Sunday, January 08, 2006

10 Worst Americans

Toward the end of last month, Rob asked who the 10 worst Americans were. As a historian, that's a fascinating question. So I thought about it for awhile and have come up with my 10 worst. Some of these are really representative of many people who were involved in an evil movement. Anyway, my selections in no particular order of the evilness:

1. William Walker. Attempted to take over Nicaragua for the US slavery empire in the mid 1850s. Did so with the approval of southern politicans. In fact, he did briefly take control of the nation, though he soon failed and was killed in the swamps of eastern Honduras. Represents the worst of the American slavery tradition and American foreign policy. A completely irredemable person.

2. Madison Grant. Friend of Theodore Roosevelt, Grant wrote The Passing of the Great Race in 1916. In this book, Grant feared for the decline of the Anglo-Saxon race in America due to immigration and "race suicide" practiced by Anglo-Saxon women who wanted to limit their pregnancies. Grant's book was a big influence on Hitler and the Nazis and his work was used in the Nurenberg Trials by Nazis to defend their actions. He worked closely with TR and other early conservationists on these issues as well as these men believed that the American West was a repository where Anglo-Saxon men could regain their manhood and virility. Theodore Roosevelt gets a free pass from a lot of people--the road between his beliefs and those of the Nazis is not long and it goes right through his associate Madison Grant.

3. J. Edgar Hoover. It's hard to get more despicable than Hoover. No need to go into his evil in great deal here. I presume most readers know enough. His unwillingness to inform Martin Luther King of assassination plots against him is enough to ensure his place here. But of course there are many more reasons.

4. Phyllis Schlafly. The woman who singlehandedly undermined the Equal Rights Amendment and galvanized the anti-woman plank of the New Right. The damage she has caused is spectacular. Rather unfortunately, she is still alive and working.

5. Robert Barnwell Rhett. Rhett was one of the leading South Carolina fireeaters who pushed the US toward the Civil War. For Rhett and others (and here is a case where Rhett represents several possibilities here), the only acceptable United States was one where slavery was the accepted practice of the nation.

6. James Buchanan. The worst president in US history, Buchanan did nothing to stop the dissolution of the United States after the election of Abraham Lincoln. He figured it was Lincoln's problem to deal with. That's what I call leadership!

7. Martin Dies. Dies could represent any one of several dozen virulently racist national legislators during the early 20th century. John Sparkman, Theodore Bilbo, Strom Thurmond, Harry Byrd, or several others could hold this spot. Dies gets it though because not only was he an ugly segregationist, but he also founded HUAC.

8. John Chivington. Again Chivington is representative of how 19th century westerners treated Native Americans. Chivington was the leader of the infamous Sand Creek Massacre in eastern Colorado in 1864. One of the great progressive myths about the American West is that the US military was to blame for killing Indians and destroying native cultures. This generally wasn't true--by far the bigger problem was local whites in the West happily killing any Indian they found, ignoring treaties and their own government, and forming militias to wipe out peaceful villages. Chivington led the most infamous of these.

9. Robert E. Lee. To me, Lee is worse than Jefferson Davis. Lee had the power to cripple the Confederacy by using his superior military mind to keep the union together. Chose to serve the interests of the slave states and helped lead to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Americans. Nothing that neo-Confederates and conservatives say will erase this fact.

10. George W. Bush. I don't even consider this a political statement. I think we can make a pretty good argument for his placement here. He has made the US significantly less safe through his foreign policy while compromising the nation's long-term economic stability, making the poor much poorer, and eviscerating environmental and labor regulations.

Others I considered:
Franklin Pierce
Oliver North
Tom Watson (George Wallace before Wallace)
Lon Mabon (the head of the Oregon Citizens Alliance, an anti-gay group in Oregon during the 1990s. He represents the kind of evil power local people can exert)
David Stephenson (Grand Dragon of the Indiana KKK in the 1920s, was convicted of raping and murdering a young woman on a train. Class all the way!)
George Wallace
James K. Polk
Joe McCarthy
Father Charles Coughlin
Bill O'Reilly (the later day Coughlin only perhaps more powerful)
Henry Ford
Roy Cohn

You could make a pretty good case for any of these people. And I'll make one more, perhaps more controversial, suggestion:

John Foster Dulles--Eisenhower's Secretary of State. Supported the CIA overthrow of the Iran and Guatemala governments in the 1950s. The Iran operation led to the Islamic Revolution of 1979 while the Guatemala action led to the civil wars that country endured during the 1980s. He gets a pretty free pass for his work, but few people in American history have caused such catastrophes as Dulles.