Home/Daniel Larison/Presidential Legacies and the Judgements of “History”

Presidential Legacies and the Judgements of “History”

Aaron David Miller thinks he knows how “history” will judge Obama’s foreign policy record:

Now it seems likely — though not absolutely certain — that his foreign policy will be remembered, at best, as one focused on maintaining the security of the homeland, getting out of two wars, and concentrating on fixing America’s broken house rather than trying to repair someone else’s. It might not be a terrible legacy, but it certainly won’t be a celebrated one [bold mine-DL]. That’s because history rewards those leaders who do not mark time with small things but use it to accomplish big things — ones that are great and enduring.

Miller is making a number of dubious assumptions here. The first and most important assumption is that “history” consistently hands down similar verdicts on all leaders that use their time in power “to accomplish big things.” There may be such a bias in very bad American presidential historiography, but we know from recent experience how significantly assessments of past presidential records can change depending on the period in which they’re being interpreted. Eisenhower left office with few major international accomplishments, but his reputation has benefited from recent revisionist accounts that give much higher marks to his foreign policy because he wisely avoided several potentially disastrous errors. On the other side, Truman ended his tenure as a failure and has since been grossly overrated by historians seeking to rehabilitate his reputation. (Bush loyalists continue to hang on to the slim hope that he will receive the same positive treatment in decades to come.) McKinley can be credited with having accomplished “big things” in the Spanish War, but in retrospect most Americans now would not consider it a success that he embarked the U.S. on half a century of overseas colonial rule. Despite being arguably one of the very worst presidents, Wilson continues to have a disturbing number of admirers and defenders.

Such judgements are liable to change as later historians with greater distance from events find new evidence or interpret the existing evidence in new ways. So there’s no way to know how “history” (i.e., contradictory interpretations offered by various historians) will “reward” this or any other administration at different points in time. It is possible that later historians with no personal experience of the Bush era will judge Obama more harshly than contemporaries do, or Obama might be succeeded by someone who presides over some major disaster that will make his tenure seem better than it was. All things considered, it is more likely that many of the things that provoke criticism from contemporaries will not receive nearly as much attention in later decades. For example, endless whining about lost American “credibility” will probably seem even more absurd ten or twenty years from now when it becomes clear that the U.S. lost nothing important by opting not to attack Syria. Because Syria’s civil war is not a “strategic disaster for the United States,” historians writing on this subject decades from now may be trying to understand why so many politicians and pundits were so convinced that the U.S. had to take part in the conflict. So who’s to say that “history won’t judge Obama kindly” on this? The truth is that we can’t know, and more to the point it shouldn’t really matter either way. If there are “compelling arguments against militarizing America’s role” in Syria, it shouldn’t concern us in the least whether or not later historians agree with those arguments.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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