Ethics & Public Policy Center

A Presidential Pantheon


George Weigel

Distinguished Senior Fellow and William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies


 

GW: Let’s stay with the White House for a moment. How would you rate the twentieth-century American presidents in terms of foreign-policy accomplishment?

 

EA: That’s a difficult question, because to answer it, you really need to ask another question, i.e., how would things have been different if a different man had been there. If someone else had been president when World War II approached, or when we got into Lend-Lease, how would that have made things different? You’d have to ask the same question about the beginning and end of World War I, about the end of World War II, and about the beginning and end of the Cold War.

From a foreign-policy point of view, I suppose my two favorite presidents would be Truman and Reagan; then I’d have to say FDR. I don’t put Wilson up there, because, after all. World War I began in 1914, not 1917, when we got in; and we only got in when it became certain that we had to get in. Remember that Wilson ran for re-election in 1916 on the claim that he “kept us out of war,” a war that we entered a month and a half after his second inauguration.

 

GW: And President Charles Evans Hughes would have done exactly the same thing?

 

EA: I think so. If not that month, then a different month. But to continue on Wilson, there was also the end of the war and the beginning of the peace, and I think it’s fair to say that Wilson handled all of that very badly. I’m not suggesting that he’s responsible for World War II, but another president would have been unlikely to manage things as badly as he did. So Wilson doesn’t make my pantheon.

Truman does, because he grasped very quickly the need to combat Soviet expansionism. Reagan does, because he grasped the same hard reality when he took over, and because he won the Cold War at a moment when it had become winnable. A re-elected President Carter wouldn’t have seized that opportunity, I think.

I have very mixed feelings about Franklin Roosevelt as a foreign-policy president, for two reasons. The first has to do with the end of World War II and Yalta, and here there’s reason to believe that we could have started the Cold War on much better terms in eastern Europe (and in terms of our position vis-à-vis Stalin) than we did. Yalta also involves the question whether Roosevelt should have offered himself for a fourth term, given his awful medical condition. The second reason is one that is going to require some rewriting of the history books, and that is FDR’s remarkable indifference to the fate of six million Jews (not to mention certain other populations) in Europe. So, on the credit side, you’re left with Roosevelt’s clear understanding that World War II inevitably involved core American security interests, and his capacity to maneuver prior to December 7, 1941, which another president might not have had.

That leaves Theodore Roosevelt, who was not a wartime leader and so is somewhat harder to elevate into the pantheon of foreign-policy presidents. But what Teddy Roosevelt did do was to grasp, quite happily, the notion of America as a world power. And he did it in ways that showed a keen understanding of the various components of twentieth-century international leadership. That included great military power, and his rebuilding of the Navy certainly enhanced America’s world position. But Teddy Roosevelt also understood America’s moral leadership in the world, and it was his grasp of that that eventually won him the Nobel Peace Prize for his settlement of the Russo-Japanese War. Like Reagan, Teddy Roosevelt understood that American leadership had both a “physical” and a moral component.

I also think that Teddy Roosevelt had a very good understanding of modern nationalism as having both internal and external dimensions. The latter involved fighting, if necessary, for one’s interests; the former had to do with building a more modern, more just society. Contrast this, for example, with the Latin American view of nationalism, which has generally had no internal dimension, with the result that “nationalism” in Latin America has too often meant the search for external enemies.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.

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