News reporters going to extreme lengths to chase down a story is so common a trope that it has become a cliché. However, few examples could have been more extreme than when CBS News financed multiple armed invasions throughout the Caribbean, in exchange for exclusive broadcasting rights. Following are thirty things about that and other instances of people getting carried away and going to extreme and unreasonable lengths.
30. An Extreme Quest to Chase – Or Make – a Story: When CBS Funded Multiple Armed Invasions of Caribbean Countries So it Could Televise Them
Investigative reporting is vital to the functioning of a healthy society and government. However, investigative journalism is not that easy and requires diligence, persistence, long hours and hard work. Not everybody is a big fan of hard work, so it is unsurprising that from time to time, unscrupulous investigative reporters have resorted to unethical corner cutting when chasing a story. Or, instead of going through the hassle of chasing a story at all, they decided to simply create one from scratch.
That is what happened in 1966 when CBS producers heard of plans to invade multiple Caribbean islands. They were pushed by a Rolando “El Tigre”. Masferrer, one of the most extreme – and vile – of Cuban exiles. He came up with an ambitious scheme to invade the Dominican Republic and Haiti, as preludes to invading Cuba. CBS figured that it might have a rating hit on its hands, and agreed to finance the invasions in exchange for exclusive broadcasting rights.
Rolando Masferrer, who headed a paramilitary group of Cuban exiles known as Los Tigres, thought up Project Nassau: a plan to invade Cuba. American enthusiasm for invading Cuba had evaporated after the 1961 Bay of Pigs fiasco, so Masferrer needed another base of operations. He plotted to invade and seize the Dominican Republic, use it as a base to invade and seize Haiti, then use Haiti as a base to invade Castro’s Cuba. He approached CBS, and offered it exclusive broadcast rights over the invasions in exchange for financing. The network agreed and paid over $200,000 to fund his invasions.
CBS cameras followed Project Nassau for eight months. They filmed guns getting smuggled into Florida, training exercises that ended with a rifle exploding and taking out an exile’s eye, and a weird interview with Masferrer, who wore pantyhose over his head. CBS eventually pulled out when it realized that it was getting scammed and that the “training” was staged. The plotters were arrested and convicted of arms smuggling and violating the Neutrality Act, and CBS was investigated and censured by Congress. The exile who lost his eye sued CBS for workers’ compensation, on grounds that he was working for the network at the time. He got a $15,000 out-of-court settlement.
28. The Weird Maharajas Who Helped the British Control India
British rule in India would not have been possible without the Maharajas – India’s ruling princely caste – who helped control the natives for the Raj. However, India’s collaborationist royalty often failed to live up to the expected standards of social responsibility. Some were so vile, and their antics were so extreme, that exposure threatened not only their own reputations but those of their British masters as well. For example, the last Maharaja of Kashmir was blackmailed out of a fortune after he got caught in a hotel with a woman by a man pretending to be her husband.
There was a Nawab of Rampur, who bet other princes on who could deflower the most virgins in a year. Then there was the 7th Nizam of Hyderabad who ruled from 1911 to 1948 and was declared the world’s richest man in 1937. He was a pervert who amassed piles of porn by installing hidden cameras in his six palaces’ guest rooms. He fathered over 100 illegitimate sons, resulting in protracted litigation over his fortune that began after his death in 1967. It continues to the time of this writing in 2021, with almost 500 sons, daughters, and grandchildren fighting for a piece of the pie. Other princely collaborators were far worse.
27. Paris on the Punjab, and Extreme Hunting, Maharaja Style
Jagatjit Singh, the Maharaja of Kapurthala, thought that he was the reincarnation of King Louis XIV of France, so he built a complete replica of Versailles in the Punjab. It covered 200 acres, took eight years to construct and cost a fortune, which was squeezed out of his impoverished subjects. All servants wore seventeenth-century French uniforms, and only French was spoken in what came to be nicknamed “Paris on the Punjab”. The Maharaja ruled from there for forty years, until his state was absorbed into India after its independence. The palace still exists, and is now a school.
Then there was Jai Singh Prabhakar, the Maharaja of Alwar, who refused British plans to build a road through his state because it would interfere with his hunting. Speaking of which, this Maharaja used boys from his villages as live bait in tiger hunts. His antics were so extreme that the British banished him in 1933. The last straw was when he lost a polo match, and expressed his frustration by pouring gasoline on his pony and setting it on fire. The British were embarrassed by their Maharajas – and by the blind eye, they had turned to their antics. So before leaving India in 1947, the departing Raj burned the intelligence files on its native princely collaborators.
26. That Time the Russians Wanted to Melt the Arctic
Melting polar ice is a major worry today, what with the resulting rising sea levels threatening low-lying coastal plains where billions live. In the 1950s, however, before most people had heard of “global warming” or understood its ramifications, things were different. Back then, polar ice was seen not as something worth preserving, but as something that should be gotten rid of. That view was especially popular in the USSR, much of which lay under permafrost that held up many economic development plans. So the authorities explored plans to warm up the country, including an extreme plan to melt the Arctic ice cap.
Soviet scientist, Petr Mikhailovich Borisov, proposed a 55-mile-dam across the Bering Strait between the Soviet Far East and Alaska. It would block cold Pacific Ocean currents from reaching the Arctic, while allowing the Atlantic Ocean’s warm Gulf Stream currents to circulate more freely. That would gradually melt the Arctic ice cap, until the North Pole was ice-free. Borisov’s government found the concept intriguing. The idea even made waves in the West, where JFK called it “certainly worth exploring“. However, the plan went nowhere. Not because of environmental concerns, but cost concerns, and the difficulty of securing US-Soviet to carry out such an ambitious geoengineering project.
25. Winston Churchill Wanted to Start World War III Before World War II Had Ended
Winston Churchill was an avowed anti-communist long before anti-communism was cool. Before the dust had settled in World War I, the future World War II icon urged the British government to intervene directly in Russia’s Civil War against the communists. His recommendations went unheeded – something he regretted for the rest of his life. As he put it years later: “If I had been properly supported in 1919, I think we might have strangled Bolshevism in its cradle, but everybody turned up their hands and said, ‘How shocking!’”
World War II created strange bedfellows, with the arch anti-communist Churchill allied with the communist USSR. However, his suspicions of communism remained. In 1945, as the war in Europe drew to an end, Churchill was exasperated by Stalin’s quest to make Eastern Europe part of a Soviet empire. Britain had gone to war to defend Polish independence, but at the war’s end, Stalin rode roughshod over Poland. He kept a third of the country that he had annexed in 1939 in cooperation with the Germans, reduced Poland to a Soviet client state, and extinguished the Poles’ independence. So Churchill contemplated war against the Soviets.
Winston Churchill’s Polish freedom as something that touched upon British honor. Stalin’s refusal to respect Poland’s independence was thus an affront to Britain, in Churchill’s mind. His reaction was extreme, to put it mildly: Churchill ordered up plans to attack the Soviets soon as Germany surrendered. The nebulous goal was to push the Soviets’ forces back to the USSR, or at least force Stalin to treat Poland fairly. British generals presented their Prime Minister with Operation Unthinkable, whose title indicated what the generals thought of Churchill’s idea.
Two versions were offered, an offensive and defensive one. The offensive envisaged a surprise attack on the Soviets in July, 1945, to force Stalin to give Poland a “fair deal”. The defensive envisaged a British defense of Western Europe after America withdrew from the continent. The Soviets had 10 million men available in the summer of 1945. They outnumbered the British and Americans in Europe 4:1 in men, and 2:1 in tanks – and superior tanks at that. The Allies had an advantage in the air, but even that was subject to challenge, as the Red Air Force by 1945 had formidable fighter and ground attack arms.
23. Shelving Churchill’s Plan to Attack the Soviets in 1945
By 1945, the Soviet military was not the hapless rabble it had been in 1941 when the Germans invaded. It had become a veteran and battle-hardened force that had won bigger campaigns against significantly greater opposition than the Allies had faced. Churchill’s generals concluded that attacking the Soviets would be ill-advised because far from being a pushover, 1945’s Red Army was dangerous, vicious, and very big. If war broke out, Churchill was advised, it was more likely to end with the Red Army conquering all of continental Europe, instead of getting chased back to the USSR.
The generals also pointed out that Britain on her own stood no chance against the Soviets, and America had no incentive to join Britain in attacking them. Especially not over Poland and Eastern Europe. Standing up for Poland was a point of honor for Churchill. However, few in Britain’s government, and fewer still in America’s, thought Poland or Eastern Europe was worth an even greater war against the USSR than the one just concluded against Germany. Unlike Britain, America had never guaranteed Poland’s territorial integrity, nor had it entered World War II in order to defend Polish sovereignty. Faced with unpleasant reality, Churchill grudgingly let the matter drop, and Operation Unthinkable was shelved.
22. Meteorological “Concussion Theory”: Dynamiting the Sky to Make It Rain
The belief that human actions could invite rain has been around for ages. In ancient times, it was believed that battles were often followed by rain because of religious reasons. In the modern era, that belief was updated with pseudo-scientific theories, revolving around the din of battle shaking the clouds and causing them to release their water. In 1871, former Civil War general Edward Powers wrote War and the Weather, in which he documented several historic battles that were followed by rain.
Powers theorized that the din of battle agitated the clouds, and caused them to release their rain. He took that premise to an extreme conclusion that came to be known as “Concussion Theory”: loud noises could be used to force clouds to yield rain on demand. As Powers put it: “If lightning and thunder and rain have been brought on by the agency of man, when bloodshed and slaughter were only intended, this surely can be done without these latter concomitants“. In 1891, Robert G. Dyrenforth was tasked with testing the theory.
21. An Extreme Experiment: Blowing Up the Skies Over Texas
Reputable scientists and scholars scoffed at Edward Powers and his “Concussion Theory”. Two decades later, however, Senator Charles B. Farwell of Illinois read Powers’ book, and decided to test his pseudo-science. So he got Congress to appropriate $10,000 – a sizable amount at the time – to make the tests. With no legit scholars or scientists willing to risk their reputations by associating with something so wacky, a patent lawyer named Robert G. Dyrenforth was assigned the task of carrying out the experiment.
In August 1891, Dyrenforth set up shop in the Texas prairie and put on an impressive pyrotechnic display. His men blasted clouds with mortars and with dynamite carried aloft by kites, trailed by balloons filled with flammable hydrogen. To add to the noise and take it up to the extreme, Dyrenforth’s men increased the decibel levels by packing prairie dog holes full of dynamite and blowing them up as well. Unsurprisingly, the plan did not work. That did not stop Dyrenforth from falsely claiming that it did. His fabrications were exposed when a meteorologist, who had observed the experiment, published a scathing report about it in Nature.
The Fatimid Caliph Abu Ali Mansur (985 – 1021) was one of the more weird and bizarre rulers of the middle ages – an era is known for bizarre rulers. However, even in such company, this Caliph stood out for taking weirdness to an extreme. Mansur is better known to history by his regnal title Al Hakim bi Amr Allah (“Ruler by God’s Command”). He is even better known by the nickname “The Mad Caliph” – a moniker which, as seen below, he richly earned.
Among other things, the Mad Caliph Al Hakim was afflicted with megalomania that led him to declare himself an incarnation of God. Other rulers who declared themselves deities ended up with universal scorn, but the Mad Caliph actually ended up with some adherents. Not just ones who adhered out of fear, but sincere ones who continued their reverence long after Al Hakim’s death. To this day, the Mad Caliph is viewed as a divine incarnation by the Druze sect in the Middle East, and is a religiously important figure to some Shi’a Muslims.
19. To Demonstrate That He Was Not Soft on Christianity, the Mad Caliph Went on a Christian Persecution Bender
The son of the Fatimid Caliph Abu Mansur and a Christian consort named Al Azizah, Al Hakim became Caliph at age eleven after his father’s death. The religion of the Mad Caliph’s mother opened him to allegations of being an insufficiently zealous Muslim, and of being soft on Christianity. The accusations bothered him, so he went to extreme lengths to prove his Islamic zeal, and show that he was no Christian puppet. As in exceptionally extreme lengths: he launched an unprecedented wave of Christian persecutions, and ordered the destruction of churches and Christian monuments throughout his empire.
To demonstrate that having a Christian mother did not make him a soft Muslim, Al-Hakim abandoned the tolerance hitherto displayed by Muslim rulers to Christians and Jews. He went on a persecution bender, destroying synagogues and churches, including the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem – the one housing the cave where Jesus is thought to have lain before his resurrection. The Mad Caliph also banned pilgrimage to Jerusalem, and ordered Christians and Jews to wear distinguishing clothing to identify them. Jews were further singled out by being required to wear bells, so they could be identified by sound as well as sight.
18. History’s Most Extreme, or at Least Odd, Consumer Protection Practices?
The Mad Caliph Al Hakim’s weirdness was not limited to his religious persecutions, nor to his delusions of being a reincarnation of God. His odd behavior was not confined to the realm of religion and faith; it also extended to the here and now of those earthly concerns that occupy the minds of secular rulers. For example, the Mad Caliph implemented one of the most extreme – or at least one of the most bizarre – consumer protection practices, ever: sodomizing dishonest merchants.
Al-Hakim reportedly used to walk through Cairo’s markets, looking for deceptive merchants. By his side during his hunts for market cheats was a giant black slave named Masoud. Whenever the Mad Caliph came across a merchant who was cheating his customers, he ordered Masoud to sodomize the crook publicly, right then and there. The legacy of such extreme consumer protection practices has endured for centuries: to this day, people in Cairo threaten to “bring Masoud” when they suspect that a merchant is trying to cheat them.
17. The British Raj’s Extreme Solution to Tax Avoidance
Salt is so readily available and cheap, that we take it for granted. It is so abundant nowadays that we are more worried about too much salt in our food, rather than too little or none at all. It was not always so. Throughout much of history, salt – whose sodium is an essential nutrient for human health – was not easily available everywhere. That made it a highly valuable commodity in places without salt sources. One such place is Northern India, which had to import salt from elsewhere in the subcontinent.
When the British conquered India, they decided to cash in by monopolizing salt production, then squeeze the natives for all they could get out of them with salt taxes. Those taxes were highly unpopular, and protests over their collection helped fuel the rise of Indian nationalism and sowed the seeds of India’s independence movement. More immediately, however, the British had to contend with rampant salt smuggling from southern India, where salt was abundant and salt taxes were low, to northern India, where the opposite was true. They came up with an extreme solution: a 2500-mile-hedge across the subcontinent.
16. Combating Salt Smuggling With a 2500 Mile Hedge
The British Raj’s extreme solution to combating salt smuggling and salt tax avoidance revolved around growing a giant hedge of thorn bushes, stretching across the subcontinent for thousands of miles. Known as “The Great Hedge of India”, it was supposed to be 2500 miles long, 14 feet wide, 12 feet high, and bristle with thorns. By 1878, the Great Hedge stretched for 1100 miles, but the thorn bushes refused to grow properly, and most of it consisted of dead branches.
The British persisted, and eventually grew over 400 miles of good live hedge, and another 1100 miles of inferior or dry hedge and stone walls, patrolled by up to 14,000 men. That army of officials had to deal with brush fires, storms, parasitic vines, and pests. It did not stop smugglers who hacked through the Hedge or simply tossed bags of salt over the barrier to accomplices on the other side. The Great Hedge was abandoned in 1879, when the authorities switched to the easier solution of imposing and collecting the salt tax at the point of manufacture, then had the manufacturers pass it on to buyers.
15. The Ottoman Turks’ Extreme, Yet Effective, Solution to the Problem of Fratricidal Civil Wars
Many realms came to grief not at the hands of foreign enemies, but because of domestic strife and civil wars between members of the ruling family. In states where the rules and lines of succession were not well-established and clearly defined, a ruler’s death often triggered a scramble between his sons for power. When one of them finally wrested the crown, it frequently rested uneasily on his head, while rival siblings schemed and plotted to unseat and replace him on the throne.
The results were often civil wars that weakened the state and left it vulnerable. The Ottoman Turks came up with an extreme – yet ruthlessly effective – solution to the problem: no siblings, no rivalry. When a new Ottoman Sultan ascended the throne, he immediately executed all his brothers. The chances of deadly rivalries and civil wars were thus eliminated by eliminating all potential rivals. It began in 1389 when Sultan Bayezid I ascended the throne, and immediately had his younger brother strangled to death in order to nip a plot in the bud.
Sultan Bayezid I’s execution of his younger brother upon ascending the throne kicked off an Ottoman tradition that lasted for centuries. In what came to be known as Ottoman Fratricide, each new sultan started off his reign by ordering the execution of all his brothers, as well as other male relatives who might claim the throne. Sultan Mehmed II the Conqueror (1432 – 1481) is credited with formalizing that tradition by codifying the practice of royal fratricide into Ottoman legislation.
He enacted a Law of Governance that stated in relevant part: “Any of my sons who ascends the throne, it is acceptable for him to kill his brothers for the common benefit of the people. The majority of the ulema [Muslim scholars] approve this; let action be taken accordingly“. Mehmed II’s successors heeded his advice to maintain the realm’s stability by preemptively executing their brothers upon ascending the throne. It was extreme and cruel, but it worked: for two centuries, the Ottoman Empire was remarkably stable and free of infighting and civil wars when compared to its contemporaries.
13. A More Humane Alternative? Imprisoning Siblings, Instead of Murdering Them
The system of Ottoman Fratricide reduced civil wars and internal strife, but the consciences of many were troubled by the murder of innocent royal siblings at the start of each reign. Those misgivings reached a peak in 1595 when Sultan Mehmed III inaugurated his reign by ordering his nineteen brothers, some of them mere infants, strangled to death. It was said that “the Empire wept” as a long line of child-sized coffins exited the palace in a grand procession the next day. A reaction against such extreme measures became clear.
As a result, a new tradition emerged: instead of new sultans outright murdering their siblings upon ascending the throne, they simply locked them up. Thus was born the system of the Ottoman Kafes, or “Cage”, whereby sultans set up a secluded part of their royal Harem as a detention center for their brothers. There, potential rivals were kept under house arrest, under surveillance by palace guards and isolated from the outside world to prevent intrigues and plots. It was a harsh existence that drove some of the imprisoned princes to madness. However, it was a more humane alternative to death.
12. There is Stubbornness, and Then There is the Extreme Stubbornness of the Guy Who Kept Fighting World War II For Almost Three Decades After It Had Ended
The aftermath of World War II in the Pacific was marked by the phenomenon of Japanese holdouts: military personnel who refused to surrender and kept fighting after Japan had surrendered. Some were cut off from communications with their chain of command, did not receive official notice to surrender, and were thus ignorant of the fact that the war had ended. Others were deliberately obtuse, knew that the war had ended, but went to extreme lengths to pretend ignorance. The latter held out for a variety of reasons, ranging from fear, pride, shame at defeat, or sheer bloody-mindedness.
Within a few months, most holdouts saw sense and laid down their arms, or were tracked down and captured or killed by the victors. Some, however, were unable or unwilling to see sense and evaded death and capture for months, years, and in some cases, decades. The most extreme of them, by length of holdout, was Teruo Nakamura – an Imperial Japanese Army soldier who refused to surrender and managed to hide out in a tropical island for twenty-nine years after World War II had ended.
Teruo Nakamura was born in 1919 into an aboriginal tribe in Formosa – today’s Taiwan – which was a Japanese possession at the time. In 1943, he was conscripted into a colonial unit of the Imperial Japanese Army and was posted to Morotai Island in the Dutch East Indies – present-day Indonesia. Soon after his arrival in Morotai, American and Australian forces invaded that island successfully seized their objectives, and broke organized resistance while inflicting heavy losses on the Japanese defenders.
The relatively few Japanese survivors fled into the jungle, where they endured diseases, hunger, starvation, and other extreme hardships as they hid from the victorious invaders. When World War II officially ended with the signing of Japan’s surrender on September 2nd, 1945, Nakamura was not among the Japanese survivors who surrendered to the Allies in Morotai. He was presumed dead, having perished during the Allied invasion of the island, and was officially declared so in 1945. However, Nakamura was very much alive.
10. An Extreme Holdout That Lasted Until the End of 1974
Teruo Nakamura’s unit had been ordered to disperse into the jungle and conduct guerrilla warfare. By the time Japan surrendered in 1945, He and his remaining comrades were deep in Morotai’s jungle, cut off from communications with Japanese authorities. They thus had no means of receiving official notice that the war was over. As with other extreme Japanese holdouts, they dismissed leaflets airdropped over the jungle, advising of war’s end, as enemy propaganda. Nakamura stayed with his steadily dwindling group until 1956, when he set off on his own.
He built himself a hut inside a small field that he hacked out of the rain forest, in which he grew tubers and bananas to supplement his meager diet. Because of his aboriginal tribal upbringing, he was self-sufficient and able to survive in the wild. He stayed in the jungle, isolated and alone, until he was spotted by a pilot in 1974. That led to an Indonesian military search mission, which eventually tracked down and arrested Nakamura on December 28th, 1974. Thus ended the longest-known Japanese holdout.
9. This Holdout’s Extreme Loyalty to Japan Was Met With Extreme Ingratitude
Teruo Nakamura exhibited extreme loyalty to Japan, with a nearly three-decades-long holdout in obedience to the last orders he had received from Japanese authorities. Unfortunately, Japan repaid his extreme loyalty with extreme ingratitude. Other famous holdouts such as Hiroo Onoda, whose holdout had ended a few months earlier, were celebrated as paragons of devotion to duty. By contrast, Nakamura attracted relatively little attention in Japan. For one thing, Onoda was an ethnic Japanese citizen, while Nakamura had been a colonial soldier from what, by 1974, had become the independent nation of Taiwan.
Although he wanted to be repatriated to Japan, Nakamura had no legal right to go there. So he was sent to Taiwan instead. As a member of a colonial unit rather of the Japanese Army, Nakamura was not entitled to a pension and back pay under Japanese law. Hiroo Onoda was awarded about U$160,000 by Japan, equivalent to roughly U$850,000 in 2021 dollars. By contrast, for his three-decades-long holdout in service to Japan, Nakamura was awarded only U$227 – equivalent to U$1200 in 2021. He returned to Taiwan, where he died of lung cancer five years later, in 1979.
8. A Lawyer’s Weird Dedication to Proving His Office Windows’ Strength
Canadian attorney Garry Hoy (1955 – 1993) was a respected senior partner at a Toronto law firm. Before going to law school, he had gotten a degree in engineering, and the robustness of modern building techniques fascinated him. He was especially proud of the tensile strength of the windows at his office in the Toronto Dominion Center, a downtown high rise. For some reason, he wanted everyone to know about the windows’ sturdiness, and got in the habit of proving it by body checking them.
As things turned out, and as Hoy discovered on July 9th, 1993, his extreme demonstrations were ill-advised. That evening, Hoy was at a welcoming party for incoming law student summer interns, in a conference room on the high rise’s 24th floor. Wishing to impress the interns with the office windows’ strength, he sought to demonstrate that they were unbreakable by throwing himself at a glass wall. He had done so many times before and always ended up bouncing off harmlessly. Not this time.
7. Extreme Demonstration Leads to Extremely Fatal Result
As a Toronto Police detective described how Garry Hoy’s last demonstration of his office windows’ sturdiness came to an unfortunate end: “At this Friday night party, Mr. Hoy did it again and bounced off the glass the first time. However, he did it a second time, and this time crashed right through the middle of the glass“. He fell to his death 24 floors below. He need not have died, if he had left window tensile strength testing to the experts.
As a structural engineer told the Toronto Star: “I don’t know of any building code in the world that would allow a 160-pound man to run up against a glass window and withstand it“. Hoy’s auto-defenestration made the obscure lawyer a greater celebrity in death than he had ever been in life. His unusual demise became the basis for urban legends that were actually based on a true factual foundation. His death was featured in episodes of the TV shows Mythbusters and 1000 Ways to Die, garnered him entries in Snopes and Wikipedia, and earned him a 1996 Darwin Award.
After Genghis Khan crushed the Khwarezmian Empire in 1223, he sent a Mongol expedition of about 20,000 men to raid into the Caucuses and southern Russia. Led by generals Subutai and Jebe, the force defeated all in its path, including the Cumans, allies of the Kievan Rus. The Rus came to the Cumans’ aid, and a vast army set out after the raiders. The Mongols retreated, and their foes followed. For nine days, Subutai and Jebe led their pursuers on a merry chase across the Steppe.
As the Cumans and Rus rushed headlong after the seemingly scared Mongols, their army was transformed from a compact body and into a collection of separated units. Then suddenly, on the ninth day of the pursuit, the “fleeing” Mongols suddenly turned on their by-then strung out enemies at the banks of the Kalka River. In the ensuing battle, fought on May 31st, 1223, the Mongols annihilated their erstwhile pursuers. Things went from bad to worse for the captured enemy commanders, when the Mongols opted for an extreme victory celebration: by dining atop their captives.
The Mongols enjoyed making examples out of vanquished foes. After their victory at the Battle of Kalka River, captured enemy commanders were laid on the ground, then a huge board was laid over their bodies. The victors then sat over the board to eat, drink, and celebrate their triumph, while slowly crushing and suffocating the defeated men beneath to death. However, the Mongols’ feasting over the bodies of defeated commanders was not the first time that vanquished leaders had faced such a fate.
Such ghoulish celebrations seem to have been pioneered by the first Abbasid Caliph Abul Abbas (722 – 754), nicknamed Al Saffah (“Spiller of Blood” – a well-earned nickname). He initiated a revolt against the Ummayad Dynasty of Caliphs, and crushed them in a climactic battle in 750. He then tracked down and killed as many members of the defeated dynasty as he could. In 751, Al Saffah declared an amnesty, and 80 surviving Ummayad princes emerged from hiding to receive their pardons at a banquet. He had them seized, stabbed, covered their quivering bodies with leather rugs, and bade the other guests to sit down and dine atop them.
The Cold War might have been the most dangerous stretch in the history of humanity, as two superpowers with enough nukes between them to exterminate mankind many times neared the brink more than once. When not fighting each other through proxies, the US and USSR often engaged in macho threat displays, like angry dogs growling at each other, or tomcats engaged in a hissing match. Some of the threat displays were subtle, while others were as subtle as a punch to the face.
The machismo got weird at times. As in extreme levels of weird. As in nuking the Moon weird – something that the United States considered doing in the 1950s. In the early Cold War years, despite the Red Scare and anti-communist hysteria, most Americans felt safe at home from foreign attack. Even after the Soviets detonated their first atomic bomb in 1949, few doubted America’s nuclear superiority. Nor did we doubt the superiority of the US Air Force and its bombers’ ability to nuke Russia, while its fighters kept Russian bombers from nuking us back. That changed in the blink of an eye.
3. The Small Satellite That Shattered America’s Sense of Invulnerability, and Stirred Up a Hornets’ Nest of Crazy
In 1957, Americans’ sense of security at home was shattered when the Soviets launched Sputnik, the first artificial Earth satellite. That terrified America. Sputnik itself was harmless, but Soviet rockets powerful enough to launch it into space were powerful enough to launch atomic weapons at the US. America’s sense of invulnerability evaporated. To restore national confidence, many ideas were bounced back and forth, quite a few of them extreme and weird. However, few of them were as extreme or as weird as the idea of nuking the Moon.
At the time, America’s space program was on the ropes, while the Soviets scooped us by successfully launching satellites – and demonstrating the power of their rockets. So the Eisenhower administration came up with a secret project, “A Study of Lunar Research Flights”. The project’s innocuous title masked its true purpose: detonating a nuke on the Moon. The former Armour Research Foundation, now part of the Illinois Institute of Technology, was tasked with the research. Among the researchers was a then-young graduate student, Carl Sagan, who would go on to become a global celebrity for popularizing science and astronomy on TV.
2. The Mild Mannered Carl Sagan Once Researched Nuking the Moon
A young Carl Sagan contributed to the Moon-nuking project with research and calculations. He focused mostly on the expected behavior of the dust and gas caused by a nuclear detonation on the lunar surface. As the project envisioned, an American missile carrying a nuclear bomb would launch from Earth, travel 238,000 miles to the Moon, and detonate upon impact. As an official involved in the project recounted decades later: “Now it seems ridiculous and unthinkable. But things were remarkably tense then“.
The Eisenhower administration hoped that seeing the nuclear flash on the Moon from Earth would restore American confidence after the launch of Sputnik. Simultaneously, it would intimidate the Soviets by demonstrating that the US had an effective nuclear deterrent. The plan could have been carried out by 1959 when the US Air Force began deploying ICBMs. However, the weird project was abandoned because of the risk to people on Earth in case of failure, and because scientists raised concerns about contaminating the Moon with radiation.
1. The Extreme British Plan to Punish a Troublesome Egyptian Ruler by Blocking the Nile
Egypt was a British client state and protectorate from 1882 to 1952, and Britain-based troops were there to protect her interests. Most important of those interests was safeguarding the Suez Canal, of which the British government was a majority shareholder. Then in 1952, nationalist Egyptian officers led by Gamal Abdel Nasser overthrew Egypt’s pro-British king. The new government demanded that British troops leave Egypt, and in 1956, nationalized the Suez Canal. Nasser infuriated British Prime Minister Anthony Eden, who was determined to put the Egyptian upstart in his place. So secret plans were drawn for an extreme solution: cut off the Nile’s flow of water.
Britain controlled Uganda, where the Owen Falls Dam lay astride the White Nile, the main source of the river flowing into Egypt. The idea was to cut off the flow in Uganda, thus reducing the Nile’s water volume by seven eighths by the time it reached Egypt. The plan was ultimately rejected because it would deprive other countries between Uganda and Egypt of water, would take too long, and would produce a PR nightmare. Instead, Eden opted for direct military intervention. The result was the 1956 Suez Crisis, which ended with Britain forced into a humiliating climb down, and the wrecking of Anthony Eden’s political career.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading