Since World War Two’s end, America has been the world’s foremost economic and military power – from the Cold War to the collapse of communism, the Space Race to the race for a Covid-19 vaccine. Here are the 14 presidents leading up to present day.
1. Harry S. Truman (1945-1953)
Soon after Truman took office, the atomic bomb was dropped on Japan, ending Word War Two. After the Cold War’s onset, Truman implemented the Berlin Airlift and the Marshall Plan to rebuild Western Europe’s economy. Truman strongly opposed Soviet expansionism, establishing the Truman Doctrine and NATO. He later initiated American involvement in the Korean War and supported the state of Israel’s creation.
Domestically, Truman guided the post-war economy and submitted the first comprehensive civil rights legislation.
2. Dwight D. Eisenhower (1953-1961)
Before his presidency, Eisenhower had an impressive military career, including as supreme commander of the Allied forces in Western Europe in World War Two.
Eisenhower managed to obtain a truce in the Korean War, and although he authorized covert anti-communist operations, worked to reduce Cold War tensions. After the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, Eisenhower authorised NASA’s establishment, beginning the Space Race.
Domestically, Eisenhower expanded Social Security, continued New Deal agencies and contributed to McCarthyism’s end. He also signed the significant 1957 Civil Rights Act.
3. John F. Kennedy (1961-1963)
Bright and charismatic, ‘JFK’ was the youngest elected President.
Kennedy authorised an attempt to overthrow Fidel Castro’s government in Cuba’s Bay of Pigs. Later, US spy planes discovered Soviet missile bases, resulting in 1962’s Cuban Missile Crisis, which nearly ended in nuclear war. This resulted in a slowing of the arms race and the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.
Kennedy continued the space programme, setting a national goal of landing a man on the Moon. His famous ‘Ich Bin Ein Berliner’ speech in 1963 gave a clear statement on US policy following the Berlin Wall’s construction. Domestically, Kennedy led a renewed drive for public service and supported civil rights.
Kennedy was assassinated on 22 November 1963.
4. Lyndon B. Johnson (1963-1969)
Johnson launched ambitious reforms and social service programmes to create a ‘Great Society’ and ‘War on Poverty’, which also had a lasting impact in health and education. He also signed the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the most sweeping civil rights legislation since Reconstruction.
Despite these achievements, Johnson’s legacy was tainted by his vast escalation of American involvement in the Vietnam War. Controversy and growing public unease with the war created a strong anti-war movement and riots.
5. Richard M. Nixon (1969-1974)
Nixon forged détente and diplomatic ties with China and the Soviet Union, established the Environmental Protection Agency, and signed the 1973 Paris Peace Accords, ending America’s direct combat role in the Vietnam War. He also presided over the Apollo 11 Moon landing.
However, Nixon’s involvement in covering up illegal activities in the Watergate scandal led to him resigning rather than face impeachment – the only President ever to do so.
6. Gerald R. Ford (1974-1977)
Gerald Ford became America’s first unelected president. Although pardoning Nixon, Ford aimed to restore confidence in government.
Domestically Ford faced an energy crisis and weak economy. The Fall of Saigon ended America’s presence in Vietnam, and Ford helped reduce Cold War tensions by signing the 1975 Helsinki Accords, moving toward détente.
7. James Carter (1977 to 1981)
‘Jimmy’ Carter’s presidency was dominated by inflation, the energy crisis, the war in Afghanistan and 1979-81 Iran hostage crisis.
Nevertheless, he created Departments in Education and Energy, and implemented deregulation and environmental protection. Carter also accomplished the Camp David Accords, Panama Canal Treaties and established diplomatic relations with China. Following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the SALT II Treaty wasn’t ratified, and Carter ended détente.
8. Ronald Reagan (1981-1989)
A former Hollywood actor, Reagan was dubbed the ‘Great Communicator’, noted for his affable style. He survived a 1981 assassination attempt, and remains a conservative icon.
Reagan brought sweeping new initiatives, cutting taxes and implementing supply-side economic policies, dubbed ‘Reaganomics’, which eventually turned around the economy.
Foreign affairs dominated his second term, including the bombing of Libya, the Iran-Iraq War and the Iran-Contra affair. Reagan sought “peace through strength” and was fervently anti-communist, describing the Soviet Union as an ‘evil empire’. Although increasing defence spending, he encouraged Gorbachev to negotiate a nuclear arms reduction agreement, pressuring the Soviet Union to hasten the Cold War’s end.
9. George H. W. Bush (1989-1993)
George H W Bush skilfully navigated the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, playing a key role in Germany’s reunification, and signed the mutual non-aggression pact with Gorbachev in 1990, symbolically ending the Cold War. He also built a coalition of western European and Arab states in the Gulf War 1990-91, ending Iraq’s occupation of Kuwait.
Domestically, Bush’s popularity was marred by economic recession, his inability to handle economic problems and backtracking over his promise not to raise taxes.
10. William J. Clinton (1993-2001)
Bill Clinton presided over the longest period of peacetime economic expansion. He enacted legislation including the Family and Medical Leave Act, and appointed women and minorities to top government posts for the first time.
In foreign policy, he ordered military intervention in the Bosnian and Kosovo wars, and signed the Iraq Liberation Act, opposing Saddam Hussein. He also assisted the Israeli-Palestinian and Northern Ireland peace processes.
In 1998, Clinton was impeached, following revelations of his affair with Monica Lewinsky and accusations of perjury in denying this. He was later acquitted.
11. George W. Bush (2001-2009)
Narrowly winning the electoral college vote, George W. Bush became president despite losing the nationwide popular vote, implementing a $1.3 trillion tax cut programme and an education bill, and other socially conservative reforms.
In response to the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks, Bush created the Department of Homeland Security and launched a ‘war on terror’. This included the 2001 war in Afghanistan and the 2003 invasion of Iraq after Bush’s administration argued Saddam Hussein’s regime owned weapons of mass destruction. Despite Hussein’s capture, the war was unpopular, as were scandals involving terrorist suspect treatment.
Criticised for handling Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath, Bush’s final presidential months were marred by recession, the sub-prime mortgage crisis and subsequent global financial crash.
12. Barack Obama (2009-2017)
Obama was the first African-American president, and was awarded the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize. Key foreign policy actions included the killing of Osama bin Laden (the mastermind behind the 9/11 attacks) and the Iran Nuclear Deal.
Additionally, Obama normalised relations with Cuba, authorised military involvement in Libya and Iraq, and eventually ended US combat in Afghanistan. Obama initiated sanctions against Russia following its invasion in Ukraine and US election interference, and condemned Syria’s use of chemical weapons on civilians.
Obama implemented landmark acts including ‘Obamacare’, and the legalization of gay marriage, and advocated gun control and actions on global warming, including 2015’s Paris Agreement. Yet slow economic recovery and opposition to Obamacare led to criticism.
13. Donald J. Trump (2017-2021)
Before becoming president, Donald Trump was a real estate mogul, and had starred in 14 TV series of ‘The Apprentice’ – the first president without prior government or military experience.
Trump’s perception that America had been taken advantage of led to his polarizing ‘America First’ foreign policy agenda, most significantly withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade negotiations, the Paris Agreement on climate change and the Iran Nuclear Deal. He also met with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
Allegations were made that Trump encouraged Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. Trump was impeached in 2019 after soliciting Ukraine to investigate presidential contender Joe Biden, but later acquitted.
He was impeached again in 2021, this time for incitement for insurrection, following the 6 January 2021 Capitol Attack, in which supporters of Donald Trump sought to overturn his defeat in the 2020 Presidential election.
Rallied by Trump’s false claim that the election had been “stolen by emboldened radical-left Democrats”, the mob intended to disrupt the joint session of Congress organised to count electoral votes. 5 people died before, during or following the event, including one shot by Capitol Police.
Domestically he enacted a tax-cut package and the economy had been successful before Covid-19, yet his handling of the pandemic was criticised.
14. Joe Biden (2021-present)
Joseph Robinette Biden Jr. became President of the United States on 20 January 2021. He had previously served as the 47th vice president between 2009 and 2017 under Barack Obama.
A member of the Democratic Party, Biden was born in Pennsylvania and was elected to the United States Senate from Delaware in 1972.
After defeating Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential election, Biden signed into law the American Rescue Plan Act to assist recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. He completed the US withdrawal from Afghanistan and imposed sanctions on Russia following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022.