Boozy History: 10 Times Alcohol Helped Shape World History
Boozy History: 10 Times Alcohol Helped Shape World History

Boozy History: 10 Times Alcohol Helped Shape World History

D.G. Hewitt - June 16, 2018

Boozy History: 10 Times Alcohol Helped Shape World History
The taking of the Winter Palace turned into a month-long wine binge. Wikimedia Commons.

The taking of the Winter Palace becomes a party

For the Bolsheviks, the Winter Palace of Tsar Nicholas II represented everything they were determined to rid Russian society of: inequality, ostentatiousness and unearned wealth. One key aim of the October 1917 Revolution, then, was gaining control of the St. Petersburg landmark and claiming it ‘for the people’. However, the storming of the palace might have derailed the revolution. As soon as the gates were opened, the drinking began – and it was some serious drinking, even by Russian standards.

It wasn’t, however, a classic ‘storming’ of a palace. By the time the revolutionaries had arrived, the guards had long since abandoned their posts. All that the rebels needed to do was climb over the large gates and fences and then break in through mostly unlocked doors and windows. Unsurprisingly, the red-armband-clad masses headed straight for the cellars. Here, the deposed Tsar had amassed one of the finest collections of booze the world has ever known, complete with fine wines, whiskies, cognacs and, of course, lots of vodka.

Huge crowds flocked to the Winter Palace and the party started. The drinking went on for a week, during which time the more serious business of transforming Russian society had to be put on hold. It wasn’t just common soldiers who were drunk and useless. Even the man specifically appointed by Lenin himself to serve as Commissar for the Winter Palace was found drunk on the job. The Bolshevik leadership realized they needed to do something or else their revolution could lose its momentum.

A special Commission Against Wine Pogroms was set up by the high command. The wine cellars were flooded (though many of the firefighters called in to do the job ended up getting drunk too). Even then, people tried to swim down into the cellars, with some people drowning in an attempt to get some free booze. The Commission became increasingly authoritarian, even shooting people who refused to stop partying. In the end, it took nearly one month for the Winter Palace drunkenness to come to an end. By that time, much of the initial enthusiasm that had greeted the October Revolution had died down. However, the Bolsheviks had shown how ruthless they could be and, despite the drunken decadence of Saint Petersburg, they ruthlessly clung onto power.

Boozy History: 10 Times Alcohol Helped Shape World History
One of the most important battles in Japanese history was won because of some drunken samurai. Wikimedia Commons.

The Battle of Okehazama

For centuries, Japan’s warlords battled it out for supremacy. The battles between them were often bloody and, for the most part, disciplined affairs, with tactics and fighting ability of paramount importance. The Battle of Okehazama was quite different in this respect. While it was certainly bloody, it was far from a masterclass in military tactics. Rather it served as a lesson to all military commanders – never let your men get too drunk that they cannot defend themselves from surprise attacks.

In 16th century Japan, two men named Oda Nobunaga and Imagawa Yoshimoto were vying for control of the Owari Province. In June of 1560, Imagawa Yoshimoto raised an army of 25,000 men and went on the offensive. He was aiming to take Kyoto, then the nation’s capital city. And at first it looked like nobody could stand in the way of him achieving his goal, not even his sworn enemy. Imagawa and his samurai made steady progress, capturing key fortresses and small towns. So, encouraging was their progress that, when they set up camp one day for a break, the men decided to have a party. Since it was an unusually hot summer’s day, the drink flowed even more freely than usual, with even the men’s commander joining in the revelry.

Oda Nobunaga was not one to sit back and wait to be attacked. Instead, learning of his rival’s advances, he raised a small army of his own and set out. Against his advisors’ counsel, he chose to go on the offensive. Cleverly, he used decoys to make it look like he had set up camp in a small fortress and was waiting to be besieged. In reality, however, Oda Nobunaga and around 3,000 of his men slowly crept up on their enemy’s camp and waited for the right moment to strike.

When a passing storm had come to an end, Oda Nobunaga gave the order to attack. Despite being outnumbers 12 to 1, his men recorded a famous victory. The enemy soldiers were either sleeping or too drunk to put up a fight. Many simply fled as discipline broke down. The legend also adds that Imagawa Yoshimoto himself was caught by surprise and initially thought the sound of fighting outside his tent was just his men drunkenly messing around. Upon stumbling out of his tent – drunk himself, apparently – the great warlord was killed on the spot, only managing to lightly injure just one of his enemies.

Boozy History: 10 Times Alcohol Helped Shape World History
President Nixon enjoyed a drink or two – and his advisers worried about the security implications. Spectator.

Nixon drunkenly threatens nuclear war

And, finally, there’s a prime example of what might have been. As the past incidents have shown, alcohol and power don’t always go well together. They’re an especially bad combination when the drinker in question holds the most powerful position on the planet and is capable of starting a nuclear war. According to several of his biographers, President Richard Nixon came close to nuking his enemies in a drunken rage. Thankfully, his aides were wise to his booze-fueled moods and all-out war was averted.

Henry Kissinger, a key figure in Nixon’s White House, long ago revealed that his boss at the time was partial to heavy liquor. Moreover, the President also had a tendency to overreact. “If the President had his way, there would be a nuclear war every week,” Kissinger famously recalled. In one infamous incident in 1969, North Korea shot down an American spy plane. Nixon, fueled by alcohol, summoned the Joint Chiefs. He ordered them to draw up a list of possible targets for a nuclear bomb. Kissinger, who was asked to relay the message, urged the Joint Chiefs to stall. The tactic worked. The morning after, Nixon had sobered up and calmed down.

But this was by no means a lone incident. When he was drunk, Nixon would regularly get aggressive and seek to use the full extent of his powers as Commander-in-Chief. On one occasion, even a conversation about Cambodia led him to get on his phone and demand the Asian country be bombed. Nixon’s staff became even more worried as his Presidency wore on. As their boss became depressed and withdrawn, there were fears that he would reach for the big red button.

Tellingly, in his memoirs, Nixon’s Defense Secretary James Schlesinger revealed that he ordered all military commanders to question any nuclear launch order that came from the President himself. Nixon’s increasing dependence on alcohol was the prime reason for such extreme caution. In the end, Nixon was forced out of office as a result of the Watergate scandal. As a nice footnote to history, in his final hours as President, he was barred from carrying the nation’s nuclear launch codes. Instead, they remained safe in the White House while he boarded a chopper out of DC.

Boozy History: 10 Times Alcohol Helped Shape World History
A booze-fueled boat race led to a succession crisis in England. Fine Art America.

Future king of England drowns in drunken boat race

If it weren’t for one day of youthful, drunken foolishness, William Adelin would have grown up to become King of England. As it was, he died at the age of just 17, drowned off the coast of Normandy, France. And, while many princes are murdered by their enemies or rivals, young William had only himself to blame for his early demise. His death caused a succession crisis in England and almost caused a huge war. So, how did all this come about?

According to observers of the time, William was a very pampered young man. The son of King henry I of England and Matilda of Scotland, he was made Duke of Normandy, even if the title was largely symbolic. Then, as was the custom, he was married off to Matilda of Anjou, a union that would bring England and Normandy closer together. That was why, on 25 November of 1120, William and his closest men were in Normandy, preparing to cross back over the English Channel. But first, they decided to stay on the beach and have a few drinks. After all, William reasoned, his vessel, The White Ship, was by far the fastest in the King’s fleet. They would easily be able to catch up with the rest of the ships.

The story goes that, upon getting ready to finally leave for England, two holy men blessed the boat. William threw them off, fearing they would ruin the party vibe. He carried on drinking, even sharing his booze with the crew. He urged them to speed up and try and catch the other ships in the fleet. Unsurprisingly, it wasn’t long before disaster struck: The White Ship hit a rock and started taking on water.

To his credit, William might have lived to tell the tale. He made it onto a dinghy but then turned back to rescue his half-sister, Matilda FitzRoy, the Countess of Perche. However, both of them, along with all but a couple of the crew, drowned. William’s death King Henry, who had no other legitimate sons to be his heir, had to navigate a succession crisis. Eventually, he chose his nephew, Stephen of Blois, to take the throne. Tellingly, however, this ushered in a period in English history known as ‘The Anarchy’, from 1135 to 1153. It would be more than 20 years before law and order would return to the land – all because of an evening of drunken, youthful tomfoolery.

 

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

“What Happens If the President Gets Drunk?” Time Magazine, June 2016.

“Pour One Out for Ulysses S. Grant”. Adam Gopnik, The New Yorker, October 2017

“Field of Cloth of Gold.” Encyclopedia Britannica.

“The Battle of Stones River”. The National Parks Service, nps.gov.

“Commandaria: The fame of the praised wine for kings”. Cyprus Wine Museum.

“The Battle of Okehazama”. Chris Glenn, Japan Travel, November 2011.

“Drunk in charge: Extracts from The Arrogance of Power, the Secret World of Richard Nixon.” The Guardian, September 2000.

“Brewery was burned after Ancient Peru drinking ritual.” National Geographic News, November 2005.

“Diodorus on the Sack of Persepolis”. Livisu.org.

“7 times alcohol decided the course of battle.” David Nye, Business Insider, May 2015.

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