8 Famous Historical Figures of Twentieth Century America

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The 20th century has been called “the American century” by scholars, commentators and the public, because of the contributions the United States made to the world during this period. In the 20th century, the United States emerged as a world superpower, and led the international community politically, economically, and culturally for decades.

The success of the United States in the 20th century stems from many important people whose vision and sacrifice elevated the status of the nation. Eight of these influential individuals include:

Henry Ford

No invention was more important to the 20th century than the automobile, and the person who made the automobile available to the masses was Henry Ford. The production of the Model T made cars affordable to the average American, and built an economic boom that lasted much of the early 20th century.

The widespread use of the car caused fundamental changes to American society. People began to move away from city centers, causing the birth of the first suburbs in the middle of the century. Additionally, car culture became one of the defining characteristics of post-World War II America, because it captured the sense of freedom inherent to the American spirit.

Wright Brothers

The dream of flight fascinated humanity for millennia, but it wasn’t until the first successful flight at Kitty Hawk in 1903 by the Wright Brothers that humanity reached its goal. No longer bound to the earth, humanity used the airplane to achieve new heights.

While the Wright Brothers revolutionized the way humans traveled with the airplane, making the world feel like a much smaller place, travel was only a fraction of the changes the airplane brought to the world. By 1914 airpower would transform the way nations fought wars, leading to the intense battles for air superiority in World War II. Airplanes also proved to be a launching pad for a much more ambitious project for the world, the race to space.

Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt

Though often overshadowed by his more famous cousin, Teddy Roosevelt was one of the most important presidents of the 20th century. Entering the White House at a time of great corruption and unease, Roosevelt used the power of the presidency to institute Progressive reforms and protect the rights of the poor and weak.

Roosevelt’s “Square Deal” became the benchmark for domestic policies in the 20th century. He attacked corporate monopolies with the Sherman Antitrust Act and began to level the economic playing field. His Meat Inspection Act and Pure Food and Drug Act created the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration bodies which continue to protect Americans from dangerous consumables today. Roosevelt also cared about the environment, leading to the formation of the National Forestry Service.

Ronald Reagan

Ronald Reagan inspired the Conservative movement, and became the hero of right-wing politics in America today. His pro-military attitude dramatically increased the size of the nation’s armed forces, and his relations with the Soviet Union helped strengthen American foreign policy.

The Reagan administration’s approach to foreign policy was a strategy of peace through strength. After a rise in tension of the Cold War at the beginning of his presidency, Reagan improved relations with the Soviet Union from 1985 – 1989. Alongside the rollback of Communism in Central and Eastern Europe, Reagan’s foreign policy was also pivotal in opposing socialist and communist governments in Afghanistan, Angola, and Nicaragua.

Susan B. Anthony

Susan B. Anthony spent her entire life fighting for women’s issues. Together with Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Anthony fought to end slavery and formed a temperance movement in New York named the Daughters of Temperance. Anthony also advocated educational reform, arguing for coeducation and equal educational opportunities for all.

Furthermore, Susan B. Anthony played an important role in the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920, which recognized the important role that women played in American society by granting them the right to vote. Anthony’s influence and legacy in pivotal social issues helped pave the way for feminism and the continued drive for equal rights.

Martin Luther King, Jr.

At a time of intense violence and racial conflict, Martin Luther King, Jr. rose as a voice of peace and calming leadership. Under his guidance, the Civil Rights Movement adopted a policy of passive resistance that won over the support of whites in the North and South, and sped up the process of change.

No person has been more important to the battle for racial equality in American history than Martin Luther King, Jr. He took the reins of a movement divided by geography, income, education, and experience, and built a national coalition that could not be silenced. His leadership in the passage of the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act brought substantive change to racial inequality in the United States.

Amelia Earhart

One of the most well-known female pilots in American history is Amelia Earhart. Born in Kansas in 1897, Amelia Earhart quickly developed a keen interest in flight and gained national attention in 1928 by becoming the first woman to fly across the Atlantic as a passenger. In 1935, she became the first person to fly from Hawaii to the U.S. mainland. While attempting an eastbound round-the-world flight in 1937, Earhart was lost at sea before reaching a fueling stop on Howard Island in the Pacific Ocean. Through her record-breaking solo flights and role as the first woman vice president of the National Aeronautic Association, Earhart paved the way for both global American aviation advances and the increase of female leadership in the field.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt

Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) is not just one of the most influential Americans of the 20th century; his name is mentioned in discussions of the most important people in human history. His successful management of not one, but two of the greatest crises in American history cement his status as a great president.

FDR’s first years in office were dominated by concerns over the Great Depression. Through his programs of “Relief, Recovery, and Reform”, Roosevelt reinvigorated the economy and gave Americans hope that their fortunes would turn around. At the same time, Roosevelt worked covertly with Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin to plan for American involvement in World War II. With careful manipulation, FDR secured the war materials the Allies needed to hold off the Nazi attack until the United States could enter the conflict. Once the United States joined the war effort, Roosevelt committed all of the resources of the nation to victory, and though he didn’t live to see the end of the war, his decisions made victory possible.

These eight figures helped to shape the “American century” and set the stage for modern America, politically, economically, socially, and culturally.

Learn More

Norwich University is an important part of American history. Established in 1819, Norwich is a nationally recognized institution of higher education, the birthplace of the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC), and the first private military college in the United States.

With Norwich University’s online Master of Arts in History, you can enhance your awareness of differing historical viewpoints while developing the skills you’ll need to refine your research, writing, analysis and presentation skills. The program offers two tracks – American History and World History, allowing you to tailor your studies to your interests and goals.


The Wright Brothers: Pioneers in Aviation, Smithsonian Institution Archives

List of Theodore Roosevelt's notable achievements as president, Theodore Roosevelt Center

Impact of the Model T – Then and Now, the Henry Ford

March 8, 1983: "Evil Empire" Speech, Miller Center

Ronald Reagan, White House

Susan B. Anthony Petition, National Archives

Letter From Birmingham City Jail (Excerpts), TeachingAmericanHistory.org

Transcript of Lend-Lease Act (1941), OurDocuments.gov

Biography of Amelia Earhart, Amelia Earhart Museum

Franklin D. Roosevelt, White House