Let's face it this has been the toughest year and a half since any year and a half since the 1930s.
--Barack Obama, 5.25.10
Daniel Halper, writing in the conservative Weekly Standard, rightly excoriates the President for his self-absorbed reading of history. Halper sarcastically notes the “smooth sailing” FDR enjoyed with World War II, Truman’s ending World War II by having to nuke the Japanese, Eisenhower’s Korean War, and Kennedy and Johnson’s Vietnam, along with living with the Russians ability to nuke America from Cuba, or any other place in the world.
Here are my candidates for “toughest year and a half” since the 1930s:
1-18. August 1939-August 1942 (separate overlapping 18-month periods: 18)
Germany and U.S.S.R. sign non-aggression pact; Hitler invades Poland; U.S.S.R. invades Poland and Finland; Hitler invades Denmark, Norway, Holland, Belgium, France, conquering most of Europe; Battle of Britain, unrestricted submarine warfare in Atlantic; Mussolini invades Egypt, Greece; Rommel advances in Africa; Germany invades Yugoslavia, takes over Greece; Germany invades the U.S.S.R.; Japan attacks Pearl Harbor; Japan captures Hong Kong, Malaya, Singapore, invades Philippines, Burma, Dutch East Indies, controlling most of Southeast Asia, advances into India and toward Australia.
19. August 1949-February 1951
Soviet Union shocks world by exploding A-bomb; China falls to Communists; top State Department official Alger Hiss convicted of perjury for lying about Communist Party membership, legitimizing U.S. “Red scare” and unleashing McCarthyism; ex-Communists Julius and Ethel Rosenberg arrested for passing A-bomb secrets to Soviet Union, convicted March 1951; North Korea invades South Korea; U.S. sends forces to Korea and moves to protect Taiwan, French Indochina; China enters Korean War against U.S.; Gen. MacArthur demands U.S. nuke China.
20-32. October 1967-May 1970 (separate overlapping 18-month periods: 13)
March on Pentagon dramatizes strength of U.S. anti-war opposition to Vietnam war; McNamara resigns as Secretary of Defense; Vietcong Tet Offensive, resulting in attacks on several provincial capitals, capture of Hue, and successful penetration of the U.S. embassy compound in Saigon; strong reaction in U.S. against Vietnam war; President Johnson gives up re-election plans, announces partial bombing halt and effort to begin peace talks; Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy assassinated; Soviets invade Czechoslovakia and crush peaceful “Prague Spring”; Police riot mars Democratic convention; Nixon elected president, but war continues unabated, as does anti-war movement; Nixon efforts to appoint two successive Supreme Court justices blocked by Senate; Nixon (in frustration?) invades Cambodia, setting off riots across U.S. and closing many college campuses for the year.
33-48. October 1979-August 1982 (separate overlapping 18-month periods: 16)
1979 energy crisis caused by revolutionary Iran’s cutback on oil production continues throughout 1980; in October 1979, government-backed militant students seize U.S. embassy in Iran, capture 66 Americans and hold 52 hostages for 444 days; President Jimmy Carter responds by dramatizing seriousness of crisis, which helps him win primary election battle with Ted Kennedy, who appears disloyal for taking on his party’s leader during a crisis; dramatic “America Held Hostage” reports every night on ABC TV; hostage issue turns strongly against Carter after his effort to free the hostages ends in spectacular failure in the Iranian desert, with Carter’s Secretary of State resigning in protest; inflation reaches 11.3% in 1979 and an unbelievable 13.5% in 1980; Fed Chair Paul Volcker drives up interest rates to kill inflation and sends unemployment from 5.9% in November 1979 to 7.8% in July 1980; economy enters recession in 1980, pulls out, goes back into recession for 1981-82; entire period marred by “stagflation,” no growth plus inflation; the “misery index”, which measures Inflation + unemployment, hits its all-time high of 22 in July 1980; Ronald Reagan defeats Carter on twin issues of Iran and the economy; under Reagan, Volcker keeps driving interest rates up until the Fed funds rate hits 20% in June 1981 with the prime rate up to 21.5%, with resulting unemployment reaching 10.8% in November 1982; Henry Kaufman’s August 17, 1982 pronouncement that interest rates have passed their peak kicks off a stock market rally that signals the end of “stagflation.”
49. April 1945-November 1946
Truman, unknown, unbriefed, unprepared, forced to replace the dead Franklin Roosevelt with war unfinished, negotiates with Stalin at Potsdam terms favorable to U.S.S.R. control over Eastern and Central Europe all the way to the Elbe River, drops two A-bombs on Japan, presides over post-war America that sees inflation leap as high as 6% in a single month as government lifts wartime price controls, rising unemployment, unprecedented numbers of strikes and labor disputes, rising tension with the U.S.S.R., tremendous housing shortages as soldiers and sailors return and start families, all resulting in a resounding defeat for Democrats in the 1946 mid-term elections.
50. November 1963-July 1965 (20 months)
Kennedy’s assassination sends America into a funk; Vice President Johnson takes over, pushes a strong domestic agenda of civil rights and a “War on Poverty,” later, his “Great Society,” but postpones until 1965 the tough decisions on Vietnam as the situation in that country deteriorates monthly; finally, in February-March 1965, Johnson begins bombing North Vietnam, then escalates even more in May-July 1965 by sending in American combat troops, changing the conflict from a civil war to a “war of national liberation” that pits North Vietnamese nationalists against the neo-colonialist U.S., leading to America’s first losing war.
51. September 2001-March 2003
George W. Bush responds to 9.11 terrorist attacks, the worst ever on U.S. soil with more expected, by invading Afghanistan and overthrowing its pro-al Qaeda government, while reshaping our domestic defenses; Bush then mobilizes country and international allies to deal with the threat oil-rich Iraq, led by Saddam Hussein and armed, we thought, with weapons of mass destruction, poses as a potential base for future al Qaeda attacks on the West; after Saddam denies U.N. weapons inspectors access to several facilities, thereby violating several U.N. resolutions, and fearing time was running out on an invasion in advance of Iraq’s crippling summer heat, Bush invades Iraq, triggering an insurgency that still has life, even as the situation in Afghanistan flares up again.
52. June 1961-October 1962 (16 months)
Fresh, new American President John Kennedy seeks to take the measure of his Soviet rival, Nikita Khrushchev at Vienna in June 1961 to bad effect; Khrushchev thinks little of the callow Kennedy, follows up the meeting by generating a Berlin crisis, demanding the West withdraw all its troops from Berlin by year's end, and eventually building a wall across Berlin that violates agreements treating Berlin as a single city; Kennedy responds by calling up the reserves and doubling the draft, taking us to the brink of war; Khrushchev moves on in 1962 to shipping offensive, nuclear-tipped missiles to Cuba in a bold effort to tip nuclear power balance in the Soviet Union’s favor, thus creating the Cuban Missile Crisis that perhaps had a one-in-three chance of ending in nuclear holocaust.
53. February 1973-August 1974
Nixon’s “Watergate caper” goes bad when some of those directly involved begin talking; the cover-up grows worse as higher-ups implicate the President himself; as Nixon fights to hang onto power, he creates a constitutional crisis at home, and carries us to the brink of war with the Soviet Union during Egypt’s October 1973 Yom Kipper invasion of Israel as the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. stand on opposite sides; the war triggers an oil crisis and deep recession, partly related to Nixon’s inattention to duty as he fights unsuccessfully for his political life.
54. October 1957-March 1959
Soviet Union launches Sputnik satellite, followed a month later by Sputnik 2, a massive, 1/2-ton satellite with a dog inside that proves Soviets have rocket engines powerful enough to fire intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) sending thermonuclear warheads directly from the U.S.S.R. to the U.S., U.S. attempt to launch its own Vanguard satellite a month later ends in ignominious failure as rocket blows up on launchpad in full view of world; a humiliated U.S. undertakes major reorganization of its research and education system in effort to catch up with Soviets, close perceived "missile gap"; economy meanwhile spins into its worst recession since the Great Depression, while overseas, China frightens the world by undertaking its "Great Leap Forward," a massive reorganization of rural China into communes that first claims tremendous increases in output but ends in mass starvation; the Sputniks and the bad U.S. economy under President Eisenhower cost Republicans dearly in the 1958 elections, with Democrats picking up 15 Senate seats and 49 in the House.
55. September 2008-March 2010
Bush and Barack Obama cope with the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, and the worst recession since 1982, while continuing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
OK. Perhaps Obama’s “toughest year and a half” isn’t the 55th worst 18-month period since the 1930s. It most certainly isn’t #1, however.