 1953, 62 million Americans had jobs (a gain of 11 million in seven years), and there was virtually no unemployment to speak of. Both farm income and corporate income were at all-time highs. Bank failures had become a memory. The minimum wage had reasonably increased, as had Social Security benefits. Millions of veterans had attended college, thanks to the G.I. Bill. Poverty had fallen from 33% in ’49 to 28% in ’53.

Labor Unions

Some criticize Truman for riding roughshod over John Lewis, the president of the United Mine Workers Union, but even as a former union president, I am not one of them. Lewis had the favorable opinion of only 13% of Americans polled, and rightly so. He was a true blowhard, bully, and asshole who acted in all the ways that unfortunately give unions a bad name. Many Americans at this time sympathized with unions, but they also hated strikes, and between 1945-46, coal and rail strikes were way out of control.

Truman, showing balls, seized the coal mines and railroads and had the government run operate them. He told strikers to go back to work, threatened to use the army to break the strike — and even threatened to draft strikers into the military. That last was inexcusable, and Truman’s attorney general warned him that he was way overstepping his constitutional authority. Truman brazenly replied, “We’ll draft them and think about the law later.” Indeed, he requested from Congress the authority to draft strikers, but thankfully the legislation was killed.

His attempt to draft strikers was out of line, but in facing down John Lewis and other strikers, Truman did head off a serious blow to the economy (it also didn’t hurt that it boost his popular rating: after going against Lewis, Truman’s rating shot up from 35% to 48%).

On whole Truman actually favored labor and supported unions. He vetoed the Taft-Hartley Acts of 1947, which sharply curtailed union rights. Truman was urged by all but two of his cabinet members to sign the act, but he thought it was bad for labor and management alike. In a radio address, he said, “We do not want legislation which will take fundamental rights away from our working people.” His veto of the act was overridden, but Truman is to be given immense credit for supporting unions while also standing up to them when they went to far.

3. Liberty

Truman has a strong liberty record. He crusaded for African Americans, and to hell with his Southern constituency if they didn’t like it.

In December 1946 he established a Committee on Civil Rights that would outline means of eliminating racial discrimination. On June 30, 1947 he gave a famously thundering speech at a rally at the Lincoln Memorial, saying that “the extension of civil rights today means not just protection of the people against the government, but protection of the people by the government.” And in October of that year, the committee issued a firm call for equal treatment of blacks under the law. Truman was torn between liberal and southern factions in his party, but he came down on the side of what he believed to be morally right and in the best national interest.

The Democratic party leaders told him his stand on civil rights was political suicide, but he didn’t care. In this, he was doing as John Tyler had done in vetoing the Third National Bank, as Chester Arthur had done in reforming the Civil Service, and as Jimmy Carter would later do in putting the Federal Reserve on a tight leash. All these men put the good of the American people over the interests of their party.

(The difference is that Truman — unlike Tyler, Arthur, and Carter — was reelected for a second term. If Southerners hated Truman’s support for blacks, they adored him for his hard line against communists.)

On February 2, 1948, Truman asked Congress to enact comprehensive civil rights legislation: an anti-lynching law; expanded protection for the right to vote, and elimination  of poll taxes that denied blacks access to the polls in seven southern states; a permanent Fair Employment Practices Commission; and end to discrimination on interstate transport facilities; the end of unequal opportunity in the military. The navy in particular, at this time, resembled a southern plantation predating the Civil War: African American swabbed the decks, shined shoes, cooked and washed, and served the food.

Once again, the South blasted Truman for his advocacy, and said that the legislation he was promoting (in the words of the Mississippi House Speaker) was “damnable, communistic, unconstitutional, anti-American, and anti-Southern legislation”. Truman became increasingly enraged at Southern local authorities turning a blind eye to mob violence, lynchings, and the maiming of black veterans.

The impact of all of this was momentous. For the next 20 years, many of the recommendations of the Committee on Civil Rights became policy. Truman deserves loads of credit on his liberty record.

Japanese Americans

Truman also asked Congress to satisfy the claims of Japanese Americans who treated horribly by FDR during WWII. (Being imprisoned in camps because of their ethnicity.) Years later, Truman’s proposal was finally adopted.

Loyalty tests

Truman however didn’t always stand up to his opposition. As early as 1946 the Red Scare had everyone paranoid about communism. Instead of telling Republicans to get lost, Truman issued an executive order requiring a loyalty program for government employees. A program like this had been in place during WWII, but this was the first time such a program was required during peacetime. Truman later admitted he made a mistake implementing this program, that it was political and served no security purpose whatsoever.

Conclusion

Here’s Truman’s report card:

Peace. For doing what needed to be done to bring World War II to a close, Truman scores. If Japan had intended to surrender, then his use of the atomic bomb would have been grossly reprehensible, but that wasn’t the case. For supporting the State of Israel, he is neither awarded nor penalized. It laid the seeds for a constant Islamic holy war, but Truman was right to advocate for a Jewish homeland, and it was doubtful he could have persuaded the Allies to settle for a region other than Palestine. For building a national security apparatus, and making it independent of the military, he deserves credit. But for exaggerating the communist menace, and for some of his unnecessary meddling overseas during peacetime, I dock him 3 points. Korea alone costs him 4 points. It wasn’t as drastic as later wars, like Vietnam and Iraq, but it set the precedent for them.

Prosperity. For making America great again, after sixteen whole years of economic depression, Truman gets gold stars, downgraded only slightly for some Fair Deal ideas.

Liberty. For implementing the absurd loyalty tests (which Truman later admitted were a mistake), he loses 2 points. For threatening strikers with a military draft he loses another point. (Had he succeeded in getting the draft through Congress he would have lost another 4 points.) In every other way he shines.

Peace — 13/20
Prosperity — 18/20
Liberty — 17/20

TOTAL SCORE = 48/60 = Good

Bottom line: Harry Truman was not the demon of leftist or libertarian myth. Enough with the hating and give the man his due.

The Best Films of 2019

This was a good year for film. In recent years I’ve had only a handful of films to recommend by the year’s end. This year I have a full top 10, plus a bonus.


1. A Hidden Life. 5 stars. I thought Terrence Malick was washed up after Tree of Life (2011). To the Wonder (2012), Knight of Cups (2016), and Song to Song (2017) were the kind of navel-gazing films that arthouse critics praise just because Terrence Malick made them, but I’ve got some news for those critics, even the best directors stumble and fall. Thankfully Malick picked himself up again. A Hidden Life is not only my film pick of the year, it’s a testimony to achieving a cinematic style that matches transcendent goals that most directors only dream of. It’s about the real-life unsung Austrian hero, Franz Jägerstätter, who refused to fight for the Nazis in World War II, executed for it, and was later declared a martyr and beatified by the Catholic Church. As in other Malick films, geographical beauty is the canvas on which human ugliness is painted and interrogated. The Austrian backdrop is breathtaking; the plight of Jägerstätter and his wife almost hard to credit in a world that can yield such beauty.


2. Parasite. 5 stars. Ever since Snowpiercer, I have vowed to see every film made by Bong Joon-ho. Snowpiecer was set on a train in a post-apocalyptic ice age, and portrayed a social class war as David Lynch might imagine it. In Parasite, there is again social skewering, showing how the rich survive on the backs of the less advantaged. But as always, Joon-ho isn’t being didactic. He’s an artist, not a preacher, and pays off viewers as they deserve, this time with a story of a family who live in a cellar and fold pizza boxes for a living. Then they get the bright idea to pose as sophisticated skilled workers (an English tutor; an art therapist; a chauffeur; and a housekeeper) and insert themselves into the lives of the wealthy, on whom they wreak mischief. Things get out of control and spiral into calamity, with twists and turns you won’t expect. Parasite is outstanding and has incredible rewatch value.


3. Joker. 5 stars. I can’t believe I once said that no one could ever top Jack Nicholson’s performance as Joker, but by ’80s standards, Tim Burton’s Batman was a work of art. Today it’s pure camp. Then I said the same thing about Heath Ledger’s Joker, and he does still hold up. But Joaquin Phoenix’s incarnation is as good as Ledger’s in a much different way, and fits like a glove in a drama without the Batman, that focuses like a laser on what mental illness can do to a person in a cruel cold world. It’s set in 1981 (Ronald Reagan’s first year), in the time of increased governmental neglect for the mentally ill. Funding cuts to social services leave Arthur without access to meds, and he slides deeper into the identity he carves for himself. Phoenix plays it so convincingly, and the repeated fits of compulsive laughter must have been exhausting on an actor. There are heavy shades of both Taxi Driver and King of Comedy; Todd Phillips has made a Joker film in the most Martin Scorsese way possible, and it’s a noble heartbreaking achievement.


4. The Nightingale. 4 ½ stars. This isn’t a rape-revenge movie, despite the claims of some. It’s about a woman who is raped (graphically, more than once) and at first seeks revenge, but finds something different that actually feels like grace. The film is by Jennifer Kent, the director of The Babadook, and she proves she can do a historical piece even better than indie horror. It’s set in 1825 in an Australian British penal colony, and holds an unpleasant spotlight on the way the Brits treated their subjects. It could have gone wrong in so many ways, not just by becoming a hollow rape revenge, but by the way Clare teams up with the aborigine. The Nightingale is no Hollywood parable of a “feminist and a black”. The guarded relationship between this Irish woman and her servant is nailed right in every scene, and doesn’t feel anachronistic. The ending on the beach is simply transcendent.

'Once Upon A Time in Hollywood'
5. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. 4 ½ stars. This love letter to Hollywood is one of Tarantino’s most emotionally honest films. It takes place in 1969 around the plot of a has-been actor, and revises events of the Manson family, so that instead of Sharon Tate getting killed, it’s the Manson killers who die. And they die brutally: they pass over Sharon Tate’s home and crash the home of the story’s heroes played by Leo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt. The slaughter that ensues is pure over-the-top Tarantino; one of the Manson sisters gets her face bashed and pounded in twenty times over; the other gets eaten alive by a dog and roasted by a flamethrower. But leading up to this twenty-minute end-game is a sprawling two-hour walk-though of late ’60s Hollywood, when spaghetti Westerns were becoming a thing and hippies were invading Hollywood. To think I was only four months old when the movie industry was like this.

Doctor Sleep Box Office
6. Doctor Sleep. 4 ½ stars. It’s certainly no Kubrick classic, but it is a rare adaptation of a Stephen King novel that is very good. Better yet, it’s a sequel to both King’s novel and Kubrick’s film, taking the best of both worlds. Kubrick’s ending to The Shining was better than King’s. Instead of the Overlook Hotel dying and Dick Hallorann surviving, Kubrick killed off Hallorann and allowed the evil Overlook to live on (the final shot of Jack Torrance in the 1921 painting is far creepier and scarier than the explosive melodrama penned by King). So Hallorann visits Danny in visions now, and Danny makes quite a momentous return to the Overlook, where he destroys the hotel as his father did in the novel. Filling this framework is the plot of psychic vampires who prey on people, including children, and I was surprised by some of the bold risks taken, not least the gang murder of the little boy. Thumbs way up to Doctor Sleep. I love it.

Daniel Craig.
7. Knives Out. 4 ½ stars. It takes courage to play the Agatha Christie card when you really just want to have fun, but Rian Johnson uses an A-list cast to produce fun in every scene of this mansion-based who-dunnit. An old rich guy kills himself, or so it seems, and his family are less interested in grieving than planning on how to spend the fortune they will surely inherit. They get a rude surprise: he left everything — every single penny, and the mansion too — to his young Latina nurse who is an immigrant. When detectives and a private eye show up and won’t leave, it starts to look like the old man’s death may not have been suicide. These family members are all so hollowly shitty, and racist in varying degrees, but it’s easy to love them when they’re played with relish by actors like Don Johnson, Toni Collette, Michael Shannon, and Jamie Lee Curtis. But it’s Daniel Craig who steals the show — with a preposterous Foghorn-Leghorn accent — and when he finally fingers the guilty party in the end, it’s as satisfying as it is sad that the entertainment is over. I wish that Knives Out were a six-hour film, frankly; these characters are too wonderfully played to close the curtain on them any sooner.


8. The Irishman. 4 stars. Scorsese brings back De Niro and Pesci, throws in Pacino, and tells a story of Jimmy Hoffa with a revisionism that assumes the worst of its characters. It has pinched the hemorrhoids of a more than a few Hoffa buffs, but it didn’t bother me; I just don’t know enough about Jimmy Hoffa enough to care about the historical blasphemies. Basically The Irishman covers the mid ’40s to the early aughts, with Frank Sheeran (De Niro) narrating his rise from a low-level thug to the right hand of Jimmy Hoffa (Pacino). Sheeran claims to have killed Hoffa in 1975 at the behest of Russell Bufalino (Pesci), in the union-mafia climate of the ’60s and ’70s. Make no mistake, Goodfellas and Casino this is not. Hell, it doesn’t even make my top 10 Scorsese films list. But it’s still a solid effort.


9. Climax. 4 stars. This is the dance party from hell, apparently based on a true story, and something you have to see to believe, like all of Gaspar Noe’s films. Set in France in 1996, the party is attended by dancers of alternate dance styles and ethnicities, who want to express unity in power of art. They talk about love, race, and sexuality, and why they need to dance. Then they drink punch spiked with acid, and everyone loses their almighty shit. They turn on each other, nasty and ultra-violent, and by the next morning people will be found dead. The music keeps racing through it all. I doubt this film is as profound as Noe might want us to think it is, but there’s no denying it’s a hell of a ride.

Dragged Across Concrete
10. Dragged Across Concrete. 3 ½ stars. I was pleasantly surprised by this one, half-expecting a garden variety crime drama of disaffected, down on their luck cops who don’t draw much sympathy. The Mel Gibson and Vince Vaughn characters are actually quite sympathetic, and the claims that this is a right-wing action flick can be dismissed. Here the good-will beliefs about race and social class are taken as phony, by criminals and cops alike, white and black, all of whom know that liberal fantasies can only be indulged by those who can afford to be naive. The two cops are put on suspension for excessive use of violence, and in their time off without badges they get drawn into witnessing an ugly crime as they are trying to commit their own. It’s a slow burn until the very end, and it rewards in ways I didn’t expect.

Reactions to Rey and Kylo's Kiss in The Rise of Skywalker
11. The Rise of Skywalker. 3 stars. Yes, I’m including this as a bonus, just to show you how open-minded I can be during certain phases of the moon. But also because it’s not as bad as the critics say, and certainly not “the worst Star Wars film since Phantom Menace” by a long shot. It’s weakness is that it feels like an apology for The Last Jedi, which, despite the PC overtones, actually took the franchise in some interesting directions. J.J. Abrams reverts to the derivative approach of The Force Awakens, and serves up fanwank that’s enjoyable if you just say the hell with it and go along for the ride. Look at it this way: The Rise of Skywalker caps off a trilogy better than either a muppet movie or Hayden-Brat Darth Vader.

(See also: The Best Films of 2006 The Best Films of 2007, The Best Films of 2008, The Best Films of 2009, The Best Films of 2010, The Best Films of 2011, The Best Films of 2012, The Best Films of 2013, The Best Films of 2014, The Best Films of 2015, The Best Films of 2016, The Best Films of 2018.)