By Jon Wiener
Is George W. Bush the worst president in U.S. history? Or is it Richard Nixon? That question is being debated by historians ranging from Eric Foner and David Greenberg in the Washington Post to Sean Wilentz in Rolling Stone. Usually Bush is named worst because, although Nixon abused the power of the presidency, he also did some good things, like opening relations with China and approving the Environmental Protection Agency. Bush in contrast not only started the Iraq war; he also approved the use of torture; he claimed the right not to follow laws he disagrees with; and he abolished fundamental rights for the accused, including trial by jury.
There is, however, one extremely simple measure of who was worse, summed up in the question that antiwar demonstrators asked LBJ back in the 1960s: How many kids did you kill today? We can compare the number of casualties in wars that are unjust and disastrous. If we compare the death toll in Vietnam under Nixon with the death toll in Iraq under Bush, it appears that Nixon was worse.
American deaths in war are counted carefully. For Nixon’s presidency, 1969-1974, the official Vietnam war total is 21,041. American deaths in Iraq (as of Dec. 10) total 2,932. By this measure, Nixon was far worse.
Of course the deaths of Vietnamese and Iraqis should also be counted. The U.S. is not counting Iraqi casualties, but the best estimate of Iraqi deaths (as of July 2006) is 650,000. That’s the figure Johns Hopkins demographers reported in The Lancet in October, using the most advanced survey research and statistical techniques.
Bush might defend himself by arguing that, according to The Lancet study, the majority of the 650,000 Iraqi deaths were not caused by the U.S. He’d be right about that—but Iraqis wouldn’t be engaged in a civil war now if Bush had not invaded in 2003.
For Vietnamese deaths, Robert McNamara, secretary of defense under John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, gives the total for the war as more than 3 million. He got that figure from the Vietnamese. Nixon took office in January 1969 at what turned out to be approximately the midpoint of the American war. If half of the total casualties in Vietnam occurred after Nixon took office, the toll under Nixon was about 1.5 million Vietnamese deaths.
One and a half million is a lot more than 650,000. On the basis of this figure, Nixon was a lot worse.
However, the figure of 3 million for Vietnam has been challenged. The Vietnamese have not made their sources or records available to independent researchers. American demographers using the most advanced survey research and statistical methods published their conclusions in Population and Development Review. They did a survey in 1991 of 921 Vietnamese, with interviews conducted by trained Vietnamese interviewers,. (That may seem like a small number for a country of 80 million people, but American political surveys are based on 1,200 interviews for a country of 300 million people.) This Vietnam survey concluded that the total number of deaths in the American war is closer to 1 million.
If Nixon was responsible for half of those, that means Bush’s 650,000 deaths is worse.
But the Nixon death toll wasn’t limited to Vietnam. He ordered the bombing and invasion of Cambodia, and also a secret war in Laos. Cambodian civilian deaths from the B-52 bombing probably total 100,000 to 150,000, and Cambodian wartime deaths from all causes in the Nixon years (1970-75—pre-genocide) probably total 300,000 to 500,000, according to Ben Kiernan of the Yale Cambodian Genocide Program. If we take the lower figure, that brings Nixon’s total to 800,000, which makes him worse than Bush. And that does not include Laos, where the U.S. fought a secret war for many years.
Nixon would object that he didn’t start the war in Vietnam, and he’d be right about that. But he ran for president in 1968 promising that he had a secret plan to end the war. The Paris Peace Talks had already started when he took office. And yet the war continued for four more years, during which half a million Vietnamese died—along with 21,000 Americans.
Nixon might also object that the Vietnamese dead include victims of the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong. He’d be right about that too. But without the Americans, there never would have been a Vietnam War. There never would have been a South Vietnam.
This comparison of war casualties in Vietnam and Iraq has one flaw: The war in Iraq is not over. Bush says he has no intention of ending it promptly. He wants U.S. forces to remain until “the terrorists” are “defeated.”
It took eight years to kill a million Vietnamese, while it’s taken only three years for 650,000 people to be killed in Iraq. And the rate there has been accelerating: In 2004 the total was only 100,000. At that rate—assuming a total now of somewhat more than 650,000— the death toll for Iraqis could top the death toll for Vietnamese by the end of next year. The Iraqi death toll could top the figure for all of Southeast Asia by the time Bush leaves office in January 2009.
Then there will be no more debate. Then historians will agree that, even under this most elemental measure, Bush is the worst president in U.S. history.
Jon Wiener is a contributing editor of The Nation and professor of history at UC Irvine.
Composite: MediaSpin White House Photo: Eric Draper