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Thursday, February 17, 2011

A Peacetime President

I remember George Bush frequently referring to himself as a wartime president. The point being that he had hard decisions to make. He was a serious president. He could not be held accountable for what he did. He was above it all; he was a wartime president. I understand that we have never voted a president out of office with soldiers in a combat zone. Although, LBJ would have been the first had he run. When Plutarch chose to write about a great Roman leader he identified Numa Pompilius. Of him, Plutarch wrote:
[The] temple at Rome has two gates, which they call the gates of war, because they stand open in the time of war, and shut in the times of peace; of which latter there was very seldom a . . . But, during the reign of Numa, those gates were never seen open a single day, but continued constantly shut for a space of forty-three years together; such an entire and universal cessation of war existed. For not only had the people of Rome itself been softened and charmed into a peaceful temper by the just and mild rule of a pacific prince, but even the neighbouring cities . . . began to experience a change of feeling, and partook in the general longing for the sweets of peace and order, and for life employed in the quiet tillage of soil, bringing up of children, and worship of the gods.
I love the phrase pacific prince and will try to remember it for a brief some time.

My question: Who is our pacific prince? Who is the greatest American peacetime president, and behind how many wartime presidents does he rank? And, I guess, why is this so?

4 comments:

shadowfax said...

Fun!

I would have to exclude Washington, who was president in peacetime, but having been a general brought a similar ethos. Also, it's just not fair to include him in any presidential comparison. Also, I'll exclude Jefferson and Madison on the same basis.

Jackson I would consider, but wasn't he really associated with the Indian wars?

Candidates that jump to mind:

Teddy Roosevelt
FDR 1933-1941
Ike
Reagan
Clinton

I'm ambivalent about the inclusion of the "Cold Warriors." There may not have been shooting wars going on, but there were international hostilities which allowed them to inhabit the presidency and wield its clout almost as if there were an actual war.

I have to confess ignorance about the actual presidencies of most of the 19th century peacetime guys. Seriously, what the hell went on during the Pierce administration? Was he an effective president? I dunno. I am reasonably informed about the eras in question (quite familiar with the 1870-1900) but the presidency does not seem to loom as large as other economic and social forces back then.

JimII said...

My thought was that we more highly rate wartime presidents in our country. Hence, I totally agree with you about Washington and Jackson. Splitting out FDR is interesting. If there had been no WWII and FDR had "only" guided the country out of the Great Depression, where would his stature have been? It is hard to know.

Clinton and Reagan are good examples of presidents that cultivated economic growth but did not lead the country during time of war. I suspect there are some presidents we forget who are in the same boat.

sr123 said...

I've been disturbed at the bias in historical rankings toward wartime presidents, for every obvious reason, so I'm glad you post this. Guided somewhat by the Wikipedia's ranking aggregate, the architects of peaceful foreign policy are biased toward the first presidents: Adams who successfully fended off war with France and Britain, Monroe's namesake doctrine, and JQA's diplomacy (but all while Sec. of State).

But discounting the first 10 architects of the country, I think our clear peace-policy winner would be Grover Cleveland, and of course both Roosevelts. Cleveland's major contribution was his firm stance against American imperialism, with the Roosevelts' being the recognition of the government's role in business ethics. I can't speak for presidents post-WW2, since our foreign policy drastically changed in terms of what "peacetime" means for the U.S., but Reagan and Clinton (and Carter and H.Bush) did their share, probably unavoidably, of proliferating war in policing it.

As you point out, the most disturbing trend in the rankings is that every war seems to beget greatness in the sitting president instead of them being independent, war and peace presidential terms should probably be categorized separately.

Anonymous said...

I would find this question to be irrelevent. If you look closely at history, you'll find that every president has had to send troops to a small little war that occurred. ex. banana wars in early 1900's-1930's and indian wars