10 Major Historical Mistakes That Changed the World Forever
10 Major Historical Mistakes That Changed the World Forever

10 Major Historical Mistakes That Changed the World Forever

Khalid Elhassan - December 30, 2017

10 Major Historical Mistakes That Changed the World Forever
Mushroom clouds over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Common Dreams

A Translation Mistake Led to the Atomic Bombing of Japan

In the aftermath of WWII, a myth grew that the atomic bombing of Japan was unnecessary because Japan was on her last legs, and about to surrender. Supposedly, the Allies simply had to blockade Japan, and the Japanese government would have given in. That might have held water if the war had been confined to the Japanese home islands, where the Japanese could have been isolated. Unfortunately, both for the Japanese and for hundreds of millions of conquered subjects in Japanese-occupied territory, that was not the case.

At war’s end, Japan still held an extensive empire in the Pacific and Asia, in which hundreds of millions were forced to endure a barbaric occupation. Additionally, millions of Japanese soldiers were still fighting Allied forces in China, Burma, and in the Pacific. Whether or not the Japanese homeland was blockaded, the war still went on beyond Japan. Also, the Japanese held hundreds of thousands of Allied POWs, and subjected them daily to brutal treatment. In short, every day the war continued was another day in which millions suffered, and in which thousands more became casualties. From that perspective, America and her allies were not mistaken in treating Japan as a formidable foe who was inflicting significant harm every day, and would continue to do so indefinitely if not stopped.

So the Allies were not mistaken in dealing with Japan as a menace that needed putting down ASAP. However, a simple mistake in translation might have determined when and how the US went about putting Japan down, and led to the decision to drop the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. As such, it might have been the most momentous translation mistake in history.

It began with the Proclamation Defining Terms for Japanese Surrender, also known as the Potsdam Declaration, which was issued by the Allies on July 26th, 1945. America, which had successfully tested the atomic bomb ten days earlier, along with her allies, issued a blunt statement calling for the surrender of all Japanese armed forces. It was an ultimatum, warning Japan that if it did not surrender, it would face “prompt and utter destruction“.

The terms were hotly debated within the Japanese government. Subsequently, Prime Minister Kantaro Suzuki stated at a press conference that Japanese policy towards the Potsdam Declaration would be one of “mokusatsu“. It was a Japanese word which meant that he had received the message, and was giving it serious consideration. Unfortunately, Japanese is a subtle language – sometimes too subtle – in which the same word could convey a variety of meanings. Another meaning for mokusatsu is to “contemptuously ignore“, and that was the meaning the translators gave President Harry Truman. 10 days later, the Enola Gay flew from Tinian to drop an atomic bomb on Hiroshima.

10 Major Historical Mistakes That Changed the World Forever
Diagram of a Panzer VIII Maus, with size comparison to a human figure. Deviant Art

Hitler Wasted Scarce Resources in “Wonder Weapons”

Luckily for humanity, Nazi Germany’s defeat in WWII was helped by some major mistakes by Adolf Hitler. One such mistake was the Fuhrer’s foolhardy investment of scarce German resources in so-called “Wonder Weapons” or “Vengeance Weapons”. While some of those weapons were marvels of technology for their day, they did not bring Germany any closer to winning the war. Instead, they took away resources from more reliable weapons that could have done more to stave off eventual German defeat.

The German V2 rocket, or “Vengeance Weapon 2“, was a prime example of Hitler’s misplaced priorities. It was the world’s first ballistic missile, which carried a ton of explosives to the edge of space, then descended at unstoppable supersonic speeds to detonate on its target. It was a brilliant, advanced, and revolutionary feat of technology. It was also one of history’s most wastefully expensive weapons. It inflicted relatively little damage, and thus did not justify the vast expenditure of resources that went into its production. It detracted from more effective weapons programs or other uses that might have better served the German war effort.

From its first operational launch against enemy targets in September of 1944, to Germany’s surrender nine months later, roughly 3000 V2s were fired. A significant percentage did not reach their targets. But even if they all had, at one ton of explosives per V2 warhead, that would have been a total of 3000 tons of explosives dropped on enemy cities over nine months. By contrast, during that same period, the Royal Air Force would routinely drop more than 3000 tons of explosives on a German city in a single bombing raid. US bombers also frequently exceeded that 3000 ton total in single bombing raids. And the Allied explosive delivery tools, bombers, were reusable and thus far more economical. Most Allied bombers returned to base, reloaded, and returned the next day or night to once again drop more than 3000 tons of explosives on German cities. They repeated that process dozens of times.

Moreover, during its nine months of deployment, V2s killed 2754 people. Most of them were not soldiers, but civilians whose deaths, while tragic, did not impede the Allied war effort by much. By contrast, it is estimated that over 20,000 workers, mostly slave laborers, died while manufacturing the V2. That gave the rocket the tragic distinction of being the only weapons system in history whose production cost more lives than did its actual use. Thus, when contrasting the cost with the results, the V2 literally produced little bang for the buck.

Another example was the Panzer VIII Maus super-heavy tank. It was the heaviest tank ever built, measuring about 33 feet long, 12 feet wide, 12 feet high, and weighing nearly 200 tons. Its secondary armament was a 75 mm coaxial gun instead of a machine gun, while its main gun was a 128 mm monster capable of destroying any Allied tank at ranges of up to 2.2 miles. That was increased at Hitler’s insistence to a 150mm gun, because he thought the 128 mm looked like a toy gun on the Maus.

The huge size and heavyweight came at a correspondingly heavy price that made it nearly useless. The Maus was too heavy for most bridges, so it had to cross rivers either by wading through fords, or driving over the river’s bottom while using a snorkel for ventilation. Additionally, getting the Maus moving was a problem in itself. It was difficult to develop an engine and drive train powerful enough to propel 200 tons of metal on the ground at any appreciable speed, yet small enough to fit inside the tank. In the end, the maximum speed achieved during trials was 8 m.p.h. on a hard surface.

The Maus was intended to spearhead German attacks by smashing through opposition and destroying all enemy armor it came across, while impervious to damage from enemy tanks. With 9.4 inches of turret armor, 8 inches of hull front armor, 7 inches of hull side armor, and 6 inches of rear armor, the Maus was immune from Allied tanks, whose shells would simply bounce off the behemoth. However, it was built in 1944, by which time the Allies had well nigh complete aerial supremacy over the battlefield. The Maus did not have sufficient armor up top to protect it from armor-piercing bombs or rockets from above.

Ultimately, the Maus was symptomatic of Hitler’s irrational obsession with big things and super weapons. He was indifferent, or unable to understand, the concept of relative cost-effectiveness compared to other “normal” weapons that could accomplish the same task at a fraction of the cost. Using such normal weapons instead would have freed up scarce resources for other uses that could have better served the German war effort.

10 Major Historical Mistakes That Changed the World Forever
‘French Retreat in 1812’, by Pryanishnikov. Wikimedia

Napoleon Screws Up the Invasion of Russia

Early in 1812, the French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte bestrode Europe like a Colossus, and was at the height of his power. By year’s end, he had suffered an epic defeat, and began the downward slide that would culminate and two years later in his exile to St. Helena. In between that great start to 1812, and its dismal conclusion, lay Napoleon’s catastrophic invasion of Russia.

Napoleon’s first mistake was his poor choice of subordinates. In invading Russia, his strategic aim was to bring the Tsar to heel by decisively defeating the Russian army as soon as possible. However, Napoleon appointed his unqualified stepson, Prince Eugene, to a major command. Early in the campaign, Napoleon maneuvered the Russians into a situation in which they would be forced to give battle, but the inexperienced Eugene screwed up and allowed the Russians to retreat.

Napoleon then plunged into Russia, chasing after the Tsar’s army for hundreds of miles as it retreated, refusing to give battle and scorching the countryside behind it in the path of the French. The Emperor had planned to halt at Smolensk, go into winter quarters, and resume the campaign the following year. But once in Smolensk, he committed his second mistake, when he decided to continue on to Moscow.

Near Moscow, the Russians finally offered battle at Borodino, where Napoleon won a hard-fought engagement. However, at the decisive moment, he committed his third major mistake, when he wavered and held off from his usual tactic of sending in the elite Imperial Guard, kept in reserve, to finish off the reeling Russians. That prevented the victory from becoming decisive, and allowed the battered Russians to live to fight another day.

When he reached Moscow, Napoleon assumed that the Russians would sue for peace, so he committed his fourth big mistake by waiting for their peace feelers, even as winter drew near. The Russians strung him along, but no more than Napoleon strung himself along with wishful thinking of peace negotiation long after it became obvious that the Russians were not interested. By the time he gave up and marched back to Smolensk, it was too late, and his unprepared army was caught by winter during the retreat.

That was exacerbated by his final mistake, in the choice of route. Napoleon had two options and ended up picking a route that was struck by severe winter storms. The route he did not take saw little snow that year. Most of Napoleon’s army starved or froze to death, or were killed by Cossacks who harried the rear and flanks of the retreating columns.

Napoleon had marched into Russia with 685,000 men – at the time, the largest army the world had ever seen. He came out with only 35,000 Frenchmen still under his command, with the remainder either dead (over 400,000), deserting, or switching sides. Reflecting upon the catastrophe, Napoleon commented: “From the sublime to the ridiculous, it is only one step“.


Sources For Further Reading:

Russia Beyond – Was Soviet Captivity Hell For German POWs?

Pangeanic – The Worst Translation Mistake In History

Slate – Napoleon Wasn’t Defeated by the Russians

BBC – Napoleon’s Lost Army: The Soldiers Who Fell

History Collection – Mistakes That Helped Shape U.S. into What it Is Today

History Collection – Little Mistakes from History With Huge Consequences