From an early age, we’re taught to see things in black or white. Perform medical experiments on children, or deliberately drop bombs on innocent civilians and you’re clearly a bad person, right? Well, no, not exactly. See, real life is a lot more complex than we’d like it to be. It’s totally possible to do something terrible, while having a really good reason for doing so. Don’t believe us? Check out these guys.
10. Edward Jenner
The good thing: Eradicating smallpox
The bad thing: Performing medical experiments on children and babies
Edward Jenner (not to be confused with Edwin Jenner from season one of The Walking Dead) did one of the best ‘good things’ anyone has ever done. He’s the guy who invented the smallpox vaccine, thus saving millions of lives. How he got there, though, is another matter. When Jenner came up with his breakthrough theory – that scraping pus from a cowpox wound into an incision in human skin would make that person immune to smallpox – he didn’t experiment on himself. Oh no. Instead, Jenner trialed his concept on an 8 year old boy.
Remember that if this had gone wrong, he probably would have given the kid smallpox and likely killed him…especially as the second part of his experiment involved exposing the kid to the smallpox virus, to prove he was now vaccinated.
Still this wasn’t enough. To make absolutely sure he was going down in history as either a hero or the evilest villain this side of the Grinch, Jenner repeated his experiment on dozens of other children, including an 11-month-old baby. Luckily, they were a success. The first smallpox vaccine worked. That’s why we now know Jenner as a medical hero, and not just some jerk who gave a bunch of random kids smallpox.
9. Nelson Mandela
The good thing: Opposing apartheid, thus ending South Africa’s racist system
The bad thing: Founding a terrorist organization that was responsible for the murder, torture and brutal revenge killings of dozens.
Nelson Mandela was one of the giants of the 20th century. He endured nearly a lifetime in prison, helped bring down South Africa’s apartheid regime and became the country’s first black leader. All of which is awesome. What’s less awesome is the road he took there. During his time in the ANC, Mandela was responsible for founding the organization’s terrorist wing, the MK. For a brief period, the MK was one of the deadliest organizations in the world.
Motivated by the injustices of life in apartheid-era South Africa, the MK was responsible for a string of bombings, murders and gruesome revenge killings. In 1983, they detonated a car bomb on a packed street during rush hour, killing 19 and wounding 217 civilians. They also pioneered ‘necklacing’. Suspected informants would have a tire hung around their necks, which would then be set on fire. It was an unbelievably gruesome way to die.
All-in-all, the MK killed an absolute minimum of 63 people, and injured close to 500. Although most of their attacks took place while Mandela was in prison, they wouldn’t have existed at all without him.
8. Teddy Roosevelt
The good thing: Boosting global trade and the American economy by investing in the Panama Canal.
The bad thing: Illegally annexing Panama to do so.
When Putin’s forces seized the Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, US politicians lined up to condemn him. While Putin’s annexation was undoubtedly a douchey move, US politicians should probably have spared a thought for the great territory stealing guy commemorated on Mt Rushmore. In 1903, Teddy Roosevelt illegally swiped Panama from Colombia, using almost exactly the same tactics as Putin.
At the time, there were plans afoot to carve a giant canal through the isthmus, boosting global trade. Since Panama was part of Colombia, the government in Bogota naturally wanted compensation. They agreed a price with Roosevelt, then decided it was too low and raised it. Roosevelt responded by encouraging Panama to declare independence.
The process was remarkably similar to that used in Crimea. Panamanians voted to split from Colombia, then when Bogota protested, Roosevelt sent the muscle in to secure his new territory. He then appointed an ally as the ambassador of Panama, got his permission to build the canal and started work, without consulting any of the new nation’s citizens. So, Roosevelt effectively screwed over two countries with a single annexation.
7. Arthur “Bomber” Harris
The good thing: Ending the War with Germany as quickly as possible, saving Allied lives in the process, ending the Holocaust and toppling Hitler.
The bad thing: The firebombing of Dresden and other German cities, killing untold civilians.
By 1943, WWII had shifted gears. From being isolated and at the mercy of German bombs, Britain was now pushing forward into Nazi Germany and looking for revenge. One of those most keen on the whole vengeance thing was Arthur “Bomber” Harris. The guy in charge of Britain’s Bomber Command, he convinced Churchill the best, quickest way to win the war was to demoralize the Germans by carpet bombing their country.
The carnage Bomber Command unleashed on the Germans was unparalleled. When the German Blitz hit London for the best part of a year, it resulted in a total of around 40,000 civilian deaths. Bomber Harris achieved that in a single raid on Hamburg. Controversially, Harris chose to use incendiary bombs when attacking targets like Dresden. The resulting firestorm burned 23,000 people alive – mostly women, children, refugees, or (ironically) Allied prisoners of war.
All told, Harris’s successful campaign killed upwards of 600,000 civilians; or about three times the number of dead in the Syrian civil war.
6. Che Guevara
The good thing: Fighting tirelessly for Latin America’s poor and neglected, overthrowing a ruthless, corrupt dictator who was running Cuba for American interests.
The bad thing: Replacing that dictator with another ruthless dictator. Organizing the executions of thousands of people.
Che Guevara, the bearded socialist revolutionary from Argentina, is a modern icon. Leftist college students still wear his face emblazoned on their t-shirts. In Latin America, poor and populist movements take courage from his stances. He showed Latin America’s poor that they didn’t need to accept their lot, and he helped overthrow Cuba’s brutal dictator Fulgencio Batista – a mafia-connected monster who happily bombed entire towns that disagreed with him into dust.
Unfortunately, the guy Che threw his lot in with while getting rid of Batista was Fidel Castro. Although Castro’s revolution drastically improved the lives of Cuba’s poor (Cuba’s free healthcare is often called the best in the world), the path there involved a whole lot of bloodshed. Che himself became an executioner, offing thousands of people considered enemies of Castro. While some were undoubtedly corrupt Batista-era guards, most of them were just ordinary Cubans who got swept up in a revolution. The life of the average Cuban may have improved in the post-Batista era, but thanks to Che, plenty of others didn’t live long enough to see those improvements.
5. Harry S. Truman
The good thing: Ending the war in the Pacific early with decisive action, saving up to a million American and Japanese lives.
The bad thing: Dropping two atomic bombs on civilian populations, killing over 200,000 ordinary men, women and children.
The atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was one of the most brutal moves in the history of war. The two towns were both reduced to cinders in the blink of an eye, the Hiroshima bombing killing up to 146,000 and the Nagasaki killing up to 80,000. Many of the victims were women and children, and you better believe their deaths were awful. People who had the misfortune to be looking at the bomb but survive the blast had the skin seared from their faces. Others were left staggering around on charred stumps instead of feet, moaning in agony. Still others died from the horrors of radiation poisoning.
The man who signed off on this devastation, Harry S. Truman, probably should have gone down in history as a war criminal…had it not been for one minor detail. Most historians now believe the bombings saved lives in the long run. Without them, it is unlikely the Japanese would have surrendered, necessitating an American ground invasion. It’s thought this would have killed up to one million people, and drawn the war out for years to come. From a purely utilitarian perspective, Truman’s decision saved significantly more lives than it ended.
4. Jonas Salk
The good thing: Developing a cure for Polio, thus saving millions of children from death and disfigurement.
The bad thing: Performing medical experiments on his own young children.
Jonas Salk is the coolest dude you’ve possibly never heard of. He’s the guy who created the polio vaccine in the 1950s, at a time when polio infected around 60,000 people a year in the US alone, leaving about a third of them with paralyzed limbs. Once he’d created the vaccine, he then turned down his shot at becoming a millionaire by refusing to take out a patent, meaning millions and millions of lives could be saved with cheap treatments. Oh, and he accomplished all this by performing dangerous medical experiments on his own children.
Like Edward Jenner at number 10, Salk knew people would need proof of his vaccine. So he and his wife agreed to test it on themselves. Less happily, they also volunteered their own young children for the test. Again, we need to stress that if this had gone wrong, Salk might have paralyzed or killed every member of his family. At least he and his wife understood the risks. His children were incapable of giving consent, especially to something so dangerous. Luckily, the vaccine worked and Salk wound up saving lives, rather than ending them.
3. Winston Churchill
The good thing: Too many to list. In this case, using all the resources of the Empire to ensure the British didn’t starve to death holding out against Hitler. Ships came from far and wide to supply the UK in its hour of need.
The bad thing: A whole lot of those ships had been engaged in famine relief work in India. When they were diverted, between one and three million Indians starved to death.
The Bengal Famine of 1943 is one of the worst natural disasters in a century full of them. What makes it really bad is that it was largely preventable. When people started starving to death, the British Empire had enough ships to begin sending in supplies to the region. Until, that is, Churchill requisitioned the ships for the war effort.
At the time, the UK was still largely cut off from the rest of the world by Hitler’s forces. Add to that all the hungry soldiers needed to push into European territory and take out Nazi Germany, and you can see why Churchill thought he needed those ships. His plan worked. Britain remained supplied despite Hitler’s best efforts to starve the UK into submission. Unfortunately, Winston didn’t think through the consequences.
By diverting the ships from Bengal, Churchill badly exacerbated the famine. It’s thought around one million Indians died as a direct result of his intervention. The fact that it also allowed Britain to hold out against Hitler’s Germany was probably cold comfort to survivors.
2. Abraham Lincoln
The good thing: Won the Civil War, allowing him to both keep the United States united and to free the slaves.
The bad thing: Trampling all over democracy in the process and opening a concentration camp.
Abraham Lincoln is today remembered as the Great Emancipator, a colossus of history who stood up for personal liberty and democracy during the American Civil War. What’s less well remembered is that he trampled all over democracy to achieve those aims.
Seriously. The sort of stuff Lincoln did in pursuit of his noble goal reads like something from a ‘How to’ book on tyranny. When two papers ran libelous articles on the president in 1864, Lincoln ordered a military takeover of the titles to prevent them publishing critical stories of him. In 1861, he ditched habeas corpus – the important legal principle that means the government can’t hold you indefinitely without a good reason. When judges protested, he sent the military in against them, too.
To top it all off, he oversaw the construction of a concentration camp. Camp Douglas killed thousands of Confederate troops with poor sanitation and overcrowding, not to mention old fashioned brutality. That the South operated equally brutal camps is neither here nor there.
Still, the tactics worked. Lincoln triumphed in the Civil War and the rest, including the restoration of democracy, is history.
1. Neville Chamberlain
We’re going to change the order around a bit on this one. Everyone knows the bad thing Chamberlain did (appeasing Hitler). What they probably don’t know is the good cause behind it…
The good thing: Buying Britain time to arm itself so it would be capable of taking on Hitler.
Although he’s remembered today as a weak bungler, Neville Chamberlain was pretty shrewd. He was also terrifyingly pragmatic. When Hitler rolled into Czechoslovakia in 1938, Chamberlain opted for appeasement instead of confrontation. While this trashed his reputation, it may have saved Britain itself from extinction.
At the time, the UK was completely unprepared for war. Allies like Canada, Australia and America weren’t interested in backing up the weak British forces, while Germany could count on Italy, Japan and (at that time) Russia. So rather than do the moral thing and speak out, Chamberlain used appeasement as a cover to quickly build up Britain’s armed forces. In doing so, he sacrificed Czechoslovakia to the Nazis (and particularly Czech Jews to the Holocaust), but ensured Britain didn’t enter the fray until it had a chance of winning.
As a result, when WWII kicked off, Britain was just about able to hold off Hitler until the USA and Russia got involved. It was a hideous policy, but it probably saved Britain from becoming a Nazi puppet state in the long run.