Daniel W. Drezner

The best and worst of the best and worst list of foreign policy presidents

I’ve whored mingled enough with the magazine world to understand that publishing "best/worst" lists are fun and engaging.  Some choices will be universally acknowledged, others will provoke controversy and debate, and so forth.  Lists are always going to engage the readers.  It’s almost impossible to get them wrong.  I bring this up because The Atlantic‘s ...

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

I've whored mingled enough with the magazine world to understand that publishing "best/worst" lists are fun and engaging.  Some choices will be universally acknowledged, others will provoke controversy and debate, and so forth.  Lists are always going to engage the readers.  It's almost impossible to get them wrong. 

I bring this up because The Atlantic's list of the best and worst foreign policy presidents of the past century is really, really wrong. 

Democracy Arsenal's Michael Cohen cobbled together the list.  Here are his criteria: 

I’ve whored mingled enough with the magazine world to understand that publishing "best/worst" lists are fun and engaging.  Some choices will be universally acknowledged, others will provoke controversy and debate, and so forth.  Lists are always going to engage the readers.  It’s almost impossible to get them wrong. 

I bring this up because The Atlantic‘s list of the best and worst foreign policy presidents of the past century is really, really wrong. 

Democracy Arsenal’s Michael Cohen cobbled together the list.  Here are his criteria: 

After reaching out to host of historians, foreign policy experts, academics and various think tankers here’s one stab at answering a question which, in many respects, has no right answer. How you choose the best and worst foreign policy President depends in large measure on what values inform your vision of what a good foreign policy looks like. If you’re a foreign policy idealist, Wilson would seem pretty good; a foreign policy realist; you might cast a vote for George H.W Bush or even Richard Nixon. If you prefer your presidents to talk tough, Harry Truman might be your man; if you prefer a more modest and less partisan figure, Dwight Eisenhower might float your boat.

As my list suggests, I tend to lean toward the more restrained, pragmatic realists who are suspicious about the use of force. Conversely, I’m more wary of not only the idealistic and ideologically driven presidents, but also those who use foreign policy, most destructively, as a tool of domestic politics.

OK, fair enough.  Here’s his list: 

The Five Best Presidents:  1) FDR; 2) Dwight Eisenhower; 3) George H.W. Bush; 4) Ronald Reagan; 5) John F. Kennedy

The Five Worst Presidents:  1) LBJ; 2) Jimmy Carter; 3) Woodrow Wilson; 4) Harry Truman; 5) Richard Nixon. 

I’ll let Tom Ricks rebut the JFK assessment on his own blog.  I’ll let my readers make other objections — and there are many ones to make — with most of he list.  My problem is with the assessment of Harry Truman as, somehow, one of the five worst foreign policy presidents of the last century. 

Here’s Cohen’s explanation — let’s do this by paragraph, shall we? 

Harry Truman has in the nearly 50 years since he left the White House grown significantly in the estimation of both the public and many historians. To be sure, he deserves enormous credit for protecting and stabilizing Western Europe with the Marshall Plan and the creation of NATO. These are signal achievements but as historians from Robert Dallek and Walter Lafeber to Fredrik Logevall have suggested there is a pretty significant downside to Truman’s presidency as well.

One must stop here or a second and admire Cohen’s ability to glom most of Truman’s foreign policy accomplishments into a single sentence.  That takes some doing.  One could have at least noted that in the span of five years Truman and his foreign  policy advisors created pragmatic institutions that not only withstood the Cold War but prospered even after it ended.  Nope, nothing on that point.  That takes some serious doing. 

OK, let’s move onto Truman’s alleged defects:  

First there was Korea. An impulsive response to a cross-border attack that re-shaped American foreign policy. It was the final nail in the coffin of the more modest containment strategy proposed by George Kennan and by default enshrined the notion that the US had a responsibility to contain Communism wherever it showed its fangs.  But while the decision to go to war can be considered a debatable one; the failure in rein in Douglas MacArthur’s push to the Yalu River, which triggered a Chinese intervention is a disaster that can’t be washed away (even by Truman’s later decision to fire the general). Considering that more than 20 million North Koreans continue to live in terrible hardship today because of that decision only compounds the mistake (emphasis added).

Why yes, that’s so true.  Had Truman not decided to respond in force in Korea, there wouldn’t be 20 million North Koreans living in terrible hardship — there would be at least 60 million Koreans living in terrible hardship. 

Seriously, this line of reasoning makes no sense to me.  I understand but strongly disagree with the logic that intervening in Korea was a mistake.  I understand and kinda agree with the contention that crossing the 38th parallel was exceedingly costly in terms of blood and treasure.  I simply can’t understand, however, the argument that had the U.S. not made that push, North Korea would have evolved differently.  Would Kim-Il Sung have abandoned juche if MacArthur hadn’t tried for the Yalu? 

Speaking of MacArthur, you can’t acknowledge Truman’s failure to rein him in without also acknowledging that by firing MacArthur, Truman cemented civilian control over the military just as the size of the U.S. military was reaching a new high. 

Onward!!

Beyond Korea, the Truman Doctrine and its declaration that it was the "policy of the United States to support free people who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures" laid the groundwork for the limitless definition of US national interests that unfolded over the next 60 years. As Kennan would later note, it was one thing to contain Communism in Europe (a goal on which Truman succeeded). It was quite another to broaden that goal to the rest of the world. There is, as a result, a straight line between Truman’s foreign policy choices and the war in Vietnam.

Right, this is why Eisenhower felt compelled to intervene in Vietnam during Dien Bien Phu — oh, wait, as Cohen points out in his Eisenhower write-up, he did the exact opposite of that.  I don’t buy straight-line arguments that take two decades to play out.   

Then there was Truman’s use of anti-Communist rhetoric for political advantage that turned what might have been a balance of power, geo-political clash into an ideological one. This, of course, also helped to politicize the Cold War in the United States and heightened the issue of anti-Communism. Indeed, few Presidents more flagrantly used foreign policy as a political punching bag as frequently as Truman.

I’d be more charitable towards this point if Cohen hadn’t also said that Eisenhower "used Cold War fears to push for national highway system and more money for higher education, two smart national security investments."  When is using foreign policy fears at home good and when is it bad, exactly?  Based on Cohen’s list, I can’t tell. 

Finally, ask yourself a counter-factual: how would the Cold War have unfolded if FDR had lived out his fourth term, rather than having the inexperienced Truman become the leader of the Free World? It’s not hard to imagine that the tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union, so deftly handled by FDR during WWII, would have been minimized and a less militarist and dangerous conflict might have emerged. At the very least, as Robert Dallek points out even if superpower, ideological conflict between the US and Soviet Union was inevitable, Truman never really sought to find an alternative (emphasis added).

Again, I’m not sure what to make of this.  First, Cohen acknowledged that FDR "sold out the Eastern Europe countries at Yalta."  Does he believe that FDR would have somehow been able to repulse Stalin in Iran, Greece, Turkey and elsewhere without a Cold War — or do those countries not matter? 

Second, if the bipolar distribution of power made superpower conflict inevitable, why exactly should Truman be blamed for not dickering around with alternatives that would have crashed and burned?  According to this logic, Truman is one of the five worst foreign policy presidents of the last century because he failed to pursue unfeasible options.  I’m sorry, but clearly I don’t get it. 

In his blog post explaining the list, Cohen acknowledges that: 

I’m probably far too generous to John F. Kennedy, who makes the best list, and far too harsh to Richard Nixon, who makes the worst list. This is a pretty fair critique and if I had my druthers I’d put both men somewhere in the middle, but the need for editorial symmetry was too strong!

Fair enough — but I’m sorry, listing Harry Truman as one of the five-worst foreign policy presidents is absurd. 

Am, I missing anything? 

Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at Tufts University’s Fletcher School. He blogged regularly for Foreign Policy from 2009 to 2014. Twitter: @dandrezner

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