Franklin Roosevelt did not allow Jewish refugees to the US, condemning many to death in the Holocaust. He also could have lessened the atrocity by attacking Germany sooner than he did. (Incidentally, Henry Ford owned the best selling newspaper in the country and used it to spread anti-Semitism. Ford Auto company was also a haven for Nazis and he promoted their views on company grounds. Ford even received a special award from Hitler.)
113,200 were falsely imprisoned during the Japanese-American internment. Some died from poor healthcare. 6 were killed by guards for trying to escape. 2 were killed in a riot. Their property was often seized, lost, or sold for tiny amounts. (While many west-coast cities have Chinatowns, most no longer have Japantowns.) 57 Aleut (not Japanese, but interned because racists thought they were genetically similar) died from disease while in the camps. German and Italian Americans weren’t imprisoned and neither were Japanese Americans living in Hawaii, indicating the internment was more about racism than protecting the country.
On the plus side, Roosevelt was one of the few US presidents who didn’t invade Latin America. There were 35 invasions of Latin America in the 42 years before Roosevelt, but not a single invasion during his 12 years in office, saving thousands of lives. In 1938, Mexico took control of US oil companies in Mexico and Americans called for war. FDR instead found a diplomatic solution, getting Mexico to pay the oil companies without a costly war.
World War II is the only justified war in US history besides the Civil War. By the US joining, the Axis powers were defeated, saving tens of millions of lives. (The Soviet Union gets most of the credit for defeating the Axis, but the US helped.) Ironically, the most liberal president in US history was also the best wartime president. Roosevelt’s New Deal anti-poverty programs led to longer life expectancy for Americans.
The US-Vietnam War killed 1 to 3.8 million including 200,000 to 500,000 civilians. Truman, Eisenhower, and Kennedy sent advisors to Vietnam, funding the French attack against Vietnam. Johnson had a macho attitude, bragging about his penis size, holding meetings on the toilet, and refusing to admit defeat with regards to Vietnam. Nixon dragged the Vietnam War out an extra five years and increased the bombing campaigns just to be reelected and convince people he was anti-Communist.
Lyndon Johnson and Nixon were both responsible for the Phoenix Program which was designed to end Vietnamese support for the National Liberation Front through bribery, spying, blackmail, and torture. 20,000 to 40,000 mostly civilians were falsely accused of being communist. Torture included beating, whipping, hanging, water torture, electrocution, dog attack, gang rape, and rape using animals such as eels or snakes. Many deaths resulted.
On the plus side, Johnson’s Great Society program kept poverty from rising to 31% to only 15%. Poverty among children dropped from 20% to under 6%. The Civil Rights Act put an end to intimidation and violence at the polls. Johnson said he passed it as tribute to Kennedy, but Kennedy wasn’t actually that big on civil rights.
George H. W. Bush
The Gulf War resulted in 2,500 to 205,000 deaths. Sadam Hussein was on the CIA payroll since the 1950s. In 1989 he met with US Ambassador April Glass and asked permission to invade Kuwait. She didn’t say no and he took this as a yes. Everyone, including Bush’s own cabinet and advisors, were surprised when he invaded Kuwait. The US public was opposed to the war. Bush spent 20 million on PR to try to convince the public. A member of the Kuwaiti royal family posing as a nurse lied on the floor of congress, claiming babies were ripped out of incubators and left to die.
However, after the Gulf War, Bush aided Kurds fleeing Iraq, saving perhaps 200,000 lives. Clinton and George W. Bush continued the rescue efforts. George H. W. Bush saved the lives due to outside pressure, so he did the right thing for the wrong reason, but he still gets credit. Also, in 1991, George H. W. Bush pulled US nukes out of South Korea, defusing tension between the Koreas.
Continuing a George W. Bush program, Obama ordered drone assassinations against Al Qaeda and the Taliban. Obama assassinated suspects without trial in Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen. 11-98% killed were innocent civilians. 1,800 to 3,521 died.
On the other hand, his New START treaty reduced nuclear weapons. The end of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan saved tens of thousands of lives a year. (The war in Afghanistan didn’t officially end until 2021, after this book was written, but I think Carroll’s referring to the end of combat operations in Afghanistan.)
Obama avoided war in Iran, saving thousands if not tens of thousands of lives. The Arab Spring and preventing another Great Depression also saved lives. And, of course, Obamacare saves 30,000 lives a year.
Zachary Taylor wanted California to be a free state and threatened slavery advocates with hanging when they called for secession, getting them to back down.
Carroll considers Lincoln to be the best president in US History. He freed 4 million people from slavery and saved between 120,000 to millions of lives. Slaves had double the infant mortality rate of free blacks. Ending slavery saved thousands of lives a year. The Confederacy would have brought international slavery back. 10-50% of slaves died during the Midwest Passage. The Confederacy also planned wars against Mexico and the Dominican Republic, and planned to take Cuba and Puerto Rico from Spain which could have resulted in over 124,000 deaths.
The Civil War is one of only two righteous wars in US history (the other is World War II) that had to be fought for the good of humanity. Emancipation also ended the genocide of California natives. Unlike the treasonous Confederates, 300,000 southern Unionists stayed loyal to the United States and fought as part of the Union army. Lincoln also spared 263 Dakota sentenced to death for taking part in a battle.
Martin Van Buren
Van Buren avoided war with Britain, saving perhaps 20,000 and delayed war with Mexico saving perhaps 19,000. He also delayed the genocide of California natives, saving 120,000 to 300,000 lives. Van Buren was the first US-born president and the only US president to speak English as his second language.
Independence fighters in Canada recruited Americans to their side, provoking a possible war with Britain. Van Buren passed a law to make it illegal for Americans to invade another country. A year later, a conflict broke out over a territory dispute in Maine. Rather than go to war, Van Buren signed a treaty which also helped stop illegal slave trade, saving thousands of Africans.
Americans in Mexican territory, despite living there less than a year, declared the land theirs and declared Texas a new slave state. They were so incompetent, insurgents at the Alamo and Goliad were completely wiped out. Santa Ana, the president of Mexico, forgot to post sentries at San Jacinto, and the insurgents captured him and forced him to sign over Texas. Van Buren didn’t recognize Texas, delaying a war with Mexico. At the time, the US had conflicts with Britain and was losing the Second Seminole War. Most of the US Army was involved in removing Cherokees. A war with Mexico at this time would have been even bloodier than the later war.
Carter put pressure on dictatorships and withheld military aid to fix human rights abuses. He made 25 countries more democratic, saving as many as 150,000 lives. He saved 1,000 lives in Argentina and 1,200 in Chile. In Cuba, Castro released 3,600 political prisoners due to pressure from Carter. Carter prevented a military coup in the Dominican Republic by threatening a boycott. He negotiated a peace between Israel and Egypt, perhaps saving 80,000 to 100,000 lives and earning him the Nobel Peace Prize.
Carter pressured the dictatorship in Honduras to have elections and pressured Haiti to release political prisoners. Indonesia released 30,000 political prisoners who likely would have been executed. The Shah of Iran, responsible for 80,000 deaths, was overthrown partly thanks to Carter. Political violence dropped off in Jamaica after First Lady Rosalyn Carter promised Carter wouldn’t try to overthrow the government as Nixon and Ford had.
Pakistan released 11,000 political prisoners. Carter returned the Panama Canal, preventing future riots and improving US relations with all of Latin America. The Soviet Union released political prisoners and allowed 160,000 Jews to immigrate to the US. Carter was partly responsible for the fall of the Soviet Union, although most of the credit goes to Gorbachev and other dissidents. Carter also signed a treaty to limit nuclear weapons. The white racist minority in Zimbabwe was pressured into holding fair elections. Carter was the only truly anti-war president. He was one of the few presidents to not invade Latin America. Not a single US soldier died overseas on his watch.
Ulysses S. Grant
Battles between the US army and native tribes dropped from 101 in 1869 to just 15 in 1875. Lives were also saved due to improved conditions in reservations and KKK terrorism declined in states where Grant sent troops.
This book is a good conversation starter, although it’s possible for different people to come up with different rankings since lives lost or saved are often estimates. Carroll ranks deaths caused by malice as worse than deaths caused by neglect, which in turn are worse than deaths caused by ideological blindness or incompetence. Someone else could easily count all deaths the same regardless of the motivation behind them. After all, Carroll counts all lives saved the same regardless of whether the president in question saved lives for the right reason or not.