20 Embarrassing Mistakes Historical Figures Made
20 Embarrassing Mistakes Historical Figures Made

20 Embarrassing Mistakes Historical Figures Made

Larry Holzwarth - September 23, 2018

20 Embarrassing Mistakes Historical Figures Made
A patient receives a placebo injection during the Tuskegee Study. National Archives

13. The Tuskegee experiments led to an official apology by the United States

In 1932 the Public Health Service and the Tuskegee University, a historically black institution, joined together to conduct experiments and studies in the treatment of syphilis. In time, 622 black men were enrolled in the study, with 431 entering into the study already infected with the disease. The men, who were nearly all impoverished, were enticed to participate through the promise of free meals and treatment, though the majority received no treatment at all and were used to monitor the natural progression of the disease. They were also offered free burial insurance. The study ran for forty years, and despite the proven success of penicillin in treating the disease none of the men received the antibiotic as treatment.

In July 1972, the story of the study and its ethical implications was told to the public in the Washington Star, and Congressional hearings were called for by Senator Edward Kennedy. The Public Health Service and the Centers for Disease Control hastily convened an investigation into the study and found that its participants had done so voluntarily, but nonetheless ended the study that year. Numerous investigations and counter-investigations kept the study in the public eye for two decades, as more of its abuses were revealed, to the embarrassment of the doctors involved and to the agencies for which they worked. In 1997, Bill Clinton publicly apologized on behalf of the United States for the ethical violations and the damage done in the Tuskegee Study, which had led to federal regulations enacted for the purpose of controlling studies conducted on human beings.

20 Embarrassing Mistakes Historical Figures Made
Finnish Ski troopers in actions against the invading Soviets, who were embarrassed by the performance of their military against the Finns. Wikimedia

14. The Winter War embarrassed the Soviet leadership and encouraged Adolf Hitler

In November 1940, just weeks after joining the Germans in dividing conquered Poland, where they had encountered little resistance, Soviet troops invaded Finland, intent on seizing Finnish territory which included a large percentage of their industrial base. The action led to the Soviet expulsion from the League of Nations. Expecting an easy conquest, they instead ran into spirited Finnish resistance. Soviet military leadership was largely inept, the troops in the field performed poorly and the Finns, in a fighting withdrawal, inflicted heavy casualties on the invaders. The Finns, though suffered a defeat which led to the loss of just more than 10% of their territory when the war ended by the Moscow Peace Treaty in March 1940. It was a humiliating victory for the Soviets.

The vaunted Red Army had been embarrassed by the much smaller Finnish military, and the Finnish ski troops became heroic in the eyes of the Free World. The much smaller and poorly equipped Finnish Air Force shot down over 200 Soviet airplanes against losses of 62 aircraft. The poor performance of the Soviet military was noted by the German High Command, and influenced Hitler’s decisions in the planning for the upcoming invasion of the Soviet Union, Operation Barbarossa. When that attack did get underway, the Finns launched the Continuation War to regain the territory lost to Stalin in 1940, receiving support from Germany, though Finland never officially allied itself with Germany by joining the Tripartite Pact and formally entering the Axis.

20 Embarrassing Mistakes Historical Figures Made
The blustering Benito Mussolini promised a new empire centered by Rome, but his military was inadequate to the task. Wikimedia

15. Italian military operations during World War II

Benito Mussolini boasted of creating a new Roman Empire, and his military adventures in North Africa began in 1935 when Italian troops invaded Ethiopia in October. In May of the following year, the Italians announced victory when Italian troops occupied Addis Ababa. Despite the claim, fighting continued between the Italian army and Abyssinian troops for several more years. The Ethiopian Empire was absorbed in the colony of Italian East Africa, despite the clear preference of the Ethiopians to remain free of Italian influence. During the campaigns in North Africa following the beginning of the Second World War Italian troops performed poorly, their fleet was unable to keep the colonial garrisons resupplied, and the new Roman Empire dissolved quickly.

After war broke out in Europe, Mussolini was hesitant to enter the fray, not joining his German ally in Poland, and not invading France until the outcome of that campaign was certain. In October 1940, despite the objections of Hitler, the Italians invaded Greece in what turned into a disastrous campaign for the Italian Army, which found that though it had superior numbers over the Greeks, the enemy was entrenched in fortified positions. The debacle forced the Germans to enter the war in support of their inept ally, to prevent a British stronghold in their rear as they moved into the Soviet Union. By the time of the British entry into the fighting in Greece, the Italian military was an international joke, considered incompetent by their German allies, and nearly immaterial by the allies. Mussolini became a puppet of his German master.

20 Embarrassing Mistakes Historical Figures Made
The Beatles arrive in New York, February, 1964, already the most popular act in Britain. Wikimedia

16. Remember Brian Poole and the Tremoloes?

On New Year’s Day, 1962, two bands auditioned for Decca Records in London. The company was looking for a new act which would appeal to younger audiences. After evaluating the auditions, the executives chose the second group to have auditioned, Brian Poole and the Tremeloes. They notified the first group’s manager of their decision, informing him that his band was too reliant on guitars and that in their opinion, “guitar groups were on the way out”. The manager, Brian Epstein, continued a search for a record label for his group, an act from Liverpool known as The Beatles. Another factor in the decision not made public at the time was that the Tremeloes were from the London area, which reduced travel costs in an England still economically crippled from World War II.

The audition the Beatles performed had been taped, and Epstein used the tapes to try to generate interest in the band he called “his boys”. He received rejection after rejection until they were heard by George Martin, a trained classical musician who at the time was working for EMI, producing comedy records for the Parlophone label. After the band played for him live he offered Epstein a recording contract, and in 1963 Beatlemania exploded. The band Decca rejected went on to sell over 800 million records and became one of the most influential and popular acts in the history of music. The man who rejected the Beatles at Decca, Dick Rowe, overcame his embarrassment by later signing The Rolling Stones to the label after George Harrison told him of the band during a mutual appearance on the television show Juke Box Jury.

20 Embarrassing Mistakes Historical Figures Made
As Napoleon prepares to crown Josephine as Empress of the French, Pope Pius VII raises his hand in blessing, a fictitious happenstance which the Emperor insisted upon. Wikimedia

17. Napoleon embarrasses Pope Pius VII

When Napoleon decided to become Emperor of the French and establish a dynastic Imperial Throne, he recognized the need to include the Papal endorsement, since the divine right of kings was established by the Roman Catholic Church throughout Europe. While negotiating with the Vatican Napoleon agreed to follow the Catholic liturgy, but after Pius VII arrived in Paris Napoleon informed the Pontiff that several French rites would be included, to the detriment of the Roman rites. Traditionally the Pope was to place the crown on Napoleon’s head after reciting the designated rites. Instead, while the Pope was reciting, Napoleon took the crown from the altar where it rested during the ceremony and standing, rather than kneeling before the Pope as ceremony demanded, placed the crown on his own head.

The act symbolized that Napoleon owed his crown to his own actions, rather than to any outside authority. Napoleon reinforced his actions by having his empress, Josephine, kneel before him, placing her crown on her head with his own hands. The Pope retired to the sacristy over objections to the civil oath Napoleon had prepared for him to take, clearly irritated by the Emperor’s actions, although he remained through the Mass which preceded the oath. When artists painted the scene later, Napoleon insisted that the Pope be depicted with his hand raised in blessing, as if the Pontiff approved of the new Emperor’s actions during the coronation. Pius VII later excommunicated the Emperor of the French following the invasion of the Papal States in 1809, and Napoleon had him imprisoned under house arrest in France.

20 Embarrassing Mistakes Historical Figures Made

Cuban commandos train with CIA operatives for the ill fated Bay of Pigs invasion. Wikimedia

18. The Bay of Pigs disaster and JFK

When John F. Kennedy ran for president in 1960, it was in a campaign which presented an idealistic vision of the future, with peaceful coexistence with regimes which ran counter to American traditions. Early in his administration, Kennedy came to the conclusion with the support of his advisors that the Soviet Union was developing Cuba as a satellite state, under Fidel Castro. The removal of Castro became a goal of the administration. When the CIA presented the president with the long-planned invasion of Cuba by CIA-trained Cuban exiles (supported by CIA operatives), they assured the president that American military participation would be unnecessary. Kennedy approved the operation, an invasion at the Bay of Pigs, which quickly bogged down. Kennedy refused to support the invaders with airstrikes.

The Bay of Pigs fiasco was a political nightmare for the new president, and an international embarrassment as the level of US involvement in its planning and execution became known. Kennedy publicly acknowledged responsibility for the operation, but privately raged at the CIA which misled him. Believing that Kennedy’s refusal to support the invaders was a sign of weakness, Soviet leader Nikita Kruschev began installing missiles in Cuba, which led to another confrontation between the superpowers, one of the worst of the Cold War, in October 1962. During that crisis Kennedy was again exhorted to launch airstrikes against Cuba, which he again refused, choosing a diplomatic option to resolve the confrontation successfully.

20 Embarrassing Mistakes Historical Figures Made
The protests over Johnson’s treatment of his beagles Him and Her were long, loud, and angry. Wikimedia

19. Lyndon Johnson and Him and Her

Lyndon Johnson was not a man who was easily embarrassed. He was famous for carrying on conversations through an open door while relieving himself, in either manner, with no doubt cringing aides and secretaries. During meals, when he noticed his wife Lady Bird looking the other way, he would reach with his fork or spoon to a nearby plate before another diner and help himself to whatever took his fancy. His language was pithy, even coarse, and his opinions shared in private with aids and friends were often blunt.”Jerry Ford is so dumb he can’t fart and chew gum at the same time”, he once said of the man he asked to serve on the Warren Commission to investigate the assassination of President Kennedy. He also said, “If one morning I walked on top of the water across the Potomac, the headline that afternoon would read: The President Can’t Swim.”

Johnson owned a pair of beagles, from the same litter, one male and one female. With impressive creativeness, he named them Him and Her. Johnson liked to walk the dogs himself, and during one such walk, while accompanied by photographers, Johnson picked up one of the dogs by the ears. When the photos appeared in newspapers animal lovers excoriated him for his cruelty. Thousands of letters to the editor and telegrams complained about the president’s indifference to his pets (in fact he was devoted to both). Johnson was forced to take extraordinary steps throughout 1964 to improve his public image to pet owners, including allowing photographers to take pictures of his dogs for a spread in Life Magazine. But privately, in response to the continuing controversy in the newspapers, Johnson remarked, “The fact that a man is a newspaper reporter is evidence of some flaw of character”.

20 Embarrassing Mistakes Historical Figures Made
Jimmy Carter was ridiculed when reports to his staff that he had been attacked by a rabbit were revealed by the press. White House

20. Jimmy Carter fended off a rabbit attack

On April 20, 1979, the President of the United States, Jimmy Carter, was alone in a fishing boat in Plains, Georgia, when a swimming rabbit raced towards his boat in a menacing manner. According to Carter’s press secretary Jody Powell, to whom Carter told the story, “What was obvious, however, was that this large, wet animal, making strange hissing noises and gnashing its teeth, was intent upon climbing into the Presidential boat.” Carter managed to fend the rabbit off by splashing an oar at it, and it swam away. Most of Carter’s staff initially did not believe the president’s story, thinking he was merely telling a fisherman’s tale, until film taken by the White House photographer, who was not in the boat but ashore nearby, revealed it to be true.

The press, and Carter’s political opponents, enjoyed keeping the story of the averted rabbit attack alive for weeks, after learning of the event months later. A cartoon in the Washington Post aped the poster for the popular movie Jaws, retitling it PAWS and featuring a giant rabbit with a gaping maw. Political opponents used the incident to enhance the meek nature of the Carter Presidency. The White House would not release the footage of the incident, but during the Reagan Administration, it was found and given to the press. By August 1979, the Carter Presidency was nearing its nadir, with a struggling economy, a growing crisis in Iran, increased support within his own party for Ted Kennedy to run against him in 1980, and a general dissatisfaction for Carter’s policies. The rabbit tale, which he could have kept to himself and didn’t, added to his woes.


Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“Richard Nixon’s Palace Guards”. Megan McArdle, Washington Monthly. August 2013

“The Wicked Bible: The perfect gift for collectors, but not for William and Kate”. Rick Gekoski, The Guardian. November 23, 2010

“News credibility sank with Titanic Accuracy”. Ernest F. Imhoff, The Baltimore Sun. December 19, 1997

“The True Story of ‘Wrong-Way’ Corrigan’s Atlantic Adventure”. Chris Fasolino, History Net.

“Metric mishap caused loss of NASA orbiter”. Robin Lloyd, CNN. September 30, 1999

“Top Ten Blunders in History”. History Revealed. March 2016

“Why I Spared the Leaning Tower of Pisa”. Rory Carroll, The Guardian. January 13, 2000

“Churchill at the White House”. Eleanor Roosevelt, The Atlantic. March, 1965

“Everyone in the Profumo scandal got redemption – except Christine Keeler”. Tanya Gold, The Guardian. December 7, 2017

“The Untold Story of the Pentagon Papers Co-conspirators”. Eric Liechtblau, The New Yorker. January 29, 2018

“In 1974, a stripper known as the ‘Tidal Basin Bombshell’ took down the most powerful man in Washington”. Laura Smith, Timeline Magazine. September 28, 2017

“Virginia congressmen denounce D. C. prostitution march”. Kathleen McHugh, UPI. July 26, 1989

“How the Public Learned About the Infamous Tuskegee Syphilis Study”. Olivia B. Waxman, Time Magazine. July 25, 2017

“Stumbling Colossus: The Red Army on the Eve of the World War”. David Glanz. 1998

“Mussolini and His Generals”. John Gooch. 2007

“The Beatles as Musicians: The Quarry Men through Rubber Soul”. Walter Everett. 2001

“Napoleon: A Political Life”. Stephen Englund. 2005

“Bay of Pigs – The Untold Story”. Peter Wyden. 1979

“Pup Culture: 50 Years Later, LBJ’s still in the Doghouse”. Bud Boccone, American Kennel Club. July 7, 2015. Online

“A Tale of Carter and the ‘Killer Rabbit'”. Archives, The New York Times. August 30, 1979