My choices for the 8 most underrated people, objects or events of the 20th Century

Here are just a few aspects of the 20th Century which don't seem to get the attention they deserve:

  1. Technology

    Every book I've read which calls itself as a history of the 20th Century (as well as my own website) focuses on wars, elections, revolutions and legislation. They usually spend several pages discussing Hermann Goering, a mere Nazi toady, while completely ignoring Philo Farnsworth, the man who probably invented television.

    Let's face it, two hundred years from now, no one will bother to differentiate between our World Wars any more than we differentiate between the various Wars of Somebody's Succession, but they will be teaching that the technology that emerged in this century changed the world more drastically than any election or war ever did.

  2. Stalin

    Most 20th Century wrap-ups have a quota: one inhuman monster and that's all, so they go with Hitler. Stalin didn't even make Time Magazine's 100, except as a footnote to Hitler.

    Now, I'm not saying that I like the guy, nor am I going to get into that stale old argument over who was worse, Hitler or Stalin (Hitler was. Reason: Stalin was maxxed out, but Hitler was just getting started. Left unchecked, Hitler would have gotten even worse.), but the fact is that Stalin cast a much wider shadow over the Century than Hitler did. He started sooner, lasted longer, and throughout most of the era that the two dictators shared, Stalin controlled more people.

    In fact, Stalin unifies the century far more effectively than any other single theme. Usually, Hitler is treated as the hub of the 20th Century. Not only is the rise of Nazism and the Second World War always discussed in enormous detail, but earlier events like the First World War and the Great Depression are treated as mere causes of Hitler's emergence. The problem is, the Century loses its unity once the war clouds settle. The post-war era just sort of sputters along aimlessly.

    Using Stalin as the century's linchpin keeps the Second World War at the Century's core and keeps the First World War as a necessary precursor, but it also binds the Russian Revolution and the rise of Mao to the major flow of history, rather than treating them as isolated sideshows. It brings the Cold War into the main narrative as a natural outcome of earlier events, rather than as a sudden break in history.

    (Yes, earlier I called the Cold War overrated, but overrated is not the same as unimportant.)

    And one final depressing note, while Hitler makes a much better morality play (After inciting the mob and riding electoral success to become leader of a free (until then) democracy, he committed unparalleled atrocities and was taken down by the wrath of a unified world in a final apocalyptic fury.), Stalin is more typical of tyrants throughout history. He lurked in the shadows, manipulated his way to the head of a pre-existing autocracy, consolidated power brutally and died peacefully in bed, undefeated, unpunished.

  3. The Moon Landing

    Now that it's a done deed, we tend to trivialize it, but take a moment to clear your mind and ponder it without bias.

    Within this past century -- within the lifetime of many of us here -- humans left their native planet and stood on the surface of an alien world for the first time.

    Other firsts of the 20th Century (first woman on the US Cabinet, first gay Olympic champion, first inter-racial kiss on American television) would be utterly meaningless to aliens from Tau Ceti, but they would instantly recognize the significance of the moon landing. We should too.

  4. Thurgood Marshall

    This is man we should be honoring with a national holiday. As lead counsel for the good guys in the case of Brown vs. the Board of Education, Marshall may have had more individual responsibility for integration than any other person. As first AfrAm appointed to the United States Supreme Court, he wielded more real power than any other black man in history.

    The problem with Marshall's legacy -- and the main reason he isn't canonized along with King -- is that Marshall wasn't conveniently killed off before he achieved real power. That means we have his opinions on a wide variety of issues, spanning several decades, and annoying many powerful interests, so it's harder to make nice with his memory, while trashing his cause, the way folks do with King.

    (and while we're on the subject....)

  5. Any U.S. Supreme Court Justice, especially Earl Warren.

    Do I really need to point out how many major policy changes in the American social contract were enacted by judicial decision rather than legislation? Why then do we slice our American political histories into presidential administrations (Truman - Eisenhower - Kennedy) and not into chief justiceships (Stone - Vinson - Warren)? Why did the Time 100 ask historians to rank presidents, but not justices?

    Whether we like this trend or not, we should at least admit that some Supreme Court justices have done more to shape the United States than most presidents have.

  6. Chinese Revolution (1911-12)

    Just for starters, it put a quarter of humanity on boil for half a century. Add to this the fact that it pretty much extinguished a major world religion by removing the focus of Chinese public life.

    Why don't we hear more about it?

  7. Tangshan Earthquake (1976)

    The worst single day in human history.

  8. Japan

    Most English-language historians treat the Japanese as an insectlike collective without any recognizable individuals. It's time to start fleshing out their history. For example, most educated Americans recognize a few non-American businessmen like Krupp or Rothschild, but who are the industrialists behind Japan? We usually know the names of the Nazi inner circle, but who ordered the Nanking Massacre? Most educated Americans can recognize Churchill, Clemanceau, Lloyd George and DeGaulle, but can anyone name a single Japanese Prime Minister?

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Last updated October 1999

Copyright © 1999 Matthew White