The 4 Most Controversial Historical Events from the Past 200 Years

Hindsight is 20/20, and it is not always positive. Read on to learn more about some of history’s most controversial actions in the past 200 years.

Mar 9, 2024By Kassandre Dwyer, M.Ed History
world controversial historical events

 

Looking back on history, it is easy to pass judgment on decisions that were made and actions that were taken. It can be argued that “times were different” or that decision-makers had no choice. However, this doesn’t change the fact that some deeds are just plain controversial, regardless of where and when they occurred. Choices made decades or centuries ago can still be dissected today, and though they cannot be changed, perhaps the world of today can learn from the discussion of these contentious issues.

 

1. Indian Removal Act

controversial historical events indian removal
Illustrations of Native Americans. Source: Flocabulary

 

Signed into law on May 28, 1830 by President Andrew Jackson, the Indian Removal Act authorized the president to grant “unsettled lands” in the western United States to Indigenous groups in exchange for their tribal lands within the borders of existing states. Jackson claimed that removal would allow states, in the Southeast in particular, to grow in “population, wealth, and power” and would strengthen the frontier borders. This measure soon turned into forced relocation, and many people had to pack up their lives and move to what was essentially a foreign land. The relocations included what would later become known as the Trail of Tears and involved several tribes, including the Cherokee and Choctaw.

 

trail of tears
An Artist’s depiction of the Trail of Tears. Source: Creative Commons/Brewminate

 

This law didn’t sit well with all white Americans. Some people protested loudly, but others saw the movement as kindness that would save Native Americans from incursions by whites, never envisioning that the United States would extend past the Mississippi River. Even members of Congress, including Davy Crockett, argued against Jackson’s actions. Crockett stated that Jackson was violating the Constitution by refusing to honor previously held treaties with Indigenous groups. Nevertheless, the 1830 measure was passed, and the United States was on its way to establishing the Native American reservation system.

 

controversial historical events pine ridge
The Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota sued the federal government in 2022, alleging that the government was not complying with treaty obligations as they were providing inadequate law enforcement resources. Source: Kristi Eaton photo via KIOS News

 

Get the latest articles delivered to your inbox

Sign up to our Free Weekly Newsletter

Indian removal didn’t end with the uprooting of tribes in the Southeastern United States. The US government and army continued to displace Indigenous tribes for the rest of the nineteenth century, culminating with the massacre at Wounded Knee in 1890, the last major military action against Native Americans. The Indigenous people of the United States had, at this point, been largely displaced and confined to reservations. Today, reservations in the United States have some of the highest rates of poverty, crime, unemployment, and drug use. This has led many to ask the question, at what cost was “Manifest Destiny” fulfilled?

 

2. US Involvement in The Vietnam War

controversial historical events war vietnam
South Vietnamese ground troops covered by US Army helicopters and machine gunners, March 1965. Source: Horst Faas via The Atlantic

 

The date used as the start of US involvement varies, as America was advising and financially supporting the South Vietnamese government in their efforts against the Communist North long before troops were actually on the ground. However, by the mid-1960s, the war was considered “escalated,” and US troops were on the ground by the thousands. US involvement in the war was a legacy of containment theory and the “Domino Effect” promoted by presidents Truman and Eisenhower as the country navigated its way into the Cold War upon the conclusion of World War II. The goal was to prevent South Vietnam from becoming communist, but what resulted was chaos and long involvement in a foreign war.

 

injured vietnam soldier
An injured soldier in Vietnam. Source: John Olson via The Daily Beast

 

With the growth of television and its increased prominence in American homes, citizens could watch the effects of the war unfold on the nightly news. Social and political protests were commonplace during the war era, some violent in nature. The draft caused increased controversy, as did rumors of village massacres, and people began to publicly question the credibility of the government and the military.

 

The United States would gain nothing in the war, as the capital of South Vietnam would fall to the north in April 1975, and Vietnam remains one of the five communist countries in the world today. The Vietnam War was the longest and costliest war that America had ever been involved in, costing the government $150 billion. Nearly 60,000 American troops lost their lives alongside 2 million Vietnamese. Today, the question remains: Was US involvement in Vietnam a noble effort or an unnecessary failure?

 

3. Invasion of Iraq

controversial historical events iraq war
Soldiers behind a wall. Source: Cato Institute

 

The US was on high alert after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, eager to wipe out any threat against democracy, particularly of Middle Eastern origin. When US President George W. Bush announced that intel revealed that Iraq and its dictator, Saddam Hussein, were in possession of weapons of mass destruction, or WMDs, in March 2003, the public largely supported an American invasion to seize these weapons and put an end to Hussein’s autocratic regime.

 

Although Hussein was captured in December, the US soon called off its search for WMDs, with the presidential administration conceding that its intelligence about chemical, nuclear, and biological weapons must have been incorrect. This information, coupled with attacks against US and allied forces, including suicide bombings, the hanging and burning of four contractors, and revelations of prisoner abuse inside American-run Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad, led to the public growing more and more disillusioned with the US incursion.

 

iraq doctor girl
In this 2003 photo, a Marine doctor holds an Iraqi girl after her family was caught in crossfire. Source: Damir Sagolj photo via The Intercept

 

The Iraqi civilians were suffering through the conflict. The Pentagon and Iraqi government did not keep statistics on the citizen casualties, but it is estimated that they ranged between 1,000-3,500 deaths per month. Sadaam Hussein was found guilty of crimes against humanity in November 2006 and executed in December, but an undercover video of Hussein being abused and tortured before his death tainted the global public impression of the proceedings.

 

iraq soldiers boots
A US Marine mourns at a service for US service members lost in 2005 in Western Iraq. Source: Anja Nedringhaus photo via NBC News

 

The US would continue its combat involvement in Iraq for over seven years in total. US casualties would total over 4,400, with Iraqi civilian casualties over 100,000. Though combat operations ceased in August 2010, the final US troops did not leave Iraq until December 18, 2011. The total cost of the conflict exceeded $800 billion from the US treasury. Diplomatic missions would continue to oversee “US interests” in the country after the exit of the soldiers.

 

4. Atomic Bombing of Japan

controversial historical events atomic bomb
The first atomic bomb explodes. Source: Time Life Pictures via the New Yorker

 

Prompted by a letter from Hungarian-born physicist Leo Szilard and the legendary Albert Einstein, President Franklin D. Roosevelt convened a committee to investigate the potential of atomic bomb technology for use in the ongoing World War II. In 1942, the committee and its work became a recognized part of the Allied war effort, though it was still top secret, known as the Manhattan Project. After spending an equivalent of what would be $37 billion today, the project was considered successful, detonating a test in the New Mexico desert in July 1945.

 

controversial historical events nagasaki
The wreckage of a temple in the forefront of the devastation of Nagasaki, Japan. Source: Cpl. Lynn P. Walker Jr. Photo via Nuclear Secrecy

 

By this point in the war, Nazi Germany had surrendered and was no longer seen as a threat. The focus of the war had now shifted to defeating Japan, ideally without physically invading the Japanese mainland. With the support of the Manhattan Project committee, the bomb technology was used on two Japanese civilian targets to push the Japanese military to surrender: the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

 

A 9,700-pound uranium bomb was detonated over Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. By the end of 1945, the death toll as a result of the Hiroshima bomb was estimated at about 100,000, climbing to an estimated 200,000 as cancer and other effects of radiation set in. The US administration warned Japan that additional targets would be attacked if unconditional surrender wasn’t immediate. Japan refused, and on July 9th, a second bomb was dropped on the city of Nagasaki, its blast yield estimated at 40% greater than the initial bomb. Only 12% of homes in the city escaped the blast unscathed. The next day, the Japanese emperor overruled the country’s military leaders and surrendered to the Allied forces.

 

controversial historical events hiroshima
An Allied war correspondent stands in the wreckage of Hiroshima. Source: AP Photo via NPR

 

The use of these atomic bombs is one of, if not the biggest, controversies to come out of the Second World War. Some argue that using these bombs against civilians was equivalent to a war crime, while others maintain that their usage was necessary to end the war quickly and without further loss of Allied life.

 

A 1945 poll showed that 85% of Americans were in support of the bombings, but those numbers decreased over time as reports about the aftermath were spread worldwide. In August 2009, support had dropped to 61%. With nuclear weapons continuing to be a central controversy in America today, this is one historical argument that cannot be easily settled.

Author Image

By Kassandre DwyerM.Ed HistoryKassie is a farmer with a passion for history who has a day job teaching middle school social studies in her hometown. In addition to earning NBCT certification and M.Ed. in History, she holds an M.Ed in Curriculum & Instruction and a B.S. in Sustainable Agriculture/Animal Science. She is particularly interested in telling the stories of often overlooked historical perspectives or hidden truths, and is especially intrigued by the history of America’s Indigenous peoples, war, and the “wild west.”