When presidents of the United States are ranked from best to worse, they’re generally judged on subjective things like leadership, charisma, etc. and the lists end up merely being a popularity contest, often based on the politics of the person doing the ranking. George Washington is often listed as one of the best presidents, not because he did anything particularly noteworthy while president, but simply because he was the first.
In his book, Presidents’ Body Counts: The Twelve Worst and Four Best American Presidents Based on How Many Lived or Died, Al Carroll ranks presidents instead by who caused the most deaths or saved the most lives, which, in my opinion, is the only way presidents should be ranked.
The book was written during Obama’s presidency, so our most recent presidents aren’t discussed. The book is arranged into sections, covering topics such as genocide, wartime atrocities, chemical warfare, etc. This arrangement means the book jumps back and forth in time. I would have preferred the book be arranged in chronological order. This would have cut down on some repetition and also would have made it easier to follow. He also assumes his readers are familiar with historical events that not everybody is familiar with.
According to Carroll, the twelve worst presidents are Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Andrew Jackson, James Buchanan, James K. Polk, Millard Fillmore, Bill Clinton, Gerald Ford, Harry S Truman, William McKinley, George W. Bush, and Andrew Johnson. The four best presidents are Abraham Lincoln, Martin Van Buren, Jimmy Carter, and Ulysses S. Grant.
Based on body count, the worst president in US history was Richard Nixon. In order to appear tough during the Vietnam War, Nixon repeatedly ordered carpet bombing against Cambodia, followed by a US invasion, even though Cambodia was a neutral nation.
The bombings were often random with no military target. Lyndon Johnson started bombing Cambodia in 1965, although he didn’t target civilians as Nixon did. More bombs were dropped on Cambodia than during all of World War II. Whether you want to call it genocide or a war crime, Nixon is the worst mass murderer in US history. 500,000 to 600,000 were directly killed by Americans between 1969 to 1973, including 50,000 to 60,000 prisoners of war who were executed.
Nixon claimed his actions killed North Vietnamese troops, but this action didn’t weaken them. In fact, it lengthened the Vietnam War. Nixon’s actions also caused the Khmer Rouge to come to power. The Khmer Rouge went on to kill between 1 to 1.7 million Cambodians and they committed these atrocities with financial support from Nixon. (Ford, Carter, and Reagan also supported the Khmer Rouge financially. Under Reagan, the US government paid the Khmer Rouge $85 million and supported them in public and in the UN assembly. The US provided satellite intelligence and military planning and fed 40,000 Khmer Rouge troops, all to get back at Vietnam for defeating the US military.)
When Bangladesh tried to become independent, Nixon supported the dictatorship in Pakistan. He provided weapons to Pakistan and sent a nuclear-equipped aircraft carrier to keep India from helping Bangladesh. India’s ally, the USSR, sent their own nuclear vessels in response, so a nuclear war was a possibility. Between 300,000 to 3 million Bangladeshis died. Nixon couldn’t have prevented all those deaths, but he could have prevented some of them (maybe a tenth) by not providing weapons.
Between 1973 to 1990, over half a million Kurds were killed by Iraq. Nixon initially supported the Kurds, then betrayed them. 3,000 were killed as a result. Ford, Carter, Reagan, and George H. W. Bush all supported first Al Bakr and later Saddam Hussein knowing his human rights record. Although, George H. W. Bush did stop supporting Hussein after the invasion of Kuwait. Reagan gave loans and subsidies and military helicopters and weapons to Iraq, provided intelligence, and the US Navy even escorted Iraqi oil tankers, sank Iranian boats and shot down Iranian planes. Reagan even approved $1.5 billion in biological agents and equipment used to make anthrax and botulism.
In 1968, 504 civilians were murdered in the My Lai Massacre in Vietnam, almost all of them were women, children, and the elderly. Many were mutilated and raped. Only one soldier was convicted of the massacre and Nixon pardoned him. At least 14 US Army officers either took part in the massacre or covered it up. Future Secretary of State Colin Powell was among them.
Nixon’s Operation Condor supported the assassinations of dissidents by dictators in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Uruguay, and Paraguay. There was also a plot to assassinate then-congressman future-NYC-mayor Ed Koch and murders inside the US like Orlando Letelier in Washington DC. 36,000 to 60,000 dead.
Ford continued Operation Condor, Carter ended it, and Reagan brought it back. Nixon, Kissinger, the CIA, and even AT&T (who feared losing profits if the phone company should become government run), all financed overthrowing Chile’s elected government for being too friendly to Communists, even though there was no chance of a Communist takeover.
Nixon wasn’t all bad. He extending the Voting Rights Act to protect civil rights; Title IX, which helped end sexism in education; the Clean Air Act, and saved lives with workplace safety rules. He expanded Social Security and increased food stamps and unemployment benefits. He started Affirmative Action which didn’t really help black people despite popular belief, but Affirmative Action did at least help white women in the workplace. He started the EPA. He compensated natives for stolen land and gave them the right to run their own facilities. Except for Gorbachev, Nixon did more to end WMD than any other world leader. Nixon was racist, but pretended not to be out of political expediency. He often did the right thing for the wrong reason.
Ronald Reagan was the second worst president in US history. He caused more Native American deaths than any other president, which is saying something. He provided weapons, funding, CIA and military intelligence, payment of mercenaries, and bombing campaigns against several Latin American countries because some members of their leadership were Marxists.
Reagan’s diaries revealed he was paranoid of Communists and saw them everywhere. Anyone who opposed him for any reason was a Communist in his eyes. He invaded the tiny island of Grenada, somehow seeing it as a grave threat. When US troops didn’t find anything there, Reagan put out false claims of Soviet arm stockpiles.
He sided with dictators, guerrillas, and mercenaries against the democratically-elected Sandinista government in Nicaragua, a non-violent protest movement led by the Catholic Church in El Salvador, and non-violent Mayan villages in Guatemala.
Over 325,000 people died, mostly civilians. 626 Mayan villages were massacred in Guatemala. When Amnesty International brought attention to the genocide, the US Embassy accused them of being Communists! George H. W. Bush, then vice president, was informed throughout and continued support of the dictatorships and Contra terrorists during his presidency. He also pardoned all involved in the Iran Contra scandal.
Reagan blocked boycotts of the apartheid regime in South Africa and labeled Nelson Mandela as a terrorist.
Deregulation of anti-poverty, banking, public health, environmental, labor, and safety laws and blocking gun control causes up to 875,000 preventable deaths per year. It’s obvious countries with government regulation have less poverty than countries without regulation. Government health care works better than capitalism. Canada has never had a banking crash due to a strong government compared to 16 financial crashes in the US. Countries with gun control have far less deaths.
Reagan was a corporate shill for deregulation for 30 years before he was president. He invented the idea of the black welfare queen. He ended the successful War on Poverty programs of Johnson and Nixon. He gutted financial regulation leading to the $160 billion Savings and Loan Scandal. (George H. W. Bush, George W. Bush, and Clinton also caused harm with their deregulation programs. Clinton’s deregulation led to the Great Recession of the 2000s. Clinton also cut welfare.)
The War on Drugs has caused an unknown number of deaths, but the number is likely hundreds of thousands if not millions. In the US, it has caused deaths from wars between rival cartels and drug dealers, innocents caught in the crossfire, deaths due to impure or more potent drugs, overdoses for which users are unable to seek treatment because it’s illegal, and crime committed to get money to purchase drugs. When alcohol was illegal, deaths from alcohol poisoning and crime syndicates rose. Tobacco was once prohibited, and that wasn’t any more successful than the current war on drugs.
Drug prohibition goes back to the 1910s, but ramped up under Reagan. Panamanian dictator Noriega was an intelligence asset, paid by the US since 1967. He worked with Reagan in the 1980s to use Panama as a base to bomb El Salvador. The US thus looked the other way when Noriega ordered the murder of his political opponent and stole the 1984 election.
(2,000 to 4,000 Panamanians were killed by George H. W. Bush in 1989. Nixon began Plan Colombia which involved US training, weapons, and aid used to fight guerrillas. It killed 20,000 to 300,000 Colombians during Clinton, George W. Bush, and Obama’s watch.)
On the plus side, Reagan was first opposed to limiting nuclear weapons until his astrologer changed his mind, so there is that.
Slavery resulted in 60 million deaths, including wars fought in Africa to obtain slaves, deaths during the Middle Passage, deaths during “seasoning”, and higher infant mortality. The US is responsible for 3.6 to 4.8 million deaths with Britain, Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, and Sweden also responsible.
Compared to all the other presidents, Jackson has the worst record on slavery. He was the first president not to question slavery or have any moral qualms against it. He invaded Spanish Florida to prevent it from becoming a sanctuary for runaway slaves. He owned at least 300 slaves and had a reputation for brutality, offering higher bounties to those who would severely whip runaways before returning them. He was also a slave trader.
Jackson’s central campaign promise “Vote Yourself a Farm” was a promise to expel Native Americans. His central appeal was the fact he was an Indian fighter. Despite the Creek adopting him into their tribe and a Cherokee warrior saving his life during a battle, Jackson ordered the forced removal of Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, and Seminole on the Trail of Tears. Most of these tribes had long peaceable relations with the US, but Jackson wanted their land.
12,500 to 16,500 died from starvation, disease, cold, and warfare. 3,000 to 4,000 black slaves also died on the Trail of Tears. (Martin Van Buren continued the ethnic cleansing set in motion by Jackson and also removed Seminoles from Florida. James Monroe went to war with the Seminole.)
Buchanan’s incompetence, weakness, and defense of slavery led to the Civil War which caused at least 600,000 deaths. For those who doubt, the Civil War was indeed about slavery according to the Declaration of Causes written by Confederate states. And it was the Confederates who started the war, attacking first at Fort Sumter. They even attacked dozens of times before the Civil War, taking over federal forts and other federal buildings.
The Civil War was the result of Confederates rejecting the results of the fair election of Lincoln. Lincoln hadn’t run on an anti-slavery platform and only issued the Emancipation because the Confederates forced him to. Most Southerners were actually loyal to the Union and either dodged the draft or deserted. If Buchanan had stood up to secessionists, the war either wouldn’t have happened or would have ended sooner with less loss of life.
Buchanan was impeached for bribery, trying to get Kansas admitted as a slave state even though the majority wanted to be a free state. Instead of using troops to end the bloodshed in Kansas or stop the secessionists from building up a military, he tried to distract the nation by sending troops to Utah to end polygamy, but since the Mormons had their own army, the Mormon War ended up being a failure as well.
When Lincoln was elected, Buchanan made no move to stop states from seceding, even after the Confederates started seizing federal facilities. Andrew Jackson and Zachary Taylor, although both slave holders, stood up to secessionists and got them to back down. If Buchanan had done the same, the Civil War may not have happened.
James K. Polk
Slavery technically ended in 1865, but in some remote areas of California, enslavement of Native Americans continued until the 1890s resulting in 120,000 to 270,000 deaths. Between 1848 to 1875, 80-90% of natives in California were wiped out. Unlike native genocide in the rest of the Americas, most of this was due to violence committed by “Indian hunting” vigilantes rather than disease. The state of California issued bounties, paying over $1.5 million for native scalps. The US government reimbursed them for the money. While technically a free state, California legalized native slavery. Most of the mining during the Gold Rush was done by slaves. Presidents Polk, Fillmore, and Buchanan did nothing to stop it.
Polk also provoked the US-Mexico War in order to expand slavery. He stole half of Mexico’s land and made the Civil War more likely. He was also a slave trader and a particularly brutal slave owner. More than half of all slave children died on his plantation before age 15, a high rate even for slavery.
A group of anti-Irish, anti-Catholic terrorists known as the Know Nothings killed at least 50 people in the 1840s and 1850s. Fillmore was a member of the Know Nothing party.
Although he wasn’t a slave holder himself, he did enforce the Fugitive Slave Act. Like Polk, he also ignored the Native American genocide in California.