Was Andrew Jackson one of the world’s most prolific mass murderers?

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Dear Cecil: I’ve heard that Andrew Jackson did quite a number on the Cherokee, forcing them to relocate from as far as Georgia to what is now Oklahoma. Some have even accused Old Hickory of genocide, citing the thousands of Cherokee who died on the “Trail of Tears.” What I want to know is, how does Jackson rank among practitioners of genocide? Does he even make the all-time top-ten list? I figure he has to come in way behind Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, the Turkish triumvirate Talat, Enver, and Cemal (who orchestrated the Armenian genocide), and the recent Hutu leaders in Rwanda. Can you think of any others who rank ahead of Jackson? Mike Skarpelos, San Jose, California


Illustration by Slug Signorino

Cecil replies:

Please. I don’t want to minimize the cruelty of the Trail of Tears (1838-’39) or Jackson’s culpability for it. But strictly in terms of body count, the forced removal of the Cherokee probably doesn’t crack the top hundred instances of genocide, much less the top ten. The death toll most commonly cited is 4,000 — mostly due to exposure, malnutrition, and disease. By contrast, in the 20th century, far and away the bloodiest period in history, state-sponsored slaughter of innocents averaged 5,300 victims worldwide per day — 170 million in all. (That’s a conservative total, too, compiled in 1987.)

These numbers come from R.J. Rummel, a political scientist at the University of Hawaii who studies mass killing. Rummel’s genocide figures are more inclusive than some — in fact, he prefers the term “democide,” which he defines as “the murder of any person or people by a government, including genocide, politicide, and mass murder.” Genocide is killing due to ethnicity, religion, or other “indelible group membership,” whereas politicide is murder for political reasons. Democide excludes deaths due to war (36.5 million between 1900 and 1987) and reckless but not purposely murderous government policies — for example, the loss of over 20 million Chinese during the famine of 1959-’62, which was caused by the failure of the Great Leap Forward.

Defining terms this way puts the Nazi slaughter in perspective. The following are Rummel’s 12 most murderous regimes (from his article in the Encyclopedia of Genocide, 1999): (1) USSR, 62 million deaths, 1917-’87; (2) People’s Republic of China, 35 million, 1949-’87; (3) Germany, 21 million, 1933-’45; (4) nationalist China, 10 million, 1928-’49; (5) Japan, 6 million, 1936-’45; (6) prerevolutionary Chinese communists (“Mao Soviets”), 3.5 million, 1923-’49; (7) Cambodia, 2 million, 1975-’79; (8) Turkey (Armenian genocide), 1.9 million, 1909-’18; (9) Vietnam, 1.7 million, 1945-’87; (10) Poland, 1.6 million, 1945-’48; (11) Pakistan, 1.5 million, 1958-’87; (12) Yugoslavia, 1.1 million, 1944-’87. Three additional “suspected megamurderers,” as Rummel puts it, are North Korea, 1.7 million deaths, 1948-’87; Mexico, 1.4 million, 1900-’20; and czarist Russia, 1.1 million, 1900-’17.

Rummel goes on to identify the top nine killers: (1) Joseph Stalin, 43 million dead, 1929-’53; (2) Mao Tse-tung, 38 million, 1923-’76; (3) Adolf Hitler, 21 million, 1933-’45; (4) Chiang Kai-shek, 10 million, 1921-’48; (5) Vladimir Lenin, 4 million, 1917-’24; (6) Tojo Hideki (Japan), 4 million, 1941-’45; (7) Pol Pot, 2.4 million, 1968-’87; (8) Yahya Khan (Pakistan), 1.5 million, 1971; (9) Josip Broz, better known as Marshal Tito (Yugoslavia), 1.2 million, 1941-’80.

What states murdered the most as a percentage of population? The undisputed leader is Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, which killed more than 8 percent of its people per year between 1975 and 1979, and 31 percent of its men overall. Runners-up: the Ataturk regime in Turkey (which continued to murder Armenians), 2.6 percent annually, 1919-’23 (703,000); Yugoslavia (Ustasha regime in Croatia), 2.5 percent, 1941-’45 (655,000); Poland, 2 percent, 1945-’48 (1.6 million); the Young Turk regime in Turkey (the triumvirate you mention), 1 percent, 1909-’18 (1.8 million — domestic killings only). The Soviet Union, just to give you a benchmark, killed 0.4 percent of its population annually between 1917 and 1987 — if America did the same, at current population levels that’d be over a million dead each year. Because Rummel’s compilation ends in 1987, it doesn’t include ethnic cleansing of Albanians in Kosovo (probably around 10,000, 1999) and the massacres in Rwanda (800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus, 1994).

Rummel observes that communist and fascist regimes accounted for 84 percent of democidal deaths during the period studied, leading him to comment, “Power kills, and absolute Power kills absolutely.” But democracies aren’t innocent. For example, the United States military killed an estimated 300,000 during the subjugation of the Philippines, 1898-1902. Millions of Africans died during the four centuries of the transatlantic slave trade. The native population of North America, as large as 15 million in 1500, had been reduced to less than 250,000 by 1890. Granted, native mortality was due primarily to the inadvertent spread of European diseases, and didn’t all happen on America’s watch. Still, democracies kill fewer, not none.

Cecil Adams

Send questions to Cecil via cecil@straightdope.com.