Who mattered and why
By Walter Isaacson
December 27, 1999
Web posted at: 1:16 p.m. EST (1816 GMT)
What an amazing cast of characters! What a wealth of heroes and
villains to choose from!
Some shook the world by arriving: Gandhi at the sea to make
salt, Lenin at the Finland Station. Others by refusing to depart:
Rosa Parks from her seat on the bus, that kid from the path of
the tank near Tiananmen Square. There were magical folks who
could make freedom radiate through the walls of a Birmingham
jail, a South African prison or a Gdansk shipyard.
Others made machines that could fly and machines that could
think, discovered a mold that conquered infections and a molecule
that formed the basis of life. There were people who could
inspire us with a phrase: fear itself, tears and sweat, ask not.
Frighten us with a word: heil! Or revise the universe with an
So how can we go about choosing the Person of the Century, the
one who, for better or worse, personified our times and will be
recorded by history as having the most lasting significance?
Let's begin by noting what our century will be remembered for.
Out of the fog of proximity, three great themes emerge:
--The grand struggle between totalitarianism and democracy.
--The ability of courageous individuals to resist authority in
order to secure their civil rights.
--The explosion of scientific and technical knowledge that
unveiled the mysteries of the universe and helped secure the
triumph of freedom by unleashing the power of free minds and free
The century of democracy
Some people, looking at the first of these themes, sorrowfully
insist that the choice has to be Hitler, Fuhrer of the fascist
genocides and refugee floods that plagued the century. He
wrought the Holocaust that redefined evil and the war that
reordered the world.
Competing with him for such devilish distinction is Lenin,
who snatched from obscurity the 19th century ideology of
communism and devised the modern tools of totalitarian brutality.
He begat not only Stalin and Mao but in some ways also Hitler,
who was enchanted by the Soviets' terror tactics. Doesn't the
presence of such evil--and the continued eruption of totalitarian
brutality from Uganda to Kosovo--make a mockery of the
rationalists' faith that progress makes civilizations more
civilized? Isn't Hitler, alas, the person who most influenced and
symbolized this most genocidal of centuries?
No. He lost. So did Lenin and Stalin. Along with the others in
their evil pantheon, and the totalitarian ideologies they
represented, they are destined for the ash heap of history. If
you had to describe the century's geopolitics in one sentence, it
could be a short one: Freedom won. Free minds and free markets
prevailed over fascism and communism.
So a more suitable choice would be someone who embodied the
struggle for freedom: Franklin Roosevelt, the only person to be
TIME's Man of the Year thrice (for 1932, 1934 and 1941). He
helped save capitalism from its most serious challenge, the Great
Depression. And then he rallied the power of free people and free
enterprise to defeat fascism.
Other great leaders were part of this process. Winston Churchill
stood up to Hitler even earlier than Roosevelt did, when it took
far more courage. Harry Truman, a plainspoken man with gut
instincts for what was right, forcefully began the struggle
against Soviet expansionism, a challenge that Roosevelt was too
sanguine about. Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev helped
choreograph the conclusion of that sorry empire's strut upon the
stage. So too did Pope John Paul II, a Pole with a passion for
both faith and freedom. And if you were to pick a hero who
embodied America's contribution to winning the fight for freedom,
it would probably be not Roosevelt, but instead the American G.I.
Nor is it proper to mythologize Roosevelt. The New Deal was at
times a hodgepodge of conflicting economic ideas, marked more by
enthusiasm than by coherence. It restored Americans' faith and
hopes, saved them from fear itself, but never really managed to
end the Depression. The war did that.
Nevertheless, Franklin Roosevelt stands out among the century's
political leaders. With his first-class temperament, wily
manipulations and passion for experimentation, he's the jaunty
face of democratic values. Thus we pick him as the foremost
statesman and one of three finalists for Person of the Century.
That may seem, to non-Americans, parochial. True, but this was,
as our magazine's founder Henry Luce dubbed it in 1941, the
American Century--politically, militarily, economically and
When Roosevelt took office at the beginning of 1933 (the same
week that Hitler assumed emergency powers in Germany),
unemployment in the U.S. had, in three years, jumped from 4
million to 12 million, at least a quarter of the work force.
Fathers of hungry kids were trying to sell apples on the street.
F.D.R.'s bold experiments ("Above all, try something") included
many that failed, but he brought hope to millions and some
lasting contributions to the nation's foundation: Social
Security, minimum wages, insured bank deposits and the right to
join unions. Henceforth the national government (in the U.S. and
most everywhere else) took on the duty of managing the economy
and providing capitalism with a social safety net.
By New Year's Day of 1941, the Depression still lingered, and the
threat from Hitler was growing. Roosevelt went to his
second-floor White House study to draft the address that would
launch his unprecedented third term. There was a long silence,
uncomfortably long, as his speechwriters waited for him to speak.
Then he leaned forward and began dictating.
"We look forward to a world founded upon four essential human
freedoms," he said. He proceeded to list them: freedom of
expression, freedom of worship, freedom from want, freedom from
fear. One of the great themes of this century was the progress
made toward each of them.
Roosevelt made another great contribution: he escorted onto the
century's stage a remarkable woman, his wife Eleanor. She served
as his counterpoint: uncompromisingly moral, earnest rather than
devious, she became an icon of feminism and social justice in a
nation just discovering the need to grant rights to women,
blacks, ordinary workers and the poor. She discovered the depth
of racial discrimination while touring New Deal programs (on a
visit to Birmingham in 1938, she refused to sit in the white
section of the auditorium), and subsequently peppered her husband
with questions over dinner and memos at bedtime. Even after her
husband's death, she remained one of the century's most powerful
advocates for social fairness.
One political leader who rivals Roosevelt in embodying freedom's
fight is Winston Churchill. Indeed, it's possible to imagine a
President other than Roosevelt leading America through the war,
but it's nearly impossible to imagine someone other than
Churchill turning the world's darkest moments into Britain's
He despised tyranny with such a passion that he, and by extension
his nation, was willing to stand alone against Hitler when it was
most critical. And unlike Roosevelt, he came early to the crusade
against Soviet tyranny as well. His eloquent speeches
strengthened the faith of all freedom-loving people in both the
righteousness of their struggle and the inevitability of their
So why is he not Person of the Century? He was, after all, TIME's
Man of the Half-Century in 1950. Well, the passage of time can
alter our perspective. A lot has happened since 1950. It has
become clear that one of the great themes of the century has been
the success of those who resisted authority in order to seek
civil rights, decolonization and an end to repression. Along with
this came the setting of the sun on the great colonial empires.
In his approach to domestic issues, individual rights and the
liberties of colonial subjects, Churchill turned out to be a
romantic refugee from a previous era who ended up on the wrong
side of history. He did not become Prime Minister, he incorrectly
proclaimed in 1942, "to preside over the liquidation of the
British Empire," which then controlled a quarter of the globe's
land. He bulldoggedly opposed the women's-rights movement, other
civil-rights crusades and decolonization, and he called Mohandas
Gandhi "nauseating" and a "half-naked fakir."
As it turned out, Churchill's tenacity was powerful enough to
defy Hitler, but not as powerful as the resistance techniques of
the half-naked fakir. Gandhi and others who fought for civil
rights turned out to be part of a historic tide, one that
Roosevelt and his wife Eleanor appreciated better than Churchill
Which brings us to...
The century of civil rights
In a century marked by brutality, Gandhi perfected a different
method of bringing about change, one that would turn out
(surprisingly) to have more lasting impact. The words he used to
describe it do not translate readily into English: Satyagraha
(holding firmly onto the deepest truth and soul-force) and
ahimsa (the love that remains when all thoughts of violence are
dispelled). They formed the basis for civil disobedience and
nonviolent resistance. "Nonviolence is the greatest force at the
disposal of mankind," he said. "It is mightier than the
mightiest weapon of destruction devised by the ingenuity of man."
Part of his creed was that purifying society required purifying
one's own soul. "The more you develop nonviolence in your own
being, the more infectious it becomes." Or, more pithily: "We
must become the change we seek."
He was, truth be told, rather weird at times. His own
purification regime involved inordinate attention to the bowel
movements of himself and those around him, and he liked testing
his powers of self-denial by sleeping naked with young women.
Nevertheless, he became not just a political force but a
spiritual guide for those repelled by the hate and greed that
polluted this century. "Generations to come," said Albert
Einstein, "will scarce believe that such a one as this ever in
flesh and blood walked upon this earth."
Gandhi's life of civil disobedience began while he was a young
lawyer in South Africa when, because he was a dark-skinned
Indian, he was told to move to a third-class seat on a train even
though he held a first-class ticket. He refused, and ended up
spending the night on a desolate platform. It culminated in 1930,
when he was 61, and he and his followers marched 240 miles in 24
days to make their own salt from the sea in defiance of British
colonial laws and taxes. By the time he reached the sea, several
thousand had joined his march, and all along India's coast
thousands more were doing the same. More than 60,000 were
eventually arrested, including Gandhi, but it was clear who would
end up the victors.
Gandhi did not see the full realization of his dreams; India
finally gained independence, but a civil war between Hindus and
Muslims resulted, despite his efforts, in the bloody birth of
Pakistan. He was killed, on his way to prayers, by a Hindu
His spirit and philosophy, however, transformed the century. His
most notable heir was Martin Luther King Jr. "If humanity is to
progress," King once declared, "Gandhi is inescapable."
King, who began studying Gandhi in college, was initially
skeptical about the Mahatma's faith in nonviolence. But by the
time of the Montgomery bus boycott, he later wrote, "I had come
to see early that the Christian doctrine of love operating
through the Gandhian method of nonviolence was one of the most
potent weapons available to the Negro in his struggle for
freedom." The bus boycott, sit-ins, freedom rides and, above all,
the Selma march with its bloody Sunday on the Edmund Pettus
Bridge showed how right he, and Gandhi, was.
Civil rights took a variety of forms this century. Women got the
right to vote, gained control over their reproductive life and
made strides toward achieving equal status in the workplace. Gays
and lesbians gained the right to be proud of who they are.
Indeed, one defining aspect of our century has been the degree to
which it was shaped not just by powerful political leaders but
also by ordinary folks who civilly disobeyed: Nelson Mandela
organizing a campaign in 1952 to defy South Africa's "pass laws"
by entering white townships, Rosa Parks refusing to give up her
seat on a Montgomery bus just as Gandhi had on the South African
train, the unknown rebel blocking the line of tanks rumbling
toward Tiananmen Square, Lech Walesa leading his fellow Polish
workers out on strike, the British suffragist Emmeline Pankhurst
launching hunger strikes, American students protesting the
Vietnam War by burning their draft cards, and gays and lesbians
at Greenwich Village's Stonewall Inn resisting a police raid. In
the end, they changed the century as much as the men who
The century of science and technology
It is hard to compare the influence of statesmen with that of
scientists. Nevertheless, we can note that there are certain eras
that were most defined by their politics, others by their
culture, and others by their scientific advances.
The 18th century, for example, was clearly one marked by
statecraft: in 1776 alone there are Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin
Franklin writing the Declaration of Independence, Adam Smith
publishing The Wealth of Nations and George Washington leading
the Revolutionary forces. The 17th century, on the other hand,
despite such colorful leaders as Louis XIV and the chteau he
left us, will be most remembered for its science: Galileo
exploring gravity and the solar system, Descartes developing
modern philosophy and Newton discovering the laws of motion and
calculus. And the 16th will be remembered for the flourishing of
the arts and culture: Michelangelo and Leonardo and Shakespeare
creating masterpieces, Elizabeth I creating the Elizabethan Age.
So how will the 20th century be remembered? Yes, for democracy.
And yes, for civil rights.
But the 20th century will be most remembered, like the 17th, for
its earthshaking advances in science and technology. In his
massive history of the 20th century, Paul Johnson declares: "The
scientific genius impinges on humanity, for good or ill, far more
than any statesman or warlord." Albert Einstein was more pithy:
"Politics is for the moment. An equation is for eternity."
Just look at the year the century was born. The Paris Exposition
in 1900 (50 million visitors, more than the entire population of
France) featured wireless telegraphs, X rays and tape recorders.
"It is a new century, and what we call electricity is its God,"
wrote the romantic historian Henry Adams from Paris.
In 1900 we began to unlock the mysteries of the atom: Max Planck
launched quantum physics by discovering that atoms emit bursts of
radiation in packets. Also the mysteries of the mind: Sigmund
Freud published The Interpretation of Dreams that year. Marconi
was preparing to send radio signals across the Atlantic, the
Wright Brothers went to Kitty Hawk to work on their gliders, and
an unpromising student named Albert Einstein finally graduated,
after some difficulty, from college that year. So much for the
boneheaded prediction made the year before by Charles Duell,
director of the U.S. Patent Office: "Everything that can be
invented has been invented."
So many fields of science made such great progress that each
could produce its own contender for Person of the Century.
Let's start with medicine. In 1928 the young Scottish researcher
Alexander Fleming sloppily left a lab dish growing bacteria on a
bench when he went on vacation. It got contaminated with a
Penicillium mold spore, and when he returned, he noticed that the
mold seemed to stop the growth of the germs. His serendipitous
discovery would eventually save more lives than were lost in all
the century's wars combined.
Fleming serves well as a symbol of all the great medical
researchers, such as Jonas Salk and David Ho, who fought disease.
But he personally did little, after his initial eureka! moment,
to develop penicillin. Nor has the fight against infectious
diseases been so successful that it will stand as a defining
achievement of the century.
The century's greater biological breakthrough was more basic. It
was unceremoniously announced on Feb. 28, 1953, when Francis
Crick winged into the Eagle Pub in Cambridge, England, and
declared that he and his partner James Watson had "found the
secret of life."
Watson had sketched out how four chemical bases paired to create
a self-copying code at the core of the double-helix-shaped DNA
molecule. In the more formal announcement of their discovery, a
one-page paper in the journal Nature, they noted the significance
in a famously understated sentence: "It has not escaped our
notice that the specific pairing we have postulated immediately
suggests a possible copying mechanism for the genetic material."
But they were less restrained when persuading Watson's sister to
type up the paper for them. "We told her," Watson wrote in The
Double Helix, "that she was participating in perhaps the most
famous event in biology since Darwin's book."
DNA is likely to be the discovery made in the 20th century that
will be the most important to the 21st. The world is just a few
years away from deciphering the entire sequence of more than
100,000 human genes encoded by the 3 billion chemical pairs of
our DNA. That will open the way to new drugs, genetic engineering
and designer babies.
So should Watson and Crick be Persons of the Century? Perhaps.
But two factors count against them. Their role, unlike that of
Einstein or Churchill, would have been performed by others if
they hadn't been around; indeed, competitor Linus Pauling was
just months away from shouting the same eureka!. In addition,
although the next century may be, this did not turn out to be a
century of genetic engineering.
What about the technologists?
There's Henry Ford, who perfected ways to mass-produce
the horseless carriages developed in Germany by Gottlieb Daimler
and others. The car became the most influential consumer product
of the century, bringing with it a host of effects good and bad:
more personal freedom, residential sprawl, social mobility,
highways and shopping malls, air pollution (though the end of the
noxious pollution produced by horses) and mass markets for
Wilbur and Orville Wright also used the internal-combustion
engine to free people from earthly bounds. Their 12-second flight
in 1903 transformed both war and peace. As Bill Gates said in
these pages, "Their invention effectively became the World Wide
Web of that era, bringing people, languages, ideas and values
together." The result was a new era of globalization.
Even more central to this globalization were the electronic
technologies that revolutionized the distribution of information,
ideas and entertainment. Five centuries ago, Gutenberg's advances
in printing helped lead to the Reformation (by permitting people
to own their own Bibles and religious tracts), the Renaissance
(by permitting ideas to travel from village to village) and the
rise of individual liberty (by allowing ordinary folks direct
access to information). Likewise, the 20th century was
transformed by a string of inventions that, building on the
telegraph and telephone of the 19th century, led to a new
In 1927 Philo Farnsworth was able to electronically deconstruct a
moving image and transmit it to another room. "There you are," he
said, "electronic television." (In the heated historical debate,
both TIME and the U.S. Patent Office ended up giving him credit
for the invention over his rival Vladimir Zworykin of RCA.)
In the 1930s Alan Turing first described the computer--a machine
that could perform logical functions based on whatever
instructions were fed to it--and then proceeded to help build one
in the early 1940s that cracked the German wartime codes. His
concepts were refined by other computer pioneers: John von
Neumann, John Atanasoff, J. Presper Eckert and John Mauchly.
Meanwhile, another group of scientists--including Enrico Fermi and
J. Robert Oppenheimer--was unlocking the power of the atom in a
different way, one that led to the creation of a weapon that
helped win the war and define the subsequent five decades of
nervous peace that ensued.
In 1947 William Shockley and his team at Bell Labs invented the
transistor, which had the ability to take an electric current and
translate it into on-off binary data. Thus began the digital age.
Robert Noyce and Jack Kilby, a decade later, came up with ways to
etch many transistors--eventually millions--onto tiny silicon
wafers that became known as microchips.
Many people--let's not pick on Al Gore here--deserve credit for
creating the Internet, which began in 1969 as a network of
university computers and began to take off in 1974 when Vint Cerf
and Robert Kahn published a protocol that enabled any computer on
the network to transmit to any other. A companion protocol
devised by Tim Berners-Lee in 1990 created the World Wide Web,
which simplified and popularized navigation on the Net. The idea
that anyone in the world can publish information and have it
instantly available to anyone else in the world created a
revolution that will rank with Gutenberg's.
Together these triumphs of science and technology advanced the
cause of freedom, in some ways more than any statesman or soldier
did. In 1989 workers in Warsaw used faxes to spread the word of
Solidarity, and schoolkids in Prague slipped into tourist hotels
to watch CNN reports on the upheavals in Berlin. A decade later,
dissidents in China set up e-mail chains, and Web-surfing
students evaded clueless censors to break the government's
monopoly on information. Just as the flow of ideas wrought by
Gutenberg led to the rise of individual rights, so too did the
unfetterable flow of ideas wrought by telephones, faxes,
television and the Internet serve as the surest foe of
totalitarianism in this century.
Fleming, Watson and Crick, the Wright Brothers, Farnsworth,
Turing, Shockley, Fermi, Oppenheimer, Noyce--any of them could be,
conceivably, a justifiable although somewhat narrow choice for
Person of the Century. Fortunately, a narrow choice is not
Person of the century
In a century that will be remembered foremost for its science and
technology--in particular for our ability to understand and then
harness the forces of the atom and the universe--one person stands
out as both the greatest mind and paramount icon of our age: the
kindly, absentminded professor whose wild halo of hair, piercing
eyes, engaging humanity and extraordinary brilliance made his
face a symbol and his name a synonym for genius: Albert Einstein.
Slow in learning to talk as a child, expelled by one headmaster
and proclaimed by another unlikely to amount to anything,
Einstein has become the patron saint of distracted schoolkids.
But even at age five, he later recalled, he was puzzling over a
toy compass and the mysteries of nature's forces.
During his spare time as a young technical officer in a Swiss
patent office in 1905, he produced three papers that changed
science forever. The first, for which he was later to win the
Nobel Prize, described how light could behave not only like a
wave but also like a stream of particles, called quanta or
photons. This wave-particle duality became the foundation of what
is known as quantum physics. It also provided theoretical
underpinnings for such 20th century advances as television,
lasers and semiconductors.
The second paper confirmed the existence of molecules and atoms
by statistically showing how their random collisions explained
the jerky motion of tiny particles in water. Important as both
these were, it was his third paper that truly upended the
It was based, like much of Einstein's work, on a thought
experiment: if you could travel at the speed of light, what would
a light wave look like? If you were in a train that neared the
speed of light, would you perceive time and space differently?
Einstein's conclusions became known as the special theory of
relativity. No matter how fast one is moving toward or away from
a source of light, the speed of that light beam will appear the
same, a constant 186,000 miles per second. But space and time
will appear relative. As a train accelerates to near the speed of
light, time on the train will slow down from the perspective of a
stationary observer, and the train will get shorter and heavier.
O.K., it's not obvious, but that's why we're no Einstein and he
Einstein went on to show that energy and matter were merely
different faces of the same thing, their relationship described
by the most famous equation in all of physics: energy equals mass
multiplied by the speed of light squared, E=mc2. Although not
exactly a recipe for an atomic bomb, it explained why one was
possible. He also helped resolve smaller mysteries, such as why
the sky is blue (it has to do with how the molecules of air
His crowning glory, perhaps the most beautiful theory in all of
science, was the general theory of relativity, published in 1916.
Like the special theory, it was based on a thought experiment:
imagine being in an enclosed lab accelerating through space. The
effects you'd feel would be no different from the experience of
gravity. Gravity, he figured, is a warping of space-time. Just as
Einstein's earlier work paved the way to harnessing the smallest
subatomic forces, the general theory opened up an understanding
of the largest of all things, from the formative Big Bang of the
universe to its mysterious black holes.
It took three years for astronomers to test this theory by
measuring how the sun shifted light coming from a star. The
results were announced at a meeting of the Royal Society in
London presided over by J.J. Thomson, who in 1897 had discovered
the electron. After glancing up at the society's grand portrait
of Sir Isaac Newton, Thomson told the assemblage, "Our
conceptions of the fabric of the universe must be fundamentally
altered." The headline in the next day's Times of London read:
"Revolution in Science... Newtonian Ideas Overthrown." The New
York Times, back when it knew how to write great headlines, was
even more effusive two days later: "Lights All Askew in the
Heavens/ Men of Science More or Less Agog Over Results of
Eclipse Observations/ Einstein's Theory Triumphs."
Einstein, hitherto little known, became a global celebrity and
was able to sell pictures of himself to journalists and send the
money to a charity for war orphans. More than a hundred books
were written about relativity within a year.
Einstein also continued his contributions to quantum physics by
raising questions that are still playing a pivotal role in the
modern development of the theory. Shortly after devising general
relativity, he showed that photons have momentum, and he came up
with a quantum theory of radiation explaining that all subatomic
particles, including electrons, exhibit characteristics of both
wave and particle.
This opened the way, alas, to the quantum theories of Werner
Heisenberg and others who showed how the wave-particle duality
implies a randomness or uncertainty in nature and that particles
are affected simply by observing them. This made Einstein
uncomfortable. As he famously and frequently insisted, "God does
not play dice." (Retorted his friendly rival Niels Bohr:
"Einstein, stop telling God what to do.") He spent his later
years in a failed quest for a unified theory that would explain
what appeared to be random or uncertain.
Does Einstein's discomfort with quantum theory make him less a
candidate for Person of the Century? Not by much. His own work
contributed greatly to quantum theory and to the semiconductor
revolution it spawned. And his belief in the existence of a
unified field theory could well be proved right in the new
More important, he serves as a symbol of all the scientists--such
as Heisenberg, Bohr, Richard Feynman and Stephen Hawking, even
the ones he disagreed with--who built upon his work to decipher
and harness the forces of the cosmos. As James Gleick wrote
earlier this year in the TIME 100 series, "The scientific
touchstones of our age--the Bomb, space travel, electronics--all
bear his fingerprints." Or, to quote a TIME cover story from 1946
(produced by Whittaker Chambers): "Among 20th-Century men, he
blends to an extraordinary degree those highly distilled powers
of intellect, intuition and imagination which are rarely combined
in one mind, but which, when they do occur together, men call
genius. It was all but inevitable that this genius should appear
in the field of science, for 20th-Century civilization is first &
Einstein's theory of relativity not only upended physics, it also
jangled the underpinnings of society. For nearly three centuries,
the clockwork universe of Galileo and Newton--which was based on
absolute laws and certainties--formed the psychological foundation
for the Enlightenment, with its belief in causes and effects,
order, rationalism, even duty.
Now came a view of the universe in which space and time were all
relative. Indirectly, relativity paved the way for a new
relativism in morality, arts and politics. There was less faith
in absolutes, not only of time and space but also of truth and
morality. "It formed a knife," historian Paul Johnson says of
relativity theory, "to help cut society adrift from its
traditional moorings." Just as Darwinism became, a century ago,
not just a biological theory but also a social theology, so too
did relativity shape the social theology of the 20th century.
The effect on arts can be seen by looking at 1922, the year that
Einstein won the Nobel Prize, James Joyce published Ulysses and
T.S. Eliot published The Waste Land. There was a famous party in
May for the debut of the ballet Renard, composed by Stravinsky
and staged by Diaghilev. They were both there, along with Picasso
(who had designed the sets), Proust (who had been proclaimed
Einstein's literary interpreter) and Joyce. The art of each, in
its own way, reflected the breakdown of mechanical order and of
the sense that space and time were absolutes.
In early 1933, as Hitler was taking power, Einstein immigrated to
the U.S., settling in Princeton as the world's first scientific
supercelebrity. That year he help found a group to resettle
refugees, the International Rescue Committee. Thus he became a
symbol of another of the great themes of the century: how history
was shaped by tides of immigrants, so many of them destined for
greatness, who fled oppressive regimes for the freedom of
As a humanist and internationalist, Einstein had spent most of
his life espousing a gentle pacifism, and he became one of
Gandhi's foremost admirers. But in 1939 he signed one of the
century's most important letters, one that symbolizes the
relationship between science and politics. "It may become
possible to set up nuclear chain reactions," he wrote President
Roosevelt. "This new phenomenon would also lead to the
construction of bombs." When Roosevelt read the letter, he
crisply ordered, "This requires action."
Roosevelt, Gandhi, Einstein. Three inspiring characters,
each representing a different force of history in the past
century. They were about as different as any three men are likely
to be. Yet each in his own way, both intentionally and not,
taught us the century's most important lesson: the value of being
both humble and humane.
Roosevelt, scarcely an exemplar of humility, nonetheless saved
the possibility of governmental humility from the forces of
utopian and dystopian arrogance. Totalitarian systems--whether
fascist or communist--believe that those in charge know what's
best for everyone else. But leaders who nurture democracy and
freedom--who allow folks to make their own choices rather than
dictating them from on high--are being laudably humble, an
attitude that the 20th century clearly rewarded and one that is
necessary for creating humane societies.
Gandhi, unlike Roosevelt, was the earthly embodiment of humility,
so much so that at times it threatened to become a conceit. He
taught us that we should value the civil liberties and individual
rights of other human beings, and he lived for (and was killed
for) preaching tolerance and pluralism. By exhibiting these
virtues, which the century has amply taught us are essential to
civilization, we express the humility and humanity that come from
respecting people who are different from us.
Einstein taught the greatest humility of all: that we are but a
speck in an unfathomably large universe. The more we gain insight
into its mysterious forces, cosmic and atomic, the more reason we
have to be humble. And the more we harness the huge power of
these forces, the more such humility becomes an imperative. "A
spirit is manifest in the laws of the universe," he once wrote,
"in the face of which we, with our modest powers, must feel
Einstein often invoked God, although his was a rather
depersonalized deity. He believed, he said, in a "God who reveals
himself in the harmony of all that exists." His faith in this
divine harmony was what caused him to reject the view that the
universe is subject to randomness and uncertainty. "The Lord God
is subtle, but malicious he is not." Searching for God's design,
he said, was "the source of all true art and science." Although
this quest may be a cause for humility, it is also what gives
meaning and dignity to our lives.
As the century's greatest thinker, as an immigrant who fled from
oppression to freedom, as a political idealist, he best embodies
what historians will regard as significant about the 20th
century. And as a philosopher with faith both in science and in
the beauty of God's handiwork, he personifies the legacy that has
been bequeathed to the next century.
In a hundred years, as we turn to another new century--nay, ten
times a hundred years, when we turn to another new millennium--the
name that will prove most enduring from our own amazing era will
be that of Albert Einstein: genius, political refugee,
humanitarian, locksmith of the mysteries of the atom and the
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Cover Date: December 31, 1999