Editors Note: Sometimes I like to go with something a bit more academic, having less to do with actual current events. This one grew out of a question someone asked me recently: “Whom do you think was the greatest person in your lifetime?” I had trouble coming up with an answer.

Heroes and Villains in Three Half-Centuries

Thus far in 2013, Margaret Thatcher has died, and Nelson Mandela may be at death’s door. Pundits have called them the two greatest leaders of the last half of the 20th century, although, in his 1994 eulogy for Richard Nixon, Senator Bob Dole referred to the second half of the century as “the Age of Nixon.”

Mr. Dole’s assessment reflects the reality that the 20th century’s last half was arguably less momentous than its first 50 years. The latter decades produced less-monumental history, and less-calamitous wars and disasters, resulting in leaders who were less notable.

Following the carnage of World War I, the Spanish flu pandemic became the world’s worst plague since the Black Death. With between 50 and 100 million victims worldwide (and nearly 675,000 in the U.S.), 1918 and 1919 were among the worst years in history, with more fatalities than any comparable period during the AIDS epidemic.

The first half of the 20th century also saw the ascent of Hitler, Mussolini, Lenin, Stalin and Mao, giving rise to National Socialism, Fascism, Communism, and the worst mass murders since Genghis Khan. In contrast, the monsters of the second half of the century — Pol Pot, Saddam Hussein, Slobodan Milosevic and Hafez al-Assad — were pale imitations, and their crimes, from Cambodia to Syria, less cataclysmic. Not even Rwanda’s tribal genocide in 1994 could compare with Stalin’s reign of terror in Russia.

Likewise, the men who opposed the tyrants of the first half of the century (e.g., Winston Churchill) were more-imposing figures. Franklin Roosevelt, the most important American president of the 20th century, was elected four times. He governed during the Great Depression, which dwarfed the recessions that have waxed and waned since, then led the country through World War II. In 1945, both the Nazis and the Empire of Japan were eradicated, culminating in the world’s first and only use of nuclear weapons.

The 20th century also saw the transition from Western colonialism to Third World independence. As laudable as Mandela’s efforts were in South Africa, they were on a far smaller scale than Gandhi’s liberation of the Indian subcontinent earlier in the century.

Just as the clashes of good vs. evil shrank during the second half of the century, so too did the clashes of evil with evil. In 1941, Hitler’s attack on the Soviet Union began the single largest invasion in the history of mankind; compared to that, Saddam’s 1980-1988 incursion into Iran, another war with no “good guys,” was merely a skirmish.

In 1949, Mao took power in China. Based on the sheer numbers of his victims, he was the most monstrous murderer of the entire century. When the Cold War sputtered out, “not with a bang, but a whimper,” as T.S. Eliot (they don’t make poets like that anymore either) put it, we were left with lesser Red despots, such as Fidel Castro, North Korea’s Kim Il-sung, and his idiot son and grandson.

If Mao was the greatest villain of the last half of the century, then who was its greatest hero? Conservatives cite Ronald Reagan, lauded by the Right as the most exemplary human being since Jesus; however, the notion he won the Cold War insults every other president who waged that same battle for decades, and the Iron Curtain actually collapsed during George H.W. Bush’s administration. In addition, Reagan was the father of the massive deficit spending that now imperils our future as a superpower.

Maggie Thatcher didn’t return the U.K. to greatness, and the good works of Dr. Martin Luther King and Anwar Sadat had more-limited and localized results. No modern physicist, not even Stephen Hawking, has shaken the foundations of science as Albert Einstein did during his “annus mirabilus” (1905). And although the Dalai Lama may be the greatest spiritual leader of the last 50 years, the trend in religion worldwide has been overwhelmingly fundamentalist and intolerant, despite his influence.

Not everyone will agree, but the most significant figure of the era has to be Mikhail Gorbachev. More than anyone else, he presided over the dissolution of the Cold War, the Soviet Union, the Iron Curtain and world Communism. Had Nikita Khrushchev or Yuri Andropov been the Soviet premier in 1991, the tanks would have rolled across Eastern Europe — under Gorbachev, they didn’t.

Before his timely assassination, Osama bin Ladin may have been the 21st century’s most important person to date, as radical Islam replaced Communism as the focus of evil worldwide. If we’re lucky, the next half-century will require even fewer great men to oppose whatever loathsome terrorists will follow in bin Ladin’s footsteps and the lesser heirs to tyranny (e.g., Vladimir Putin and Bashar Assad) who are already staining the start of this century.

Irish novelist James Joyce wrote, “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awaken.” It’s undoubtedly better not to live during an era of momentous events, because the history that fills us with awe is usually awful, and almost always fills us with horror.

Stable times produce fewer terrible events or great leaders, and maybe that’s progress. Thus far in this new century, Americans have elected two somewhat ineffectual presidents and a Congress with a single-digit approval rating, so we’re probably ill-equipped to handle anything more momentous.

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