November 5 is one of the ethically significant days in U.S. history and, as Willy Loman’s wife famously said, “Attention must be paid.” For example,
- On this day in 1912, arguably the most destructive and unethical President in US history, Woodrow Wilson, was elected, thanks to Teddy Roosevelt’s inability to get his ego under control. Wilson, a racist, super-charged Jim Crow; after gaining re-election by boasting that he kept America out of the Great War, he entered the war anyway, destroying the lives of thousands of young men to no discernible purpose. When he was a key member of the “Great Powers” leaders to decided on the terms of the Treaty of Versailles, he permitted ruinously punitive conditions to be imposed on Germany, seeding the anger and nationalism that led to the Second World War. He did this so that his pet project, the League of Nations, would be included in the treaty, and then couldn’t even get the U.S. Congress to approve the idea or join the body itself. Meanwhile, Wilson, against the warnings of medical experts, sent thousands of infected soldiers to Europe, spreading the deadly flu that killed millions. If our current pandemic should be laid at the feet of China, and it should, the so-called Spanish Flu by rights should be remembered as “the American Flu,” or better yet, “Wilson’s Flu.”
As a final unethical flourish, Wilson suffered a debilitating stroke while trying to get the public behind his League of Nations, and allowed his wife and doctor to hide the fact, as they illegally ran the country from his bedside. Despite all this, historians lied to the public for decades, listing him as one of the greatest Presidents, when he may have been the worst.
- In Minnesota on November 5, 1862, more than 300 Santee Sioux were sentenced to hang for their part in an uprising that was probably justified by outrageous mistreatment. A month later, President Lincoln all but 39 of the death sentences and granted a last-minute reprieve to one more, but the other 38 were hanged on December 26 in a mass execution. Lincoln is often criticized for this, but in truth he had a very difficult utilitarian ethics conflict to solve, and, as I wrote here, did his usual good and ethical job. From the post:
He was being lobbied hard to sign the death orders. He could see that the convictions were flawed, but realized that the war, the Union, his leadership, the fate of slavery and his Presidency could not be sacrificed to the Indian wars. On December 1, 1862, he told Congress, “The State of Minnesota has suffered great injury from this Indian war,” signaling that he would not subject his leadership to a perhaps fatal dose of additional unpopularity by completely over-ruling the army.
But it was a difficult choice for him. Lincoln already had a well-established record of applying mercy to the cases of condemned men. In his review of death sentences for desertion, Lincoln over-ruled the trial courts at a rate of approximately 75 percent that steadily increased to 95 percent by the end of 1862. He was also forced to consider how a mass execution would play in France and especially Great Britain, which was then considering whether to recognize the Confederacy as an independent nation, and perhaps whether to provide it assistance.
- On this date in 1968, Richard Nixon was elected President, completing an amazing political comeback after what was thought to be career ending loss to Pat Brown in the 1962 race for California Governor. Nixon achieved this miracle in part by convincing voters that he was a nicer version of the old Tricky Dick, even appearing on “Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In” to mock himself. Later we discovered that Nixon had worked behind the scenes to undermine peace talks between the Johnson Administration and North Vietnam.
Compared to that, Watergate was trivial.
- The decision to sneak-bomb Pearl Harbor was made by the Japanese high command on this date in 1940.
It’s the day that should live in infamy for creating the “day that will live in infamy.”
- On the same day in 1940, President Franklin Roosevelt was re-elected for an unprecedented third term as President. Talk about “breaking norms,” this was a big one: George Washington’s wise decision to rule out the new position of U.S. President becoming a lifetime post was essential to defining the new American democracy, and, like so much of what Washington did, prescient and based on his own analysis. So hallowed was this decision that Teddy Roosevelt took himself out of the running for the 1908 race when he didn’t have to, since technically he had only been elected President once. FDR, however, decided that the twin crises of the Great Depression and the ominous war in Europe justified breaking with tradition. And he was President for Life, running for a fourth term and winning, then dying in office.
“When ethics fails, the law steps in” the Ethics Alarms slogan goes. Realizing that a healthier FDR could well have become an American dictator, we added a Constitutional Amendment making George’s norm the law of the land.