How presidents react to crises often determines the success or failure of their time in office. “One of the first requisites of a presidential leader is the ability to form sound judgments and then act on them, or not act on them,” observed diplomatic historian Thomas A. Bailey.
In some instances restraint is called for, while in others audacious action is required. Going either way can have serious consequences. Here are three examples of how presidents faced crises.
The first major crisis a president faced came in the nation’s infancy in 1794. Known as the Whiskey Rebellion, Pennsylvania farmers refused to pay a recently imposed federal tax on the whiskey they produced. Based on a policy developed and implemented by Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton, revenue from the tax was earmarked to pay down the national debt and to prevent future financial burdens on the country. Hamilton believed that if a nation was to prosper, especially a young one like the United States, it must possess solid financial underpinnings and demonstrate sound fiscal management.
In this case, however, the tax was a failure as large numbers of outraged farmers refused to pay it. They resorted to mob violence, tarring and feathering tax collectors, destroying property, and eventually forming a 7,000-man armed force to protect their interests. Attempts to negotiate a settlement failed, leaving President George Washington with no option other than armed confrontation.
Using the Militias Act of 1792, he assembled a 12,000-man army from other state militias to force compliance from the Pennsylvanians. This well-armed provisional army marched into western Pennsylvania with Washington at its head and a uniformed Hamilton at his side, ready for action. Although Washington’s army was greeted with jeers and minor resistance, the farmers eventually caved in when confronted by such an overwhelming force.
Washington could have had the rebellion’s ringleaders executed after their arrest, but he magnanimously pardoned them to the chagrin of Hamilton and other members of Washington’s Federalist party.
Washington’s low-key but firm actions in forcing the rebels to end the dispute revealed that constraint and then forgiveness in this case were in the end the best way to end this crisis by working out a peace agreement with the rebellious farmers. The tax was never fully enforced and was dropped several years later. Washington, however, proved that the new government had the will and ability to confront resistance to its laws.
Other presidents perhaps would not have reacted with such restraint. Washington’s vice president and eventual successor, John Adams, for example, was obstinate, opinionated, vain and impatient.
In foreign affairs he was decidedly anti-French and pro-British, an issue that became the most divisive of its time. Adams was easily offended by those who opposed his policies, particularly when he strongly enforced the Alien and Sedition Act that restricted freedom of speech and political dissent.
Adams ordered newspaper editors who disagreed with him tried, convicted, fined and jailed. He welcomed new laws developed by his own Federalist party that allowed a president to deport new immigrants and deny certain ones the right to vote. His presidency lasted only one term, despite his best efforts to tamp down his opposition. Most Americans then remembered having rid themselves of one oppressive government, and they did not want to impose another on the people. Adams never held public office again.
Two centuries later, the nation faced another crisis, one that could have resulted in nuclear warfare. John F. Kennedy, the youngest person elected president and with no executive experience, had been in office a little more than a year when American intelligence sources revealed that the Soviet Union was installing missiles armed with nuclear warheads in Cuba, only 90 miles from American soil.
Kennedy faced a fateful decision with three basic options: (1) do nothing and live with the consequences; (2) declare a blockade to disrupt all shipping into Cuba; and (3) take military action, by attacking and destroying limited targets in Cuba or launching a large-scale invasion.
After intense debate among his inner circle, Kennedy finally decided to overrule his military advisers and go with the second option, calling it a “quarantine” rather than a more provocative term of “blockade.”
Kennedy’s gambit exerted maximum pressure on Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev. After a week of tense negotiations following the imposition of a blockade, Khrushchev quietly agreed to remove all missiles from Cuba in exchange for an American promise that it would not invade Cuba. Kennedy’s deft handling of the situation had prevented a possible nuclear conflict, the consequences of which are almost too frightening to consider.
In a study of modern presidents and crises, author Michael Bohn notes that few presidents can “realistically accomplish what the public expects in a crisis. Everyone demands bold and decisive action to right wrongs.” But as Bohn observes, presidents who have taken aggressive steps often have failed to accomplish what they set out to do. When, for example, Great Britain took several actions that harmed American commerce and trade in 1807, President Thomas Jefferson imposed a self-destructive tariff in response. According to U.S. Congressman John Randolph of Virginia, it was like cutting off a toe to cure it from corns. Indeed, the tariff nearly ruined the American economy and proved to be a disastrous failure.
How would the current occupant of the White House perform during a crisis?
As Bailey argued, “the test of top-drawer [presidential] leadership is firmness and coolness of the incumbent in handling crises.” With potential emergencies with North Korea, China and Iran facing the nation today, we can only hope President Donald Trump would carefully study how some of his predecessors let restraint outweigh action.
The American people should expect no less.