A paper correlating the popularity of president’s with war deaths was put together by David Henderson and Zachary Gouchenour. It poses the interesting question: Does war create great presidents?
The variables on the “Y” axis come from a C-Span summary of historians who ranked presidents for their greatness. The higher the number then the greater the president. The “X” axis is war deaths per capita. On the far right, most of the presidents are bunched in a straight line, as these were the non-war presidents. Jefferson, Monroe and Jackson top the list with the majority at the bottom.
The problem is this. In determining the greatness of a president, war and its outcome is considered one of the factors. Thus, a successful war boosts a president’s ratings and vice versa. This chart is trying to draw a conclusion by weighing the same facts twice, both in greatness and deaths. Still, it remains helpful. Wars are crises, just like economic downturns and natural disasters. They are the biggest crises because in many cases the survival of a nation depends on the outcome. That explains why the bloodest wars, like the Civil War and World War II are ranked so high. People surrendered their lives to save the nation. Both were won so Lincoln and FDR get the credit.
Henderson and Gouchenour do make an important point in their report. Non-war presidents are short changed.
Most presidents, after all, probably want to be thought of as great. When they spend resources on war, they are spending almost entirely other peoples money and lives. They get little credit for avoiding war. Martin Van Buren, for example, effectively avoided a war on the northern border of the United States. How many people know that today? Indeed, how many people have even heard of Martin Van Buren?
Woodrow Wilson, by contrast, inserted the United States into World War I. That was a war that the United States could easily have avoided. Moreover, had the U.S. government avoided World War I, the treaty that ended the war would not likely have been so lopsided. The Versailles Treaty’s punitive terms on Germany, as Keynes predicted in 1919, helped set the stage for World War II. So it is reasonable to think that had the United States not entered World War I, there might not have been a World War II. Yet, despite his major blunder and more likely, because of his major blunder, which caused over 100,000 Americans to die in World War I, Wilson is often thought of as a great president.
That is the problem, but it applies to more than war. A president who successfully avoids an economic downturn, negotiates foreign diplomacy without disasters or placates the competing political factions in Congress and the country gets little credit. This is the Calvin Coolidge syndrome or “everything is going fine, so you didn’t have to do anything.” These presidents end up as exciting as warm milk. Yet in Coolidge’s case, he was a president for the six year leading up to the Great Depression, which Hoover gets the blame, despite only being in office for six months himself.
My hunch is that making the variables relate to economics might show many of the same trends. Plug in any variables of measurement for greatness and many of the same people are going to rise to the top. Most presidents like Lincoln or the Roosevelts accomplished greatness across many levels. Buchanan, on the other hand, was a failure in most everything. It is rare for a president like Lyndon Johnson or Nixon to have successes in civil rights legislation or international diplomacy but fail miserably in war.
That is the true measure of what is happening here. Great presidents are great in many ways. Failed presidents achieve failure on many fronts.