5 Best Ex-Presidents

Some Presidents enjoy history-changing terms of office and find themselves elevated to the Pantheon of greatness. Other Chief Executives, however, do as much (and sometimes more) once they leave office as they ever did in power. Here, then, for your Friday History List enjoyment, are the top five ex-presidents:

5. Herbert Hoover – With his presidency devastated (along with the nation) by the Great Depression, a personally repudiated Herbert Hoover was trounced by Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the 1932 election. Because his image was so tarnished, Hoover largely stayed out of the public eye in the 1930s, resurfacing in 1941 to speak out against American entry into the Second World War, and a possible alliance with the Soviet Union against Germany (he correctly foresaw that helping the Russians defeat Hitler would give them control of much of Europe). After the war, President Truman sent Hoover to Germany to assess its need for economic relief and the state of U.S. occupation; one of Hoover’s innovations was a school meals program for German children Hooverspeisung (Hoover meals). His Hoover Commissions in the years 1947-1949 and 1953-1955, promoted efficiency in the United States Government. The author of over a dozen books, he oversaw the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, a public policy think-tank that had been created in 1919, and did much fund-raising for the Boys Clubs (now the Boys & Girls Clubs of America).

Herbert Hoover

4. Thomas Jefferson – After having served two terms as president, in 1809 Thomas Jefferson retired to Monticello, his plantation in Virginia. Continuing in the spirit of his “Renaissance man” personality, Jefferson studied the classics, worked as an architect, and was a prolific writer of letters, most notably to his former rival John Adams. For many of these years he was occupied with the creation of the University of Virginia, doing most of the architectural design himself. He served as president of the American Philosophical Society from 1797 to 1815.

Thomas Jefferson

3. John Quincy Adams – Defeated overwhelmingly by Andrew Jackson in 1828, career public servant John Quincy Adams reentered the arena almost immediately, becoming in 1830 the only U.S. president to be elected to the House of Representatives after leaving office. He would faithfully serve in Congress, first as a National Republican and later as a Whig, until his death 17 years later. In the House, he was often the lonely antislavery voice, using parliamentary devices to bring up the subject in spite of the Gag Rule. In 1841, he successfully defended the rebellious slaves of the Spanish slave ship Amistad before the Supreme Court of the United States (Amistad is a great movie, by the way, you should see it). Adams did the work pro bono.

John Quincy Adams

2. Bill Clinton – President Clinton has remained active in both party politics and world affairs since leaving office in 2001. A popular public speaker in Democratic circles, Clinton has also published two books, My Life (autobiography) and Giving: How Each of Us Can Change the World. His William J. Clinton Foundation promotes and provides for a number of humanitarian causes, such as HIV/AIDS programs and the Clinton Foundation Climate Change Initiative; it also funds the Clinton Global Initiative (global public health, poverty alleviation and religious and ethnic conflict). Clinton has traveled to Kazakhstan to help securing mining contracts and to North Korea to negotiate the release of American journalists.

Bill Clinton

1. Jimmy Carter – Defeated by Ronald Reagan in 1980 after what many have considered to be one of the worst presidencies of the 20th century, Carter immediately got to work. In 1982, he established the Carter Center in Atlanta, to advance human rights and promote democracy by mediating conflicts, and monitoring the electoral process in support of free and fair elections. It also works to improve global health through the control and eradication of diseases, to diminish the stigma against mental illnesses and to improve nutrition through increased crop production in Africa. Carter has traveled the world since his electoral defeat, meeting with world leaders and sometimes negotiating agreements in support of world peace. In 2002 he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts. The author of over two dozen books, he is also well-known for his work with Habitat for Humanity.

Jimmy Carter

Top Ten Decisive Battles in Western Civilization

Today’s Friday History List examines the ten most decisive battles in the history of Western Civilization. These are battles that, by their outcomes, changed the course of events in a very dramatic way. They are listed chronologically:

202 B.C. – Zama. The Romans, commanded by Scipio, routed Hannibal and drove him from the field. Carthage was removed as a rival to Rome in the Western Mediterranean, and Rome became the dominate power in Europe. This in turn ensured that western Europe would become subject to heavy Latin and Greek influences.

312 A.D. – Milvian Bridge. Constantine, having seen a vision of victory (“in hoc signo vinces“), defeats Maxentius‘ armies to become the master of first the Western Roman Empire, and eventually all of it. Fulfilling a pre-battle vow, he converts to Christianity, taking all of the Empire with him.  At the Council of Nicea, Constantine assigns blame for Christ’s death to the Jews, and he makes Christianity the predominate religion of his empire. Much of Europe’s future has just been written.

451 – Châlons. Attila the Hun is defeated by a combined Roman/Visigoth force, preventing him from dominating Western Europe. Into the vacuum steps Germanic culture and the Catholic Church, expressed by papal power in Rome.

732 – Tours. Muslim invaders, intent on spreading the religion of Mohammed, enjoyed unchecked success as they expanded their influence from India to Spain. At Tours, Frankish leader Charles Martel defeated a Muslim force commanded by Abd er-Rahman, ending the Muslim threat to Western Europe, establishing the Franks as dominate in Gaul and preparing the scene for Charlemagne.

1588 – Spanish Armada. The Spanish, fueled by precious metals stripped from the Americas, achieved military and political hegemony in the 16th century. When England left the Catholic Church under Henry VIII, the Spanish became their sworn enemies; when English pirates began raiding Spanish galleons, threatening Spain’s financial windfall, the situation took on a new sense of urgency. In 1588, the Spanish, aided by the French, intended to invade England and forcibly reconvert the population. Stormy seas and a plucky English navy caused the destruction of almost half of the Spanish vessels and England not only survived, but rose to become the preeminent naval power in the world. With the Spanish badly weakened, the English decided to move rapidly into the colony business. England’s time had arrived.

1776 – Trenton. In the fall of 1776, it looked like the American Revolution had failed. George Washington’s dwindling army seemed on the verge of disintegration, and the British relaxed for the winter, intending on finishing off whatever remained of the rebellion in the spring. Rather than watch his army die, Washington led a surprise attack on his enemy’s forward position in Trenton, New Jersey on Christmas night, 1776. What resulted was a stunning victory over Hessian mercenaries that changed the direction of the war and set the stage for the eventual ejection of the English from their American colonies.

1813 – Leipzig. Napoleon, his army greatly weakened by losses the previous year during the Russian campaign, faced for the first time a combined allied army. At Leipzig Napoleon is defeated and forced to retreat to France; he will abdicate the next year, effectively ending his influence and dramatically shifting the balance of power in Europe.

1864 – Atlanta. The summer of 1864 was the North’s darkest hour, as the bright hopes of springtime campaigns had been ground away to dark disappointment. U.S. Grant’s battles against Robert E. Lee in Virginia had been enormously bloody (over 50,000 new Union casualties) with no end yet in sight. In the South, William Tecumseh Sherman’s army sat outside of Atlanta with little hope of breaking its own deadlock. To the public, and more particularly to prospective voters that year, it looked as if Mr. Lincoln’s war might never end. Confederate President Jefferson Davis did the Union a favor that summer as he replaced the defensive-minded Joseph Johnston with the reckless John Bell Hood. Within weeks Hood had taken massive casualties and was eventually compelled to give up Atlanta. The Union victory there gave the electorate in the North the optimism they needed to reelect Abraham Lincoln, which doomed any Southern hopes for victory. At Atlanta, both the Confederacy and American slavery died forever.

1914 – 1st Marne. One of the reasons Germany welcomed the start of the First World War was their absolute faith in the Von Schlieffen Plan, which they expected to result in the fall of France in no more than six weeks. (Don’t forget that the last time Germany and France fought, in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, the Germans had won a resounding victory.) In August of 1914, in spite of tough resistance from the Belgians and a combined British-French defense, all was on schedule. What the Von Schlieffen Plan didn’t take into account though, was the logistical nightmare of trying to keep rapidly moving troops adequately supplied in a day when most ammunition and provisions were still carried in horse-pulled wagons. Losing confidence, German Chief of Staff Moltke changed the plan in mid-stream and exposed his army to attack. This the French did at the 1st Battle of the Marne. By the first week of September, the German Army had been halted, and both armies began to dig trenches in a line that would eventually extend to the North Sea. A war of rapid movement had suddenly become a nightmare in the trenches.

1940 – Dunkirk. At the end of May 1940, it was clear that the Nazis would conquer France; all that was left to be decided was whether the 400,000 British and French survivors could be evacuated to England, where the fight might go on. If the Germans could have entrapped and destroyed those troops, the Second World War might have ended that spring, as Britain would have had little but the Home Guard with which to defend their island. The evacuation, called Operation Dynamo, was aided by German hesitation and the heroic efforts of those on the thousands of boats that helped in the rescue. In addition, the RAF inflicted serious losses on the Luftwaffe as it harassed the troops on the beach. By the time the effort was called off on June 4, 338,000 men had been taken out of France and the Germans had lost 240 aircraft. Hitler would eventually realize that he could never have England, instead, he turned his attention to the Soviet Union – with disastrous consequences.

Lessons Learned Since Those Heady Days After the Wall Fell

In 1989, I was the proud father of my first child, a son. It was also the year my wife and I bought our first house. And that year, I, along with much of America, watched the fall of the Berlin Wall on television. That’s also where I heard about the execution of Nicolae and Elena Ceauşescu, and the arrest of Erich Honecker. For me, it was like seeing Allied soldiers shaking hands at the Elbe River.  The Cold War was over, and we won.

Later the next year, my mother gave me a small cardboard box. Inside the box was a tiny chip of concrete, which the box claimed had been part of the Berlin Wall. I doubted the authenticity of the “relic” almost immediately, but I cherished it anyway. Not because of its monetary value, or even its supposed historic significance. I kept that box because to me it represented the day we gave communism the final beatdown it had so long deserved. For me, a child of the Cold War who had grown up with Third World War nightmare scenarios, that box represented the day the good guys won, and the oppressed people of Europe took back their countries. The box didn’t hold a fragment of dusty concrete; it held the self-righteous vindication of my entire worldview.

Of course, I was a lot more idealistic in 1989. (To give you a sense of my naiveté, it hadn’t even occurred to me that nature didn’t make humans with the body types of Jose Canseco and Mark McGuire.)  I can distinctly remember thinking that the people who had lived behind the Iron Curtain were going to join us in repudiating their pasts and that before too long, the entire industrialized world would be (relatively) friendly bastions of pro-Western capitalism and democracy. I assumed that Cuba would fall to revolution within weeks and that China couldn’t stand alone forever. Once China had “converted,” of course, their North Korean dependents would beg their cousins in the South to reunify. Vietnam would finally come to its senses, demonstrating that we had known what was best for them all along. President George H.W. Bush spoke of a “New World Order.” At the time, there was little doubt which nation would be directing this “New World Order.” In my view, the new boss had arrived.

As it turned out, Communism hung tough in a few small pockets of the globe, and one really big pocket. The euphoria of the young democracy protesters in Tiananmen Square, with their cardboard Statue of Liberty and willingness to stand before tanks, couldn’t bring freedom to China. Tyranny dies hard, I suppose. Russia’s path to democracy has been filled with stops and starts, and some there remember the old Soviet Union with a whitewashed fondness, because those were the days when Russians felt powerful. Rather than being our democratic partners, the Russians have opted to be the loyal opposition. So have the reunified Germany and France, for that matter. Cuba continues to poke a stick at us from across the Straits of Florida and Vietnam hasn’t admitted to the error of its ways.

November of 1989 seems like so long ago now. The United States, knowing what was best for everyone else, tried to direct the “New World Order,” with mixed results. Nowadays, I wonder whether world leadership is really worth all of the grief. I suspect many others wonder, too. I guess people just don’t like to be led, even if it is by the “good guys.” But, you know what? I am the father of teenagers, so, I understand. I didn’t understand much in 1989, but in 2009, I understand more. Maybe not a lot, but more than I did then.

Oh, Sweet Irony, Thou Art A Hard Mistress

Irish rockers U2 will play a free concert at the Brandenburg Gate tonight in Berlin, celebrating the 20th anniversary of the destruction of the Berlin Wall.  The show is part of MTV’s European Music Awards and is expected to draw a walk-up crowd of about 100,000.  Organizers, however, have decided that capitalism can’t survive in an atmosphere where large numbers of people can get to see the show for free. Their response? Sheer genius.

The Berlin Wall was constructed beginning in 1961 to protect communism by keeping East Germans in their place – and away from a clear view of freedom. Now, somehow oblivious to the irony, U2 concert promoters have ordered a 12-foot wall erected to protect capitalism by keeping non-ticket holders in their place – away from a clear view of the band.

So now, we have a large wall separating the people of Berlin from a show that is celebrating the destruction of a large wall separating the people of Berlin.

Perfect.

Maybe 20 years from now, the surviving members of U2 can be wheeled onto a stage in Berlin to celebrate the destruction of that wall, too. If you want to see that show, though, you’d better make sure you get there early to get a ticket, just to be on the safe side.

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