04/17/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Lessons in American Leadership, on Presidents Day 2010

Scarcely a day passes without a commentator or pundit calling attention to the faltering future of American hegemony -- the nation held hostage to terrorist threats, our vast national debt tied to the People's Republic of China, our military overstretched across the globe, our ability to provide health care to all of our citizens a mockery among first-world nations ... Opponents of our elected government seem nevertheless blind to the very past that has made this country so dominant since the United States accepted leadership of the free world during World War II, and the leaders who have steered us through the best and worst of times.

The twelve men who presided over America's -- and the word's -- fate, up to our current chief executive, were by no means perfect, either as presidents or as human beings. It is their patent individuality, their unique characters and characteristics that impress us in retrospect. Some -- like Truman, Eisenhower, Johnson, Nixon, Ford and Clinton, came from humble, hardscrabble backgrounds. Others, like FDR, JFK, Carter and the Bushes, were born into wealth. Either way, they rose to supreme authority as Commanders-in-Chief of the world's most powerful empire.

The greatest of these Caesars -- as the Roman historian Suetonius would have called them -- were the first four.

In FDR the United States found a leader not only committed to rescue America's foundering economy by "bold experimentation," but when war came, to use America's new industrial arsenal to defeat the empires of Japan and Nazi Germany. He was also a great war leader -- patient when battles did not go America's way, but proving himself a great generalissimo in directing the war's political and military strategy without interfering (as Churchill was wont to do) with its prosecution on the ground. It was FDR, after all, who personally chose General Dwight D. Eisenhower to command the D-Day invasion -- the largest amphibious invasion in human history, and the making of a great future president, who would keep America out of foreign wars, while maintaining America's global leadership role throughout the 1950s.

Harry Truman was the second greatest of America's first twelve Caesars. His decision to mount a Berlin Airlift rather than pursue military confrontation with the Soviets marked the beginning of a policy of "containment" which, though disappointing to prisoners in Russian gulags and those held in subjection across Eastern Europe, eventually bore its ultimate fruit in the collapse of the Soviet Union without an Armageddon.

John F. Kennedy I would list, after Eisenhower, as the last of the four "great" American Caesars since World War II. As Truman first failed to fire MacArthur when the Supreme Commander insisted in crossing the 38th Parallel in Korea, and risking war -- even nuclear war -- with the Chinese in 1950, so President Kennedy failed to fire the gung-ho warriors pressing for an invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs in 1961. But -- like Truman -- JFK learned his lesson, and in perhaps the greatest display of presidential leadership since World War II, he overrode the militarists in his administration and found a benign way to resolve the Cuban Missile Crisis the following year.

Lessons, for good and ill, are legion in the study of the American Caesars. At the very moment he was pushing through the greatest legislative undertaking of the century over Civil Rights, President Johnson's misfortune was to bow to pressure from Goldwater patriots baying for open war in Vietnam in 1964 -- with disastrous results. Among Richard Nixon's many egregious acts was his "treason" (as LBJ called it) when confounding President Johnson's final attempt at making peace with the North Vietnamese in 1968 -- assuring Nixon's election, but giving rise to tens of thousands of unnecessary American casualties in the ongoing war. Yet it was Nixon who, as President, then confounded his own right-wing backers by negotiating peaceful economic and military co-existence with the Communist dictator, Mao Zedong -- despite having denounced the "loss of China" to Communism for decades.

Nixon's successor, Gerald Ford, proved the most honorable Caesar, yet the least prepared for high office. The most effective Caesar in terms of global transition was undoubtedly President H.W. Bush, when guiding the world during the collapse of the Soviet Union in the years 1989-1991, while the most visionary American Caesar, from the environmental point of view, was the well-intentioned but militarily hapless Jimmy Carter, U.S. President during the Iran hostage crisis, and responsible for arming the mujahidin in Afghanistan. The most economically astute yet behaviorally-challenged was President Bill Clinton, who courageously ushered in America's deficit-busting years in the 1990s and brought the war in Bosnia to an end - yet of all the Caesars, it was the arch-opponent of big government, the Eureka College "C" student of Economics, President Ronald Reagan who had best understood, almost alone among Western leaders, how to carry a big stick while bankrupting the Soviet Union in the 1980s.

The point is, almost every president we have elected (or appointed, in the case of Ford) in the past seven decades has sought to advance the fortunes of the US empire and the free world, on a continually threatened planet. Their lessons in governance, for good and ill, are our lessons -- and if, in the run-up to President's Day, we minimize the role and global responsibilities of the US President to that of a "charismatic guy with a teleprompter," we are doing our proud quasi-imperial history a disservice -- and setting ourselves up for inevitable decline and fall within the wider world.

Nigel Hamilton's American Caesars: Lives of the Presidents, Franklin D. Roosevelt to George W. Bush will be published in July.