Blogs > Liberty and Power > FDR and the the S.S. St. Louis Tragedy

Jun 6, 2005 5:53 pm

FDR and the the S.S. St. Louis Tragedy

As the Liberty and Power/Cliopatria debate rages about the ten most harmful books in the twentieth century, it might be a good opportunity to consider the ten most harmful presidents.

Few presidents in American history better deserve that title than Franklin D. Roosevelt. His record in undermining civil liberties and economic well-being was unparalleled. His NRA threw people in jail for charging lower prices during a time of economic deprivation, and his AAA drove thousands of poor blacks from their land. He tried to pack the Supreme Court because it dared to question his policies. He did nothing to stop, and much to institutionalize, Jim Crow, lynching, and disfranchisement, interned tens of thousands of law-abiding American citizens merely because of race, and unleashed a "Brown Scare" against his critics.

Today marks the anniversary on of the one of the darkest episodes in Roosevelt's administration. On June 6, 1939, the S.S. St. Louis , carrying over 900 Jewish refugees, set sail back for Europe after Roosevelt not only turned down their pleas for sanctuary (he could have granted it with an executive order) but his underlings ordered the Coast Guard to prevent the ship from landing. It returned to Europe where many of the passengers eventually perished in the Holocaust.

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David T. Beito - 6/11/2005

Also....I think most historians agree that the Panic of 1837 was caused mainly by international conditions.

William J. Stepp - 6/11/2005

Van Buren didn't intervene in order to "cure" the Jackson depression of 1837, unlike Hoover and FDR.
The depression of 1837 was severe but not as severe as the Great Depression, nor did it last anywhere near as long.

Taft was a trust buster, but so were the other 20th century presidents at least to some extent.
Carter a great ex-president? No, he's still a peanut farmer. Take back his Nobel.

David Lion Salmanson - 6/8/2005

I can get best the Atomic bombs with Truman. They weren't worse then the firebombings of Dresden and Tokyo and by that point in the war, trageting innocents was pretty much standard operating procedure. I don't think Truman understood how nukes were different from conventional weapons and I don't think anybody went out of there way to explain it to him. I am ashamed to admit I would have done the exact same thing.

On Eisenhower - Along with a disasterous foreign policy (that encouraged revolts in Eastern Europe after calling containment immoral and then hung them out to dry, threatening nukes in China, overthrows of governments etc. etc.) it is hard to underestimate how crappy the Interstate Highway Act was. And to top it off, when he found out what was actually in the bill he signed he completely regretted it. He had no intention of funding highways in cities.

Van Buren paid the price for Jackson's Specie Circular and bank policies but the depression he was President during was as bad as Cleveland's or Hoover's if not worse. Disqualifies him in my book. He was, however, along with Washington, JQ Adams, and maybe Carter, one of the great ex-Presidents. Cleveland term 1 I'll take. Term two, however, blech. Taft - don't forget his trust busting, promoting economic competition is a good thing.

I've always been pursuaded by the argument (most closely associated with Dallek) that Roosevelt's F. P. was largely constrained by Congress in the first two terms.

William J. Stepp - 6/7/2005

I forgot about Chet Arthur. Move that man up near the top! He also had some larceny in his heart, which is exactly what you want in your prexy.
("I am not a crook.") Oh yes you were, but you were our crook.

On Ike: I know lots of people have a soft spot in their heart for him, the golf thing and all; but he did a lot to expand the power of the national security state (the national therapeutic state too); overthrew governments in Iran and Guatemala, with horrible consequences; sent Federal troops into Little Rock; backed the Whiggish building of the national highway system; and other bad things too numerous to mention.

David Timothy Beito - 6/7/2005

I doubt that Long could have won any election though had he lived he might have done well enough to throw the election to Landon in 1936.

It should be remembered that FDR contibuted greatly to the international crisis of the 1930s by his protectionist and financial policies. For example, he rebuffed Hull's advice to ease up on tariffs and war debts at the London economic conference in 1933. Of course, it might have been too late by then.

I don't think that either Davis or Calhoun were particularly friendly to small government. Both supported a rigorous use of federal power (Davis was a Whig after all) to hunt down fugitive slaves and create a pro-slavery buffer zone in the territories, as far as I know, wanted to throw out or limit personal liberty laws adopted by Northern states.

Truman was good on civil rights but, IMHO, the mass slaughter of thousands of innocents with the Atomic Bombs was probably the worst presidential "crime" in American history.

A list? Well let me try. It is pretty similar to William's.

1. Van Buren (in some ways, however, his shining moments were after he left office as the candidate of the free soil party).

2. Cleveland: perhaps he should be first. He resisted the statist tide in 1890s and, most admirably, refused to annex Hawaii though it was offered on a silver platter or join the war cry to "free Cuba."

3. Harding. His policies were excellent compared to Wilson and also he seems to have been a modest man who recognized his limitations. He wasn't a bad speaker either.

4. J.Q. Adams. All of us agree on him. He kept us out of war! despite tremendous pressure.

5. Coolidge

6. Chester Arthur. Didn't do any appreciable harm and pretty honest. A snappy dresser too.

7. Taft. He was a progressive but he had respect for the rule of law which he would enforce even to his own detriment.

8. Jeffererson (first term only). I am not a big Jefferson fan either (and he dropped the ball on slavery more times than I can count) but what are the other choices?

9. Washington. He knew when it was best for everyone concerned that he step aside. He also freed all his slaves in his will. Come to think of it. He may deserve a higher place on the list.

10. Eisenhower. Not a glory seeker but a man of strong common sense. His farewell address is probably the best. If only he had followed his own advice!

David Lion Salmanson - 6/7/2005

What's your standard for best? Perfection? There are no good Presidents because anybody who would take the job endorses federal power? Ergo John C. Calhoun is the best President ever? Really now. If you are going to pick a best President's list you have to at least assume that a) the union is a good idea (otherwise Jeff Davis is number 1 right?) and b) promoting US national interests broadly or narrowly defined but some sort of national interest is part of the job description. If your just going to argue that the Executive branch of the Constitution was a mistake then you don't get to make a list.

My best.

Washington - set the standard and most importantly stepped down after two terms

Lincoln - kept the union together and yes he did a lot of bad stuff; there are no saints in this job only sinners

J. Q. Adams - screwed by Jackson and a fickle populace

Truman - Civil Rights and Containment.

F. D. Roosevelt - because a) the other options that were realistic (Long) were worse and b) the Germans and Japanese really were threats. Probably served one term too long.

William J. Stepp - 6/7/2005

Harding has to be eliminated from contention because he didn't serve a full term.

William J. Stepp - 6/7/2005

Re: Washington, I'm very conflicted here, because he did bring in Hamilton, the precursor and first architect of central monetary planning.
So maybe GW shouldn't be on the list.

William J. Stepp - 6/7/2005

Ten best? I've thought about it, but admit to being flummoxed.
Here's a lame attempt:

(N.B., all candidates had to serve at least one full term.)

1. Van Buren (a nod to Rothbard/Hummel);
2. Cleveland (but he did some bad stuff, like the ICC);
3. Harding, perhaps the most underrated president, and Malcolm Gladwell has him completely wrong in _Blink_;
4. Coolidge, but tends to be overrated by some conservatives, and he did a lot of bad stuff, like the Radio Act of 1927, in addition to being a traditional GOP protectionist;
5. Washington, for the Neutrality Act of 1794 (which was violated by the highly overrated Jefferson, who will never make this libertarian's list of great anythings) and his Farewell Address, but he did advocate a standing army;

Wow, I've got to think more here. Taft? J. and J.Q. Adams, for their foreign policy? True, they had mercantilist streaks--what president didn't?--, but they weren't as bad as some libertarians make them out to be. Frankly, I like J. Adams a lot more than TJ, and his son a lot more than Jackson and the Jeffersonian Republicans and warmongers Madison and Monroe.

I'll let you complete the list or change mine to suit your tastes.

David Timothy Beito - 6/7/2005

McKinley? Interesting choice. I can buy that. George Bush I should certainly be considered a strong contender (taxes betrayal, ADA, Iraq).

What about the ten best presidents?

William J. Stepp - 6/6/2005

My list:

1. Wilson
2. Lincoln
3. FDR
(2-3 could easily be reversed)
4. Truman
5. Nixon
6. LBJ
(5-6 could be reversed)
7. Hoover
8. TR
9. McKinley
10. Andrew Jackson

Bush II obviously is a contender.

William Marina - 6/6/2005

Per capita, Cuba under Batista, took in more Jewish refugees than any other nation. Perhaps this was due in part to his own mixed blood background. Coming from a Spanish heritage, one of Castro's gripes was that Cuba was dominated by foreign, and not just US, capital. The great suger entrepreneurs, Julio & Jacobo Lobo (translation, Julius & Jake Wolf) the latter of whom was the God Father to a Cuban I was married to for almost a decade, and a Yale man with a seat on the NYSE, were anathma to such ultra nationalists.

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