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10 Great Acts By History’s Least Popular Leaders

Morris M.


We’re used to seeing history in black and white. Schools, Hollywood, the mass media, and public opinion all present the past without any shades of nuance. Wars have good guys and bad guys, and leaders are either geniuses (like Reagan) or losers (like Jimmy Carter). Simple.

Or is it? Step away from the sound and fury of received wisdom, and you might find yourself reconsidering some of history’s worst leaders. We already told you about how Nixon secretly did many great things. Here are 10 more leaders whose achievements got overshadowed.

10George W. Bush Saved Millions Of African Lives

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Mention George W. Bush in polite company, and someone will immediately shout, “Iraq!” Thanks to a bungled reconstruction, Saddam’s old stomping ground turned into a quagmire we’re still dealing with. The mistake has come to characterize Bush’s presidency, along with a succession of humiliating gaffes.

There’s another part of Bush’s legacy, one that rarely gets mentioned. His AIDS program in Africa wound up saving millions of lives.

In 2003, while the media was busy watching Iraq, Bush founded the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR). It’s remit was simple. Over the next five years, $15 million would be spent on prevention and treatment, and Bush added an extra $1.2 billion to combat malaria. The combined programs transformed the continent.

Before PEPFAR, AIDS killed roughly 2.3 million people in South Africa alone. Only 100,000 people in the whole of sub-Saharan Africa were on retroviral drugs. By 2013, two million were taking drugs in South Africa alone, and infection rates had plummeted across the region. To top it all off, malaria rates were halved in 15 separate countries.

The programs weren’t without controversy. They discouraged condom use and promoted abstinence over alternative solutions. But the sudden availability of HIV retroviral and malarial drugs undoubtedly saved millions.



9Tony Blair Fast-Tracked LGBT Rights

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Despite winning three elections in a row, Tony Blair’s UK standing is now so low that half his former party consider him a national embarrassment. His legacy is defined by two things: the Iraq disaster and wild overspending. Strangely, almost nobody mentions his track record on LGBT rights.

When Blair assumed office in 1997, the UK was a pretty grim place to be gay. Section 28 forced schools to teach that homosexual relationships were imaginary and made it illegal to promote homosexuality. The age of consent was higher for LGBT people. The military had banned gay people from serving. It was fine to discriminate against LGBT people in the workplace. Relationships received no legal protection whatsoever.

Blair’s Labour government changed all that. By 2003, gay rights in Britain had vaulted ahead of most other countries. In 2005, civil partnerships were legalized, paving the way for gay marriage under the Conservative-led coalition in 2014. Gay Times even named Tony Blair one of its gay icons of the last 30 years.

8Jimmy Carter Nearly Brought Peace To The Middle East

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Jimmy Carter’s single term as president was so disastrous that his own party nearly chucked him for Ted Kennedy in 1980. Despite his subsequent humanitarian work, most now view Carter’s presidency as out of touch, out of luck, and utterly useless. Yet there’s one area where he nearly changed the course of history. Jimmy Carter nearly brought peace to the Middle East.

In 1978, tensions in the region were even higher than they are now. Five years earlier, Israel had retaliated against Egypt and Syria after an unprovoked attack, and their governments were still sore. As Carter noted, it had now been 2,000 years since there was a peace accord between Egypt and a free Jewish state.

That all changed with the Camp David Accords. In a display of political diplomacy no one could have expected from him, Carter managed to wheedle, cajole, threaten, and impress the Israeli and Egyptian delegations into signing a historic peace deal.

It almost went much further. At the time, a broad framework was agreed for an Israeli-Palestinian solution that Carter expected to be implemented in the near future. It even seemed like a peanut farmer from Georgia might secure lasting peace in the region. Although that dream died a few short years later, the Egypt-Israel peace deal has held firm. As of 2015, the two historic enemies still consider one another allies.



7Warren G. Harding Advocated Civil Rights

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Photo credit: Harris & Ewing

Warren G. Harding is today remembered for being one of the most corrupt presidents in US history. He appointed incompetent cronies to important posts and spent more time womanizing and playing poker than running the country. Whenever anyone mentions him today, it’s in the context of scandal or mediocrity.

Yet in October 1921, Harding broke with tradition by making the first presidential speech condemning lynching. At the time, the NAACP estimated that two black lives were lost to lynching every week, and absolute impunity for the perpetrators was the norm. Up till that point, no one in high office had taken a stand against the practice, so Harding’s words were like dynamite.

Thanks to his intervention, an anti-lynching bill that would have fined counties $100,000 for each lynching on their territory passed the House in 1922. It was filibustered by Southern Democrats. Shortly after, Harding died midway through his term. His groundbreaking anti-lynching bill was never passed.

6John Major Saved Northern Ireland

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As prime minister between Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair, John Major is today chiefly known for overseeing a recession and heading a government mired in sex scandals. Yet he also contributed to something far more important. Without John Major, there might never have been peace in Northern Ireland.

When Major entered Downing Street in 1990, the British state had been at war with Irish Republican paramilitaries for 22 years. It was a bitter conflict. The IRA bombed civilian targets in England, including a pub attack that killed 21 innocent people. For their part, the British army massacred unarmed Irish protesters. Peace seemed like an impossible dream, until Major stepped up secret talks.

The British state and the IRA had long been in secret contact, but Major pressed forward with concrete discussions. Importantly, this included agreeing to the “principle of consent,” a clause that meant the future of Northern Ireland would be decided by its people. Without this one clause, the Good Friday Agreement could never have happened under Tony Blair. While Major may not have been the one to actually secure peace in the troubled region, his contribution was vital to ending a conflict that claimed over 3,600 lives.

5Hugo Chavez Lowered Poverty, Increased Employment

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When he died, Hugo Chavez left behind a country with the second-highest murder rate in the world. He also crashed the economy and nearly went to war with Colombia. Despite winning his elections fairly, he managed to gain a reputation as a bumbling dictator.

While there’s no doubt Chavez made life in Venezuela very hard for the majority of people, there is one area where his revolution succeeded. Under his program of Bolivarism, the very poorest became more secure than they ever could have dreamed.

In 1999, nearly 50 percent of Venezuelans lived below the poverty line, and unemployment hung stubbornly at around 15 percent. By the time of Chavez’s death in 2012, less than 30 percent were below the poverty line, and unemployment had dropped to 8 percent. Likewise, extreme poverty had fallen from 23 to 8 percent, while GDP per capita had more than doubled.

At the same time, people in poorest slums received access to building materials, property deeds, and water and sewage systems, bringing them from the fringes into the beating heart of Venezuelan life. In their eyes, Chavez made them count.



4James Polk Averted A Major War

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Photo credit: Matthew Brady

Even during his presidency, James Polk suffered from obscurity. Now, 171 years after he first assumed office, time has done nothing to dispel the mists surrounding his name. If people know him at all, it’s in the context of the bloody Mexican-American War and his aggressive plans for expansion. But Polk was far from a single-minded warmonger. Thanks to his diplomacy, a devastating war with Britain was avoided.

The problem centered on the Canadian-US border. After falling out over who owned modern-day Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia, the UK and US created a zone that neither had sole claim to. Rather than make the problem go away, this exacerbated it. The Midwest states were gunning for Polk to annex the territory and maybe the whole of Canada. Members of the British government wanted in turn to take everything down to the Californian border. Everyone was expecting a vicious, protracted war.

Instead, Polk came to a surprise settlement. Ignoring the wishes of his own party and a large swath of the public, he deftly negotiated the modern US-Canada border, managing to appease the British and save many lives. Without his unexpected diplomacy, the US would have found itself fighting on two fronts before the Civil War, doubtlessly costing many American lives.

3Suharto Dramatically Cut Infant Mortality

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Indonesian dictator Suharto was responsible for two separate genocides. His rule killed a minimum of 1.2 million people and led in 1997 to a devastating economic collapse. Curiously, Suharto wasn’t a completely callous man. His government was deeply concerned with the welfare of children.

When Suharto came to power at the end of a previous dictatorship, Indonesia was a mess. Poverty was rampant, illiteracy was everywhere, and children often died very young. Although his New Order government ruthlessly plundered the country’s resources, they made sure they had enough left to throw around. Wealth was redistributed, health care was improved, and education received massive investment. The result was a buoyant economy and a sharp drop in infant mortality rates.

It wasn’t the only area that Suharto improved. When he took power, over 60 percent of Indonesians lived below the poverty line. By one measure, this was reduced to just 13 percent before the economic crash. Infrastructure was overhauled. Living standards leaped skyward, and the economy entered a near-uninterrupted 30-year period of prosperity. Although its end would force the dictator from power and ensure he died in disgrace, a vocal minority of Indonesians now consider him a hero.

2Nikita Khrushchev Reined In The KGB’s Excesses

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Stalin’s successor to the top job in the USSR, Khrushchev is today remembered for growling “we will bury you” to a roomful of Western diplomats. His reign was marked by skittish paranoia in the West and the ever-looming prospect of a devastating nuclear war.

For ordinary Russians, though, Khrushchev wasn’t just some ranting lunatic. He was the man who stopped the KGB from slaughtering them.

Under Stalin, the secret police received quotas to fulfill. This meant you could be a model citizen, never getting into trouble and informing on your neighbors, and you might still be imprisoned and tortured by someone just trying to hit his monthly bonus. Even within Soviet high command itself, paranoia was rampant. People were picked off like flies for little reason other than living under an insane dictator.

Khrushchev changed all that. In a secret speech made only to the party faithful, he moved the USSR away from terrorizing its own population. The knock-on effect was a mini-thaw that saw oppression drop, artists gain limited freedoms, and people stop being afraid of their neighbors. Communal living was dropped in favor of private apartments. Life became easier and less deadly for millions of people.

1Chamberlain Saved Millions Of Lives

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Photo credit: Walter Stoneman

He sacrificed Czechoslovakia to appease Hitler. Those words will still be written about Neville Chamberlain 500 years from now. Faced with the greatest evil Europe had ever known, the British prime minister choked, and millions suffered. Yet his inaction may have had one unexpected side effect. It may have saved millions from death.

In 1938, the UK was in no position to take on Germany. The army was underfunded, ill equipped, and badly trained. Public morale was at an all-time low. Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and America had all indicated an unwillingness to back up Britain in a European turf war. On the opposite side, Japan, Italy, and Soviet Russia had all signaled that they would support Germany and crush any resistance. By a process of brutal mathematics, Chamberlain realized that standing up to Hitler now could only result in Britain being crushed and Czechoslovakia still being conquered. So he decided to wait.

It was anything but an idle move. While he publicly talked appeasement, Chamberlain in secret authorized a massive buildup of British forces. Peacetime conscription was introduced, and military spending increased. The result was a UK just about ready for war in September 1939. Instead of imploding, British forces managed to hold Hitler at bay until America and Russia entered the war and history was made. Had Chamberlain sent the troops charging in in 1938, Hitler likely would have wiped the floor with the UK, potentially killing millions. Maybe it’s about time he got some credit for this.

Morris M.

Morris is a freelance writer and newly-qualified teacher, still naively hoping to make a difference in his students' lives. You can send your helpful and less-than-helpful comments to his email, or visit some of the other websites that inexplicably hire him.

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