This list takes a look at the 10 most seminal, historical and influential events in the evolution of the United States of America. The lister tried to include 5 good and 5 bad events, but the bad won the numbers game. Readers of other nations are encouraged to submit lists of their own nations’ most important events.
10. Assassination of Abraham Lincoln
In hindsight, this seems the only way America’s worst moment could end. After some 600,000 American men had died of wounds, or grossly unsanitary medical practice, Lincoln gave his second inaugural address, the famous “charity for all” speech, on March 4, 1865, one month before his death. There is a photograph of him giving this speech, which also shows John Wilkes Booth standing above and behind him, on a balcony. Lincoln ended his speech with these words: “With malice toward none; with charity for all;…let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan.”
Regardless of this sentiment, Booth was from Maryland, considered himself a southerner, and considered Lincoln the root cause for the destruction of the South, the deaths of its brave men, and the dishonor done to its institution of slavery. He decided that Lincoln had to die for his crimes, and conspired with David Herold, John Surratt, George Atzerodt, and Lewis Powell not just to kill Lincoln, but for Powell to break into Secretary of State William Seward’s house and stab him to death, and for Atzerodt to shoot ice President Andrew Johnson at the Kirkwood Hotel.
Atzerodt lost his nerve and fled without attacking Johnson. Powell successfully entered Seward’s home, knocked out his son, broke into Seward’s bedroom, shoving aside his wife, and stabbed him wildly in the dark. Seward was severely injured from a fall out of his carriage, and a splint he wore for his broken jaw is all that protected his throat from the knife. Powell then ran out into the night. Seward did not die.
Booth is the only man of the plot who succeeded. The details are well known to every American school kid. He shot Lincoln in the back of the head with a .44 caliber Derringer, percussion-cap pistol, during a performance of “Our American Cousin,” at Ford’s Theater in Washington D. C. He then leaped to the stage, breaking his left fibula, shouted, “Sic semper tyrannis!” and may have shouted, “The South is avenged!”
Most importantly, Lincoln’s assassination reminded humanity that when a war ends, the animosity between sides may not, and usually does not. To win a war, therefore, regardless of whether it should be fought, or which side is the good side does not put an end to the human capacity to hate. Thus, no victory will ever be the last.
9. Louisiana Purchase
It’s been mentioned more than once before on Listverse, and you’re probably familiar with it anyway, but let us not forget that with one shrewd business deal, Thomas Jefferson doubled the United States of America’s area. The U. S. paid 60 million francs, and canceled French debts totaling another 18 million, for a grand total of 78 million francs, or about $15 million. Today, that would be worth about $220 million, which is an extraordinarily good sale price for 828,800 square miles.
Today that area comprises some 15 states, including all of Oklahoma, Nebraska, Iowa, Arkansas, Kansas and Missouri. Jefferson couldn’t pass up a deal. It should be noted that France’s illustrious leader at the time, Napoleon Bonaparte, made this deal mostly for the money, but also to give “England a maritime rival that will sooner or later humble her pride.” Not that America ever did conquer Britain on the high seas (no one ever did), but Napoleon thought it would take a bit of the oceanic strain off his aspirations for global conquest. Two years later, his and Spain’s navies met England’s under Lord Horatio Nelson off Cape Trafalgar, Spain, and his sale of the Louisiana territory wasn’t such a sale anymore.
Jefferson immediately ordered the territory explored, and commissioned Meriwether Lewis and William Clark for the job. His purpose was multifold, with both scientific and commercial goals, especially “to find direct and practicable water communication across this continent, for the purposes of commerce with Asia.” At the time, no one on Earth, except for the thousand or so tribes of Indians, knew what sort of environs Lewis and Clark were to go through. They were still looking for the Northwest Passage, but the Pacific Ocean said, “No.” This single business transaction left only about a third of the modern United States to be explored, acquired, and founded.
8. Manhattan Project
It is risky to take pride in weaponry, lest doing so lead people to believe that the proud are villains. America is not a land of evil people. But like all nations of peoples, Americans are warlike, and proud of their almighty ability to defend themselves “against all enemies, foreign and domestic.”
To that end, scientists, led by Robert Oppenheimer and Enrico Fermi, labored diligently for some 6 years developing nuclear physics to an understanding requisite to crank out a weapon of unfathomable power. The whole project was given a big headstart by Dr. Albert Einstein, who signed a letter written by Leo Szilard, which was sent to F. D. Roosevelt, advising him that the Nazis were probably trying their best to invent a nuclear weapon, which they would certainly use on the civilian population of some large city, probably London or Moscow (or on a large population of Jews).
It is, therefore, on the books that America became the first nation to complete the understanding of nuclear fission and developed the first weapon using this technology. Harry Truman’s decision, in 1945, to use it on the civilian population of Japan, the only serious threat to Allied safety at the time, remains extraordinarily controversial, but it did its job: putting a final end to the mightiest, deadliest war in human history. Japan was largely intent on fighting to the last man, which would have lasted years more. The atomic bombs Fat Man and Little Boy changed their minds in 4 days. A time of great evil, but this list is not about evil or good events, only those that are important.
7. Vietnam War
In many ways, the Vietnam War was a product of decades of lousy politics, not just American, but including the global spread of Communism. Communism works on paper, but when you add human desires to it, it fails. But America entered the Vietnam conflict largely because it felt threatened by Communism’s spread into democratic South Vietnam, and has sworn to defend democracy.
Unfortunately, the only president who stepped back and looked at the whole picture was shot in the head in Dallas, plausibly to stop him from removing all American activity from Southeast Asia. The president who came after him wanted the War at all costs, and various motives have been put forth, including his own selfish oil interests. War is big business and historically improved an economy by motivating people to enter the workforce and construct weapons.
But no one wanted the war in Vietnam. There was no obvious villain to fight. And America had had enough of war over the last 60 years, from WWI to WWII to Korea. The hawks clamored for a quick end with a few atomic bombs, but that would have infuriated and terrified China and Russia (both Communist). The smart argument was to remove the American military and civilian population from the area before they stayed long enough to have to save face after losing personnel and material.
On the bright side, the Vietnam War established something good: peace rallies. Tens of thousands of U. S. citizens paraded, marched, and crowded into various public places, especially Washington D. C., to protest the War, and these rallies worked. Most scholars credit them with shortening U. S. involvement in Vietnam. After the fall of Saigon in 1975, Gerald Ford’s administration seriously considered various re-invasion plans (to save face), but the American public was so sick of the War in the news, with all its dead Americans, napalmed little Vietnamese girls, My Lai massacres, and lack of purpose, that the U. S. government decided to cut its losses. The War was over. America had lost. 58,000 Americans had died for no good reason.
6. Death of Osama bin Laden
Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin had, until bin Laden’s death, been without parallel in the world’s opinion of villainy. They were absolute evils, universally despised except by very small numbers of fanatics whose philosophy no one has ever taken seriously. Bin Laden’s status the world over was virtually equivalent to this. He still has plenty of supporters, most of them in various places throughout the Middle East, but their percentage is microscopic compared to the favorable response to his death on May 1, 2011. And it was the United States military, without help from anyone else, that did it.
What his death means can be best estimated by means of the world’s favorable response. The phrase repeated in variation was, “He got what he deserved. Justice was served.” In Dearborn, Michigan, a city with a large Muslim population, thousands of Muslims crowded around the city hall and set off fireworks. Osama bin Laden was an enemy of civilized humanity. He lived for his self-perceived purpose of destroying peaceful relations between cultures, and the annihilation of democracy. The United States made the most obvious target for his reckless hate, and he championed murder and suicide. He was a monster.
But most importantly is the technical difficulty involved in finding and dealing with him. It is no easy thing to find someone on Earth who does not want to be found. The USA employed almost every single weapon in its arsenal, the most powerful in the history of Earth, in locating him, and he still evaded justice for a decade. That justice was able to be served, long after most people had given up hope, is a testament to “waking the sleeping giant and filling him with a terrible resolve.” That America never gave up and overcame the difficulties is the true death knell of global terrorism. It may take a century or more, but terrorism will be stopped. Now we believe it.
5. Assassination of John F. Kennedy
The jury is still out, and probably will be for a very long time, as to why in the world Kennedy had to die. There are loads of conspiracy theories, most centering on the Chicago mafia. Sam Giancana is thought to have rigged the election to get Kennedy into the Office, but why he did this is a long, complicated story. In general, Giancana believed his interests would fare better under Kennedy. The answer is almost always money.
However much the mafia might have thought Kennedy would be on their side, he definitely wasn’t once he took office, appointing his brother Bobby to be Attorney General. Bobby came down very hard on organized crime, especially in the Chicago area, and the conspiracy theory goes that Giancana felt betrayed and resolved to avenge this.
This lister is of the opinion that Lee Harvey Oswald did not act alone, but whether he knew or not, he was accompanied by at least one other gunman, possibly several. The important thing is what this event did to American morale: devastated it. Except for America’s avowed Cold War enemies, nearly the entire world sent its condolences, not in the least because if the most powerful and protected man in the world could be killed, what about UK’s PM Alec Douglas-Home? What about Charles de Gaulle? What about kings and queens?
And this was worse than the assassination of Lincoln, for the sole reason of modern security. Lincoln’s security was grossly equal to any assailant who might want at him: firearms were evenly matched to the best personal armor of the day. In Kennedy’s time, bulletproof vests were common and getting better all the time. But he made one serious mistake: he rode in a convertible.
The similarities between his and Lincoln’s assassinations are uncanny. Among them are that both spoke prophetic words regarding their deaths. Lincoln dreamed his death not long before it happened. Kennedy once said, “Look, if someone wants to sit up in a window and take potshots at someone as they ride by, there’s not a hell of a lot they can do to stop him.”
4. The American Revolution
The establishment of America as a nation all its own occurred from 19 April 1775 to October 1781. Hostilities were required because the British considered the Thirteen Colonies nothing more than another exclave of the global British Empire, and King George wanted the lion’s share of all the Colonies’ wealth. America’s Founding Fathers had had enough, and when 8 Minutemen were killed on Lexington Green, the fight was on.
The next year, in one of the Continental Congress’s many meetings, Benjamin Franklin, on signing the Declaration of Independence, said, “Now, gentlemen, if we don’t all hang together in this, we’ll all hang separately.” They were traitors to the Crown. The only reason they are not thought of as such today is because George Washington, with a lot of help from the French, won the War.
He lost about 6 major battles, and won only about 3, but the three he won were the three that mattered in the end. His primary enemy was Charles Lord Cornwallis, who was more than a match for him many times. But when Washington combined all his American forces with those of the French of Gilbert du Motier, the Marquis de Lafayette, Cornwallis could not overcome them. When he surrendered, The United States of America became a nation all its own.
3. The Civil War
This war ranks higher than that of #3 because #3 left one question unanswered after the drafting of the Constitution: if all men are created equal, why are blacks bought and sold, families of them broken up, and in other ways inhumanely treated for the purpose of using them like farm animals? Why aren’t blacks allowed to vote? Are they, at long last, men?
In order to circumvent this last question, most white citizens, especially in the South, actually argued that black people were not humans, but slightly subhuman. They weren’t even counted in censuses until 1787, and even then, only 3/5 of all blacks would be counted in a given area. The causes of the Civil War, or more properly, the War over States’ Rights, include much more than slavery, but the sustenance or abolition of slavery was the result everyone watched for, and what all the politicians fought for. At no other time in American history was the nation more polarized over any issue. In hindsight, fighting over it was the only resolution. No compromise could avail itself forever.
Many war experts consider it the first modern war, not because of the Gatling gun, but because of musket rifling and the Minie ball. As said in #10, 600,000 Americans died. This was horror on a scale no American ever saw before or since. Most of the common soldiers enlisted and fought for the money and three square meals a day. This was a job, and the promise of adventure, for the price of possible death or injury. By the time it was over, Richmond had been bombed into a moonscape, General Sherman had burned Atlanta to the ground, and the President was killed.
But with the unconditional surrender of the South, the Union was able to welcome back all seceded states, per Lincoln’s wishes, and permanently outlaw slavery of any kind. The Constitution was amended to this effect, Blacks were given the right to vote and hold office, and a nation much more similar to that of the present finally existed in the Western Hemisphere.
September 11, 2001
The plane crashes instigated a decade-long, ongoing “war on terror,” and played a substantial role in the global economic downturn. These crimes’ most important aspect on American, and in this case global, history is a permanent end to “hijackings for ransom.” Ransoms are what the innocent passengers in the four planes expected would be demanded, requiring the planes to land peacefully, and then boarded by military force. This why no one fought back against the terrorists until word reached the fourth plane that three others had been hijacked and deliberately turned into weapons.
The terrorists had no intention of ransoming innocent people, but were resigned to what they were taught would be a glorious martyrdom, by killing American citizens. The fourth plane was probably destined for the U. S. Capitol building in Washington, D. C., but the nation’s last line of defense succeeded in saving the icon and a worse loss of life, at the cost of its passengers’ own martyrdom.
Today, the entire world can rest assured that never again will an American airplane be overtaken by anyone for any reason, because no terrorist of any culture or motive can ever again be trusted not to kill himself and innocent bystanders for the goal of entering Heaven. Terrorists can no longer be reasoned with, and thus, the global war against splinter cell terrorism is, from the morning of 9/11/2001 until its end, one of attrition. The terrorists will not stop until there are no terrorists. And now the civilized world knows it.
1. Apollo 11
For once, we will end on a major chord. In just about a week we remember the significant events of July 20, 1969, when humanity did itself proud, in spite of all its wars, sadism, hatred, and insanity. We set foot on another world. We have no choice but to remember the awful things our species has perpetrated on itself and on Planet Earth. But we can now choose to think of ourselves as ultimately good. Beneath it all, we are a decent species. We did not, until this date, possess or even deserve a universal common ground on which to agree. Now, no matter what else happens, if extraterrestrial life ever learns of us, they will learn that we walked on our own moon, studied it up close and personal, and returned safe and sound.
And it was the United States of America who saw it through. After tragedies uncountable, the most notorious of which was the fiery death of Virgil Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee. But NASA and most Americans understood that the prize at the end of the race was worth finishing. England can claim some pride, in that Sir Isaac Newton was proven right about everything he said. Without him, NASA wouldn’t have known which way was up.
Yet, some have detracted from America’s almighty achievement of the Moon Landing with the argument that America achieved its goal in order to beat the Soviets to it. Thus, it was an achievement born out of hatred and distrust. But that isn’t fair. Once the Cold War was over, Russia and America worked, and have worked, together in space exploration, interested only in science and discovery. It is not NASA’s fault, nor the fault of Russia’s space program, that Capitalism and Communism didn’t get along.
America’s distrust and loathing of Communism is most directly attributable to Senator Joseph McCarthy, who saw in denouncing it a chance to gain power for himself. He preyed on people’s fear, and this works like a charm. Today, Russia is no longer Communist, and cooperates with America’s and other space programs to study and reach the stars.
But only Americans have walked on the Moon, 12 of them. No one of any other nation has. There are five different flags on the Moon: the first planted is from the USA; out of respect for other superpowers, the USA has planted the flags of the Soviet Union, Japan, the European Union, and India.
NASA is now very intent on going back, and someday the next, much more giant leap will be taken: to Mars. Whoever it is who speaks first on Mars must remember the sentiment Neil Armstrong expressed, “We came in peace for all mankind.”