The Worst Of The Century

by Thomas Sowell

MANY INDIVIDUALS and groups will have their own lists of the greatest leaders of the twentieth century, but we also need to consider the most evil leaders and those most devastating in their consequences.

Some may think that Adolf Hitler should win that title hands down. But the cold fact is that Josef Stalin killed even more millions of innocent civilians in the Soviet Union than Hitler did in Nazi Germany. No one seems to care how many millions Mao Zedong slaughtered in China, but he too clearly belonged among the bloodiest tyrants in a century full of bloody tyrants.

The slaughters of the Communists around the world were made possible by V. I. Lenin's creation of the first Communist state in the Russian empire that now began to be called the Soviet Union. Lenin's own slaughters dwarfed anything done by a whole succession of czars, though he did not live long enough to run up the numbers that Stalin did later on.

While it may be too close to call as to who deserves the "honor" of being the worst of the worst in this century, what is painfully clear is that these leaders all shared at least one characteristic that is still powerful -- the ability to use words and manipulate emotions as a means of getting control of the levers of political power.

Previous despots acquired power by royal birth or military prowess. The bloodiest dictators of the twentieth century acquired power through words. Worse yet, we seem to have learned nothing from these ghastly experiences. We remain as susceptible to heady words, dazzling visions and runaway emotions as we have ever been, despite having seen the horrors to which it can all lead.

Fortunately, Americans still have the safeguards created by the Constitution of the United States two centuries ago. Yet we barely notice as all these constitutional protections are being steadily eroded away by politicians and judges using heady words, dazzling visions, and runaway emotions.

In an era of dumbed-down education, when history has been forgotten amid trendy new courses and logic is disregarded as a bore, what defense do we have against the next demagogue who knows how to confuse our minds and stir up our passions?

Freedom was not lost all at once, even after Hitler came to power in Germany. It took a whole campaign of political maneuvering, mass propaganda and brutal intimidation before Hitler had the dictatorial powers he needed to carry out his plans.

Ironically, the legislative act which gave him those powers was sold as a bill "to relieve the distress of the German people." We might want to remember that the next time some political savior comes along and promises to relieve our distress.

Thus far, nothing that has been done in America compares with the horrors inflicted by dictators in other countries. But we are not made of different flesh than other people. Americans are in fact the flesh of all the peoples of the world.

Our institutions and traditions have spared us and made us blessed beyond the dreams of people in many other countries around the world. Yet it is these very institutions and traditions that are under constant fire from critics in politics, academia, the media and the judiciary -- in addition to being corrupted by zealots for all sorts of causes and interests, as well as opportunists who are just looking out for Number One.

We don't yet have any candidates for the most evil leader of the century. But we may have one or more in the next century if current trends continue. Just think of all those who have gotten us to surrender our rights and independence, and go along with eroding the rule of law, just by shouting "compassion," "diversity" and "Big Tobacco!"

First among these word masters was President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who used the Great Depression of the 1930s to create bureaucracies that are still with us at the end of the century and raised taxes to levels undreamed of before, as well as filling our courts with judges to whom law means little more than the power to issue judicial fiats.

FDR did it with words, with smiles, with charm, and with "spin." Our current president continues that tradition, corrupting every branch of government in the process. Now that the way has been prepared, we can expect more of the same in the future -- and perhaps our own candidate for the worst leader of the 21st century.

This article appeared in the December 31, 1999 issue of
Jewish World Review.
JWR contributor Thomas Sowell, a fellow at the Hoover Institution, is author, most recently, of The Quest for Cosmic Justice.
1999, Creators Syndicate


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