There has never been an American president charged with criminal misconduct. But in the wake of the small storage container worth of top-secret documents removed from Mar-a-Lago, there is a strong likelihood that future presidents can be indicted for crimes. This is a monumental achievement when you consider how many U.S. presidents committed acts that fall somewhere on the scale of criminality.
Arguably, presidents on both sides of the aisle committed major criminal acts. Further, while “they’re only human,” a phrase often invoked to downplay someone’s culpability, not everyone makes mistakes that end thousands of lives. And only one person is trusted with the highest power in the land. If there’s anyone who should be unimpeachable, it’s the president.
Warren G. Harding: The Teapot Dome Scandal
President, Home-Wrecker, Party Boy
Republican, 29th President 1921-1923, Complicit in Administration’s Scandal
WGH was elected in the wake of WWI on a campaign of a “return to normalcy.” His presidency is largely considered one of the worst in American history. Also, in a matter of neither here nor there, he was a notorious philanderer who nicknamed his penis jerry.
WGH’s womanizing may have even led to him getting slashed in the back when the relationship went south. This also may have resulted in him getting blackmailed. Further, WGH didn’t endear himself to historians for his habit of drinking in the White House despite publicly supporting prohibition.
At the time, the Teapot Dome scandal was one of the most scandalous events in the history of the American presidency. In a nutshell, rich oil barons bribed government officials for leases on government land.
President Harding may not have been directly implicated in the corruption carried out under his administration, but he was aware of it and made no effort to stop it. In fact, he even asked future President Herbert Hoover if the matter should be exposed. Hoover said yes, but Harding declined to do anything.
Members of the “Ohio Gang,” including former Secretary of the Interior, Albert Fall, and head of the Veterans Bureau, Charles R. Forbes, were charged with bribery and accepting bribes, respectively, among other charges. Harding died three years into his term and was never charged with a crime.
WGH could have done something and didn’t, and refusing to do anything is still an action. The next two presidents were more directly involved in their “crimes,” but the illegality is more opaque.
Dwight Eisenhower- Invading Other Countries
President, Esteemed Military Leader
Republican, 34th President 1953-1961, Authorized and Planned The Overthrow of Multiple Countries
Dwight “Ike” Eisenhower enjoyed a successful military career before switching to a brief, less successful academic career. He quickly returned to military life, and eventually went into politics.
President Eisenhower decided to overthrow Iran, Guatemala, and Indonesia.
In July of 1953, Eisenhower gave final approval for the operational plan, codenamed TPAJAX, of the coup of Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed Mosaddeq and his government. The overthrow was seen as a means to protect America’s oil interests in the region.
Eisenhower also interfered with Guatemala’s government. This was a result of Guatemala electing the democratic leader, President Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán in 1951, which the US viewed as counter to national interests.
This was a specific threat to the United Fruit Company’s interests. The company used Guatemala as a place to grow a single crop, bananas—which is also where we get the derogatory term/clothing store for teens: banana republic. The new government bought back their land from what UFC had priced it at, which enraged the fruit company as they had downplayed the value of the land so they could pay fewer taxes.
This new land distribution did not sit well with the UFC, so the company pulled some strings. President Eisenhower authorized the overthrow of President Árbenz in August 1953 via “Operations PBSucess.” After the successful coup, four decades of genocidal terror ensued that took 200,000 civilian lives.
President Eisenhower also took a stab at toppling Indonesia in 1965’s Operation HAIK. Eisenhower’s successor even acknowledged as much. JFK said it was “no wonder” the president of Indonesia didn’t like the U.S., as he had to “sit down with the people who tried to overthrow him.” (from The Invisible Government)
Despite criticism from both democrats and republicans throughout his presidency, President Eisenhower enjoyed high approval ratings during his administration. It helped that the governmental overthrows were covert operations that weren’t exposed until years later.
John F. Kennedy: Invading Other Countries
President, Icon, Man Who Knew How to Throw a Birthday Party
Democrat, 35th President, 1961-1963
The Invasion of South Vietnam/Bay of Pigs
JFK was an iconic figure, a charismatic speaker, and an inspiration to many. Albeit, his ability to follow through on all his grand rhetoric may have, at times, not quite lived up to expectations. He was also a bit slower to act on behalf of civil rights than some may remember.
In 1961, Cuban exiles, trained and bankrolled by the CIA, attempted to overthrow Fidel Castro. The invasion failed for several reasons, including the landing being thrown off by coral, which sank some of the landing aircraft. The CIA experts had apparently thought the coral was seaweed.
Then, in 1963, the US invaded Vietnam as part of the “domino theory” that if Vietnam fell to communism, the surrounding countries would also fall.
Vietnam was an overall disaster, but the Bay of Pigs invasion is an especially dark stain on JFK’s presidency. He was assassinated two years into his presidency.
Americans were horrified when years later leaked study from the Department of Defense, AKA the “Pentagon Papers,” revealed government officials knew the war was doomed before it began.
But invading another country isn’t illegal. Right?
Legal scholars have even argued that the US violated the Geneva Accords with its involvement in Vietnam. However, one could counter that the documents contained in the accords were nonbinding.
In reference to the Cuban invasion, a political scientist at the University of Havana, Carlos Alzugaray, says Americans consider the invasion a failure, but it failed because it should never have happened to begin with. Alzugaray compares it to if Americans trained a bunch of Canadians to invade Canada.
Linguist and former MIT professor, Noam Chomsky, argues that the governmental overthrows could be considered illegal. But illegal to whom? It could be argued that it’s against international law to invade or topple another country. Just this year, the U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres said:
“The use of force by one country against another is the repudiation of the principles that every country committed to uphold[ing]… It is wrong. It is against the (United Nations) Charter. It is unacceptable.”
The only difference here is that Guterres was talking about Russia invading Ukraine.
In part two, yet more presidents will be discussed. Including, one blatant criminal, and perhaps a surprising offender.