Cruelest Leader in 20th Century History

[May 12, 2020]  One of the most challenging questions asked of me was what defines “evil.”  Evil, and what it means and does not mean, has been a subject of human thinking since the beginning of our species.  Today, I’ll address who I believe is the cruelest leader in the twentieth century, and in doing so, incorporate my thinking on what is evil.

For now, I will leave my brief discussion of evil at the end of this article.  But, I must begin with the premise that evil does exist and there examples throughout our world supporting this idea.  I admit that defining evil is not a simple task and is fraught with many obstacles and no two people will use the same definition of evil.

My choice of the cruelest leader in the twentieth century will be controversial.  My pick?  Pol Pot is the cruelest, most evil leader of the twentieth century.  His competition is stiff; Stalin, Lenin, Hitler, Mussolini, and Mao.  They all have something in common, other than killing large numbers of people.

Pol Pot was the leader of the communist Khmer Rouge (1963-1997) and the Prime Minister of Cambodia (1975-1979).  During his rule, he was responsible for the deaths of up to 1.5 to 2 million Cambodians through starvation, execution, disease, or overwork.1  This is about one-third of the total population.  Bodies buried in mass graves became known as the “killing fields.”  The phrase later became the title of a movie about the horrors of Pol Pot’s regime.

Pol Pot’s ambition was to build a socialist utopia.  Soon after taking power, he began evacuating cities and moving inhabitants to the countryside.  His citizens would now work in collective farms and on collective labor projects.  Pol Pot also implemented a new concept known as Year Zero, which meant destroying all Cambodian culture and tradition, starting again from scratch.  History would begin again, this time molded by Pol Pot’s hand.

Pol Pot’s new country was to be a peasant society based on his rules.  Those from the city were not useful and, over time, were to be eliminated.  Teachers, lawyers, doctors, and anyone with an education was subject to arrest, torture, and execution.  Even wearing glasses, having soft hands, or speaking a foreign language would mark you for death.

The regime’s philosophy was made clear in a state-controlled radio broadcast that stated the new society would need only one or two million people would be necessary to build the new socialist utopia.  The message to the rest was clear, “To keep you is no benefit, to destroy you is no loss.”

Some have suggested in my leadership forum that Nazi Adolf Hitler or Communist Joseph Stalin should have this “honor.”  My other choice would have been Communist Mao Zedong.  Evil, in my thinking, is not just measured by the number of deaths tallied or the inhuman conditions under which others are subjugated but also by the brutality, malice, and vindictiveness meted out to those unfortunate victims.2


  2. My ideas of “evil” have been influenced by many philosophers who have written about the idea. Hanna Arendt gives a good description and her analysis worth reading.  A summary can be found in the following link:
Author: Douglas R. Satterfield

Hello. I'm Doug and I provide at least one article everyday on some leadership topic. I welcome comments and also guests who would like to write an article. Thanks for reading my blog.

23 thoughts on “Cruelest Leader in 20th Century History

  1. Bart Rhodes

    Cruelest, maybe. Deadly, yes. Evil, big yes! Pol Pot is just another example of those who are our “moral superiors” and who want to do “good” for us. Result … 2+ million dead. Millions of lives destroyed. Horror in the most basic sense of the word. Socialist results always end the same way.

    1. Danny Burkholder

      I disagree that not all socialist dreams end the same way although there are plenty of examples from the 20th century. What amazes me is that the ideology is still so popular.

  2. Gil Johnson

    The cruelest of the 20th century, maybe, but evil he was to the core. It doesn’t take much to see how evil this man was and what he wanted was based on the promise of a utopia that cannot never exist.

  3. Doug Smith

    Pol Pot is the only man in all of history to order official genocide against his entire country (the Cambodian Genocide) and declared that money, personal possession and religion as a whole was banned.

    1. Tom Bushmaster

      Yeah, evil at the core. But he “did it for the children”. Ha Ha Ha Ha

      1. Mark Evans

        More than scary, pure unadulterated evil. If the devil lives in human form, Pol Pot was him.

  4. Eva Easterbrook

    Hitler may have killed more in the name of his socialist Nazi paradise but Pol Pot was much crueler. I agree with Gen. Satterfield.

  5. KenFBrown

    “Better to kill an innocent by mistake than spare an enemy by mistake.” Pol Pot

    1. Linux Man

      Exterminate the 50 million Vietnamese and purify the masses of the [Cambodian] people. Pol Pot also said that. He didn’t like the Vietnamese.

    2. Big Al

      Typical Marxist/Socialist. If ONLY, I could have done it better than those in the past who failed to bring about the socialist paradise. That is the thinking of all socialists.

      1. Billy Kenningston

        But but but, Pol Pot tried his best and he is loved by socialists in the West today. Under the Marxist leader Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge tried to take Cambodia back to the Middle Ages, forcing millions of people from the cities to work on communal farms in the countryside. But this dramatic attempt at social engineering had a terrible cost. Whole families died from execution, starvation, disease and overwork.

  6. Gladys Bates

    A good summary here at “Genocide in the 20th Century”
    “All foreigners were thus expelled, embassies closed, and any foreign economic or medical assistance was refused. The use of foreign languages was banned. Newspapers and television stations were shut down, radios and bicycles confiscated, and mail and telephone usage curtailed. Money was forbidden. All businesses were shuttered, religion banned, education halted, health care eliminated, and parental authority revoked. Thus Cambodia was sealed off from the outside world.”

    1. Scotty Bush

      All of Cambodia’s cities were then forcibly evacuated. At Phnom Penh, two million inhabitants were evacuated on foot into the countryside at gunpoint. As many as 20,000 died along the way. Why don’t we hear more about this? Simple, many politicians today are really socialists and they don’t want the paradise proven wrong.

      1. Autistic Techie

        It was Jackson’s presidential successor, Martin Van Buren, who ordered General Winfield Scott to forcibly evict the Cherokees.

  7. Dale Paul Fox

    Indeed, Pot Pot was the cruelest. Like so many that we read about in ancient history that used various torture techniques. I remember the first time I saw the movie “The Killing Fields” and how horrified I was. At the time, I was a dedicated socialist and then my eyes were opened.

    1. Eric Coda

      Dale, I’m glad you decided to read a bit of history and to see what the results are of socialism when applied. It’s always done in a fashion that the people suffer and have little freedoms. Why? Because the elite are superior, of course /sarc off.

    2. Len Jakosky

      After reading this leadership blog now for a year or so, I can understand better and not be surprised that Gen. Satterfield has no sympathy for socialism and his admitted bias against it. Just look at the results …. hundreds of millions dead.

    3. Yusaf from Texas

      Yes, and I think most of us would agree that Pol Pot would be right up there with Hitler, Stalin, and Mao. Twentieth Century evils are well documented. Note all of these men have something in common. All were avowed socialists (even Hitler despite leftist denying it). They were all dictators. They were all among the most evil humans in history. Least we never forget.


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