In this interview with Al Carroll, author of President’s Body Counts: The Twelve Worst and Four Best American Presidents Based on How Many Lived or Died Because of Their Actions, US presidents are reviewed on a wholly new basis.
Presidential histories and analysis of accomplishments and failures come in myriad forms, but no one has looked at the presidency quite the way historian and professor Al Carroll does in his new book, President’s Body Counts: The Twelve Worst and Four Best American Presidents Based on How Many Lived or Died Because of Their Actions. In his introduction, “How to Judge a President, or the Presidency if Human Life Matters,” Carroll, a professor of American, American Indian and Latin American history, sets up the unique premise of the book:
The methodology used in this book is simple: Did a president commit actions that knowingly led directly to the deaths of innocents? If yes, then that president belongs in a category for the degree of evil they carried out, the number of mass deaths. The categories are ranked in order of how many were killed as a result and how culpable a president is for these deaths, from outright genocide to the smaller numbers of deaths that occur during periods of mass incarceration of dissidents. Each president within that category is further ranked by the number of deaths, the most prolific killers at the top.
Each section begins with a definition of the category. This is followed by several brief summaries of the facts before going into a detailed discussion:
What: A quick summary of the atrocities done.
The Body Count: How many deaths, based on the best credible estimates.
Who Also Gets the Blame: Discussion of who besides the president is guilty of causing these atrocities, or who is often blamed.
[In two later sections,] “The Good Records of Presidents” and “What If? Who Would Have Been Far Better at Saving Lives as President?,” the summaries are only a slightly bit different:
What: A quick summary of the events likely to lead to many lives saved.
The Number of Lives Saved: The most credible estimates, generally based on the events that presidents could have avoided.
Who Also Gets the Credit: Others, public officials, leaders, or social movements, that also played a part in saving many lives.
Presidents are listed in order of the worst of all first, in terms of numbers of atrocities and degree of blame and evil.
Truthout recently spoke with Al Carroll about the book.
Peter Handel: What caused you to take what could be termed a rather unusual approach to presidential history?
Al Carroll: Presidents are routinely ranked every year, and it’s often partisan. The Federalist Society even named [George W.] Bush the sixth greatest president of all time, during the worst of the Iraq War. Too many of these rankings are simple-minded, “Let’s cheer for our side or point of view.”
We need both an objective way to rank and an imminently practical one. Who lived better as a result of these men’s actions? Better yet, who lived or died because of them?
A key perspective you write from is how the concept of genocide is defined. Could you briefly elaborate on how you frame the definition and its subsequent manifestations?
Genocide was a term coined by Raphael Lemkin right after the Holocaust. What was important to me is that the reader see how governments and leaders try to avoid using it because admitting genocide is going on in places like Darfur requires them to take action to stop it. Many Americans are also reluctant or were never taught that genocide has happened here, in America, and was worst of all in California. There were also some presidents that ignored genocides, as recently as Clinton ignoring Rwandan genocide.
Which president’s actions do you consider the most egregious?
Nixon was the worst by far for what he did in Cambodia, what many argue was outright genocide. He ordered the carpet bombing and invasion of a neutral nation for no other reason than to convince conservatives he was still tough on communism. Half a million were killed, including 50,000 executions.
Nixon also ignored genocide against Bangladesh, continued a program of mass torture far worse than GW Bush’s, ordered chemical warfare in Vietnam, and pardoned a mass murderer of women and children, Lieutenant Calley at My Lai.
Reagan was a close second for collaborating with genocide in Guatemala. But he did not initiate it as Nixon did in Cambodia.
We’ve had 43 different presidents – how many do you discuss in the book?
The 12 worst presidents: Nixon, Reagan, Jackson, Buchanan, Polk, Fillmore, Clinton, Ford, Truman, McKinley, GW Bush and Andrew Johnson. The four best: Lincoln, Van Buren, Carter and Grant.
Plus five more that carried out both great evil and great good: Jefferson, FDR, Lyndon Johnson, Bush Sr. and Obama.
There are some surprises in that supposed greats like Washington were stable presences at best. But how many people can name anything Washington did besides being first? Several presidents deserve dishonorable mention, including Teddy Roosevelt, Wilson and Eisenhower.
You also delve into numerous candidates, wannabe candidates and various politicians such as Ross Perot, Sarah Palin, Mitt Romney and Dick Cheney. How do they fit into your overall analysis of the various presidents?
It’s important that people see and think about how things may have been different based on the choices of who we vote for. Had McCain been elected, he likely would not have lived through his whole term and we would all have to deal with President Palin. There was a failed assassination attempt on GW Bush that could have given us President Cheney. Either one would have given us a longer Iraq War and likely a war with Iran.
While war is probably responsible for the highest “body counts,” you also cite numerous other instances of lives lost due to presidential actions, such as the ongoing war on drugs and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Can you explain?
How many died because of the failed war on drugs is hard to say. But we can point to times when it was a literal war. Panama was invaded by Bush Sr. as part of the drug war, killing perhaps 3,000. In Colombia, in part, chemical warfare: spraying herbicides to kill coca and marijuana that don’t work because they can be easily washed off. But the chemical does poison farmers, water supplies and food crops. Many don’t realize that the drone program under Obama also includes assassinations in Colombia.
Most of the deaths in Katrina were preventable. The clearest example of that is Hurricane Sandy, with less than one-tenth the deaths though the area had a higher population.
In Section Nine, “What Ifs? Who would have been far better as presidents?” you speculate on numerous alternative scenarios involving, for instance, no invasion of Iraq by an Al Gore presidency or what Robert Kennedy might have done about the escalation of the war in Vietnam. Can you give us a few more examples of these “What ifs?”
RFK publicly called for complete withdrawal from Vietnam. He would have had to do so before the 1970 midterm elections for his party to do well. This means 20,000 or more US troops do not die and at least half of a million Vietnamese don’t either. Even better, RFK would never have ordered genocide against Cambodia as Nixon did.
Gore would not have called for invading Iraq, but would have invaded Afghanistan. A focus on just Afghanistan means it is likely Bin Laden could have been caught much sooner.
Who are some of the presidents you consider “better” – ones who chose a less violent and destructive ideological approach to potential genocidal situations they faced?
Lincoln is widely regarded as our best president and I agree, but for different reasons. More important than keeping the US united is ending slavery. Slaves had a mortality rate double that of free people. Every year, slavery continued to kill at least tens of thousands of black children.
Most are unaware that Lincoln also helped bring an end to California Indian genocide. Most Americans don’t even know there was a genocide in California, where the Native [American] population was mass murdered or enslaved, dropping from 180-300,000 to just 30,000 in 15 years. Lincoln ended California Indian slavery as well as black slavery.
Finally, defeating the Confederacy prevented them from their planned invasions of Mexico, Cuba and the Dominican Republic to create more slave states. The Confederacy also planned to bring back the slave trade, banned in the US since 1808. That’s hundreds of thousands more lives saved.
Jimmy Carter also is a great humanitarian president. His human rights policy saved at least 50,000 dissidents and helped bring democracy to two-dozen nations. He also rescued over 100,000 refugees from communism, helped end the Cold War sooner, and prevented wars in the Mideast with the Camp David treaty.