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John Whitehead's Commentary

The People and Events That Shaped the Twentieth Century

John Whitehead
What was once proudly billed as "the American century" has been filled with turmoil, human carnage and extreme change. As we approach the final hissing moments of the Twentieth Century, our national spirit borders on the poisonous and we seem rootless. Following are some of the people and events that helped shape our minds and set us adrift into the future.

Much of the rapid change started with the technological revolution. It began in 1903 with the development of the airplane, which initially helped mechanize warfare. Now, as the Internet spreads around the globe, it seems that the reach of technology is infinite.

The great change agents, which affected Western society more than any phenomenon in the century, were the wars. World War I (1914-1919) cost Europe an entire male generation. World War II (1939-1945) destroyed millions of lives, ushered in the Cold War and gave birth to the nuclear threat. The Korean and Vietnamese wars tore a fragile American society apart at the seams. Their total psychological and social effects have yet to be measured.

The 1917 Bolshevik Revolution in Russia became one of the bloodiest in history as dissenters were silenced by death. Unknowingly, this was the dawn of the first Communist superpower, the late Soviet Union. After the Communist bloc crumbled in the late 1980s, declassified information emerged that Joseph Stalin had murdered millions through his reign of terror.

Albert Einstein's theory of general relativity rejected the idea that time and space are absolute. Instead, time and space are flexible. By the time the philosophical implications of Einstein's theory trickled down to the general public, many began to believe that he had proved the absence of any absolutes--even in the moral realm. Although this notion distressed Einstein, traditional religion had found one of its first great foes of the century.

On October 28, 1929, the stock market lost over $14 billion. Banks collapsed, and individual investors were wiped out. The huge losses precipitated a worldwide financial tailspin, the largest economic disaster of the century. In Germany, astronomical inflation led to an extreme crisis. Adolf Hitler soon took advantage of the situation to move into power.

With inflation and unemployment skyrocketing in the '20s and early '30s, Hitler put Germans to work building his war machine. Given jobs again, many ordinary citizens looked the other way as Hitler began a campaign of hate and human carnage. It left millions dead and resulted in the Jewish Holocaust.

In 1945, the United States dropped the atomic bomb on two Japanese cities. Since that time, the world has lived under the shadow of nuclear annihilation. The threat of immediate death produced a philosophy of pessimism and eventually led to the protests and upheavals that followed in the '60s.

In 1955, Rosa Parks, a black woman, helped start the civil rights movement when she refused to give her seat on a public bus to a white man. Charismatic preacher Martin Luther King, Jr. became the movement's public voice, as he shared the dream of equality with the rest of America at marches, rallies and protests around the country.

Elvis Presley swung open the cultural gates and led rock 'n' roll music into the cultural mainstream. An entire generation of young people tuned in to the new music. By the mid-1960s, the Beatles had raised rock music to an art form. Western nations such as the United States and Great Britain are now categorized as "rock cultures."

The assassination of John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963 shocked the world and drained hope from many young people who had been inspired by him. This disaffected generation led the social and cultural revolution of the 1960s as young people rebelled against the traditions of their parents and political leaders.

After years of discrimination, women gained the right to vote in 1920. The fight for sexual freedom leapt forward with the development of the birth control pill in 1960. With the Supreme Court's decision to legalize abortion in 1973, a great cultural war began over the rights of the unborn and the right to bodily privacy.

During the latter part of this century, a leadership crisis developed. Leaders worldwide were toppled by coup d'etats or fell through vice. In the United States, John Kennedy, Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King were all assassinated within a five-year span. In 1974, Richard Nixon gave America its first presidential resignation. Then, in 1998, the House of Representatives impeached a president for only the second time.

Science broke new ground in 1950 when the structure of DNA was discovered. Today the concept that human beings can be genetically manipulated through DNA tampering has emerged as an important ethical debate. With the cloning of Dolly the sheep in 1997, the concept that humans could be duplicated challenged the very uniqueness that makes people special and, thus, worthy of dignity and value.

As science and technology march forward into the Third Millennium, the question of what is and is not human has been raised. Hopefully, society will reach a morally tenable answer. 842 words


Constitutional attorney and author John W. Whitehead is founder and president of The Rutherford Institute. His new book Battlefield America: The War on the American People  (SelectBooks, 2015) is available online at Whitehead can be contacted at

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