What Is the Greatest Act of Courage?

Graham Roumieu

Roger Moorhouse, author, The Devils’ Alliance: Hitler’s Pact With Stalin, 1939–1941

It is hard to top the incredible bravery of Witold Pilecki, a Polish soldier who in 1940 volunteered to join a German roundup so that he could report on what was going on inside a newly established concentration camp. That camp was Auschwitz.

Heath Hardage Lee, author, The League of Wives

On May 2, 1966, the American prisoner of war Jeremiah Denton was forced by his North Vietnamese captors to film a propaganda video. He signaled the abuse POWs were suffering by blinking T-O-R-T-U-R-E in Morse code. Denton knew he risked beatings and other severe reprisals, but he still chose to “blow it wide open.”

Ben Edlund, writer and creator, The Tick

Socrates’ aplomb while drinking the hemlock that would poison him. I first heard the story as a kid, and by now I’ve spent more time worrying about his death sentence than it appears he did.

Deborah Lipstadt, historian

In April 1943, the first urban uprising against the Nazis began in the Warsaw Ghetto. A few hundred poorly armed young Jews held out for three weeks. The fighters knew they could not “win”; they intended, as one put it, “to pick the time and place of our deaths.”

Graham Roumieu

Samantha Allen, author, Real Queer America

The German physician Magnus Hirschfeld, born a century before the Stonewall riots, advocated for gay and transgender rights and was pilloried in the press as “a freak who acted for freaks”; his research was burned. He died in exile, but his radical, humanizing ideas survived.

Alan Price, director, JFK Library

In October 1962, the world held its breath for 13 days as we teetered on the brink of nuclear war. Threatened by Soviet missiles just 90 miles from Florida in Cuba, and under unimaginable pressure to act, President Kennedy chose restraint and resolute statesmanship. His courage saved us all.

Ben Barnz, author, We: An Adoption and a Memoir

It is the intimate, personal acts of courage that most inspire me. My two greatest heroes are the biological mothers of my children. The choice they made to place their children for adoption was and is gloriously courageous—and the ripple effect continues 17 years later.

Reader Responses

Maida Follini, Halifax, Nova Scotia

After escaping slavery via the Underground Railroad, Harriet Tubman risked re-enslavement and death by returning to the South in at least 19 trips, to guide as many as 300 enslaved African Americans to freedom. She also guided African-American Union soldiers during the Combahee Ferry Raid, which freed more than 700 enslaved people.

Nino Campana, Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario

That of the “tank man” protester in Tiananmen Square. The second-greatest act of courage was that of the driver who stopped the tank.

Michael E. Zuller, Great Neck, N.Y.

Neil Armstrong’s first step onto the lunar surface, or perhaps his final step into the rocket ship that would take him there.

Lucia Perri, Guthrie, Okla.

Anita Hill’s Senate testimony. Her ordeal led to the 1992 Year of the Woman. Her courage inspired Christine Blasey Ford and the women of the #MeToo movement to speak truth to power.

Sterling S. Haukom Anderson, Chicago, Ill.

Malala Yousafzai’s standing up for the education rights of girls and women around the world after an assassination attempt and continued threats.

Sarah Kersey, Denville, N.J.

Colin Kaepernick’s unwavering dedication to taking a knee during the playing of the national anthem, to the point of being blacklisted by the NFL.

Graham Roumieu

Michael Kristofik, Rhinebeck, N.Y.

Stanislav Petrov’s decision in September 1983 to do nothing in response to a nuclear-attack signal from the Russian radar likely averted a nuclear war.

Ann McCluskey, South Burlington, Vt.

The signers of the Declaration of Independence pledged their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor to the cause of independence, and meant it.

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