WASHINGTON. — Washington--A decade ago, our century already seemed to be history -- no new entry could possibly compare with the colossal people and events of its first 50 years. In all man's recorded time on earth, very few moments came close to the great conflicts between good and evil through which we and our parents had lived.
I say ''good'' carefully, with reservations. In fact, some qualification also is needed for the historic evils of the 20th century. Briefly, by comparison with what they replaced, there were even redeeming features to the two forces we categorize roughly as fascism and communism.
Which was worse?
Adolf Hitler's National Socialism sprang from the anguish of a Germany defeated, humiliated and economically crushed after World War I. The fact that it improved the existence of suffering millions is worth a short footnote. But that is lost in the horrors of Nazism, which for pure, insane intensity of evil has never been approached in human history.
True communism has never yet been achieved. The erstwhile Soviet Union never claimed it had reached that purported Utopia; it was a socialist state, its banners urging workers ''Forward, to the Victory of Communism!'' And for lifting the masses out of one kind of serfdom, it too deserves some credit.
But it turned out to be a hoax. It replaced one kind of serfdom with another. It made hundreds of millions of people prisoners in their own country. And because it lasted not a dozen years but three-fourths of the century, in scale it exceeds even Hitlerism as the greatest evil of modern history.
If we rate the great men of the century by their effect on the world, for good or bad, we automatically put Hitler and Josef Stalin at the head of the list, with Mao Tse-tung close behind. A dozen villains almost as mean, but not as big, are easy to name.
Heroes are more numerous; they led against evils wider spread. They include men of peace, like Mohandas Gandhi, Albert Einstein and Martin Luther King Jr. They include nearly forgotten revolutionaries like Alexander Kerensky, who headed the provisional government that replaced Tsar Nicholas II before the Bolsheviks replaced him in turn with Vladimir Lenin.
But the greatest heroes are those who triumph against the greatest evils, and so for a time in the 1940s even Stalin seemed one of them. Winston Churchill surely was. But the greatest, for me and most Americans, was Franklin Roosevelt, who turned back defeatism and Depression at home and then fascism abroad.
It took much longer to finish off the other, arguably greater evil of communism. Those who contributed to its eventual collapse are many, with Churchill again, Harry Truman, John Kennedy, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan among them. So are Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Andrei Sakharov and thousands of thousands of resisters who died with their bravery unrecorded.
In truth, what its enforcers call communism still survives. It still squats upon the masses of China, North Korea and Cuba. But those are like the arms of a once-fearsome octopus whose heart is dead. Its heart was in the Kremlin, the fortress so recently occupied by the last defender of the communist state, the same man who ultimately did it in.
Mikhail Gorbachev did not mean for his reforms to become revolution. He thought that by lifting repression from the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, he could inspire the people to make socialism work. He could not imagine the power of what he had turned loose, and it ran on beyond him.
He is thus a transitional figure -- like, say, George Washington. I dare not draw the parallel further, but in fact both men are heroes.
What Mr. Gorbachev did took real courage, both moral and physical. Earlier leaders in his country had been banished or executed for heresy far less radical. If a cabal of KGB and party officials like the one which attempted the coup last August had moved against him earlier, he might be a historical figure little grander than his predecessor, the eminently forgettable Konstantin Chernenko.
He had a way of looking directly into the eyes of his challengers as well as the people to whom he gave freedom. That stubbornness led to mistakes. His worst may have been at the press conference after he returned to Moscow after the coup. A questioner gave him the opportunity to disavow the faith that had brought his homeland decades of grief, but he could not do it. He blinked -- and at that moment, history passed him by.
But it will not forget him.
Erenest B. Furgurson is associate editor of The Sun.