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, 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.


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.


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 4 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 = Very Bad

“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.


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:


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.


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.


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.)


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.


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 = Very 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.


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 = Very 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.

The story behind the Massachusetts mansion in 'Knives Out'
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.

(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.)

The Star Wars films ranked… and some are very rank indeed

Though I have spared you the rank installment of Solo. I haven’t seen that one and probably never will. Here are the other ten films, in proper descending order. The order is bound to infuriate many fans. This is Star Wars after all.

father1. The Empire Strikes Back. 5 stars. This is the Star Wars film that engages me on all the right levels. It’s important to remember that Irvin Kershner directed it, not Lucas, who is always the problem. There’s never a dull moment in Empire, whether in its action scenes or pregnant pauses. It introduces Yoda, and the drama on the jungle planet is transcendent. For an ’80s blockbuster it’s dark as hell: the rebels get slaughtered at the battle of Hoth, which is brilliantly shot; Luke faces his dark side and loses a hand; Han Solo is kidnapped and frozen in carbonite. And of course it’s capped off by the brilliant reveal of Vader as Luke’s father, over a vertigo hang that still makes me sweat. It almost seems like Empire is an accidental masterpiece, sandwiched in between two films into which Lucas poured his more misguided efforts.

2. Rogue One. 4 ½ stars. You can actually make a case for this being the best entry in the franchise, but there’s some choppy pacing throughout the first half. Rogue One is Star Wars for adults, which is how I wish the franchise had been done from the start. The third act is a whopper, unquestionably the best battle of the franchise, and ends on the appropriate tragedy of all the Rogue One crew dying for their efforts. Had Disney not given the green light for all the heroes to die, this would have been a wasted film and insincere. It’s the foreordained conclusion that makes us appreciate what the rebels went through to get those Death Star plans. And, as if Jyn dying wasn’t a perfect enough ending, it’s improved on with the surprise “second ending” of Darth Vader kicking ass with his lightsaber and telekinetic abilities on the rebels escaping with the plans, seguing perfectly into the very first scenes of A New Hope.

star-wars-force-awakens-teaser-lightsaber-promo3. The Force Awakens. 4 stars. It recycles more plot points than any other film I know of. Another Death Star. Rey, the “new Luke”, climbing around inside it. She watches Han Solo’s death by lightsaber, as Luke saw Obi-Wan’s. She locates the hermit Luke, as Luke found Obi-Wan. BB-8, replaying R2-D2, carries crucial information for which the baddies hunt him down. Jakku is the new Tatooine; the winter planet evokes Hoth. The repeats fill pages. But the derivative material works for it rather than against. I was never wild about A New Hope, and so to me Force Awakens felt like the first Star Wars film that I’d always wanted; and also because Han Solo’s death is so moving. Rey is believable and likable in every way that the young Luke was not. There is none of the Flash Gordon feel of A New Hope; only first-rate performances by all involved.

4. The Last Jedi. 3 ½ stars. I had high hopes for this installment given the director Rian Johnson’s work on other projects like Breaking Bad, and his talents sort of pay off, though not quite to the insane degree implied by the critics. It’s no masterpiece. This isn’t the best Star Wars film since Empire but it does take rewarding risks. Where The Force Awakens plagiarized the hell out of the past, The Last Jedi breaks new ground and delivers some dramatic scenes. There are offenses like the porgs, and Leia using the Force to fly, but they’re few and far between. The best performance is Mark Hamill’s, who in the classic trilogy was a poor actor who played a whiny bitch. This chapter finally justifies Luke’s existence, but it does so by trashing the Skywalker legacy, and I think that sort of cold-hearted approach from Johnson is the payoff for me.

star-wars-episode-iv5. A New Hope. 3 ½ stars. As I said, I never fell in love with Star Wars as a kid, and as a young adult I blamed the franchise for killing the Golden Age of ’70s cinema. A New Hope may have been “unlike anything before”, as people claimed, but it was a pastiche of tropes and storytelling techniques that certainly had come before (throughout the ’30s-’50s), and it all meshed for me artificially. It felt like a kid’s story putting on adult airs. The whiny character of Luke is frankly almost as embarrassing as Hayden Christensen’s Anakin in the prequels. Still, I can’t deny the epic sweep, and there are impressive sequences — the Tusken raiders in the desert, conversations on board the Millenium Falcon, the infiltration of the Death Star, and of course the final attack on it. The Olympics-medal epilogue is offensive beyond words.

jabba6. Return of the Jedi. 2 ½ stars. The first 45 minutes of Jedi are actually not bad. Jabba the Hut is a wonderfully obscene character and Princess Leia his implicit sex slave. The metal bikini is so trashy and politically incorrect, and a refreshing reminder of the days before such elements would be decried by regressive leftists. Yoda’s passing on the jungle planet is also fine. But from that point on, Jedi is a complete wreck — nothing like A New Hope and workaday as Empire is grand. And it’s not just the damn Ewoks, though they’re obviously the lead offenders. The entire tone is juvenile. The dialogue could have been scripted by a high-school sophomore. There is no vision, just a lazy Death Star repeat. The throne room confrontation between the emperor, Vader, and Luke is passable, but not quite as epic as fans insist.

anakin-obi-wan-fighting-mustafar7. Revenge of the Sith. 2 stars. It’s the best of the prequels though that’s not saying much. Consider how good it could have been: Anakin turns to the dark side, helps the Emperor take control of the galaxy, and destroys the Jedi Knights. His transformation into Darth Vader, in parallel with the dying Padme giving birth to Luke and Leia, is the stuff of classic tragedy. The tone is as dark as Empire’s, sometimes even more so. The slaughter of the kids in the Jedi temple (granted it happens off screen) is an admittedly shocking move that I never expected from Lucas. Sith could have been a masterpiece in the hands of a competent director. In the end, Hayden Christensen is a horrible casting for Darth Vader, and the cheesy prequel elements remain — lame dialogue, cardboard plotting, and digitally overwrought battle scenes. This is the story that needed soul, and it’s not there.

Attack-of-the-clones-Yoda-mbjr9cjdjugbly26nfauyr8906wnmv9tfr0qqzykfs8. Attack of the Clones. 1 ½ stars. This one is pretty dire, but something of a guilty pleasure because of Yoda. He’s always been the best Star Wars character, and Clones milks him for all he’s worth. His grammar goes hilariously off the scales, as in imperatives like “Around the survivors a perimeter create”. Worth the price of admission alone is his lightsaber duel with Count Dooku, which begins with him hobbling into the room like an old geezer to then explode into CGI acrobatics. There’s some other decent stuff too, like Obi-Wan’s investigation that takes him to visually impressive worlds, Anakin’s encounter with the Sand People, and the plot conspiracy of the clone army. I realize I’m damning with faint praise, but I would watch this film over Phantom Menace any day.

star-wars-episode-1-the-phantom-menace9. The Phantom Menace. 1 star. One thing can be said for the prequel trilogy. Many of the light-saber duels are superior to those of the classic. And the best one comes in the second-worst entry of the franchise. The face off between Qui-Gon, Obi-Wan, and Darth Maul is extremely well done. The Coruscant chase scene is good too. Which makes it all the more tragic that the rest of this film is so abysmal that nothing can keep it from a 1-star rating. This isn’t just a bad movie, it’s a movie that goes out of its way to be bad, indeed to shit down the throats of fandom. Jar Jar is the foulest to swallow, but like the Ewoks of Jedi he simply encapsulates an overall texture that channels the Force of Disney. What a mess.

10. The Rise of Skywalker. 0 stars. In the classic trilogy, the third film was the worst. In the prequel trilogy, it was the best but still awful. In the final trilogy, it is again the worst, but it is so goddamn bad that it’s almost unfathomable — in the words of one insightful critic, the “diarhetic explosion of the Star Wars films”. It’s one of the worst films of all time, let alone Star Wars films. It’s an apology for The Last Jedi, a classic example of having your cake and eating it with no integrity to even stand by your own artistic decisions. J.J. Abrams reverts to derivative material, but where in The Force Awakens, his derivative material worked to the film’s advantage, in Rise of Skywalker it actually feels derivative. It’s just a deluge of fanwank that retcons the whole new trilogy, with everyone “coming back to life” – Han, Luke, and (Jesus Christ) Palpatine.

The Palestinian Delusion: The Catastrophic History of the Middle East Peace Process

Many will find Robert Spencer’s latest book dispiriting, but reality is often just that. It doesn’t care about our feelings, political optimism, or need for palatable solutions. And nowhere is this more true than in the incendiary sandbox of the Middle-East.

The Left will have no use for it, but speaking as something of a Lefty myself, I give the book full marks, and hope that at least some of my tribe will read and learn from it. It’s called The Palestinian Delusion: The Catastrophic History of the Middle East Peace Process, and it chronicles the failure of every peace attempt that has been made for the last 40 years. Spencer argues that the attempts failed for one reason only: the Muslims of Palestine and surrounding Arab countries were never going to accept a Jewish state in any form. The Islamic imperative, “Drive out those who drove you out” allows for no mitigation — not even when the land of Palestine wasn’t theirs to claim.

An Invented Nationality

Many believe that the Palestinians are a genuine nationality — that they are the indigenous people of the land occupied by Israel. Spencer refutes the myth:

“It is no accident that neither Mark Twain, nor any of the series of English travelers who visited the area, nor anyone else who traveled through desolate Palestine over the centuries ever mentioned the ‘Palestinian’ people. They spoke of encountering Muslim Arabs, as well as Jews, Christian Arabs, and others, but no one, among multitudes of people who wrote about Palestine, ever refers to Palestinians. Nor do the many British white papers and other documents the British government produced during the Mandate period ever mention the Palestinians. The opposing factions in those documents are the Jews and Arabs.” (p 87-88)

That flies in the face of the narrative that today’s Palestinians are analogous to Native American Indians: indigenous to the area and thus have a primary claim on the land. But there was never anything to distinguish the Palestinians culturally, linguistically, or otherwise from the other Arabs of the region. During the Mandate Period (1918-48) the Arabs of Palestine usually considered themselves Syrians, and Palestine was called Southern Syria. Auni Bey Abdul-Hadi told the Peel Commission in 1937, “There is no such country as Palestine. ‘Palestine’ is a term the Zionists invented.”

That outlook changed in the ’60s with the Palestine Liberation Organization. The PLO’s constitution refers to “Palestinians” as if they were a distinct ethnic people, though it confusingly alternates between using the terms as a geographical region vs. a nationality. The “Palestinian people” became the PLO’s propaganda used to counter the image of a small Jewish state in a sea of Arab nations. Now it was “the Palestinians” who were an even smaller nation, oppressed by a Big-Bad. And as Spencer says, a nation and a people need an identity; that was provided by the appropriated flag of the (short-lived) Arab Federation of Iraq and Jordan. A founding father was also needed; Yasser Arafat filled that role.

The propaganda was called out. Syrian President Hafez Assad, for example, told Arafat: “You do not represent Palestine as much as we do. Never forget this: there is no such thing as a Palestinian people, there is no Palestinian entity, there is only Syria. It is we, the Syrian authorities, who are the true representatives of the Palestinian people.” There were even those in the PLO who candidly acknowledged the truth, such as executive member Zahir Muhsein, who said in an interview: “The Palestinian people does not exist. The creation of a Palestinian state is only a means for continuing our struggle against the state of Israel for our Arab unity. Only for political and tactical reasons do we speak today about the existence of a Palestinian people.”

Obviously, alternative facts predated the 21st century.

Double standards

I was glad to see Spencer taking on the question of standards, because Israel has always been held to a different one. Especially on the subject of territorial acquisition. After the Six-Day War, the UN had produced Resolution 242 about the “inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war”, stating that a nation doesn’t have a right to hold territory just because it conquered the territory. Really? Since when? As Spencer says, the right of conquest has been the way of things since humanity was born:

“The United Nations never questioned the Soviet Union’s postwar territorial expansion, or any other territorial gain at the expense of a defeated aggressor. The United States acquired California and the vast territories of the American Southwest after defeating Mexico in war. Germany had started an aggressive war. No one questioned the fact that after the war, it should suffer a substantial loss of territory. Nations that lost wars, particularly when the wars were the result of their own aggression, had lost territories through history.” (pp 109-110)

And yet when Egypt, Syria, and Jordan wage an aggressive war against Israel, hell-bent on genocide, the UN suddenly advocates for a principle of the “inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war” — but only against Israel.

This reminds me of Donald Trump’s executive order two years ago. He decided to uphold the law passed by Congress in 1995, which required Jerusalem to be recognized as Israel’s capital by no later than May 31, 1999. (Spencer discusses this too, later in the book, on pp 194-95.) Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama had invoked waivers to this law every six months, postponing the move on grounds of “national security”, and so the law had never taken effect. Trump had also signed a waiver in June 2017, but six months later, on December 6, decided to end the stalling.

Everyone went crazy that day, but this was a rare occasion I applauded Trump, for the same reasons Spencer objects to the UN resolution 242. Every other country has their capital of choice recognized, and Israel should be treated no differently. Israel has controlled the city of Jerusalem since ’67, and if they want to make that their capital (which they did in 1980), no one can properly gainsay them. Trump was simply eliminating two decades of pointless executive stalling. As Spencer’s book demonstrates from cover to back, as long as the state of Israel exists at all, the Arab world will never be satisfied or agree to work towards a peaceful goal — regardless of how boundaries are partitioned or what the Israeli capital is.

It’s to the critical issue we now turn: the peace process between Israelis and Arabs, and why these attempts always fail. Starting with Round 1.

Round 1: The Case of Anwar Sadat

The story of Camp David (1978) is the centerpiece of Spencer’s book, and it’s the story of Anwar Sadat making a fool (and tool) of Jimmy Carter. Sadat was quite a colorful character, having written love letters to Adolf Hitler, praising the German Fuhrer for his campaign against the “sons of Satan”. After World War II he was in bed with the Soviets, who protected and helped Egypt against Israel, until the Soviets got so fed up bailing Egypt out of every jam. In 1973 Brezhnev wanted Sadat to start negotiating with Israel. He was warned by his aide that Sadat and the Arabs would be mighty pissed at being told this.

Brezhnev retorted that the Arabs could “go to hell”, as they had been given everything under the sun — technology, tanks, aircraft, and artillery — and yet they kept getting beaten. “Once again they scrammed,” blasted Brezhnev. “Once again they screamed for us to come save them. Sadat woke me up in the middle of the night twice over the phone, ‘Save me!’ No! We are not going to fight for them.” Egypt would have to start negotiating with Israel peacefully.

So that’s what Sadat did: he became a “peacemaker”, as Spencer explains, by trying to get the United States to fight his battles for him, since the Soviets would no longer do so; America would fight for him at the negotiations table. It was a brilliant strategy that fooled people on all sides. The Israelis were delighted that an Arab leader was making peaceful overtures; Arabs were furious and denounced him. But Sadat had no intention of betraying his fellow Muslims. For all his deceptive talk about welcome and pluralistic abstractions in his speech to the Knesset in November 1977, he budged not an inch on concrete matters, insisting that the Israelis withdraw completely from everywhere he said to withdraw from, including Jerusalem.

What’s astonishing is that Sadat’s repeated insults (and lack of desire for any genuine reconciliation) went more or less unnoticed at this meeting. A state dinner was held in his honor. And the following year, the United States would push for Sadat’s claims.

Enter Jimmy Carter

Spencer, to put it mildly, isn’t a fan of Jimmy Carter. Readers will know from my ongoing series on the presidents that I think Carter was on whole a good president, indeed the last good president to date. However, even I acknowledge that Camp David was not Carter’s greatest moment. It was his worst.

Sadat made Carter his tool, it must be said, and laughed about it privately to his aides, referring to the American president as “poor naive Carter”. Carter, oblivious, showered good will on Sadat, while treating the Israeli Prime Minister (Begin) icily, and Sadat grew so accustomed to Carter’s obsequiousness that he rudely “corrected” Carter anytime the U.S. president sought to put Sadat and Begin on equal footing.

At one point Carter and the Prime Minister argued over UN Resolution 242. Begin (rightly) objected to the clause about “inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war” (which is the way of things everywhere in the world), to which Carter retorted that Begin was just greedy for land. Carter was being unfair. Israel was surrounded by Muslim nations that were committed as ever to jihad, and to wiping out the Jewish state. For security purposes if nothing else, it was perfectly reasonable for Israel to want to keep the Sinai lands it had taken in the Six-Day War.

Sadat was eventually assassinated (in 1981) by jihadists, for daring to make peace with the enemy. But as Spencer notes, Sadat had obtained that peace shrewdly enough, without making any significant concessions to Israel, while Israel gave a up a great deal:

“The Camp David summit wasn’t Adolf Hitler browbeating Czechoslovakia’s Emil Hacha into submission, but neither was it a summit of three people who respected one another as equals. Neither Carter nor Sadat had any respect for Begin. Sadat had scant respect for Carter, either, but cultivated his friendship as useful. Carter had boundless admiration and regard for Sadat, bordering on hero worship.” (p 131)

That’s the definition of being made a tool. “Poor naive Carter” indeed. Camp David unfortunately became the paradigm of the “peace process” in which American presidents pressed Israelis for concessions while asking virtually nothing of the Arabs. While I think it’s unfair in the extreme to accuse Jimmy Carter of anti-Semitism (as Spencer seems to imply, p 134), it’s true that he didn’t play fair with Israel at Camp David.

Round 2: The Nobel Peaceful Arafat

Here’s a question: How does one go from the Yasser Arafat who denounced terrorism and promised to recognize the State of Israel (in 1993), to the same Arafat who said that he recognized only holy war, and that the PLO would sacrifice every last boy to see the Palestinian flag fly over the walls of Jerusalem (1996)? Simple: by following the example of Muhammad.

Spencer shows how the Oslo Accords (1993) were always a ruse on Arafat’s part. He had received instruction from the Romanian spy service operative Ion Mihai Pacepa back in ’78. Pacepa had brought Arafat to Bucharest and told him how to behave in Washington — to pretend to break with terrorism, and to recognize Israel, and to keep saying it over and over until he was blue in the face. That’s what Arafat did, and the end result was the famous handshake between him and Yitzhak Rabin on the White House lawn, with a misty-eyed Bill Clinton presiding over them. Arafat even got a Nobel Peace Prize the following year. (It was jointly bestowed on him, Rabin, and Shimon Peres. Rabin and Peres deserved it; Arafat certainly didn’t.)

Arafat was blasted by the Muslim world for his promises of peace, in a classic repeat of Anwar Sadat. But unlike Sadat, Arafat wasn’t assassinated for his efforts, because he explained what he was doing. He assured angry Muslims that he was doing exactly what jihad groups like Hamas advocated: following the example of Muhammad’s treaty with the Quraysh. Spencer explains:

“By invoking Hudaybiyya to justify Oslo, Araft was saying that despite appearances, he had actually conceded nothing. Muhammad had undertaken the Treaty of Hudaybiyya so that he could make the pilgrimage to Mecca, and so that Muslims could recover their strength after a series of costly battles with the Quraysh. When the Muslims were strong enough to fight again and defeat the Quraysh, he broke the treaty. Arafat was telling his Muslim audiences, who would have been familiar with the Treaty of Hudaybiyya, that he had entered into the treaty with Israel not as a retreat from the Palestinian jihad against the Jewish state but as a tactical move to further the aims of that jihad. And when the Palestinians were strong enough not to need the treaty anymore, he would, like Muhammad, break it.” (p 152)

The tradition of Hudaybiyya is a strong one in Islam: treaties are made to be broken, and lies and deceptions are perfectly acceptable.

No one should have been surprised when only a year after getting his Peace Prize, Arafat was thundering about his commitment to the destruction of Israel, and that “the jihad would continue until all of Palestine is liberated”. But then no one really understands Islamic principles.

Round 3: The Road Map to Nowhere

Presidents of the 21st century have spun wheels in the same muck. “Peace processes” continued under the assumption that if the Israeli settlements obtained in 2000 and 2001 were dismantled, peace would dawn. No one, incredibly, had wizened up to the fact that even if all the Israeli settlements were dismantled, there would be no peace, but only more demands, until Israel was destroyed.

The famous Road Map to Peace was first outlined by Bush in a speech in June 2002. It called for an independent Palestinian state living side by side with Israel in peace, and the plan was to achieve this by 2005. The plan unraveled almost as soon as it began to be implemented. On June 3, 2003 Bush met with President of Palestine Mahmoud Abbas, as well as the leaders of Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain; they all “agreed” to the Road Map to Peace. Shortly after, Palestinians murdered two Israelis (June 5), Hamas killed four Israeli soldiers (June 11), and a suicide bomber killed 17 people on an Israeli bus (June 17). As Spencer says, an essential premise of the Road Map — that Palestinians would end terrorism — was impossible to fulfill from the start. None of the agreeing authorities (assuming their sincerity) had the power to end the principle of Islamic jihad. That would take a massive religious reform.

Withdrawal from Gaza: The Greenhouse Parable

In June 2004, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon announced the Disengagement Plan: Israel would withdraw completely from Gaza, and from certain parts of the West Bank. Sharon was convinced that such a disengagement would strengthen Israel’s hold over the territory central to its existence, and he extended the hand of peace to the Palestinians, enjoining them to preserve peace and move forward on the basis of “full and equal citizenship and due representation in all institutions”.

The withdrawal from Gaza was hailed (even by skeptics of the Israelis) as a solid show of good will, which it obviously was. But the Palestinians had never reciprocated such gestures in the past, and they certainly were not about to do so now. They responded by looting and destroying hundreds of greenhouses left behind by the Israelis, causing two million dollars in damage.

It wasn’t surprising, for as Spencer points out, the greenhouse event was a dramatic snapshot of the “peace process” that had gone on for years: “The greenhouse incident serves as a parable of the ‘peace process’ itself. Throughout the process, Israelis would make gestures of goodwill that would not be reciprocated, or the Palestinian Arabs would say everything they were expected to say and then act as if they had meant none of it. Instead of calling the Muslims to account, however, the world powers — Britain first and then the United States, would put more pressure on Israel to make more concessions, as if some new manifestation of generosity would finally have the desired effect. The obvious lesson was never learned.” (pp 181-82)

“Peace Partner” Abbas

When I wrote my presidential piece on Barack Obama, I referred to him as George W. the Second, gave a laundry list of reasons why, and with Spencer’s book one can add plenty more. Like Bush, Obama peddled the myth that Islam is a religion of peace (while he himself stepped up America’s war-mongering efforts in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen) and played the victim card on Palestinian behalf with absurd rhetoric. In his 2009 Cairo speech, for example, Obama actually compared the Palestinian situation to the plight of African Americans during the slavery and Jim Crow eras. Equating Israeli self-defense measures with slavery and racism is ludicrous, however one feels about armament issues.

Also like Bush before him, Obama reaffirmed U.S. support for a two-state solution, calling on both Israelis and the Palestinians to abide by the provisions of the thoroughly useless Road Map. In his 2013 Jerusalem speech, he guaranteed that Abbas would be a true peace partner to the Israelis: “While I know you have had differences with the Palestinian Authority, I genuinely believe that you do have a true partner in President Abbas.” Two years later, Abbas was cheering jihad groups (the Mourabitoun and the Mourabitat) who rioted violently on the Temple Mount. Abbas said:

“We bless you; we bless the Mourabitoun and the Mourabitat. We welcome every drop of blood spilled in Jerusalem. This is pure blood, clean blood, blood on its way to Allah. The Jews have no right to desecrate these places with their filthy feet and we won’t allow them to.”

Obama’s promised “peace partner” indeed. Entirely predictable.

The Deal of the Century

Despite getting a couple of things right (see pp 194-201, like allowing the Israelis to choose their capital), Donald Trump has copied the failures of his predecessors. Six months ago (in June 2019), he unveiled his “Deal of the Century” plan, which just involves throwing more money at the Palestinians — as if that could possibly motivate them to lay down arms and renounce jihad. It was a whopping $50 billion package. Abbas treated it with scorn.


After four decades one would think some sanity would break through. Why is everyone still confused over an issue that is fairly straightforward? Mostly because people believe that Palestinian terrorism against Israel is justified, and that the Israeli government is a racist demonic regime. Israel can certainly be criticized (and I do criticize Israel, probably more than Spencer does), but the false equivalence between Israeli wrongs and Arab jihad has to stop. There’s no comparison. Democracies like Israel and western powers do bad things, but in autocratic nations under Islamic law, bad things are the life blood and raison d’etre.

And as Spencer says, the United Nations fuels the false narrative by over-heaping condemnation on Israel while turning a blind eye to massive human rights abuses committed by others. In 2018 alone, the UN condemned Israel 21 times, while not condemning Hamas even once. That’s being hostage to false narratives, and then some.

When we ask, then, what should be done to achieve peace in the Middle-East, the question itself is a problem, because it presumes something can be done. The reality is that peaceful negotiated settlements will never be achieved, as long as the doctrine of jihad — along with the anti-Semitic passages of the Qur’an and Sunnah — remain unreformed in the Muslim world. If Spencer’s book doesn’t convince you on this point, there’s probably no amount of persuasive power that can. Every single attempt at peaceful strategies — from Camp David under Carter, to Oslo under Clinton, to the Peaceful Road Map promoted by Bush and Obama — have failed because each was predicted on Muslim acceptance of a Jewish state, which is anathema in Islam. It doesn’t matter how small, truncated, or diminished that Jewish state is. From the Islamic point of view, it has to go.

The “solution”, in other words, says Spencer, is that there really is none:

“That is not something that people today, particularly Americans, want to hear. There is a prevailing assumption that if we just sit down and talk with one another, we will ultimately be able to find common ground and work out all our differences. Well, the Israelis and the Muslim Arabs have done this again and again and again for more than four decades now, and the conflict still rages. Borders have been adjusted, troops have been withdrawn, settlements have been dismantled, and yet the Palestinian media still daily seethes with rage and hate against Israel, and calls for its destruction. For talks to succeed, both sides have to be willing to make compromises and abide by agreements; the Palestinians have repeatedly shown that they are willing to do neither. They clearly see negotiations with Israel as means to gain concessions that are steps on the way to the ultimate collapse of the Jewish state. Future participants in the ‘peace process’ will be foolish, and will be played for fools, if they continue to negotiate with the Palestinians.” (pp 217-18)

What Spencer suggests in place of “peace process” is containment or management of the problem through strength, and for western countries to openly admit that a Palestinian state will by necessity be an inveterate enemy of Israel, and to then plan accordingly. Enlightened societies should speak honestly about Islam, and about the way Palestinian leaders have refined lying and deception into a form of high art. Above all, I would add, the religion of Islam is need of a massive reform if anything like peaceful co-existence is to be achieved. Of course, this will be unacceptable to most thinkers in the Western world. It requires too much common sense, and to fly in the face of entrenched wishful thinking.

I’ll close this review with my own wishful thinking: I wish with all my heart that the State of Israel had not been created. It was one of the worst political snafus of the 20th century. The Allies’ hearts were in the right place, and the Jewish people certainly deserve a homeland of their own, but it was a godawful idea to make Palestine that home. Franklin Delano Roosevelt had been right when he warned (in 1944) that putting Jews in the Holy Land would ignite a relentless jihad. (FDR was wrong about most things, but not this.) What the Allies should have done instead is carve out a section of Germany, the nation responsible for the Holocaust, and give that to the Jewish people. There would have been a lot less blood and tears in 70 years to come.

But that’s my fantasy. What’s done is done. The state of Israel was created. Generations have come and gone, and Israel is the Jewish homeland now — like it or not, for better or worse. The Israeli-Palestinian problem needs to managed, if not “solved”, with a minimum of bloodshed. But to engage in peace accords and negotiations as if Muslims will give up the doctrine of jihad is an irresponsible policy grounded in historical ignorance. Spencer’s book is the wake-up call to pull western policy makers out of dreamland.

President Series, So Far

For easy reference, here is my president series so far. 39 down, 2 to go.


1. John Tyler (I) — 54/60 (16/20/18)
2. Warren Harding (R) — 54/60 (20/18/16)
3. George Washington (F) — 53/60 (15/13/20 +5)
4. Rutherford Hayes (R) — 53/60 (16/20/17)

Very Good

5. Chester Arthur (R) — 52/60 (18/19/15)
6. James Monroe (D-R) — 51/60 (17/18/16)
7. Harry Truman (D) — 48/60 (13/18/17)
8. Dwight Eisenhower (R) — 48/60 (16/20/12)
9. Calvin Coolidge (R) — 46/60 (18/15/13)


10. Jimmy Carter (D) — 44/60 (9/18/17)
11. John Quincy-Adams (D-R) — 44/60 (19/10/15)
12. Millard Fillmore (W) — 43/60 (18/11/14)
13. James Madison (D-R) — 42/60 (15/8/19)


14. Thomas Jefferson (D-R) — 40/60 (20/10/10)
15. Bill Clinton (D) — 40/60 (10/18/12)
16. Gerald Ford (R) — 40/60 (15/12/13)
17. John F. Kennedy (D) — 39/60 (11/14/14)
18. William Howard Taft (R) — 36/60 (10/12/14)
19. Benjamin Harrison (R) — 35/50 (12/9/14)
20. Ronald Reagan (R) — 33/60 (13/13/7)


21. Abraham Lincoln (R) — 30/60 (15/5/10)
22. Herbert Hoover (R) — 30/60 (20/3/7)
23. George H. W. Bush (R) — 30/60 (3/14/13)
24. Andrew Johnson (D) — 29/60 (8/15/6)
25. Ulysses Grant (R) — 29/60 (4/18/7)
26. Grover Cleveland (D) — 29/60 (17/9/3)
27. Richard Nixon (R) — 28/60 (8/9/11)
28. Martin Van Buren (D) — 26/60 (8/12/6)


29. William McKinley (R) — 25/60 (0/16/9)
30. Franklin Pierce (D) — 23/60 (4/17/2)
31. James Polk (D) — 22/60 (0/13/9)
32. Ted Roosevelt (R) — 20/60 (6/10/4)
33. Barack Obama (D) — 19/60 (3/7/9)
34. Lyndon Johnson (D) — 18/60 (0/3/15)

Very Bad

35. Donald Trump (R) — 17/60 (12/1/4)
36. John Adams (F) — 16/60 (5/9/2)
37. Franklin Delano Roosevelt (D) — 16/60 (10/4/2)
38. Andrew Jackson (D) — 15/60 (2/11/2)

Complete Failure

39. James Buchanan (D) — 7/60 (4/3/0)
40. George W. Bush (R) — 4/60 (0/4/0)
41. Woodrow Wilson (D) — 2/60 (0/2/0)


Translating the 60-based scores into 10-based:

9 — Tyler, Harding, Washington, Hayes
8 ½ — Arthur, Monroe
8 — Truman, Eisenhower, Coolidge
7 ½ — Carter, Quincy-Adams
7 — Fillmore, Madison
6 ½ — Jefferson, Clinton, Ford, Kennedy
6 — Taft, Harrison
5 ½ — Reagan

5 — Lincoln, Hoover, H.W. Bush, A. Johnson, Grant, Cleveland
4 ½ — Nixon, Van Buren
4 — McKinley, Pierce
3 ½ — Polk
3 — T. Roosevelt, Obama, L. Johnson
2 ½ — Trump, Adams, F.D. Roosevelt, Jackson
1 — Buchanan
½ — W. Bush
0 — Wilson

George W. the Second: Barack Obama (2009-2017)

Here’s a good summation of Barack Obama’s presidency:

“Despite their divergent party and ideological labels, the presidencies of Barack Obama (labelled a liberal Democrat) and his predecessor, George W. Bush (labelled a conservative Republican) were similarly bad. Under both administrations, peace was elusive. Both men attacked countries for no legitimate reason, escalated needless wars that should have been de-escalated, got many U.S. soldiers and indigenous peoples killed for little gain, and ended up leaving the affected countries in shambles. Prosperity was also elusive during both administrations. Bush’s fraudulent tax cuts, massive war spending, vast new domestic expenditures, and increases in the money supply overheated the economy into a bubble, which burst and led to the greatest recession since the Great Depression. In response Bush provided a $168 billion Keynesian stimulus, bailed out the nation’s biggest banks and Wall Street with $700 billion. Obama — continuing Bush’s Keynesian intervention in the economy in a vain attempt to jumpstart it out of the doldrums — produced only an elongated anemic ‘recovery’ by effectively nationalizing two of thee three U.S. carmakers, imposing new regulations on the financial industry in a misguided attempt to prevent future financial declines, and continuing Bush’s federal domestic largesse by launching a massive ineffective stimulus spending effort costing well over $1 trillion. Although during his campaign, Obama decried Bush’s attack on civil liberties, he continued most of Bush’s infringements on liberty — killing people overseas without congressional approval of hostilities, detention without trial, kangaroo military tribunals for terrorism suspects, and unconstitutional domestic spying. Even Bush’s and Obama’s use of dubious methods were similar. Bush took advantage of the 9/11 tragedy to conduct an unrelated invasion of Iraq. Obama took advantage of the economic collapse to enact health care reform. In switching priority to passing Obamacare, the president ignored advice that he focus like a laser on the collapsing economy, thus contributing to his eroding popularity.” (Ivan Eland, Recarving Rushmore, pp 427-28)

I agree almost entirely with this summary, except for the parting blow at Obamacare. I half-heartedly support the Affordable Health Care Act (acknowledging its problems), and so my overall assessment of Obama isn’t quite as bad as Eland’s — though that’s damning with faint praise. The fact is that Obama was a very dismal and disappointing president. He was, essentially, George W. the Second.

1. Peace (Foreign Policy)

Obama’s visit to Cairo five months after his inauguration (in June 2009) gave a pretty good indicator as to how he would follow in Bush’s footsteps. He parroted his predecessor’s platitudes about Islam being a religion of peace, and made this curious statement:

“I know that Islam has always been a part of America’s story. The first nation to recognize my country was Morocco. In signing the Treaty of Tripoli in 1796, our second President, John Adams, wrote, ‘The United States has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion or tranquility of Muslims.'”

John Adams, however, was as bad as Obama when it came to dealing with jihadists, so it’s no surprise that Obama cited him approvingly. The Barbary pirates of Tripoli had made unprovoked attacks on peaceful U.S. trade ships — for no reason at all — and Adams, along with Thomas Jefferson, were told by the Muslim ambassador that Tripoli was founded on the Laws of Muhammad and the Qur’an, that all nations who didn’t acknowledge Muslim superiority were sinners, and that it was the right and duty of Muslims to wage war on such sinners wherever they could be found. That’s why the Barbary jihadists were attacking American trade ships “for no reason”: because Islam demanded it. When Adams became president, he (unlike Jefferson after him) placated the Barbary terrorists with tribute payment.

At any rate, Obama continued:

“I have known Islam on three continents before coming to the region where it was first revealed. That experience guides my conviction that partnership between America and Islam must be based on what Islam is, not what it isn’t. And I consider it part of my responsibility as President of the United States to fight against negative stereotypes of Islam wherever they appear.”

It’s not the president’s job to defend Islam or any religion. And if it were — if Obama truly wanted to base a partnership with America on the basis of “what Islam is” — he’d have to endorse a sharia-based state.

Obama was worse than Bush on the subject of Islam, because he ordered the removal of all mention of Islam from counter-terror training, and refused to allow high-ranking law enforcement and intelligence officials to study the religious ideology of the terrorists, which is necessary to understand and counter them. It’s bad enough when political-correctness kills honest inquiry in the civilian sphere, but in the professional sphere of national security, this was inexcusable. Having intentionally purged the Defense Department’s training of any ability to define the enemy, it was left with little capacity to defeat the enemy; you can’t defeat something you don’t understand.


Against voter expectations, Obama didn’t pull out of the Middle-East. He not only continued Bush’s troop surge in Afghanistan, he revved things up, more than doubling the number of U.S. soldiers to about 100,000. Throughout Bush’s two terms, 630 soldiers had died in Afghanistan. Throughout Obama’s two terms, 1758 were killed. Obama was later blasted by his own Secretary of Defense (Robert Gates) for escalating things in Afghanistan. The soldiers who died for a hopeless cause would be alive today, and a lot of taxpayer dollars saved.

Drone Wars

There were ten — yes, ten — times more air strikes under Obama’s two terms (563) than under Bush’s two terms (57). Obama wildly ratcheted up the drone attacks on Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of civilians in those countries, many of them women and children.

The drone program was always absurd. The strikes were against franchise groups only loosely affiliated with al-Qaeda, and they had no part in the 9/11 attacks. Obama was doing quite a good job following Bush’s playbook — diverting national security resources from those who had actually committed the 9/11 attacks.

Egypt & Libya

Also like Bush before him, Obama labored under the illusion that the United States could bring democracy to the Middle East by toppling dictators and encouraging their opponents to work for elections and peaceful change. Bush thought this when he removed Saddam; Obama thought this when he aided in the fall of Mubarak in Egypt and Gaddafi in Libya. The result was the opposite of democracy: unrest and instability in Egypt; chaos and anarchy in Libya; the strengthening of jihad and sharia groups all over.

In the case of Egypt, Obama fell under the “Arab Spring” delusion. The Arab Spring rebellions were never about democracy and pluralism. They were about imposing Islamic law. After Mubarak’s fall (in February ’11), the Muslim Brotherhood president Mohamed Morsi assumed power (in June ’12) and put through a new constitution that removed the last traces of Egyptian democracy. Morsi declared that he was immune from any challenge. If not for the military coup that overthrew him the following year, Egypt would now be sharia state.

One month after Obama aided in Mubarak’s fall, he went after Gaddafi, attacking Libya on St. Patrick’s Day, 2011. The CIA was worried that removing Gaddafi would strengthen jihadists in Libya, and of course that’s what happened. Gaddafi was overthrown in October, and jihadists began wreaking havoc in Libya, using the country as a base for attacking other countries in northern Africa (like Mali). Since then the entire region has been much worse off than before.

Killing Bin Laden

Obama succeeded in killing Bin Laden on May 2, 2011, using a Special Forces raid in Pakistan. That it took almost ten years for a superpower like America to locate and neutralize one man is a national disgrace. At least Obama was able to do in two years what Bush couldn’t do in eight. That’s faint praise however, for what Obama should have done after killing Bin Laden was declare the war on terror over, end his absurd drone wars, and foster a long-overdue return to military restraint and normalcy. Obama did none of these things.


Obama takes a lot of flak for Syria, but he deserves only some of it. On the plus side, he never made good on his vow (in 2011) to bring down Assad. Assad was, and still is, a tyrant, but Syria was at least relatively stable with Assad in power. If Assad went, then Syria would be overrun by worse.

In 2014, however, he asked Congress for money to fund a program allowing U.S. personnel to train the Syrian rebels to fight against Assad. At least 60% of these rebels were Islamists/jiahdists, and by 2015, some of these Obama-backed rebels were committing atrocities, such as persecuting Christians in Aleppo and making them flee their homes. The idea that the rebels were “moderates” was a media fiction spread by the Obama Administration in order to justify arming and financing them.


Obama deserves credit, albeit very minimal, for resisting strong pressures — from both America and Saudi Arabia — to pursue aggressive policies with Iran. No one likes negotiating with a terror-sponsored nation, but the Iran-Nuclear Deal was, at least arguably, the lesser of two evils. The deal however was too easy on Iran. There were no consequences spelled out in the deal for breaking the agreement (other than vague talk about sanctions), and the real whopper was that Iran got to inspect it own nuclear sites. Seriously.

2. Prosperity (Domestic Policy)

The Great Recession was Bush’s fault, but Obama’s “remedy” was as bad as Bush’s. Instead of letting the economy right itself by restoring the natural balance between supply and demand, Bush (following the now discredited Keynesian methods first used by Herbert Hoover in the ’30s) tried to heal the economy by using government intervention in the marketplace — at the cost of a whopping $700 billion, bailing out banks that were deemed “too big to fail”, thereby ensuring that businesses will continue reckless risk-taking, believing that Uncle Sam will be there to bail them out.

Unlike Bush, Obama had a brain, and he knew that Keynesian methods were crank and obsolete. But Americans wanted short-term fixes to put off the day of reckoning, and Obama was willing to oblige them. As he candidly admitted in a White House speech, “Look, I get the Keynesian thing. But it’s not where the electorate is.” Imagine if Lyndon Johnson had taken that attitude instead of signing the Civil Rights Bill in 1964, by saying: “Look, folks, I get the problems of racial injustice. But it’s not where the electorate is”. Democracy doesn’t trump scientific results or doing the responsible thing. That’s why we elect leaders in the first place — as much to go against the electorate when necessary.

But Obama catered to the electorate knowing it was wrong, outdoing even Bush with a “rescue” stimulus package of over $1 trillion. Bailouts, fiscal stimuli, the buildup of public debt, and massive printing of money simply delay the day of reckoning by creating another bubble. The economy goes from one bubble to the next, on an artificial high. Recovery from the Great Recession came not because of Obama’s stimulus package, but despite it: the economy had been showing early signs of recovery without the stimulus having yet taken effect.

The Affordable Health Care Act

My enthusiasm for Obamacare has cooled somewhat since the year it was signed into law (2010). It has provided coverage for millions of needy Americans, but the drawbacks have become rather pronounced. Premiums rose dramatically, and many people couldn’t afford health insurance, but were penalized if they didn’t take it. (As of 2019 that penalty was rightly dropped, no thanks to Obama.) The hundreds of billions of dollars spent on Obamacare has massively increased the federal budget. That’s just to name a few problems. It’s difficult to be objective about the AHCA. I’m still a yeasayer, but a very reserved one, and I don’t consider it the wonderfully great achievement I did back in 2010.


With the environment, at least, Obama was not George II. He wasted no time reversing what Bush did against the Endangered Species Act of 1973. On his way out the door, Bush had made it easier for federal agencies to skip consultations with scientists before making decisions that could endanger wildlife. Right after taking office, Obama restored this requirement. He did other good things, notably in 2015 rejecting the Keystone XL pipeline from Canada; a laudable rebuke of fossil fuel. He also advocated for the Paris Climate Agreement (which began in November 2016), the first global effort against carbon emissions.

3. Liberty

Obama’s liberty record is poor. As a senator, he had condemned the Patriot Act for violating the rights of American citizens, as it allowed warrantless searches on American citizens. Yet as president he signed a four-year renewal of the Patriot Act in 2011.

He flipped on mass surveillance too. In June 2013, it was revealed (thanks to Edward Snowden) that under the Obama administration, telephone communications records for millions of Americans were being collected indiscriminately and in bulk, regardless of whether people were suspected of any wrongdoing. Obama responded to the Snowden leaks by saying that while he originally had “a healthy skepticism” about the surveillance programs he inherited from Bush, he soon concluded that spying on people was necessary to prevent terrorist attacks.

Toward the end of his second term he signed the USA Freedom Act of 2015, which was a mixed bag. It ended the bulk collection of American’s telephone records and internet metadata, but also renewed parts of the Patriot Act.

Guantanamo and rendition centers

Obama cannot be faulted for failing on his promise to close Guantanamo. He tried, but Congress wouldn’t budge. He is certainly to be faulted for continuing Bush’s policies of indefinite detentions without trial, and watered-down kangaroo military commissions. He did however stop the use of torture and overseas detention centers run by the CIA, and deserves credit for that.

The drug war

Throughout my series, there are four presidents I penalize for the drug-war: Richard Nixon, for launching it; Ronald Reagan, for escalating it, and his zealous use of anti-drug propaganda; George H.W. Bush, for doubling federal spending to fight it, and building more prisons to accommodate it; and Barack Obama, for hardly lifting a finger to help his own tribe, as was expected from an African American president of the 21st century.

Aside from free speech, there is no right more fundamental than the right to peacefully shepherd the contents of our consciousnesses. Ruining the lives of nonviolent drug users by incarcerating them (and at great expense) is a serious Constitutional and moral failure. That we make room for these nonviolent drug users in prison by paroling murderers, rapists, and child molesters, heaps insult on the moral injury. And of course, those who suffer most from this injustice are African Americans.

Obama did little for blacks against the drug war, aside from increasing health spending for anti-drug efforts. In August 2016 he rejected the application of two governors (from Rhode Island and Washington) who asked the government to lower the federal restrictions on marijuana. This gave lie to Obama’s earlier promises that he would allow science, rather than drug-war ideology, to determine the legal status of marijuana. Over two whole terms he didn’t scale back the law enforcement side of the drug war one iota. There are still hundreds of thousands of arrests for marijuana alone each year, let alone for other drugs.


To his credit, Obama halted two policies that treated gays as second-class citizens. First, he got Congress to stop the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy in the military, and then ordered Justice Department lawyers to stop supporting the Defense of Marriage Act in courts.

Supreme Court Picks

Obama appointed two justices to the Supreme Court, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, both liberal progressives. Progressives tend to be a mixed bag on the Supreme Court. The judiciary, by its nature, is a conservative institution, designed to interpret and uphold laws already in place. Progressive justices have a track record of ruling as ideologues on particular issues, toward favorable change, but the place for that is the legislature. Kagan, however, has proven to be an excellent justice (currently the second best of the nine), while Sotomayor is easily the worst of the liberal justices (currently the second worst of the nine). The net result of the Kagan and Sotomayor appointments neither add to Obama’s liberty score, nor subtract from it, since they cancel each other out.


Barack Obama was a bad president, but unlike George W. Bush he wasn’t a complete failure. Here’s how I score him.

Peace. He repeated Bush’s foreign policy disasters as if he were trying to outdo him. Bush removed Saddam; Obama removed Mubarak and Gaddafi. The result was the same: Islamists/jihadists stepped in and made things worse. Bush used drone attacks; Obama increased the drones tenfold. Bush peddled Islam as a religion of peace; Obama carried the propaganda to irresponsible lengths, even ordering a purge of any mention of “Islam” from counter-terrorism training, blinding intelligence agencies to the cause of jihad terror. If Obama was this bad, he should by rights get a zero-peace score like Bush, but I throw him 3 points: 1 for killing Bin Laden and 2 for making the Iran-Nuclear agreement. They are hardly significant marks of merit. Killing Bin Laden was good, but Obama did nothing whatsoever to stop the covert war on terror after killing him. And the Iran-Nuclear agreement, while a peaceful solution, wasn’t ideal; it’s never ideal to negotiate with a terror-sponsored nation.

Prosperity. I scored Bush a 4 in this category; I give Obama 7. Both presidents used terrible bailout/stimulus relief strategies, and I hope we will never see their like again. They printed money to kingdom-almighty-come. Obama also needs serious downgrading for his complete failure to address the plight of the middle class, which is the main reason Donald Trump was elected. Weighed against these mega-failures, I upgrade Obama for the Affordable Health Care Act (despite increased reservations I have about it) and for his positive environmental achievements.

Liberty. Bush got zero, Obama gets 9. Bush had claimed the right to “disappear” citizens without the need for an arrest warrant, list of charges, trial, or access to a lawyer; like Lincoln, Bush suspended the writ of Habeas Corpus, which is a citizen’s right to challenge detention. Obama at least didn’t sink to these depths. He stopped torture overseas, and he made a couple of moves for gay rights. Against those positives stand his serious Bush-sins of detentions without trial, domestic spying, and warrantless searches. Another very serious failing is the drug war. That an African American president in the 21st century did virtually nothing for this cause weighs heavily against him.

Peace — 3/20
Prosperity — 7/20
Liberty — 9/20

TOTAL SCORE = 19/60 = Bad