“If the Nuremberg laws were applied, then every post-war American president would have been hanged,” said Noam Chomsky prior to the last few presidencies, none of which is likely to have changed his analysis.
But what if you applied such principles retroactively back to George Washington and every U.S. president since? What if you graded presidents, not on personality or style or popularity, but on how many deaths they caused or prevented?
Al Carroll’s new book is called Presidents’ Body Counts: The Twelve Worst and Four Best American Presidents: Based on How Many Lived or Died Because of Their Actions.
I think this is a model for how history ought to be examined, despite serious flaws. Carroll’s project may ultimately be impossible. How do you score presidents on the areas of criminal enterprise they opened up for their successors? Could you have really had a Nixon without a Truman? Carroll is aware of these difficulties, and also of the overarching lesson that giving single individuals such royal powers as presidents have been given inevitably leads to disaster. But I think he still falls short.
Carroll attempts to step outside his own biases and look at the facts. But how does one include sins of omission? How does one score numbers of deaths across centuries, given dramatic growth in populations? And what about the deaths that Carroll happens to approve of? He gives Lincoln and FDR credit for the Civil War and World War II while marking all other presidents down for their wars (although marking FDR down for certain atrocities during his war); he has swallowed the humanitarian war advocates’ mythology about Bosnia; and he omits dozens of smaller military operations from any mention at all. And Carroll’s current day partisanship seems to be showing as he credits Obama with ending wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, despite the fact that the war in Afghanistan has not been ended and the war in Iraq, which Obama was forced to end, he has now found a way of restarting.
I said this book was a model, not the ultimate achievement of the genre. Carroll is of course right to denounce historians who examine “leadership” and “presidential caliber” as little better than celebrity tabloid writers. And his book, whether one agrees with his selections and rankings, makes illuminating reading that would benefit any classroom. Simplistic, it is not. Much of each section is devoted to who else gets the blame for particular horrors. To pretend that in blaming a president for something Carroll has asserted that nobody else is to blame for it would require cutting out a large percentage of the book. Carroll also devotes space to what plausibly could have been done by each president rather than what that president did.
Our airports, cities, and states are named for butchers, Carroll writes, and correcting that does not require that we get the butchers into the perfect ranking. Yet, for what it’s worth, here is Carroll’s ranking of the worst of the worst, beginning with the very worst of them all: Nixon, Reagan, Jackson, Buchanan, Polk, Filmore, Clinton, Ford, Truman, McKinley, Bush II, Andrew Johnson. And here’s his ranking of the best, beginning with number 1: Lincoln, Van Buren, Carter, Grant. Carroll includes positive deeds by Nixon, and negative deeds by Carter, etc. But this is where he comes out.