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Jewish World Review Dec. 29,1999 /20 Teves, 5760

Thomas Sowell

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The best of the Century -- WITH THE FATEFUL YEAR 2000 looming ahead, there are sure to be lists of the greatest figures of this century. There should also be separate lists of the worst. That will avoid sticky issues like whether "great" includes those who reached new heights of evil, such as Hitler and Stalin.

Who was the best leader of this century? My nomination goes to Winston Churchill. If one man ever pulled a whole nation through a crisis which threatened its very existence, that man was Churchill, prime minister of Britain during the dark days of the Nazi blitz in 1940, when London was bombed night after night and a German invasion force was assembled on the other side of the English Channel. Most people did not expect Britain to survive.

It is hard to convey to a new generation today how close Britain came to annihilation and how close Hitler came to becoming master of the whole continent of Europe. Imagine now this monster, with all the immense resources of the continent at his disposal and in control of the huge British navy, while his Japanese allies were in control of the richest natural resources in the conquered countries of Southeast Asia.

How long would the position of the United States have been tenable, with no allies and with the most formidable military forces ever assembled arrayed against us? By now, Americans might be speaking German -- except for those of us who would not be speaking at all, because we would have gone up in smoke in Hitler's extermination camps.

This was more than just another war. The Nazi ideology was, as Time magazine put it, "a revolution against the human soul," conceived by Hitler "in conscious contempt for the life, dignity and freedom of individual man." Nothing that we could call civilization would have survived the triumph of this barbaric creed, armed with the weapons of modern science.

After an unbroken string of devastating military triumphs -- over-running France in a matter of weeks and other countries in a matter of days -- the Nazis were finally stopped only by the British refusal to surrender in the face of overwhelming odds.

That was what Churchill will be remembered for. Unlike the French, who declared Paris an open city, rather than see its historic treasures bombed, Churchill said, "It is better that London should lie in ruins and ashes than that we should surrender."

The inspiration of this great man not only saved Britain, the disruption of the Nazi timetable for conquest bought time for a woefully unprepared United States to finally begin building up its military defenses. It is enough of a claim to historic greatness for a man to have saved his own country. Churchill may have saved civilization.

After the Nazis and their Japanese allies were finally vanquished, there remained the long and unprecedentedly dangerous Cold War with the Communists internationally. Moreover, within Western democracies themselves, the welfare state and socialism -- beautiful in theory and poisonous in practice -- were stifling growth and producing double-digit inflation and double-digit unemployment at the same time, with accompanying social degeneration and demoralization.

Two leaders turned this around -- Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in Britain and President of the United States Ronald Reagan. They triumphed both domestically and internationally over forces that many thought could not be defeated even singly, much less together.

Who would have dreamed that socialist Britain would begin selling whole government-run industries back to private enterprise? Who would have thought that the death grip of the British labor unions on the economy could be broken?

Ronald Reagan not only turned around the decline of the American economy, he defied the conventional wisdom by basing his foreign policy on a military buildup, designed to force the Soviet Union to change its foreign policy and end the arms race. Reagan even predicted that we were seeing the last days of this evil empire.

Few believed him and many scoffed. But he succeeded where a whole succession of other presidents had failed.

These were clearly the three greatest leaders of this century. It is painful to imagine what the world would be like today without them.

JWR contributor Thomas Sowell, a fellow at the Hoover Institution, is author, most recently, of The Quest for Cosmic Justice.


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©1999, Creators Syndicate