The Magazine

What Makes a Man of the Century

There were lots of important individuals, but one stands out

Jan 3, 2000, Vol. 5, No. 16 • By DAVID FRUM
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"He understood that reality is more than the facts before you; it's also how you feel about them, how you react to them, what your attitude is." That was one of President Clinton's reasons for choosing Franklin Roosevelt as his "man of the century," and a mighty revealing reason it is, too. After all, if the ability to disregard facts is the sign of a great president, then Clinton ranks somewhere ahead of Lincoln.

If Clinton's explanation of his selection raised eyebrows, however, his actual answer was the ultimate Rhodes-scholarship-interview safe choice. He was hardly going to say V. I. Lenin, was he? But maybe he should have.

The world has just lived through a century of almost unmeasurable violence and destruction. Since 1914, some 200 million people have died violently or as a result of politically induced famine. That's 50 percent more people than lived in FDR's United States. It's about as many as the total population of the whole world at the close of the first millennium.

A morally alert assessment of the men of our century has to take the terrible events of our century into account. And measured against those events, FDR has to be found wanting. Of the three great killers of this century, one (Mao) was aided by Communist sympathizers within the Roosevelt administration, who tilted American policy in his favor in 1944-45. Another (Stalin) benefited from Roosevelt's almost willful naivete about the Soviet Union. Roosevelt apparently believed that if only he granted Stalin enough concessions -- from control of Poland to the repatriation of Soviet prisoners of war -- he could somehow avert a postwar confrontation. Instead Roosevelt's concessions cost millions of lives and sullied the history of the United States -- and the confrontation came anyway.

Roosevelt's record even on the third killer, Hitler, is spotty. Roosevelt understood Hitler's danger early, but he hesitated to jeopardize his hopes for an unprecedented third term by riling isolationist opinion, which was at least as strong within his own party as it was in the Republican opposition. Roosevelt had substantial Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress when France fell in June 1940, but he solemnly denied that he would ever send Americans to fight Hitler and waited until his reelection was in the bag to propose his Lend-Lease plan.

Roosevelt's accomplishments as president were enormous. He transformed the political culture of the United States -- arguably for the worse, but still no small task. If his economic policies prolonged and exacerbated the Depression (as many economists now think), his new federal welfare programs at least averted social strife. If he postponed America's entry into World War II for a costly 18 months, his maneuverings did ensure that when war was at last declared, it was declared almost unanimously. Nevertheless, although Roosevelt rightly ranks first in importance among American presidents of this century, it is hard to see how world history would have proceeded very differently if, say, he'd lost the 1940 election to Wendell Willkie. The United States would still have entered the war and, once the United States was in, the defeat of Japan and Germany was well-nigh inevitable.

The true candidates for man of the century are the men without whom history would have taken a radically different turn, either for better or worse. This might seem a philistine criterion. After all, if one were putting together a list of candidates for the 19th century, one would look at names like Austen, Beethoven, Goethe, Faraday, Darwin, Marx, Verdi, Monet, Nietzsche, and Rockefeller. Why not Edison, Freud, Puccini, Picasso, Chaplin, Einstein, Keynes, Hayek, Solzhenitsyn, or Gates to represent ours? But then, that's the kind of century it's been. With any luck, the next one will belong to the artists, thinkers, and businessmen once more.

So, the runners-up, please:

1. Kaiser Wilhelm II's grandfather, Wilhelm I, lived to be 91. Had Wilhelm II's father enjoyed the same longevity, instead of dying of throat cancer at age 57, the crisis of 1914 would have landed on the desk of a peace-loving Frederick III instead of the bellicose and mentally unstable Wilhelm. It seems highly unlikely that Frederick would have told his Austrian allies to do as they pleased and then vanished on a month-long holiday cruise. In law, the blame for an accident attaches to the person with the last clear chance to prevent it from happening. If the same rule held for history, then Wilhelm II was the author of World War I.