Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman and many patriotic citizens who served in their administrations are fortunate Dwight Eisenhower succeeded them in power rather than Barack Obama.
In response to an attack on the United States that claimed the lives of thousands of Americans, Roosevelt waged a war during which he authorized the forcible relocation and internment of more than 100,000 Japanese nationals and Japanese Americans.
When the FBI arrested eight suspected German saboteurs on U.S. soil, Roosevelt had them tried by a military tribunal, which sent six of them including one American citizen to the electric chair within weeks.
Roosevelt approved military strategies that included firebombing Japanese and German cities. And Truman authorized the use of two atomic weapons on Japan which as President Obama dutifully noted during his recent European apology tour represent history's only use of the ultimate weapon against human targets.
Roosevelt and Truman did not make these decisions lightly, or alone. Lawyers, judges, military officers, scientists and civilian experts all contributed to the creation of wartime policies.
Those policies, considered on a bright, sunny, safe day in April 2009, may appear disturbing. But in the midst of a conflict the United States did not start, against savage and even genocidal enemies racing to develop and use weapons of mass destruction, Roosevelt and Truman made difficult judgments, some of which though incomprehensible to critics today saved American lives and shortened a cataclysmic war.
Eisenhower was more than an armchair observer in a state legislature during this crucible of history. "The hopes and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you," he wrote to the men of the Allied Expeditionary Force before the landing at Normandy. So it is perhaps understandable that after those hopes and prayers were finally answered, Eisenhower felt no need to second-guess the legality or morality of the decisions made by his predecessors in the White House.
If, however, by some fluke of history the 44th president were the 34th president, that might not have been so.
After an attack on the United States that claimed the lives of thousands of Americans, in the midst of a conflict against a savage enemy racing to obtain and use weapons of mass destruction, President Bush developed policies with advice and counsel. He briefed members of Congress about them, including Nancy Pelosi. And, though incomprehensible to critics today, some of those policies saved American lives.
"Those methods, read on a bright, sunny, safe day in April 2009, appear graphic and disturbing," wrote Obama's Director of National Intelligence, Dennis Blair. But they also produced information that helped deter the follow-on attacks everyone expected after Sept. 11, 2001.
Enhanced interrogation methods, Blair wrote, produced "high-value information" that provided a "deeper understanding of the al-Qaida organization attacking this country." That's Obama's intelligence chief, not Dick Cheney.
After releasing the Bush-era memos on enhanced interrogation, Obama said he was opposed to anyone being prosecuted. Then, he allowed, maybe some people would be prosecuted. Does anyone know where criminalizing policy differences would end? Will the next president try to prosecute Obama and those Navy SEALs for shooting Somali pirates before reading them their Miranda rights?
Investigate? Yes. We need to have a clear understanding of what decisions were made, right or wrong, and the context in which they were made.
But if individuals making difficult judgments during those dark and uncertain days of 2001 and 2002 can be prosecuted for doing what they believed was legal, moral and necessary to save American lives, then every president including Obama will be the weaker for it. So will the nation.