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Historically Speaking

Historically Speaking: Eight Presidents to Study

By Tom Morrow

There are eight Presidents of the 20th century whom students of history should study to understand what made America the dominant global nation. Today’s young people, for the most part, pay little attention to history and take for granted America’s position in the world. It was no accident how we got here.

While today’s President Donald Trump is an easy target for his bombastic style, his isn’t that much different than Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt, the turn-of-the 20th century president who found himself in the Oval Office due to the assassination of President William McKinley.

Roosevelt, a Republican, believed in a strong Navy. He had the Navy’s “Great White Fleet” circle the globe to demonstrate the nation’s growing power. T.R. believed in his so-called “Big Stick” policy – “Walk softly but carry a big stick.”

Teddy oversaw the building of the Panama Canal, opening the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific, cutting in half the time needed to go from ocean to ocean without traveling around South America.

Roosevelt was placed in the vice presidency by the Republicans to get rid of him. As governor of New York, he had been such a thorn to old-guard politicians they wanted to put him where he couldn’t do any harm. It backfired. Once in the presidency, T.R. created havoc in both government and business with a vast variety of reforms, (sound familiar?) Among other monikers, he became known as the “Trust Buster.”

Admittedly, Woodrow Wilson was a significant president, primarily for his leadership in World War I and being the architect of the League of Nations, forerunner of the United Nations. But, Wilson’s impact on U.S. history pales in comparison to other 20th century chief executives. Still, he deserves a perusal in order to understand how the nation pulled itself into ‘20s and ‘30s isolationism.

Herbert Hoover is best remembered for supposedly being an ineffective, even a bad president. He was a complicated character, yet an important historical figure. Some 15 years after leaving office, he was asked by President Harry Truman to organized the feeding of millions of Europeans after World War II. Hoover was one of the richest, self-made men to sit in the White House. But his greatest accomplishment being a humanitarian before and after becoming president. He led America’s efforts to feed post-war Europe. While he gets the brunt of the blame for the Great Depression, the worst economic disaster in history. Truman pondered that “Mr. Hoover didn’t cause the Depression, it was created for him.”

Franklin D. Roosevelt has been called America’s greatest president. He served more than 12 years, guiding the nation through the dark years of the 1930s into five years of World War II. Dozens of books have been written on FDR, making his presidency the pivotal time of the century.

Harry S. Truman

However, probably one of the best presidents during the century arguably was Harry S. Truman. Known among detractors as “His Accidency,” Truman ascended to the presidency like T.R. Roosevelt. He was FDR’s vice president and when Roosevelt died a few weeks into his fourth term. Truman, who was the only high school graduate of the century to become president, moved into the Oval office.

FDR never confided in Truman about the atomic bomb. He was told about the $2 billion World War II project after assuming office. He had to make the decision to drop the two bombs on Japan, known as “Fat Man” and “Little Boy.” It was his most momentous, (and one of the century’s most important) decision. An estimated half-million U.S. troops and as many as 1.5 million Japanese were saved from death that would have occurred in assaulting the mainline of Japan.

With Truman, the so-called “Cold War” began and lasted for more than 40 years until Ronald Reagan built up American armed forces to the point it caused the Soviet Union to go broke trying to keep up.

Reagan was one of the nation’s most charismatic chief executives. Staunchly anti-Communist, Reagan dedicated himself to defeating the Soviet Union in order to end the Cold War that had existed since the end of World War II. Among his many accomplishments, causing the collapse of the Soviet Union. The world took a deep breath as the two super powers backed away from a nuclear war.

For those of you who have children or grandchildren who are bored with or lacking in history, you might suggest they read this column. It might help.


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