Theodore Roosevelt: Conservation (1901-1909) Theodore Roosevelt experienced the greatest peacetime presidency in history. He helped make America a global power, won the Nobel Peace Prize, ended the Anthracite Coal Strike, reformed the meat packing industry, and generally sided with the people over the extremes. However, conservation is his greatest accomplishment and most endearing legacy. President Roosevelt set aside more land for future generations than all previous presidents combined. In total, Roosevelt protected 230 million acres, created five national parks, proclaimed 18 national monuments, established 51 bird reserves, and mandated 150 national forests.
William Howard Taft: The Roosevelt Rift (1909-1913) Taft could do nothing right. He angered conservationists by siding with big business over environmental concerns in Alaska. Despite this, he conserved more land than anyone other than Roosevelt. He busted more trusts than Roosevelt, but did not distinguish between “good” and “bad” trusts. His foreign policy inadvertently sent funds to Latin American strongmen and his free trade agreement collapsed the Canadian government. Roosevelt felt responsible for Taft and decided to challenge him for the Republican nomination. When the G.O.P. machine intervened and denied Roosevelt, the former president ran as a third party candidate. His Bull Moose Party split the Republican vote allowing Woodrow Wilson’s election in 1912.
Woodrow Wilson: 14 points (1913-1921) On January 8, 1918, President Wilson unveiled his vision for a postwar world. Wilson demanded freedom of the seas, open diplomacy, readjustment of borders, and ethnic self-determination. At the end of the speech, he called for a “League of Nations” to settle international disputes. Ironically, Wilson was the most dictatorial president in American history clamping down on freedoms during World War I and reinstituting segregationist policies in the federal government. Despite this, his vision resulted in a reconstituted Poland, a new European map, an ineffectual League of Nations, and eventually the United Nations.
Warren Harding: Teapot Dome (1921-1923) Harding presided over one of the most corrupt administrations in history. Bribery pervaded his administration, officials flaunted ties to bootlegging, and the president allegedly impregnated his mistress. Teapot Dome was the worst of the scandals and came to symbolize the Harding years. Secretary of the Interior Albert Fall accepted bribes in return to lease naval oil reserves in Wyoming. President Harding died before the full impact of the scandal could hurt his administration. Some speculate that Harding suffered a stroke when he became aware of the full import of the affair.
Calvin Coolidge: Roaring 20s (1923-1929) Calvin Coolidge restored America’s faith in government in the wake of the Harding scandals. He provided honest minimalist government reflecting the mood of the country. In the end, he oversaw a dramatic economic expansion that resulted in the Jazz Age, many technological innovations, and a drastic cultural shift.
Herbert Hoover: The Great Depression (1929-1933) The Roaring Twenties collapsed into the Great Depression a few months after Herbert Hoover assumed office. President Hoover responded with unprecedented government action, but it failed. The president received blame for the economic mess and his name became synonymous with the distress. Cardboard boxes became “Hoovervilles” and newspapers became “Hoover blankets.”
Franklin D. Roosevelt: Saving capitalism and the world (1933-1945) The Great Depression ravaged the world. Nations with a democratic history survived the tide of extremism while others fell to Nazism, fascism, and militarism. Some Americans wanted to turn to socialism or communism. The depression revived the left after a decade’s slumber and helped Franklin Roosevelt assume the White House. FDR initiated the New Deal designed to get the country out of the economic malaise. Some programs worked and some did not. However, it modernized the government and insulated the American system from extremism. Roosevelt did initiate liberal policies, but most were moderate compared to what the left wanted and helped prop up the capitalist system. Overall, the New Deal failed to get the country out of the depression, but saved American capitalism and perhaps democracy.
The depression ended with American entry into World War II. Most able-bodied men went into the military while women and older men moved to the factories. Meanwhile, Roosevelt initiated a geopolitical strategy designed to reinforce democratic systems beginning with the demand for the unconditional surrender of Germany and Japan. Throughout the war, Roosevelt called for and advocated various freedoms while American industrial might wore down the Nazis and Japanese. In the end, American involvement in World War II combined with Hitler’s incompetence and the suicidal nature of Japanese defenders saved western civilization from a new dark age.