Yesterday, on my way in to work, I was listening to ESPN radio and Mike Greenberg made a bold assertion (paraphrased slightly):
Jackie Robinson is one of the ten most important Americans of the twentieth century. Not just sports figures, Americans.
Contrary sort that I am, my first thought was “I don’t think I believe that.”
Which is not to say that Robinson wasn’t an important American of the twentieth century. I don’t think there’s any question that he’s the most important twentieth century American from the world of sports (trailed by Muhammed Ali and Jesse Owens, and then a big step down to Babe Ruth), and I think he’s in the discussion for the overall list, but top ten?
Any list of important Americans of the twentieth century pretty much has to start with FDR. Yeah, the libertoonians all hate him for expanding the government, but he got us out of the Depression, into World War II, and was hugely influential in shaping the post-war world, though he didn’t live to see it. I think he’s unquestionably the most important American of the twentieth century.
Woodrow Wilson is another wartime President who absolutely has to be on the list, though I’d say his record is a little more checkered than Roosevelt’s– he wasn’t one of the more enlightened thinkers about race that we’ve ever had. Still, he dealt with World War I, and played a significant part, for good or ill, in the Treaty of Versailles and the shaping of the world between the wars, and that gets him a spot in the top ten.
There are a bunch of other Presidents floating around the top few spots. Kennedy is probably the next in line, not so much for any concrete accomplishments while in office, but because he’s such an iconic figure for the Baby Boom generation. Truman belongs in the discussion for dealing with the end of WWII and the Marshall Plan and the like. Reagan and Nixon are important (note that the criterion here is “important,” not “admirable”), but I don’t know if they’d crack the top ten. Johnson is another maybe, for both Vietnam and the Great Society.
Eisenhower belongs in the top ten, I think, not because of his terms as President, but for being the Allied commander in World War II. He wasn’t a bad President– not one of the more interesting ones, but he wasn’t a blight on the office– but his wartime achievements were pretty solid. Patton and MacArthur are near things, but don’t quite make it.
In the broader political arena, I don’t think you can have a list of important Americans of the twentieth century without Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcom X. King’s an absolute lock, but I think you need X, too. The Civil Rights movement was one of the most important stories of the post-war era– arguably the most important– and they’re the key figures. Rosa Parks is right there as well.
In science (this is, after all, part of ScienceBlogs), you need to start with Jonas Salk. Polio is an awful disease, and an amazingly scary one, and Salk’s vaccine pretty much eliminated it as an everyday worry (the disease hasn’t been eliminated– far from it– but it’s no longer a common worry in the US). You’ve also got dual-Nobel-laureates like Linus Pauling and John Bardeen to think about (in terms of sheer technical impact, I’d give Bardeen the edge, but Pauling is better known). There probably ought to be a spot for somebody associated with the development of nuclear weapons, but it’s hard to say who– Oppenheimer? Teller?
Feynman doesn’t make the top ten, so don’t bother mentioning him in comments.
In business, there’s Henry Ford, whose innovations in manufacturing did a lot to shape the way we live today. In pop culture you’ve got people like Elvis Presley and James Brown, who were pretty revolutionary. On the slightly darker side, there are people like George Wallace and J. Edgar Hoover who embodied some of the less appealing aspects of American society.
So is Jackie Robinson really in the top ten? He’s probably closer than I initially thought. I’d say he’s definitely behind Roosevelt, Wilson, Kennedy, Truman, Eisenhower, King, X, Ford, and Salk, which has him battling it out for the tenth spot with Rosa Parks, Richard Nixon, and Elvis. And isn’t that quite the combination.
But I’m sure I’m forgetting a bunch of really obvious people. So who should I be kicking myself for leaving off the list?