#29: Warren G Harding: The nation's most boring presidency

It's been a very long time. I've learned that although going from no kids to 1 kid takes most of your free time going from 1 kid to 2 kids takes the rest.

Anyhow; I'm back at it and intend on plowing through the rest of the 20th century on this presidential biography project over the next year or two. Over the last many months I've been reading the biography on Warren Harding on and off and have finally finished it.

I'm now past the gilded age lull in presidents and will be hitting really interesting stuff soon; we're just at the very infancy of the roaring twenties - Harding served from 1921 to 1923. America is now one of the greater political and economic powers of the world (although much less so than after World War II), we'll be coming up to the stock market crash in a few years, the dust bowl, the great depression, the radical movements of the 1930's and World War II to just name a few things that are around the corner.

For now though, we have Warren G Harding.

I don't know if Harding was boring or if it was just the author that was boring, but this was one of the most unreadable biographies I've read. I think it took me a year to read it and it was quite and exercise in self control to keep picking it back up. He was very popular when he was alive but he was vilified after his death for many minor and some major scandals that his cabinet were involved in.

As a person, I don't think he was thought of as boring; he was considered very good looking for his time, he loved wine women and song, was a scratch golfer and he had a famous long term affair that resulted in a child out of wedlock. It just seemed like he didn't really take any strong stand one way or another on much of anything or at least didn't have time to before he died unexpectedly in office.

I will do my best to keep my blog posts more interesting.


Woodrow Wilson: The Unitary Executive

During an interview, George W. Bush's Attorney General once was asked if it would be legal for the President to give an order to crush a young boy's testicles in the case of a terrorist scare. He responded by saying it depended on why the President felt he had to do that. This idea that something that would normally be illegal being legal if the President does it is known as the unitary executive theory.

This extreme view of the executive prerogative had its origin in Wilson and some of his immediate predecessors. In the period immediately prior to Wilson and TR, the President was considered weaker than congress. Presidential power waxed and waned after them but has been in expansion mode for the last two decades.

Wilson expanded the role of government in people's lives and crushed dissent through the Alien and Sedition act. This prevented what the government viewed as un-patriotic speech and disclosure of any government secrets. Prosecution under this law could mean anything from jail to a decades long prison sentence to execution.

Wilson lobbied congress to get the United States involved in World War I and eventually got his wish. The issue for him was that the war was extremely unpopular among some segments of the population.

German American communities were infiltrated by government spies and people that spoke out against the government were jailed. In addition, other political movements like socialism were given the same treatment. Criticism of the government was no longer covered under Freedom of Speech during war times.

The alien and sedition act is still on the books to this day and has been used to prosecute Chelsea Manning and charge Edward Snowden. This act has of course been selectively applied. It seems the Obama administration for a long time was leaking "top secret" info on  all the drone strikes it carried out while David Petraeus will likely get little more than a slap on the wrist for giving his mistress access to top secret military information to write a biography about him. The theme seems to be that dissent or embarrassing revelations are punished with extreme prejudice while pro-government disclosures are allowed to slide.

I can't credit Wilson with getting us to where we are now in terms of governance by executive decree, but I can certainly say he played a role and was one of the founding fathers of the unitary executive theory.


Woodrow Wilson: Iraq III

Humans have extremely short memories when it comes to history. If we remembered the circumstances of how many of the countries in the middle east were created, we might be less willing to fight wars to protect those "nations".

The exploding situation in Iraq is now capturing everyone's attention and our President and Congress are trying to figure out what we can do to keep Iraq from tearing apart.

The large city of Mosul was over run by the terrorist group ISIS, former elements of Saddam Hussein's regime and Sunni tribes that are supporting them. The majority Sunni population more or less didn't put up too much resistance and at least as of now appears to not be suffering as much as their Shiite neighbors.

The Shiites of the city had another fate. Many of the ones that were working for the so called Iraqi national army simply left their weapons and abandoned their posts for more Shiite dominated areas. Many of the general population that stayed were slaughtered or chased out.

Meanwhile, as the majority Shiite national army fled Kirkuk, the better armed Kurds moved in to control and defend the majority Kurd city which they feel has belonged to their people and greater Kurdistan all along.

In Shiite areas of Bagdad and the areas of Iraq closer to the Iran border, the Sunnis are being slaughtered and forced to flee.

All of these circumstances show that the vast majority of people in Iraq view democracy as a relationship between conquerors and the conquered.

Into this situation our government is for whatever reason trying to send in troops (or advisors) to simply protect the status quo and keep the area from descending into chaos. The problem with that is that chaos and warfare are what the people over there want. If the majority of the people viewed themselves as Iraqis and not tribesmen that belong to one religion or another, then many of these things would not be happening.

Whether we like it or not, part of Iraq is really part of Kurdistan, part of it really is part of Iran and part of it should belong to a greater Arabian Sunni state. We should also ask ourselves if it even makes sense to insist that they fight for a nation they don't even identify with.

You might ask yourself what any of this has to do with Woodrow Wilson and I can certainly understand that.

Woodrow Wilson wanted to form the League of Nations to stop "aggressive wars". France and Britain needing America's economic and military support in World War I adopted  much of his high minded rhetoric about fighting wars for democracy, freedom etc. and not simply to get stuff or force others to submit to a more powerful nation's will as they've always been fought for.

The problem with all that was that France and Britain had a secret agreement to divide up the middle east after the conclusion of the war. They couldn't do this before only for the reason that the Ottoman Empire existed before the war and kept them out of the region. With the death of the Ottoman Empire, they were free to divide up the middle east just as they had done with Africa and parts of Asia before.

It was in their interest to be required to mediate conflicts and decide winners and losers, so they formed nations and protectorates made of multiple peoples that never had much to do with each other in the past.

None of this is to excuse any of the brutality in the middle east and the general casual attitude they seem to take towards killing each other, but it shows that there is at least a connection with history and a lesson that should have been learned.

There is no reason why many of these countries in the middle east should even exist in their current form and we should not intervene if they want to re-draw the borders whether by force or agreement.  

The vast majority of people in Wilson's day would have only cared about keeping a business like relationship with the peoples over there and would not have minded if they bought oil from the Sunni's, Shia, or Kurds and never would have dreamed of getting involved in their inter-tribal conflicts. Perhaps there is some wisdom in that.

For a much more eloquent description of World War I and the middle east, visit dancarlin.com and listen to his Common Sense podcast titled "Riding Chaos to Stasis".


#28: Woodrow Wilson

Last week, I touched on the idea of internationalism or the idea that America should be involved militarily in other nation's affairs is not a settled debate even though many of today's history books and both political parties present it that way. In a way, I can't blame the author for this viewpoint since he wrote this book in 2003, at the height of the terror scare.

Since World War II and the start of the Cold War, most modern historians or politicians have presented the America First crowd as being a bunch of rubes or luddites. You'd almost think that the tendency of Americans to not want to commit blood and treasure to un-neccesary wars was an early 20th century phenomenon if you listen to many of the politicians from either party. The actual history of American's views on foreign involvement is much more complex than that.

America was founded by men largely weary of the constant state of warfare in Europe. In the treaties and war powers agreements that were common there, they saw a countries constantly having to commit to military conflicts which were not in there interest and subject to the whims of their allies. In some cases, these alliances would discourage war as they were supposed to, however in other circumstances, it would actually encourage it by giving a weaker nation the means to pull a stronger nation into war.

This led to many legendary arguments over whether to create alliances with France or Britain and whether to accept foreign help in the Indian wars as America expanded West.

The idea that we should be involved in our neighbors affairs (largely to keep Europe out of North America) became a commonly held idea with the Monroe Doctrine.

The strict isolationism except in cases of our direct interest started to decline with the many democratic revolutions in the Americas (should America automatically offer aide to democratic rebels or should we intervene only in our direct interest). It further declined with Teddy Roosevelt pushing the country into the Spanish War and some of our first pacific territories.

It was revived slightly with the immigration booms of the late 19th and early 20th century and the voices for non-involvement in World War I during Wilson's day.

We know the rest of the story. World War II and the Cold War immediately after made it "impossible" for us to not get into hundreds of conflicts around the world as well as many more soft power exercises where we'd help with the overthrow of various governments that weren't friendly to the United States.

However, isolationism is back in style and should be taken a little more seriously.
The USSR is dead and Russia is a shadow of the threat that it once was even if it can roll over its neighbors (which up until 25 years or so ago were part of its territory). China is on the upswing and will excersise more influence in its region of the world. This is an immutable fact and there is nothing that we can do about it.

Americans are weary of being involved in endless engagements in Afghanistan and recently Iraq which had no well defined explanation of what victory even was. Luckily, isolationism prevailed when the president and many in congress were pushing the idea of getting involved militarily in the Syrian religious civil war.

Hopefully isolation continues to prevail and we can focus on defense on the war on terror rather than foreign monsters to destroy as Adams liked to say. The gimmick of calling someone an "isolationist" because they don't want to be involved in other countries civil wars will continue to fade in time.