2 November: Two Presidents Born and One Killed

Two US presidents were born on 2 November: James K Polk in 1795 and Warren G Harding in 1865.  Another was murdered: Ngo Dinh Diem, in Cholon (then South) Vietnam,  Though not directly related, it made for a catcher headline.

Polk was the 11th president of the US, serving from 1845 to 1849, and had the misfortune of inheriting a messy dispute on the southern border between Texas and Mexico.  Correctly assessing the sentiment of the country, he forced conditions on Mexico that compelled war, ending in 1848 with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.  Never a particularly well man, Polk died of cholera 14 June 1849, scarcely three months after leaving office.

Harding was the 29th president, serving from 1921 until 1923, a term cut short by his death by cerebral hemorrhage. Harding was the first post-WWI president, and as such had his hand in the rapid demobilization of the country’s military–except at sea.  Even though he oversaw the Washington Naval Treaty proceedings, the Treaty’s effects in many ways were just the opposite of what was intended, triggering a massive scrapping and re-purposing of navies, it did not affect aircraft carriers, and the effects on fleet auxiliaries was minimal.  The result was a huge increase in support ships and the construction of some of the largest aircraft carriers built until the nuclear era.  This enabled the expansion of the fleet to its thousand-ship zenith in 1944.

Diem was one of the least likely and most corrupt, leaders on mainland Asia after 1945. Trained by the French he worked much of his adult life in either public administration or in hiding as an outlaw.   After the French collapse Diem was placed in power by the Americans in 1954, where he struggled for the rest of his life against the North, against the Vietnamese who despised him for whatever reason, and against the most egregious corruption.  At the same time, Diem realized that corruption and nepotism were endemic to Asia, that the North’s sponsors were more generous than the Americans, and that no matter what he did nothing could save a country that didn’t see danger.  His murder in 1963 was heralded in the Western press and only ended twenty-one days later with the death of President Kennedy,

Taken in sum these three men all had one thing in common: though their administrations were not particularity noteworthy what happened on their watches greatly affected the future of the United States.  The Mexican War under Polk blooded some of the best leaders of the upcoming Civil War, and exacerbated the tensions already present.  Harding’s naval expansion and premature death, leaving an even more hawkish Calvin Coolidge in charge, made possible the rapid recovery from Pearl Harbor.  Diem, barely able to control his country let alone lead it, left behind a legacy of tribe-like governance-by-bribe-and-threat in Saigon that would eventually erode into collapse, even as the Americans and other SEATO allies were trying to protect it.

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