McKinley benefits from the historical ignorance of Americans.
That "historical ignorance" is pretty evident in many of the anti-Bush rants that are widely circulated too.
There has been a "survey" of a few hundred self-selected historians floating around claiming Bush is the "worst President ever!" but I suspect that when the dust settles and the wider body of historians set about writing the history books, that assesment will be significantly moderated. For one thing, both sides will have their opportunity to state their cases instead of only hearing from a self-selected group. Secondly, they'll be forced to review the records and prove their cases to their peers instead of offering anonymous opinions based on their current political beliefs.
Once the heavy publishing starts in earnest and those works are peer-reviewed many of the claims that Bush was the "First President ever to..." or the "Only President ever to..." will disappear.
I suspect his legacy will be largely built on the heated divide between left and right and Iraq more than anything else.
Bill Clinton's legacy is already turning out to be much less than his supporters claimed (and more than his detractors claimed...) it would be when he was leaving office. I suspect much of the same will happen with Bush.
While noting that historical ignorance can hardly be ascribed to those indulging the partisan bickering which you describe and which is contemporary, i largely agree with this.
Joe's comparison of Bush to Truman was very apt. It is entirely possible that Bush's image will be "rehabilitated" if we can get out of Iraq relatively quickly, and with relatively little pain. However, that is the immediate perception, and not the "historical legacy." It would be hard to put a date to it, but i'd say that "historical legacy" would refer to the perception of anyone by the time historians are writing the history of the times, and few or no people who were living then still survive.
But attempts by the left or the right to distort history to their own ends can crop up among historians, as well, if their partisan conviction is strong enough. An example from the Right is the continuing belief that FDR knew about the planned attack on Hawaii by the Imperial Navy, and that he did nothing.
The Martin-Bellinger report (March, 1941--named for the staff officers of the Navy and the Army Air Force responsible for air operations) almost uncannily predicted the likely results of an aerial assault on Hawaii given the conditions which obtained at the time. It was ignored by responsible parties.
ONI had largely broken Imperial Navy codes, and although the Imperial Navy changed their codes every three months, place names and names of ships could rather quickly be broken because of the context. (This was used in the summer of 1942, when false messages were broadcast about Midway island in a code we knew the Japanese had broken, and subsequent Japanese messages about Midway were quickly broken, despite the new code in place on June 1.) But the Japanese carriers had "gone missing" as of the code change on October 1, 1941, and they were never subsequently found, until hostilities began. Additionally, the Imperial Navy changed their code again on November 1, and that should have raised warning flags--it did, but was ignored by responsible parties, as was the fact that we didn't know where the carriers were.
An agent at the Japanese legation in Honolulu was sending in regular reports on the mooring of ships in Pearl Harbor, and generally acting like the Inspector Clouseau of diplomatic espionage. The FBI was tapping Western Union's telegraph lines out of Hawaii, and although they were pretty certain what was going on, they didn't have enough evidence to positively identify the spook at the legation, nor to move on the information. Most notoriously, this agent sent the what is now known as the "bomb plot" message, which detailed exactly where the battleships were moored when in port, as well as the locations of cruisers and navy work vessels. The importance of this message was ignored by responsible parties.
The responsible parties who whom i refer, however, were not FDR, nor the Secretary of War, nor the Secretaries of the Navy and the Army. I refer to Lt. General Walter Short, commander of the Army in Hawaii, and therefore the Army Air Force; and Husband Kimmel, the Navy's Commander in Chief, Pacific. In fact, ONI and the departments in Washington were paying close attention, and, on November 26, 1941, sent a war warning message to Short and Kimmel.
Short reacted, and reacted in a completely inappropriate manner. He had developed a fifth columnist paranoia, and had the fighters clustered in the middle of the airfields, and had the munitions bunkers put under lock and key so that saboteurs could not use AAA ammunition to blow up the planes. Fuchida and company could hardly believe what they were seeing when they attacked Hickham field and found the fighters set up like sitting ducks in the middle of the airfield (Short's idea was to keep them as far from the fences as possible, so that Japanese-American saboteurs could not get at them). Kimmel did just about nothing. (It is also worth noting that MacArthur did nothing, and he had news of the attack on Hawaii before his own aircraft were attacked on the ground in the Philippines. That attack came from Formosa, what we call Taiwan, and it was socked in with fog for hours after the attack on Hawaii--MacArthur had hours to respond, and he did nothing.)
Not everyone reacted badly, or failed to react, though. Halsey was steaming with a carrier division toward Wake Island when he received the war warning. He immediately ordered the division to go to a war footing, and to post watches accordingly and sent his destroyers out to aggressively search for submarines, with orders to attack any sub they encountered which was not supposed to be there (i.e., not known to be an American sub). The commander of the destroyer U.S.S. Blue
on his own initiative began patrolling aggressively in Hawaii, and convinced the other destroyer commanders in his division to do so, and he found and attacked a sub at the entrance to the ship channel to Pearl Harbor the night before the attack, and again early on the morning of the attack. His superiors did not respond. The only radar available then in Hawaii was a mobile unit which reported a large flight of aircraft approaching from the north on the morning of the attack--they were told it was just some B17s coming from Los Angeles, and were ordered back to the base--they were then operating only at night! No one seems to have remembered that Los Angeles is east of Hawaii, not north, nor that the exact number of planes in the group of B17s (18, i think) was known, and did not approach the at least dozens which they mobile radar crew had reported. The duty officer who ordered them back to base did not report to his superiors.
Security for this operation was probably the finest the Imperial Navy ever enacted. The crews of Admiral Nagumo's First Air Fleet, including the flight crews and all flight officers except Fuchida did not know that they had trained for an attack on Hawaii, or that they were steaming to make such an attack, until they were at sea. The Japanese maintained perfect radio silence throughout the week which they required to reach the launch point north of Hawaii.
Nevertheless, the historical myth persists to this day that FDR had certain knowledge of the attack and did nothing because he wanted war.
The same thing comes from the Left, as well. At the time that Nixon started bombing North Vietnam, academic historians in the United States began to claim that the bombing of Germany in the Second World War had not affected their production, and that such bombing was futile.
To cobble this story together, it was necessary to indulge several distortions and to ignore a good deal of evidence which was well known. The basic bald claim was that the Germans reached the height of their war production after
the Allies reached the peak of their bombing campaign. The distortions come in several forms. It ignores that German industry stopped producing consumer goods, including the crucial area of "durable goods." That may not seem important, but it's hard to feed a nation when farmers can't get farm machinery and tools--and the Germans were starving by late 1944. It ignores that the dramatic increase in the production of synthetic fuel resulted from the near destruction of the Ploesti oil fields in Romania by air raids which cost the United States Army Air Force horribly, but which cut German fuel supplies dramatically--one third of the petroleum upon which Germany relied came from Ploesti, and synthetic fuels did not make up the loss. It ignores that aerial bombardment lead the Germans to disperse their production facilities, and to set many of them up in remote areas or underground. This dramatically interfered with their ability to provide logistical support for their armies.
There were two other major distortions--these historical "analyses" relied upon early assessments by the Eighth Army Air Force of the effectiveness of their raids. The first distortion is that the AAF itself did not feel the raids were effective. In the early assessment, G2 did not know how properly to read aerial photographs of the targets after they had been bombed. A bomb which goes through the roof of a three story building can blow out the windows and doors, and destroy everything inside, but still leave a shell standing with what appears to be an essentially undamaged roof. One of their first targets was Schweinfurt in Franconia, which was the ball-bearing and roller-bearing "capital" of Germany. This was intended to cripple the German aircraft industry (hitting ball- and roller-bearing production would cripple the Navy and the armored divisions, as well), and the raid had a second mission, to attack the Messerschmidt factory at Regensburg. The casualties were horrible, and a second mission two months later was equally costly, leading Eighth Air Force to cancel all daylight missions into Germany for five months. These jokers in the 1970s were ignoring the fact that post-war analysis showed that daylight bombing was far more effective than it was thought to be at the time.
But these academic historians were either ignorant of good historiography in military history, or willfully ignoring the implications. Albert Speer, who was in charge of industrial production for Hitler, arrived at Schweinfurt the next day, and was appalled by what he saw. American daylight bombing doctrine called for 10% of bombs withing 1000 feet of ground zero. Post-war analysis shows that, despite the horrible casualties, bomber crews who survived to drop their bomb loads put almost 40% of their bombs within 1000 feet of ground zero. Since the industry was located within the town's commercial and residential districts, Army Air Force intelligence analysts were horrified to think that they had done nothing more than the English were doing with their night-time raids over German industrial cities' residential districts.
But Speer estimated that Germany had lost 65% of their ball- and roller-bearing production for three months. Not only had the bombing been more effective than G2 staff thought looking rather cluelessly at aerial photographs of the first major raid they had mounted, but as the ball- and roller-bearing factories relied on delicate and sensitive machine tools, even a near miss could put a machine out of action. Furthermore, sprinkler systems and the water pumped in by fire brigades further damaged the machine tools needed to make these items. This would play out in just about all the German factories we hit in daylight raids.
Speer's response, a completely reasonable one, was to disperse ball- and roller-bearing production, which further delayed the process of coming up to speed on that production, and made it more difficult and dangerous to assemble the needed parts for the production of aircraft, tanks and submarines. And this leads to the greatest historical facts which these partisan historians were obliged to ignore.
After the two disastrous Schweinfurt/Regensburg raids, Eight Army Air Force suspended daylight raids into Germany for five months--into early 1944. Eisenhower, planning his invasion of France, sought and received permission to take charge of Eighth Army Air Force and Royal Air Force Bomber Command operations in preparation for the invasion. His G3 officers came up with the Transportation Plan. They hit every highway and railway bridge, every tunnel, every railroad marshaling yard, every canal--every anything you could drive, cycle or walk on in western Germany and in France. They devastated the communication systems of France and Germany. Their efforts were so minutely targeted that Rommel accurately predicted that Normandy was the target months before the invasion (he was, of course, ignored--the United States was not the only country where military leaders believed what they wanted to believe, as opposed to the evidence before their eyes).
So, the Army Air Force had about two months of daylight bombing after they resumed the operations before Eisenhower's boys took over mission planning. Historians in the United States in the 1970s either knew this and ignored it, or were too stupid about military history to realize the depth of their hebetude. That German production may
have reached a peak after daylight bombing reached that putative peak was meaningless in the face of the destruction of the communications network. It doesn't do you much good to produce the finest ball-bearings in the world if you can't reliably deliver them to the folks who are depending on them.
After the Normandy invasion, the Transportation Plan pretty quickly ran out of targets. Their resources were enormous--on D-Day, the Army Air Force and the Royal Air force flew 14,827 sorties over Normandy (a sortie is one plane flying one mission--a plane can fly more than one sortie per day, and with the target being Normandy, they could fly several). Soon, they were reduced to bombing crossroads in Normandy. They were killing more Normans than they were Germans. By August, the French were complaining bitterly, and Eisenhower's staff admitted that they didn't really know what else they could blow up. Eisenhower released the bomber forces to make their own mission plans, and by then the P51 Mustang was available to escort the bombers to the target, escort them back to Aachen (the farthest range of the P47 Thunderbolts and Hawker Hurricanes who escorted them home), and still had hours to shoot up everything in sight. Locomotive busting was a favorite pastime, because the results were so spectacular if you hit the sumbitch. I saw Chuck Yeager in a televison interview, and he said: "What the Spitfire could do for 40 minutes, the Mustang could do eight hours." Adolf Galland, the head of the Lutfwaffe fighter command at the end of the war, tells how Mustangs would follow German fighters home, and shoot the Hell out of the airfield when they got there. By the end of the war, Galland recounts that they were landing on logging roads in forests, and hiding their planes under canopies in clearings. Asked after the war when he knew it was lost, Goering said when he saw the first Mustang over Berlin.
If for no other reason, the dispersement of German industry and the destruction of the communications network assured the fatal crippling of the German war machine. There were many other problems, as well. The Germans tended to "overbuild" their equipment. When the Imperial War Museum (in England) was restoring a Focke-Wulf 190 in the 1980s, they sent the engine and shaft to Rolls-Royce to be checked out. It was sent back, and they were told that it was in good condition, but not to damage it, because Rolls-Royce could not grind shafts and bearings to that fine a tolerance. The Tiger and Panther series tanks had no equals on the battlefield, but they were high maintenance tanks, and the destruction of the communications system meant that it was increasingly difficult for units to keep their machines in the field. They also produced a few thousand of them, while the Soviet Union produced more than 80,000 T-series tanks, and the United States produced 50,000 of the Sherman tanks alone. The Germans in the field had a saying: "A tiger tank can take out 10 Shermans before they can get him--and the Amis (the Americans) always have at least 11."
The final nail in the coffin of this left-wing historical myth is that the analogy fails altogether. Germany had to produce all the equipment it used, even if it stole raw materials and slave labor from other nations. Any success in bombing raids was a serious blow to their ability to make war. But North Vietnam was simply a customer--they didn't manufacture their AK47s, their MiGs or their SAM missiles--they were supplied by the Soviet Union, by Warsaw Pact nations or by China. That's why the Navy bombed Holy Livin' Hell out of Haiphong harbor. In the Second World War, we could get at German production. In Vietnam, we couldn't "bomb 'em into the stone age," they had barely left that condition. We could not affect their war materials production, because it wasn't in Vietnam.
These clowns produced a serious distortion of history in order to attack to the bombing campaign against North Vietnam, when the best argument against it apparently escaped them altogether. Nevertheless, the historical myth that Allied bombing failed to harm German industrial production in World War Two persists to this day.
You perhaps didn't know those details, but i'm sure that principle comes as no surprise to you.