To the shores of Tripoli

America’s current military involvement in Libya is not its first. American adventurism abroad gained a foothold during the Jefferson administration when American shipping interests in the Mediterranean were being harassed by pirates from the Barbary States. After Independence, the U.S. had been paying protection money to the various Barbary States. In 1801, the pasha of Tripoli declared war when Jefferson wouldn’t meet the new demand of a one-time payment of $225,000 plus an annual payment of $25,000 a year. Although America’s navy was small at the time, Jefferson sent a contingent of ships with Marines who forced the pasha to reconsider his approach to the fledgling country’s naval vessels.


From the halls of Montezuma

I had never fully understood what those words in the Marine Corps song really meant, until I read A Glorious Defeat: Mexico and Its War with the United States.

After a fitful start to the Mexican War, American soldiers ended up occupying Mexico City, in the heart of the country. Interestingly, the Mexican government, then re-located 100 miles north,  pondered their options. One idea was to arm the peasants and begin a guerilla war. However, the elites thought so little of that idea, that an idea to surrender the entire country for annexation by the U.S. carried more weight.

The war ended with California, most of Arizona and all of New Mexico going to the U.S., along with the southern border of Texas being settled in America’s favor. The war also served gave combat experience to the generals on both sides of the Civil War.

Harry Truman was the first American president to visit Mexico City since the occupation in 1847. He laid a wreath at the monument to Los Ninos Heroes, 6 teenage cadets who had died defending Chapultepec Castle. As one Mexican engineer said at the time, “One hundred years of misunderstanding and bitterness wiped out by one man in one minute. This is the best neighbor policy.”

Why we still have troops in Korea

With the current budget issues and the extension of our forces around the world, it’s easy to wonder why we don’t pull forces from Germany and South Korea.  After all, those wars were fought more than half a century ago.

It’s also easy to look at the Korean War from the rear view mirror, with Vietnam in between. The Korean War can be seen as the start of a questionable pursuit of the domino theory…American forces can’t fight every war.

However, it’s useful to look at the American context in June 1950, when the North Korean forces launched their attack to forcibly reunite the countries.

The last American forces had pulled out of South Korea a few months before, having been there since WWII. In fact, the artificial boundary of the 38th parallel had been determined the delineation for the surrender of Japanese forces in Korea. Those south would surrender to the U.S., those north to the U.S.S.R.

Only 9 months before, China had fallen to the Communists. The month before that had been the revelation that the Soviet Union now had nukes. Stalin’s blockade of Berlin had ended in May 1949, due to the success of the airlift. So the Soviets were clearly pushing the cause of Communism anywhere they could.

The fear of Communism was exacerbated by domestic politics. In February of 1950, Sen. Joseph McArthy began waving his supposed list of 205 Communists in the State Department.

So in light of all of that, it’s not surprising that American response to the North Korean invasion was swift and determined. Given the 1950 invasion was initiated by Kim Il Sung, the father of North Korea’s current leader, Kim Jong Il, it’s not a huge surprise we still have soldiers there.

(Related anecdote…while deployed in West Germany in 1990 during my stint in the Army, I came across a sergeant who had recently returned from duty along the DMZ. He had pictures of dead North Korean soldiers from a firefight along the border. Apparently, it was not unheard of for firefights to break out between patrols on opposing sides. I’m not sure if that’s still the case, but it’s possible. I don’t have similar stories from serving on the East-West German border, but there certainly were tensions between patrols on both sides.)

The un-elected one-termer

“‘Tom, you did not hear that.’

“I was speechless – literally. That wasn’t what he wanted to hear.

“Ford walked around his desk and confronted me directly, fact-to-face. I got an unobstructed view of his blue eyes; they weren’t friendly.

“Towering above his quarry, he gently grabbed my tie and said in a firm tone o voice, ‘Tom, you are not leaving this room until we have an understanding'”

So begins the unusual presidential biography, Write It When I’m Gone.  In the spring of 1974, Thomas DeFrank, covering the vice-presidential beat for Newsweek, had gotten Gerald Ford to inadvertently acknowledge he was likely to be the next president. At that point, Ford couldn’t let the young reporter leave the room with that scoop – it would have played further havoc with the national politics of that year.

The book is an unlikely view into the thoughts and opinions of a former president. Sometime after Ford’s presidency, DeFrank leveraged his relationship with Ford to have more off-the-record conversations that could be published upon Ford’s passing.

It’s remarkable, in that presidential memoirs tend toward spin or selective memory. However, DeFrank’s book reveals a very candid side of a former president. For instance, Ford reveals his dislike of Reagan was almost as strong as his dislike of Carter. (Reagan had posed a primary challenge in ’76, giving Carter some ammo during the general campaign. In 1980, Reagan had considered making Ford his veep candidate, until Ford’s list of demands was too much.)

The book, of course covers Ford’s pardon of Nixon. Ford was convinced the nation couldn’t move forward without it.

President Gerald Ford with his dog, Liberty. Photo by David Hume Kennerly.

The book is interesting for its backstory on Watergate, as well as the subsequent fallout. Interestingly, Ford reveals that Donald Rumsfeld (and perhaps Dick Cheney) had talked Ford into dumping his vice-president, Nelson Rockefeller, from the ’76 ticket in favor of Bob Dole. The move was designed to appease the ultraconservatives, and Ford later regretted it. “I’m embarrassed that I didn’t tell the right-wingers that Rockefeller had done a good job and would be a good vice president for a four-year period.”

Ford also reveals his opinions on the political maneuvers and calculations of George H.W. Bush, Bill and Hillary Clinton, and George W. Bush. None of it is terribly surprising, only that a former politician was ever as unguarded as Ford was.

While not a comprehensive biography of the country’s 38th president, it’s definitely worth the read for a behind-the-scenes look at presidential politics in the 70s and beyond.

Today marks the 37th anniversary of Nixon’s resignation. 

The intentional one-termer

In the early part of this project, I wondered what would happen if a presidential candidate campaigned on running for one term. What if they said, “Here’s what I will do in four years, and after that, I will step down.”

It seemed a reach. If a person is ambitious enough to do what it takes to get elected, then they would not easily be dissuaded from staying in office at least two terms. Sometimes four.

Then I read James K.  Polk’s bio. He said from the beginning his presidency would last only four years. His goals were:

  • Change the tariff
  • Settle the status of Oregon with England
  • Obtain California
  • Bring Texas into the Union

Ambitious goals even for a 2-termer. Three of the goals would easily double the size of the United States, and economic policy never pleases all of the regional interests.

Polk got a boost from predecessor John Tyler, who signed a bill saying that while he wasn’t admitting Texas into the Union, it was a decision that was the prerogative of the president to do so. Within weeks of taking office, Polk exercised that prerogative, without worrying about Constitutional authorization.

The dispute of the southern boundary of Texas triggered a war with Mexico, with the result of the U.S. taking California.

In the meantime, Polk was able to work out a deal on Oregon’s borders, settling for something less than 54°40′ or fight.

Unfortunately for Polk, he caught cholera during his victory lap, dying within 11 months of leaving office.

The intentional one-term platform worked in the 19th century. Given today’s media cycle, however, I don’t think it would. Once an intentional one-termer was elected, the horse race for the next president would begin.

Happy birthday, Mr. President

Love him or hate him, Obama turns 50 today.

Obama is not our youngest president (he was 47 at inauguration). That honor goes not to JFK (then 43), but to Teddy Roosevelt, who was 42 when he was inaugurated.

Why I started this project

Before I started reading biographies of all the American presidents, I had an interest in history. Born in 1969, I had a good working knowledge of presidents from Nixon to Obama. I also knew the basics of Washington, Lincoln, and FDR. However, I wanted to get more thorough understanding of American history…why and how we got to where we are, and what threads have run through our history.

So my goal was to read at least one biography of each president. I figured the impact and complexities of Washington, Lincoln, and FDR might warrant reading 3 different bios on each of them.

I was curious to see each president’s agenda upon taking office, and what domestic and world events changed those agendas. We naturally think of the presidency as an executive role, but in a democracy, the executive doesn’t always get to dictate the results. How did those in the nation’s highest office build consensus to achieve parts of their agendas, and how did they adapt their agendas based off the changing environment?

One aspect I hadn’t counted on is that the bios reinforce the learning of each other. Reading Adams’ bio naturally references Washington to set the stage and Jefferson as a contrast to Adams’ administration. That has been a great way to retain the things I’ve learned.

Generally, I’ve tried to read them in order, based on availability from the public library. However, I did read a JFK bio while spending 2 weeks in Boston. I also read a John Tyler bio while spending a couple of weeks in Richmond, Virginia. Seeing the lay of the land, even if overlaid with decades of development, can help complete the picture of the environment in which each one lived.

Another thing I’ve learned is that the ability to attain the nation’s highest office does not necessarily impart the skills to be a good president. Unfortunately, the way politics has played out, our country’s progress has stalled under mediocre presidents (Franklin Pearce), and even been set back under the bad ones (Buchanan).

Presidential politics are like a box of chocolates…you never know what you’re gonna get. (Even some nuts sometimes.)