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?


  1. #1 Michael
    April 6, 2007

    I believe Bill Gates belongs on the list; I would argue that Microsoft’s impact on our lives is at least equal to that of the automobile industry as personified by Henry Ford.

  2. #2 thm
    April 6, 2007

    Rachel Carson, for one.

    I would have Jane Jacobs–author of Death and Life of Great American Cities, among other books, to my top 10 list, but her message hasn’t quite sunk in the way Carson’s has.

  3. #3 peter.griffin
    April 6, 2007

    Anybody who doesn’t think Jackie Robinson is one of the greatest Americans ever is a racist.

    There, I said it.

  4. #4 Pam
    April 6, 2007

    So who should I be kicking myself for leaving off the list?

    Somebody associated with the feminist movement? Betty Friedan, maybe? I think that the struggle for women’s equality has had at least as much transformative effect on American culture as JFK’s “iconicness,” don’t you? Heck, at least include Wilson’s role in winning passage of the 19th Amendment in his list of accomplishments!

  5. #5 aoeu
    April 6, 2007

    Chad Orzel doesn’t care about black people.

  6. #6 Clay B
    April 6, 2007

    Good list. I’m always puzzled when people put Bill Gates on these sorts of lists. He made a lot of money but didn’t really create anything revolutionary.

    The Wright Brothers
    Philo Farnsworth
    Teddy Roosevelt

  7. #7 Tom Renbarger
    April 6, 2007

    For a sleeper policy wonk, I’d say George Kennan. The Marshall Plan and the containment doctrine both owe a fair amount to his thought.

  8. #8 Justin
    April 6, 2007

    IMHO Jackie Robinson is nowhere near the top ten overall, though I’d agree with “most important US sports figure of the 20th century”. Ranking him near Elvis in the overall list seems fair. Personally I just don’t value entertainers (sports, musical, TV/movies, whatever) as even being competitive with politicians, scientists, military, business/industry figures.

    Chad’s nine, plus the Wright brothers, seems like a decent top 10 to me.

    Following up on Pam’s comment, if there’s any one individual who can be credited with the birth control pill, that would be a good contender. Reading wikipedia though, it looks like a process in which quite a few people played important roles.

    I suppose one could try to appease the computer crowd with von Neumann since he did much of his work in the US. But that opens the door to people like Einstein, too.

    Watson’s DNA work makes him a plausible candidate, though probably not enough to break into the top 10 (Crick was British, so in this case it’s easy to split a collaboration…).

  9. #9 DrKC
    April 6, 2007

    Being a geologist, id have to include Dr Harry Hess, credited with describing plate tectonics, and revolutionizing how we view the earth and how it works, very important, and very overlooked

  10. #10 Chad Orzel
    April 6, 2007

    Me: So who should I be kicking myself for leaving off the list?

    Pam: Somebody associated with the feminist movement? Betty Friedan, maybe?

    That’d be a good one, yes.
    I thought of Susan B. Anthony when I was drawing up the list, but she’s pre 20th century.

  11. #11 CCPhysicist
    April 6, 2007

    I’d second Philo T. Where would WiFi be without him? Gates is a joke, since he did not even write DOS, he bought it. (I wrote a better O/S in college for a class in 1971. Seriously.) Wright Brothers are way in front of Gates. Why not Jobs, or whoever shut down Xerox Parc?

    Don’t leave out the fact that Truman integrated the Army, which may have had as much to do with the civil rights movement as the people who led those vets who *knew* they deserved the right to vote. He also backed the H-Bomb and (apparently) our initial intervention in ‘Nam (by picking the French over our WWII ally, Ho Chi Minh, and paying for their war).

    The mention of Kennan, who was very important, also brings to mind Kissinger. Henry the K had a major influence on policy long before and after he was actually in the government, but a stronger case could be made for Herman Kahn. Many things attributed to Presidents were actually the work of these three K’s, particularly Kahn.

    Glad to see you list Salk. His success is the reason we can forget just how important that work was.

  12. #12 Coin
    April 6, 2007

    Good list. I’m always puzzled when people put Bill Gates on these sorts of lists. He made a lot of money but didn’t really create anything revolutionary.

    Well, wait. I see no reason to think that the label “most important American” implies that their impact on society was positive. Sure, Gates has certainly never created anything revolutionary, but the number of revolutionary things he has destroyed in his lifetime is almost beyond count. Surely this alone qualifies him at some level as important.

    Anyway: Thomas Jefferson.

  13. #13 Coin
    April 6, 2007

    Oh, wait, most important American of the 20th century. *Slaps forehead*.

  14. #14 The Ridger
    April 6, 2007

    I’m guessing you’re young. Jackie Robinson was, for many Americans, the first black man they’d ever seen as an equal and a hero. That makes him pretty damned important – more for what he was than who he was, perhaps, but still.

  15. #15 adamsj
    April 7, 2007

    Don’t forget Henry Ford had a very dark side–he was the most effective American anti-Semite of all time.

    Also, I have to question Rosa Parks’ inclusion on the list. She committed one very important and decisive act, but that’s it. W. E. B. DuBois did much more, and throughout the majority of the century. (I’d put him above Malcolm X, too.)

  16. #16 Jonathan Vos Post
    April 7, 2007

    If I start mentioning people who SHOULD be on the list, I’d quickly be abusing Chad’s hospitality.

    So I’ll confine myself to a Devil’s advocacy FOR Jackie Robinson. To say “first African-American in baseball” considerable understates his pivotal role in the Brooklyn Dodgers’ saga and the Branch Rickey saga and the issus of Race in America. Jackie Robinson was the pioneer in ANY major league team sport in the USA, well before Truman integrated the U.S. Army.

    I often visit the giant bronze busts of Jackie Robinson and his overlooked brother near Pasadena City Hall. Jackie Robinson came from Pasadena, but hated it, and didn’t ever want to come back here when he became a celebrity.

    His daughter, as NPR reminded me this morning, is a consultant to the Commissioner of MLB, to deal with the precipitous decline of non-Hispanic Blacks in MLB.

    There’s also a fine Noir novel about a fictional PI as bodyguard to Jackie Robinson, Black mob versus white Mob, etcetera. But I forget the title. Have it here someplace, but books easily misplaced in a 5,000+ volume hosehgold.

  17. #17 adam
    April 9, 2007

    I am not sure that FDR got America into the war; the Japanese and Germans left the US with no choice, given Pearl Harbour and Hitler and Mussolini’s declaration of war on America (both of which occurred before America declared war on Germany), which followed from their pact with Japan.

    I’d have FDR in the top Ten for ‘importance’, even if I’m not one of his greatest fans (although I am not a libertarian/libertoonian). I’d would put Szilard in the list, but he wasn’t an American at the time of his most significant achievements (thinking up nuclear chain reaction and drafting the letter to FDR about the possibility of building a nuclear weapon).

    I’d have Bardeen over Pauling, MLK over Malcolm X, I’d have Woodrow Wilson for ‘significant’ (but not in a good way), Milton Friedman (probably), W Edwards Deming, Norman Borlaug, hmmm, need four more. Oh yeah, I’m a nerd and a geek, so one of Gary Gygax or Dave Arneson, of course. Maybe both*. Salk probably does belong on the list, and I would add Watson (like Justin, I’m not 100% sure) and then I’d reserve a spot for someone that’s going to occur to me later.

    *They could be merged into an Ettin called Gary Arneson. A Wish spell would do the trick.

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