Franklin Delano Roosevelt. When he was elected he was a disabled person. He needed a wheelchair after contracting polio. He not only didn't give up. He ran for president in 1932! While in office he drastically decreased unemployment from 25 percent to 2 percent. He carefully prepared America to enter the battle during World War II by increasing the defense budget and converting the U.S. to a military economy. That's why we won this war.
Unemployment decreased because of the war. and defense spending really didn't go up until the start of WWII. And if you look at armaments spending in 1933, 1934, 1935 you'll see he spending less on armaments. Also don't forget we were not prepared for war that it took us almost a year to get up to speed. We spent much of 1939 and 1941, ramping up “preparedness”.
We won partly because there was a huge ocean between us the the fighting, meaning that we weren't being bombed and our industry remained intact, unlike the other waring countries. We also had resources that we could call upon within our own boarders. We also won in part because England held out long enough for us to get war production up and running. Roosevelt didn't end unemployment nor the depression, that was the result of WWII.
The war was won, because to the end of it Germany was in multiple front war, which its economy and army cloudn´t handle.
I don't think people understand the meaning of the word "great" anymore, as it has apparently been sullied and slandered by every half baked TV commercial in the last 60 years...
Hint: it doesn't mean "looks good on TV".
I narrowed it down to T. Roosevelt and JFK. They were both strong leaders who helped put America ahead of the rest of the world with the minimal amount of partisan politics involved. JFK took my vote for his investments in to US infrastructure such as the space program and energy programs(with some help from Ike) which had some of the greatest long term benefits for the US(something modern politicians fail at). TR put a halt to the rampant capitalism that was hurting America's poor while being able to avoid extreme communist/socialist measures, and thus allowed free enterprise to drive our country without exploiting it.
I wholeheartedly agree with you. I had to choose between these two. Personally, I chose JFK, but Roosevelt was very close.
I would also like to add that, if someone else would've been in JFK's shoes during the Cuban missile crisis, who knows what would've happened?
I'm a history professor and wrote my third book, Presidents' Body Counts': The Twelve Worst and Four Best American Presidents Based on How Many Lived or Died Because of Their Actions.
Too often, rankings of presidents become popularity contests based on ideology, or who fits closest to their own belief system. Thus we have absurd rankings like a poll by the Wall Street Journal who ranked GW Bush the 6th best president of all time.
I rank presidents based on humanitarian standards. Who caused the most deaths? If the deaths were by mass murder, that obviously counts far more than incompetence. Thus the worst president in US history was Nixon, who ordered the carpet bombing of neutral Cambodia, outright genocide that killed 600,000. Reagan was the second worst, killing 325,000 in Central America by terrorism in Nicaragua and El Salvador and support for outright genocide in Guatemala.
The best president in US history was Lincoln. Defeating the Confederacy ended slavery, and slaves had an infant mortality twice that of free people. The Confederacy also planned wars vs Cuba, Dominican Republic, and Mexico. Lincoln saved hundreds of thousands.
But since the question is about the 20th century, the best US president was Jimmy Carter. The Camp David Peace Accords prevented perhaps as many as 100,000 future deaths in wars. Carter's human rights policy saved at least 50,000 dissidents and aided democracy in at least 25 nations, and ended the Cold War sooner. (Reagan prolonged the Cold War by his rigid anti Communism.)
Raphael's answer of FDR is partly true. He accomplished much good. But FDR also ignored the Holocaust, targeted German and Japanese civilians, and imprisoned Japanese-Americans for racist reasons.
John's answer has some problems. TR was a warmonger, invading nations in Latin America. He broke Panama away from Colombia. The building of the canal killed thousands of Panamanian Black workers, who were denied the disease free quarters of US white workers by US segregation. TR's progressivism, like other progressives of the time, was based on racism and class warfare beliefs that both nonwhites and poor people whether white or not were incapable of running their own lives or knowing what was best for themselves. Thus he hated socialists and populists, though both parties did much good for the US, giving us direct election of senators, referendums, the Pledge of Allegiance, and social security (much later.)
Direct election of Senators is not a good thing, and makes them nothing more than longer-term-serving Representatives. The whole idea of the Senate is to have a body in Congress that does NOT have to worry about being re-elected in popular elections, and instead represents the States they came from, and is chosen by the State legislatures. Look how much liberals are complaining today about "money in politics", and how politicians just work for lobbyists (which is all true). The idea of the Senate was to avoid populism in one chamber, while having it in the other, so they balance each other; it was really a copy of the English parliament, which has a House of Lords (unelected politicians, at least that's the way it was in the past) and a House of Commons (popularly-elected politicians).
Of course, there's allegations the Senate was highly corrupt before the 17th Amendment which is why that Amendment was passed. In that case, this seems like a bad way to patch the problem, and doesn't seem to be having the intended effect, since Congress as a whole is hopelessly corrupt these days. Maybe we should just throw the whole thing out and start over.
"Reagan was the second worst... The best president in US history was Lincoln. Defeating the Confederacy ended slavery, and slaves had an infant mortality twice that of free people."
If only Reagan had also freed people from a philosophy that produced a high mortality rate. Imagine how great that would've been.
It appears to me that I will be the antithesis answer: Ronald Reagan due to the fact that he was the one who made us proud to be American again AFTER Carter, who had high ideals that the world may never be ready for; he was never grounded in reality and was too apologetic for the US. My other choice would be JFK but not because of anything he did do but what he may have but whose life was tragically cut short before it could be realized. I disagree with your choice of Lincoln based on your own parameters of "lives taken" since the Civil War, while necessary, was our bloodiest.
Rob, you provide a good example of what I described as ranking based on ideology, not accomplishments, and certainly not a president's basic human decency.
Does it bother you that Reagan killed over 325,000 civilians?
That Reagan was so fanatically anti Communist he even accused Barry Goldwater of being a Communist dupe?
That Reagan created terrorists, the Contras, that murdered civilians based on the crazy notion that Nicaragua could invade the US?
That Reagan supported genocide in Guatemala with weapons, money, and even US troops that trained Guatemalan troops how to massacre Indian villages?
Is pride that important to you? Will it also let you ignore that Carter saved 50,000 dissidents' lives, saved many Jewish and Arab lives by preventing wars, and also rescued Soviet Jews and Cubans fleeing Communism?
It is quite possible that you are hearing all this for the first time. Both schools and the media do a terrible job covering these topics. They focus on the political horse race far more.
Still, I'd think you would know this basic fact about the Civil War:
It was begun entirely by the Confederacy. They fired the first shot at Ft. Sumter. Even middle school kids are taught that. Confederates began the war even before that by committing treason, taking up arms against the US, seizing federal forts, buildings, and US Army weapons.
As for Kennedy, if we judge by someone's life being cut short, why not also Lincoln?
As a history professor you better than anyone should know that Lincoln didn't end slavery, and in fact would have kept slavery if it would have kept the union together. You say FDR ignored the Holocaust, and yet Carter, who you say was the best in the 20th century, all but ignored Pol Pot.
You state that Carter ended the cold war sooner and that Regan prolonged it, but wasn't Carter in office from January 12, 1971 – January 14, 1975 and Regan in office January 20, 1981 – January 20, 1989 and didn't the cold war end under Regan? The cold war ended in part because of the hard stand Regan took and the fact that the USSR couldn't afford to keep up with the US spending.
All I can say is I'm glad I don't take history under you.
Richard Wee, I'm not sure who you did take history from, but you've got your dates wrong. Jimmy Carter was in office from January 20, 1977 to January 20, 1981 when Reagan was inaugurated. Richard Nixon was in office from January, 1969 until he resigned in August of 1974. Vice President Gerald Ford took over the Presidency from Nixon and held office until January of 1977 when Jimmy Carter was inaugurated.
I have to go with LBJ. His presidency was fatally marred by the Vietnam war, but, if you can set aside a no win situation for everyone involved and poor decision making all around for that, Johnson did one thing that very few presidents have done. He made a hot button topic (Civil Rights) his platform and did everything he needed to make what he could happen - despite the political fallout for himself personally and for his party. He did what was right because it was the right thing to do.
Carter tried, but didn't have the political clout to pull it off. Lincoln did it, but wrong century for the question.
I don't believe that you can judge a president's accomplishments solely by how many people died or didn't die during his presidency. By that criteria, Lincoln would be the lowest on any presidential poll by the fact that more people died during his presidency than any other and to top that off, they were almost exclusively American lives!
Taking that further and blaming WWII presidents for the atrocities committed by Hitler is unfair to any one person's legacy. No one person, not even a president, could have stopped Hitler from doing what he did.
Best to worst:
4 George W. Bush
10 George H. W. Bush
15 Theodore Roosevelt
17-18 (tie) Obama
17-18 (tie) Lyndon Johnson
19 Franklin Roosevelt
This chart should be labeled, "Presidents whose names we know."