The academy is in an even worse plight than you may imagine. Every so often, surveys reveal just how far America’s professors are out of touch with the political and cultural mainstream. Not only do they overwhelmingly register with the Democratic Party, but most adhere to the straitest sect within that tradition, those who regard Howard Dean and Ted Kennedy as drifting perilously toward right-wing reaction.
Lately, however, a group of American historians announced a consensus on the nation’s past that is genuinely disturbing. At the University of Louisville, the distinguished McConnell Center sponsors activities focusing on American politics and history. This past February, the center asked 90 practicing historians to nominate the worst blunders in the history of the American presidency. From the responses received, the center’s director compiled a list of the ten worst outrages, which historians were then asked to rank-order. The final list received national media attention as the considered verdict of academic historians on the presidential record.
Some of the entries should occasion no surprise, and any such list is likely to include Richard Nixon’s involvement in the Watergate cover-up and JFK’s Bay of Pigs invasion. But the two items heading the list are strange. The worst mistake of all, it seems, was James Buchanan’s failure to oppose secession in his last months in office, followed closely by Andrew Johnson’s decision after 1865—in the loaded words of the Associated Press report—“to side with Southern whites and oppose improvements in justice for Southern blacks beyond abolishing slavery.”
For very different reasons, both of these are baffling. Nobody would pretend that Buchanan was a great president, but seriously, what could he have done in the context of 1859 or 1860 to prevent a meltdown of the sort that actually occurred following Lincoln’s election? What were his options, apart from conceivably changing the Constitution to prevent the election of any party pledged to abolish slavery (and thereby driving New England into secession)? Andrew Jackson’s resolute threats to use force probably did prevent South Carolina seceding a generation before, but the world had changed dramatically since 1832, and the South’s perceptions of deadly potential danger were far more acute. Buchanan won this unenviable prize solely because the modern historians fault him for failing to act like a military dictator against a large section of his nation.
To assert that decision X was a dreadful blunder necessarily implies that the person making the judgment believes that a far superior alternative course could and should have been taken, and that the wisdom of that choice should have been evident to the “blunderer.” In that case, what do the modern historians think the U.S. government should have done in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War? Ranking Johnson’s irenic Reconstruction policies as so dreadful means that the collective wisdom of today’s academy sides wholeheartedly with radical Reconstruction. In the context of the 1860’s, this meant the near-total and continuing political exclusion of most white voters in the occupied states, the indefinite maintenance of military occupation, and the reduction of the South to colonial status—or perhaps worse, considering the near-genocidal policies floated by some Union commanders. Both Buchanan and Johnson are criticized for their failure to exercise brutal repression over those dreadful recalcitrant white Southerners—although such repression could not fail to provoke antigovernment insurgencies for decades to come and would have sustained an enduring cycle of military brutality, armed resistance, and outright race war.
Even with all the advantages of hindsight, I can think of few policies that presidents could have pursued that might have averted either the catastrophe of the Civil War or the racial injustices of subsequent decades. But I do know how things could have been made far worse—namely, by doing what a sizable cross-section of today’s historians think was the natural and morally correct thing to do. By choosing the top two entries in their list, modern scholars demonstrate a harrowing sympathy with extremely authoritarian government, whenever that is claiming to enforce progressive social goals.
Before condemning the blunders list for what it includes, just think of the incredible abundance of other options that were not even offered to those surveyed. Where are all the countless acts of self-destructive stupidity by admired liberal presidents, actions that would cause lasting harm to the American people? LBJ is included for escalating the Vietnam War but not for countless acts of corruption, influence peddling, and illegal surveillance, most far worse than anything attempted by Nixon. These presumably were not blunders because the media chose not to report them.
Franklin Roosevelt is another notable absentee, although he could, in theory, offer a top-ten list of blunders in his own sole right. Choice examples would include the Yalta agreement, the unwillingness to confront communist influence within his administration and the labor movement, the promotion of Henry Wallace, and the creation of a bureaucratic state and dirigiste economy that would take decades to dismantle. Why does Bill Clinton appear on the catalog of blunders for his personal sexual pastimes but not for the contemptuous disregard of intelligence and national security that would lead inexorably to the cataclysm of September 11, 2001? The only excuse for Jimmy Carter’s nonappearance as blunderer extraordinaire is that his presidency offers just too fertile a field for critics. Many would start with his taking the oath of office and work forward from there.
A significant number of American political historians have thus compiled a highly selective list of misdeeds and misfortunes—some dreadful, others pardonable. But their partisan blindness makes them unable to perceive some of the worst presidential blunders, crimes, and misdemeanors so high that they stink to heaven.