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
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts



"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.


2. In the spring of 1917, the repeatedly defeated French army mutinied. Under very similar circumstances 23 years later, the French capitulated. Had they done so in April 1917, the First World War would have ended with a German victory before a single American soldier had entered the field, and Europe from Paris to Warsaw would have been ruled by a radicalized German autocracy. That the French stayed in the war was very largely the work of one fierce man: the newspaper editor, then prime minister, Georges Clemenceau.


3. Walter Rathenau was the great German-Jewish industrialist who mobilized the German economy for total war after 1915 and along the way created the first functioning command economy. Not only did Rathenau prolong the First World War, but his methods inspired Lenin and became the basis for Soviet economic planning.


4. What we call the Russian Revolution was really V. I. Lenin's coup d'etat. In the chaos and defeat of 1917, it was Lenin alone among the Russian radicals who saw an opportunity to seize power. If he had been hit by a tram in Zurich, Trotsky and company would have dithered the revolutionary moment away, and some reactionary but harmless general would have seized power. Instead, one fanatical man created the world's first totalitarian dictatorship and the first state at war with its own people and bequeathed it to his disciple, Joseph Stalin.


5. A joint nomination: Helmuth von Moltke and Giulio Douhet. One of the great achievements of European civilization in the 18th and 19th centuries was the broad acceptance of laws of war. War was to begin with a formal declaration, civilians were not to be targeted, soldiers who surrendered were to have their lives spared, and so on. And one of the great relapses into savagery of our century is that these rules have by and large vanished. A tip of the hat, then, to the German general who ordered the shooting of Belgian civilians in August 1914 and to the Italian military theorist who as far back as 1921 envisioned winning wars by the aerial bombing of cities.


6. Suppose the Bavarian cops had shot a little more accurately on November 9, 1923, when a mustache-wearing ex-corporal from Linz staged his ludicrous putsch. Would not everything in our century have been different had Adolf Hitler died on a Munich sidewalk?


7. A mediocre man and in many ways a second-rate president, Harry Truman drew a much harder job than his great predecessor. Roosevelt took the country into war; it was Truman's job to create and enforce an enduring peace. It was Truman who pulled and cajoled a reluctant country into paying the bills to reconstruct Europe. It was he too who halted the demobilization of 1945-46, and called the country to 45 wearisome years of confrontation with communism.


8. Of the 100 million victims of communism counted by the authors of The Black Book of Communism, Mao Zedong was guilty of the deaths of more than half. Pol Pot killed a greater percentage of his own countrymen. Hitler killed more violently and more quickly. Stalin was more personally cruel. But some recognition must go to the most blood-stained human being in world history.


9. Richard Nixon. What?! No Ronald Reagan? Republican loyalists may well wonder. But Ronald Reagan only became electable in the first place because Richard Nixon had inadvertently smashed to pieces the statist economic consensus that governed the democratic world from 1930 until 1975. Ronald Reagan may have told us that price controls, uncontrolled government spending, and loose monetary policy were a formula for misery. It was Richard Nixon who proved it.


10. You don't have to be a great man to have a great impact. If our terrible century has had a reasonably happy ending, it occurred very largely because of a colossal miscalculation by the last of the Soviet general secretaries, Mikhail Gorbachev. He believed that if he liberalized his rule, he could strengthen his regime without overthrowing it. He believed that if he relaxed his hostility to the West, he could collect aid for the modernization of his empire. And he believed that if he pushed the hard-line rulers of his satellite regimes to one side, they would be replaced by reformist Communists much like himself. But precisely because he got it all so wrong, communism collapsed in Eastern Europe with hardly a fatality. Imagine what might have happened if Russia had been ruled in 1989 by a man with the acuity to perceive how ferociously he, his system, and his country were hated by those they ruled.


One possible criticism of this list of runners-up is that it's rather heavy with Germans. But then, how could it not be? Fritz Stern, the German-Jewish emigre historian, wist-fully recalls in one of his books a day "in April 1979 in West Berlin. Raymond Aron and I were walking to an exhibit commemorating the centenary of the births of Einstein, Max von Laue, Otto Hahn, and Lisa Meitner. We were passing bombed-out squares and half-decrepit mansions, when Aron suddenly stopped at a crossing, turned to me, and said, 'It should have been Germany's century.'"


Instead it became America's. If the rules of the man-of-the-century parlor game permitted collective winners, the best entry might well be that proposed by the editors of Newsweek magazine: the American soldier and taxpayer. Again and again over the past hundred years, people with evil ambitions have spun their plans on the assumption that the American republic was too chaotic, too pacifist, or too weak-willed to stop them. From the kaiser to the Kremlin, they got the surprise of their lives. But rules are rules. The man of the century has to be an individual, not 200 million people.


Which man? Actually, this is one parlor game that isn't too hard. Because the story is ending happily, he should have been a force for good -- which rules out Hitler and Lenin. He should have been great in his personal attributes as well as his accomplishments -- which rules out Truman. And he must have been indispensable: a man but for whom all that came after would have been radically different -- which rules out Gorbachev and John Paul II as well as FDR.


So who? Who else but Winston L. S. Churchill? If he'd been killed by that car that struck him on Fifth Avenue in 1931, Britain would almost certainly have cut a deal with Hitler in May 1940, as John Lukacs compellingly argues in his excellent new book, Five Days in London. Even Patrick Buchanan might have been chilled by the result.


President Clinton explained his choice of Roosevelt by noting that as a patriot he had to choose an American. Churchill was not only the son of an American mother, but one of only five honorary citizens of the United States. There must be something else that disqualified him in Clinton's eyes, and after reading Lukacs one can almost guess what it must have been. The crucial moment in Churchill's life was the moment when he prevailed upon a terrified British cabinet to fight on under seemingly hopeless circumstances. Can it possibly be that Clinton has the self-knowledge to understand that if by some freak of fate he'd been sitting around that cabinet table, he'd have been one of those who wanted to cut a deal?




David Frum is a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD. His history of the 1970s, How We Got Here, will be published next month by Basic Books.