10 Famous Whistleblowers Who Changed History
Whistleblowers are an integral part of society, with many of their brave feats bringing in waves of change. Historically, however, they are a class of individuals who have been endlessly persecuted. As a result, many countries today afford legal protection to whistleblowers, allowing them to safely expose the truth. But what is more striking is that throughout history, these individuals have made remarkable revelations that still affect us in the present. So, in honor of their valiant efforts, here are ten famous whistleblowers who changed history.
1 Jan Karski
During World War II, Jan Karski was one of the first to deliver eyewitness accounts of the atrocities committed against Poland’s Jewish populations. Karski also smuggled out a “snuff film” that later resulted in a pamphlet titled The Mass Extermination of Jews in Occupied Poland. This microfilm then went on to provide the Allies with the earliest and most accurate descriptions of the Holocaust.
Jan Karski was a Polish World War II hero who became the first person to relate first-person accounts about the horrors of the Holocaust. As early as 1942, Karski made numerous attempts to get the word out to the Allies that the Nazis were planning on exterminating Jewish populations.
However, more often than not, he was met with reluctance from Poland’s own government-in-exile to discuss this due to concerns that it may take away from the country’s other struggles.
Nevertheless, Karski, working on behalf of the Polish resistance, managed to smuggle out microfilm that later gave rise to the pamphlet, The Mass Extermination of Jews in Occupied Poland. This then became the earliest and most accurate accounts of the Holocaust that the Allies would receive.
2 Perry Fellwock
In 1972, an intelligence analyst named Perry Fellwock exposed the secret surveillance programs of the NSA in an interview with Ramparts magazine. As a result, for the first time, the American public learned of the existence of the extremely covert National Security Agency (NSA). His actions also led to the passing of various legislations meant to prevent the NSA from spying.
Perry Fellwock, under the pseudonym of “Winslow Peck,” was the first to reveal the existence of the National Security Agency (NSA). In 1972, NSA analyst Fellwock blew the whistle on the agency’s covert operations that, until then, had been hidden from public view. His revelations were published in the Ramparts magazine and were later picked up by the New York Times.
Fellwock claimed that the NSA had successfully broken all of the USSR’s codes, suggesting that the US government’s Cold War military excesses were a farce. He also stated that Israel’s sinking of the U.S.S Liberty was not an accident and that the Lyndon B. Johnson government had covered it up to help their ally.
However, some of these claims were later considered an exaggeration despite them containing many truths. Nevertheless, these claims managed to initiate strong anti-war and anti-surveillance sentiments among Americans in the 1970s. (1, 2)
3 John Michael Gravitt
In 1984, John Michael Gravitt sued General Electric for cheating the Pentagon out of about $7 million with falsely billed hours. GE was eventually forced to pay $4.7 million dollars as penalties, with Gravitt and the other whistleblowers sharing $770,000. Gravitt then went on to testify before the US Congress, leading to landmark amendments that made it easier for US whistleblowers to report fraud.
A General Electric employee named John Michael Gravitt gained popularity in the 1980s when he blew the whistle on his employers for fraud. Gravitt stated that he was regularly asked by his superiors to falsify cost reports on B-1 bomber jet engines that GE was manufacturing. Altering these records allowed the company to charge the government for cost overruns on several commercial projects as well.
In 1984, Gravitt finally sued the company for fraud and alleged that they owed the Pentagon about $7 million. By 1989, the company had decided to settle out of court with the government, paying a penalty of $4.7 million.
Gravitt and his fellow whistleblowers were awarded a total of $770,000, the highest such amount in US history. He then went on to testify in front of Congress, which then amended the False Claims Act to make reporting fraud and claiming damages easier. (1, 2)
4 Peter Buxtun
Peter Buxtun is a former US Public Health Service employee who blew the whistle on the Tuskegee syphilis experiments. Buxtun exposed that, for nearly 40 years, his colleagues had been knowingly withholding medication from African American patients to test the effects of the disease. The experiments caused the death of numerous people who had not been informed that they had syphilis.
In 1972, a 28-year-old US Public Health Service employee named Peter Buxtun was shocked to learn about the Tuskegee syphilis experiments. He discovered that for 40 years, his colleagues had been withholding syphilis medication from African American patients in Tuskegee, Alabama to test the effects of the disease.
On one occasion, Buxtun is said to have overheard a superior scolding a doctor for prescribing penicillin to a patient because they had now lost a test subject.
Buxtun leaked this story to the Associated Press, who published an article that took the country by storm. The article revealed that these patients were unaware they had syphilis and had only been told that they had “bad blood.”
The experimenters also lied to the patients that the spinal tap was a new treatment for “bad blood” when, in fact, they were simply collecting samples for the experiment. The experiments were later shut down and new medical ethics laws were enacted in the US. (1, 2)
5 Georg Ferdinand Duckwitz
During the 1940s, Georg Ferdinand Duckwitz was a German diplomat who served as a Nazi Germany attache in occupied Denmark. In 1943, he tipped off the Danish government about Nazi Germany’s plans to deport the Jewish population in Denmark, leading to the rescue of over 95% of the country’s Jewish population.
In 1943, a German diplomat named Georg Ferdinand Duckwitz defied orders and warned the government of Denmark that the Nazis were planning on deporting all Danish Jews. Through his timely warning, Duckwitz, who was a consular official in Copenhagen, helped about 5,000 Danish Jews escape to Sweden.
Once he had sounded the alarm, word quickly spread and many Jews fled to Elsinore where they would hide in woods, churches, and seaside inns. Danish fishermen would then smuggle them across the border to Sweden. It’s also believed that many German patrol units turned a blind eye to these boats to maintain Germany’s cordial relationship with Denmark.
Out of all the Jewish people in Denmark, only 472 were captured and shipped to Theresienstadt concentration camp in Czechoslovakia, saving about 95% of the country’s Jews. Further, of the captured people, 52 are thought to have died and the others managed to return home after the war. (1, 2)
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