Eight U.S. presidents died while in office, and one president resigned before his term ended. Vice president of the United States is generally considered to be a position without power or influence. Even if the vice presidency is a low profile position, it is important because of the possibility that the VP may be required to assume the presidential office. Consider “Teddy” Roosevelt, Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson. Each of these vice presidents assumed the presidency when the president died. Each played a significant role in American history.
When President McKinley was assassinated in 1901, Vice President Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt stepped up to the plate at age 42. He became a dynamic and popular president. In the absence of laws and regulations, corporate monopolies (trusts) were forming, and those trusts were impeding competition. “Teddy” Roosevelt became a “trust buster.” Roosevelt signed the first food and drug laws and meat inspection laws. Those laws were designed to make consumer food and drug products safe. “Teddy” was an early conservationist. He provided the inspiration and political leadership for the establishment of the United States Forest Service, the designation of national forests, federal bird reserves, national game preserves, and national parks.
“Teddy” Roosevelt was a driving force behind the expansion and upgrading of the U.S. Navy. He sent a fleet of battleships and escort ships on a round the world cruise. The ships were painted white and labeled the “Great White Fleet.” Although they made good will visits, they carried Roosevelt’s message that America had arrived on stage and intended to play a major role in world affairs. Roosevelt was nearsighted, but he was definitely not shortsighted. He gave America the Panama Canal. The canal has been a very valuable economic and military asset. It allows ships, military and commercial, to transfer from coast to coast and ocean to ocean without the long and rough trip around South America.
When President Franklin Delano Roosevelt died on April 12, 1945, Harry Truman instantly switched from an obscure vice presidential role to the world’s most prominent job. World War II was still in progress although the war in Europe was essentially over. Germany signed unconditional surrender terms less than a month after Truman became president. The Japanese remained belligerent. Their naval fleet had been destroyed and their Pacific outposts had been conquered or isolated. But they were preparing for a fierce defense of their homeland. Casualty estimates made by the Japanese and those made by the Americans were staggering. Four months into his presidency, Truman ordered the use of nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The Japanese surrendered. Truman’s action, although controversial, inadvertently gave the world a vaccination, an understanding of the destructiveness of nuclear weapons — prime incentive to avoid their use in the future.
During Truman’s tenure, the Russians blockaded Western access to Berlin. Direct military confrontation could have been dangerous. The U.S. initiated the “Berlin Airlift” that eventually had cargo planes landing in Berlin at the rate 1500 per day. The Russians lifted the blockade. The famous Marshall Plan to provide assistance to war damaged European countries was initiated during the Truman era.
In 1950, during the Truman administration, North Korea invaded South Korea. Truman made the controversial decision to send U.S. military forces into combat in Korea without a constitutional declaration of war. That conflict ended in stalemate. The controversy between the two Koreas remains unresolved.
Vice President Lyndon Johnson took the presidential oath of office on Nov. 22, 1963, the day that President Kennedy was assassinated. Johnson had long experience in congress and retained respect and influence among members of the congress. As president, he successfully promoted social legislation including equal opportunity access to jobs and public accommodations, housing, and voting rights. He promoted the legislation that resulted in Medicare and Medicaid. But Johnson also maneuvered the U.S. into a costly and unnecessary war in Vietnam that roiled U.S. society and had a less than satisfactory outcome. Dissatisfaction with the war was so great that Johnson did not seek re-election in 1968, although he was eligible to do so.
Whatever performance rating we assign to these vice presidents who became presidents on demand, they each had a profound impact on American society. Vice presidents are ordinarily not chosen because they are ideally qualified to become president. They are usually chosen to “balance a ticket,” that is, because they appeal to a faction of voters who are not particularly attracted to the presidential candidate. Vice presidents are like an insurance policy. You hope that you will never have to use it, but, if you do, you want it to be a good insurance policy.
Jack Stevenson is now retired from military service. He served two years in Vietnam as an infantry officer and worked three years as a U.S. Civil Service employee. He also worked in Egypt as an employee of the former Radio Corporation of America (RCA).