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Jewish World Review Feb. 25, 2002 / 13 Adar, 5762

Michael Barone

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Power & the American Presidents

By accident more than design, American presidents have been forced to remake the world. Can George Bush finally fulfill the reluctant destiny of his predecessors? --
WHEN William McKinley was inaugurated in 1897, he didn't think that he had just become the leader of a world power. The United States had not fought a European adversary since 1815-over 80 years. Its Army and Navy were, by world standards, tiny. But every president since McKinley has faced a very different reality.

The world suddenly got smaller, and more dangerous. And like it or not, the United States would be forced to play a central role. Most of the 20th-century presidents had scant experience of foreign or military affairs. For the most part, they didn't go looking for trouble. But each acted on a fairly consistent vision of the future, and some wound up taking initiatives that changed the United States, and the world, for the better.

Today George W. Bush finds himself just the latest in a line of presidents who, mostly over the past 100 years, have used the power of the Oval Office to reshape the world. This special double issue of U.S. News examines the stewardship of those presidents. There were just two in the quiescent 19th century, James Madison and James Polk-Abraham Lincoln fought a horrific war, though it was contained within our borders. But in the past century, there have been 13 presidents faced with substantial foreign challenges, starting with Theodore Roosevelt, who moved into the White House on Sept. 14, 1901-almost a century before the attacks of September 11.

It has been a century in which American presidents have grown ever more powerful. Today, with 286 million people, America is the world's only great power but one vulnerable to attack by a new kind of enemy. Manifest Destiny led Americans from the Atlantic to the Pacific in the 19th century and then to all corners of the world in the 20th. Now our president and our people face new challenges and responsibilities. And questions of just how far we should go.

The first to see the United States as a world power was Theodore Roosevelt. He saw an America with burgeoning interests around the globe and, as president, he used his powers to pursue them. Despite his bellicose temperament, however, TR used subtle and skillful diplomacy to end and prevent wars among the great powers.

When war finally did come, in 1914, the president was not Roosevelt with his realpolitik approach but the idealistic Woodrow Wilson. He led the United States into the war in 1917 to make the world "safe for democracy" and pushed the victorious allies to make a peace that would end great-power politics. But his vision proved flawed. The Senate rejected his Versailles Treaty, and great-power politics continued.

The Republican presidents elected in the 1920s wanted to avoid commitment in Europe. Instead, they negotiated treaties that limited naval buildups and professed to outlaw war. Franklin Roosevelt in his early years was preoccupied with the Depression at home and paid little heed to foreign policy. But Roosevelt's vision changed. Listening to Hitler address a Nuremberg rally in 1938 (FDR was fluent in German), he was sure, as his aide Harry Hopkins recalled, that war with him was inevitable. Roosevelt began building up American military forces and made plans for the United States to become "the arsenal of democracy."

But even before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, in December 1941, FDR was thinking about reshaping the world. During the war, he laid plans for a United Nations organization, with a Security Council of great powers authorized to act against aggression. He dreamed of an America as the largest of a small number of great powers, able to dominate the others through some combination of strength, guile, and moral principle.

The postwar order did not comport with FDR's dreams, of course. In 1946, his successor, Harry Truman, met with Churchill, who declared that an "iron curtain" had fallen across Europe. In 1947, when Britain said it could no longer protect Greece and Turkey from the Soviets, Truman rallied congressional support for what he called the Truman Doctrine-that the United States would protect free nations anywhere in the world. By midcentury, the United States was one of only two great powers, locked in what John Kennedy called a "long, twilight struggle."

The end point was unclear. George Kennan, one of the architects of the Cold War, predicted in 1947 that the Soviet Union would eventually collapse if it met steady resistance-containment-when it sought to expand. The prediction proved true, but it would take more than four decades. The Cold War gave presidents great power-to decide on the use of nuclear weapons, to determine how and where to contain the Soviets, to command an enormous military apparatus. Truman's immediate successors, Dwight Eisenhower and John Kennedy, wielded that power with confidence that they could contain the Soviets without nuclear disaster and that history was on America's side.

Their successors, largely because of Vietnam, weren't so sure. In August 1963, Kennedy authorized a coup against South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem. That made the United States, though it had deployed few troops, responsible for South Vietnam. Lyndon Johnson's decision to dispatch large American forces in 1965 and 1966-rising eventually to more than 500,000-was effectively forced by Kennedy's decision. As his recently published tapes showed, Johnson believed his strategy would fail and that Vietnam would be lost; as early as June 1965, he said he didn't see any "plan for victory-militarily or diplomatically."

When Richard Nixon took office in 1969, America seemed in desperate straits. To many, the nation was on the losing side of history. The Soviets were building huge nuclear and conventional forces; their proxies were advancing in the Third World. The robust economic growth of the 1960s had turned into demoralizing stagflation. Nixon, the most realpolitik-minded president since Theodore Roosevelt, responded brilliantly. He sealed a peace agreement with the North Vietnamese in 1973. His historic opening to China, in 1972, pitted Beijing against Moscow. Nixon's power was shattered by the Watergate scandal. A Democratic Congress, dubious about the morality of American policy, hobbled Nixon and his successor, Gerald Ford, who could only look on as Saigon fell in 1975.

The weakness of the presidency continued under Jimmy Carter, who continued détente, sought more arms-control agreements, and decried Americans' "inordinate fear of communism." After the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, in December 1979, Carter replied with a major defense buildup. But when Iranians seized American diplomats in the Embassy in Tehran in November 1979, he responded mostly with plaintive appeals for their release and, when he finally did take military action, sent only eight helicopters in a desert raid that proved a debacle.

Ronald Reagan brought a very different vision to the presidency. Reagan was convinced America was on the winning side of history and that the United States could triumph over the Soviets. He vastly increased defense spending and called for a missile-defense shield-which would require expensive high-tech equipment that the Soviets realized they couldn't match. In 1983, Reagan predicted that communism would end up "on the ash heap of history." Four years later, in Berlin, he shouted, "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!" In November 1989, the wall came down. In December 1991, the Soviet Union ceased to exist.

How American power should be wielded has been the question before every president since Reagan. George H. W. Bush did not welcome change; he refused to turn against China after Tiananmen Square and opposed the breakup of the Soviet Union in July 1991. But he responded ably to challenges. When Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, he proclaimed, "This will not stand," and proceeded, despite vocal opposition in the United States, to build an international coalition and assemble a vast military force that drove Iraq out of Kuwait. Bill Clinton, at first uninterested in foreign affairs, sent American troops to Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo.

The results were mixed, but no one could accuse America of merely standing by. To George W. Bush, the great challenge to America became clear on September 11, and he has responded clearly. The outcome of that struggle, of course, is not yet clear. What is certain, however, is that an American president, if he has the will and determination, has the power to reshape the world in ways that Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan would have appreciated and understood in their bones.

Michael Barone Archives

JWR contributor Michael Barone is a columnist at U.S. News & World Report and the author of, most recently, "The New Americans." He also edits the biennial "Almanac of American Politics". Send your comments to him by clicking here.


©2002, Michael Barone