History’s Most Catastrophic Man-made Errors

History’s Most Catastrophic Man-made Errors

Khalid Elhassan - December 9, 2020

A natural disaster such as a tsunami earthquake, volcano, or flood could kill hundreds of thousands or even millions. Those figures are eclipsed by humanity’s ability to harm itself with man-made disasters whose death tolls might reach into the tens of millions. Whether caused by mistake or malice, man-made disasters have few peers – a massive asteroid wiping out life on earth perhaps being a notable exception – when it comes to deadlines. Following are thirty-six things about some of history’s more notable man-made disasters.

History’s Most Catastrophic Man-made Errors
Ming military using cannons to defend The Great Wall against Manchu invaders. Pinterest

36. An Explosion That Rocked Beijing and Changed China

Few industrial accidents were as major as the one that produced a calamitous disaster in 1626 that wiped out half a city, and killed around 20,000 people. It is known as the Great Tianqi Explosion after the Ming Dynasty Tianqi Emperor during whose reign it occurred, the Wanggongchang Explosion, the Wanggongchang Calamity, or the Beijing Explosive Incident in Late Ming.

It was a catastrophic explosion at the Wanggongchang Armory, about 2 miles from the Forbidden Palace in Beijing, that happened on the morning of May 30th, 1626. The blast was so loud that it was heard beyond the Great Wall, about 100 miles away, and produced a “mushroom-shaped” cloud that hung over southwest Beijing.

History’s Most Catastrophic Man-made Errors
Contemporary map of 1626 Ming China. Wikimedia

35. The Great Gunpowder Factory That Went Up and Took Half a City With It

The Wanggongchang Armory was one of half a dozen factories in the Beijing area that produced weapons and ammunition. Administered by the Ministry of Public Works, the armories were vital to Beijing’s security, and to the defense and military readiness of Ming China. With a workforce of 70 to 80 people, Wanggonchang manufactured arrows, swords, spears, cannons, and gunpowder.

Gunpowder’s and cannons’ importance had grown in recent years, as Ming armies found themselves in a steadily escalating arms race with the Manchus of today’s Manchuria. Cannons and an ample supply of gunpowder were key to keeping the Manchus out of China. To keep them from falling into enemy hands, those factories were built in Beijing, protected by the capital’s thick and powerful walls. While much thought went into using the city to protect the gunpowder factories, little thought seems to have gone into protecting the city from the gunpowder factories if something went wrong.

History’s Most Catastrophic Man-made Errors
The Wanggongchang Explosion devastated Beijing. Pinterest

34. Imperial China’s Biggest Blast

Around 10 AM on the morning of May 30th, 1626, a plume of smoke rose above Beijing’s Wanggongchang Armory, followed soon thereafter by an immense explosion. Witnesses over a mile away heard a loud roaring rumble headed their way, followed by a giant dust cloud and tremors that shook houses. Then came a flash of light, followed by an enormous bang that “shattered the sky and crumbled the earth“. The disaster was shocking.

Huge trees were uprooted, and flew into the air to land on the other side of Beijing. A three-ton stone lion went sailing over the city walls. All that was left of the armory was a crater 21 feet deep, and everything within one and a half square miles was obliterated. The streets were reduced to jumbles of debris and rubble, littered with bodies and body parts. The Tianqi Emperor barely escaped with his life, while the only guard who stayed by his side amidst the panic was killed by a falling tile. The 7-month-old Crown Prince Zhu Cijong, the emperor’s only living heir, died from the blast’s shock.

History’s Most Catastrophic Man-made Errors
The Wanggongchang Explosion had far-reaching consequences. The World of Chinese Magazine

33. A Disaster With Far-Reaching Consequences

The Great Tianqi Explosion was a disaster with consequences that went far beyond the immediate devastation and loss of life, terrible as those were. The Wanggongchang Armory was one of China’s biggest weapons factories, and held the country’s biggest arms and munitions stockpile. The Ming military, already under increasing pressure from the Manchus, never recovered.

The disaster came at a time when the Ming Dynasty was also struggling with domestic crises caused by widespread corruption, internal conflicts, and a series of natural disasters that triggered peasant rebellions. The dramatic Tianqi Explosion eclipsed those. In a superstitious era, it was seen as a sign of Heaven’s displeasure with the ruling Mings, and a punishment from above for the emperor’s incompetence. All those factors came together to speed up the Ming decline and cause the dynasty’s collapse just 18 years later, when it was defeated and replaced by the Manchu, or Qing Dynasty.

History’s Most Catastrophic Man-made Errors
Chinese propaganda poster extolling The Great Leap Forward. Chinese Posters

32. Dam Built to Withstand a “1000 Year Flood” Collapses After Getting Hit With a Flood Twice as Bad as the Worst Expectations

In the 1950s, Mao Zedong announced The Great Leap Forward, an ambitious modernization program to transform China from a peasant society into a global power. As part of that program, the Chinese, with the help of Soviet experts, built a series of dams with the goal of retaining water and providing hydroelectric water. Little emphasis was put on flood control. A chief engineer blew the whistle on the danger, but he was ignored, accused of lacking communist zeal, and banished to the back of beyond.

One of the newly-built dams was at Banqiao, on the Ru River in Henan. 387 feet high, it had a storage capacity of 17.4 billion cubic feet. It was designed to withstand “a 1000-year flood”, that is a flood so severe the odds were that it would happen only once in a millennium. Unfortunately, in early August, 1975, Typhoon Nina struck, stalled over the Banqiao Dam area, and produced flooding double the anticipated 1000-year-level maximum.

History’s Most Catastrophic Man-made Errors
The Banqiao Dam. Imgur

31. Communications Failures Led to Disaster

The Banqiao Dam disaster could have been averted if not for incompetence and poor communications. On August 6th, 1975, with water levels rising in its reservoir because of Typhoon Nina, Banqiao’s officials requested authority to open the dam to relieve the pressure. They were turned down because of ongoing flooding downstream. The request was finally accepted the following day, the 7th, but the telegram failed to reach Banqiao.

In the early hours of August 8th, the water crested a foot above the dam’s wave protection wall, and it collapsed. It was one of 62 dams that collapsed because of Typhoon Nina, releasing nearly 16 billion cubic meters of water. The result was a wave 6.2 miles wide and 10 – 23 feet high, that rushed downstream at 31 miles an hour. It left a swath of devastation 9.3 miles wide and 34 miles long.

History’s Most Catastrophic Man-made Errors
The area devastated by the Banqiao Dam failure. Wikimedia

30. The Banqiao Collapse Was History’s Deadliest Structural Failure

The Banqiao dams disaster was history’s deadliest structural failure. It unleashed the third deadliest flood ever, devastated 30 cities and counties, inundated 3 million acres, and destroyed nearly 7 million houses. More than 10 million people were impacted, and the death toll might have been as high as 240,000.

The disaster occurred at the tail end of Mao Zedong’s regime and his Cultural Revolution, and the Chinese authorities did their best to hide the extent of the catastrophe. Solid information – or as solid as governmental information ever gets in China – did not emerge until the 1990s, when a former Minister of Water Resources wrote a preface for a book in which details were revealed for the first time.

History’s Most Catastrophic Man-made Errors
Joseph Stalin. Biography

29. Controversy Has Never Ceased to Surround This Man-made Disaster

The preceding disasters resulted from human error and incompetence, with little if any controversy about whether they and their death tolls were deliberately caused. Not so the next disaster, the Terror Famine that swept the Ukraine and southern Russia in 1932 – 1933.

Controversy has never ceased about whether that famine, also known as the Holodomor, resulted from human error and incompetence, or was deliberately caused by a maliciously murderous plan. Specifically, the maliciously murderous plan of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin to deploy starvation as a tool for destroying a class of better-off peasants known as kulaks, whom he viewed as enemies.

History’s Most Catastrophic Man-made Errors
Map of the depopulation of the Ukraine and southern Russian from 1929 to 1933, with the territories that were not part of the USSR during the famine in white. Wikimedia

28. Stalin’s Terror Famine Killed Millions

The Terror Famine of 1932 – 1933, also known as the Holodomor in the Ukraine, was a man-made disaster caused by Joseph Stalin’s policy choices. In a quest to rapidly industrialize the USSR, Stalin sought to force peasants off their privately owned plots, and into collective farms. Collectivization was widely resented and resisted by the peasants, especially in the Ukraine. Stalin, being Stalin, resorted to overwhelming brutality and repression to have his way. The result was widespread chaos, which combined with a poor harvest in 1932 brought about famine.

The exact number of victims is unknown, with estimates ranging from six to twelve million people dying in the Soviet Union, of whom four to five million were Ukrainians. The famine was man-made, but there is no consensus as to whether famine had been a goal in itself, or whether it was caused by badly thought out policies that backfired spectacularly. Some scholars believe that the famine was an end in itself, intended to demoralize the Ukrainian public and crush a budding independence movement.

History’s Most Catastrophic Man-made Errors
Propaganda poster extolling Soviet industrialization. Alamy

27. Roots of a Man-made Disaster: Stalin’s Obsession With Industrializing the USSR

Stalin’s main objective when he rose to power in the 1920s – aside from hanging on to power and crushing all who stood in the way – was to rapidly industrialize and modernize the backward USSR. He reasoned that unless his country caught up to the capitalist West, communism was doomed. As he put it in a 1931 speech: “We are fifty or a hundred years behind the advanced countries. We must make good this difference in ten years. Either we do it, or we shall be crushed“.

Stalin was prescient. Ten years later, Nazi Germany launched a massive onslaught that came within a hair’s breadth of snuffing out the communist state. By then, however, Stalin had forced industrialization down his country’s throat, and the USSR had the industrial capacity to match, and then exceed the Germans in arms and armaments. Between that, stubborn tenacity, and astonishing sacrifices, the Soviets managed to claw their way out of the abyss and on to ultimate victory. By 1945, the USSR was a superpower and an industrial giant second only to America.

History’s Most Catastrophic Man-made Errors
Peasants forced off during Stalin’s collectivization. Encyclopedia Britannica

26. Industrialization Saved the Soviet Union – But at a High Cost

The Soviet Union could not have survived the German attack in WWII and gone on to win victory without the vast manufacturing capacity created by Stalin’s industrialization drive. Seen from that perspective, rapid industrialization had borne fruit. However, it had come at a horrific cost that amounted to a humanitarian disaster.

Millions of innocent men, women, and children, had their lives and liberties ruthlessly crushed and sacrificed in order to implement Stalin’s policies. Nowhere was that more evident than in the policy of collectivization, which forced millions of Soviet peasants off their private plots and into large collective farms, which were to be run like factories.

History’s Most Catastrophic Man-made Errors
Soviet propaganda from 1931, depicting joy over the use of a tractor on a collectivized farm in the Ukraine. Wikimedia

25. Collectivization Was Stalin’s Attempt to Transform Farming Into Factory-Like Work

A thousand industrial workers in a factory can produce more than a thousand artisans working individually in their cottages. So Stalin and communist economists hoped that a thousand farmers in a factory-like collective farm could produce more than a thousand farmers tilling individual plots. They also hoped that economies of scale would produce huge savings in labor. Giant factory-like farms using modern agricultural practices and machines would be more labor efficient, and thus would not need as many farmers.

Millions of farmers could be taken from the countryside where their labor would no longer be needed, and redirected to factory work in the cities to fuel industrialization. There was an added benefit of transforming peasants into factory workers: the strengthening of communism. Factory workers, or the industrial proletariat in Marxist-Leninist speak, were viewed as communism’s most reliable class. Peasants, by contrast, were viewed as hidebound and reactionary, instinctively inclined to opposing communism. Transforming peasants into industrial proletarians would thus increase communism’s most reliable class, while decreasing its least reliable one.

History’s Most Catastrophic Man-made Errors
Propaganda poster depicting a too-well-fed prosperous kulak peasant getting pushed off the land so it could get collectivized by the rest of the peasantry. Wikimedia

24. Collectivization Was Unpopular With Soviet Peasants – Especially the Best Soviet Peasants

To Stalin and those who thought like him, collectivization sounded good in theory – win, win, all around. In practice, it turned out to be a disaster. For one thing, most peasants were reluctant to give up their private plots in order to join the collective farms. That was especially so among the more prosperous peasants, known as kulaks. “Prosperous” when it came to peasants was relative in the Soviet context, often denoting those successful enough to afford a cow or a few pigs.

In addition to radical changes to traditional village life, collectivization forced peasants to forfeit their land and livestock to the collective farms. It also entailed selling their produce to the government at minimal prices, set by the government itself. Stalin’s USSR being what it was, it was decided to force collectivization down the peasants’ throats, and crush all who objected.

History’s Most Catastrophic Man-made Errors
A peasant mother and child forcibly evicted from their in the winter of 1932-1933. Wikimedia

23. This Disaster Was Predictable, and Had Been Predicted Years in Advance

The man-made disaster that came to be known as the Terror Famine was predictable. It had actually had been predicted years earlier by objective observers who had witnessed collectivization’s early trial runs in the late 1920s and early 1930s.

They sounded the alarm about the expected chaos and turmoil, and the negative impact on the harvests and the distribution networks that took produce from the fields to consumers. As early as 1930, academics and advisers to the authorities in the Ukrainian SSR predicted that famine was inevitable if collectivization was continued at its current pace. Their warnings were ignored by the authorities.

History’s Most Catastrophic Man-made Errors
A crowd waiting for food rations during the Terror Famine. Wikimedia

22. To Feed Industrial Workers in the Cities Cheaply, Soviet Authorities Screwed the Peasants in the Countryside

A key factor leading up to the Terror Famine disaster was the Soviet authorities’ decision to ignore the incentives driving the peasants. Collectivization sought to increase the grain available to feed the steadily growing industrial proletariat population in the cities, and to do so at as low a cost as possible. The low cost to consumers in the cities was only made possible by paying the peasants a state-mandated pittance for their produce, unrelated to its true market price.

The peasants, knowing that would not personally benefit from the increased agricultural output, had little incentive to go along. Many viewed collectivization as a “second serfdom”. Especially since they were forced into the collective farms against their will, and did not have the right to leave and seek employment elsewhere without the authorities’ permission – permission that was often denied.

History’s Most Catastrophic Man-made Errors
Soviet guards seizing food from Ukrainian peasants in 1932. Pinterest

21. Peasant Protests Morphed Into Violence That Led to Disaster

Soviet peasants protested collectivization peacefully at first, writing letters to the authorities. When their pleas were ignored, violence broke out, with some villagers lynching collectivization’s local enforcers. Others turned to sabotage, including the burning of crops, or slaughtering the livestock that was about to get seized from them and handed over to the collective farms.

While the peasant’s grievances and responses were understandable, their open defiance of Stalin brought disaster down upon their heads. The Soviet dictator responded with typical brutality, and deployed the machinery of state to crush and bring them to heel. The authorities’ wrath fell most heavily on the better-off kulak peasants, who were seen as collectivization’s most intransigent opponents.

History’s Most Catastrophic Man-made Errors
A ‘Red Train’ of urban workers carts off-grain that was forcibly seized from Ukrainian peasants during the Terror Famine. Wikimedia

20. After Kicking Off a Disaster, Soviet Authorities Shifted the Blame to the Peasants

Collectivization’s turmoil resulted in a poor 1932 Ukrainian grain harvest yield: Soviet authorities got a hold of only 4.3 million tons, as opposed to 7.2 million tons a year earlier. Food rations were slashed in the cities, where many starved that winter. The disaster had begun, and it was about to get far worse. To channel the urban industrial workers’ ire away from Stalin’s government, a propaganda campaign blamed the food shortages on counterrevolutionary peasants. Peasants were accused of hiding the harvested grain and potatoes to produce an artificial shortage, then cash in on the higher prices, even if it cost the lives of starving urban workers.

The propaganda succeeded in riling up the industrial workers, and before long, the urban proletariat were hopping mad at the peasants, blaming them for their hunger pangs. When the authorities organized them into special brigades and columns to go into the countryside to help confiscate grain, the workers were in no mood to listen to the peasants’ protestations of poor harvests and the lack of grain to meet the set quotas.

History’s Most Catastrophic Man-made Errors
Peasants digging up frozen potatoes. All That Is Interesting

19. Soviet Authorities Preferred to Let Millions Starve to Death Rather Than Allow Knowledge of the Disaster to Spread

By early 1933, Stalin’s Terror Famine was in full swing. Thousands – most of them peasants in the countryside – were dying every day, collapsing from starvation and its attendant consequences. However, the steadily growing disaster did not halt the forced collectivization or the forced confiscation of grain and foodstuffs from peasants who had no surplus to spare. As news leaked of what was going on, Soviet authorities denied the catastrophe’s existence, labeled it fake news, and refused humanitarian aid from the International Red Cross and other NGOs.

Amidst an information clampdown, the Ukraine and southern Russia – the regions most impacted by the famine – were put under lockdown. Travel to and from the famine zones was restricted, trapping and condemning to death millions who might have survived had they been allowed to leave for parts of the USSR where food was more available. Stalin and his henchmen preferred the deaths of millions to a PR disaster if so many eyewitnesses were allowed to spread their knowledge of the catastrophe taking place in the “workers’ paradise”.

History’s Most Catastrophic Man-made Errors
Refugees trying to flee from the famine-stricken Ukraine in 1933. Wikimedia

18. At The Peak of This Disaster, Tens of Thousands Starved to Death Each Day

Stalin’s Terror famine reached its peak in June, 1933, when an estimated 28,000 died of starvation each day. That was nearly 1200 deaths every hour, or 20 every minute. Millions died of straightforward starvation, as their hungry bodies first consumed their fat reserves, then their muscles, before their lives were extinguished. Others fell to illnesses that their malnourished bodies were unable to resist.

Yet more succumbed to waves of epidemics, such as typhus, that swept the Ukraine and southern Russia during the disaster. The final death toll is unknowable, but in the Ukraine, the tally ranges from a low of three million according to conservative modern estimates, to a high of ten million.

History’s Most Catastrophic Man-made Errors
Ukrainian famine refugees. RFE

17. Was This Man-made Disaster an Accident or Deliberate Genocide?

Stalin’s Terror Famine is a bone of contention to this day between the Ukraine, where it is known as the Holodomor, derived from a term meaning “to kill by starvation”, and Russia. Kiev views the disaster as a deliberate genocide against the Ukrainian people. It contends that industrialization was implemented despite the knowledge that it would lead to famine, and that Stalin had used famine as a weapon against Ukraine’s peasants. Moscow denies that the famine had been artificial, and counters that other Soviet republics suffered from famine as well.

Depending on how one defines “genocide”, a credible argument could be made for either position. Either way, Stalin’s industrialization and forced collectivization policies set the stage for catastrophe. Then once the famine began, Soviet actions made things worse. Confiscating food from peasants who hardly had enough to feed themselves, turning down international humanitarian aid, and preventing people in the starving regions from leaving, led to many avoidable deaths.

History’s Most Catastrophic Man-made Errors
Japanese forces advancing into French Indochina in 1940. Wikimedia

16. Japan’s Underestimation of American Might Led to Disaster

During World War I, Japan and America fought on the same side. By the 1930s, the two countries were rivals steadily inching towards war. In 1941, Japan was bogged down in a quagmire of a war in China, with no end in sight. It had recently been hit with US and British sanctions, including an asset freeze that crippled its trade. In one of history’s worst decisions, the Japanese government decided to solve its problems by starting a war with America. The result was a disaster for Japan.

The prelude was American displeasure with Japanese aggression in China, first by seizing Manchuria in 1931, followed by an outright invasion in 1937. In those days, because of decades of American missionary work, America had sentimental ties to China in addition to economic ones, and there was a powerful “China Lobby” in the US. Japan made things worse in 1940 by seizing French-Indochina, which destabilized the entire region. Aside from further proof of Japanese aggression, it brought Japanese forces uncomfortably close to America’s colonial possessions in the Philippines, and British ones in Malaya and Burma.

History’s Most Catastrophic Man-made Errors
Contemporary coverage of US sanctions on Japan. Daily Mail

15. US Sanctions Took the Japanese Government to the Edge

America responded to Japan’s seizure of French Indochina with severe sanctions that bit deep. Until Japan withdrew from China and French-Indochina, the US embargoed the sale of products vital to Japan, particularly oil, and froze Japanese assets. The British and Dutch, whose Dutch East Indies (today’s Indonesia) oil fields fueled Japan’s economy, followed suit. That cost Japan 75% of her overseas trade, and 90% of her oil.

The loss of trade was bad enough. The loss of access to oil was worse: Japan had oil reserves for only three years of peacetime consumption, or a year and a half months of wartime consumption. Once the reserves ran out, Japan’s economy would simply crash. That presented Japan with a dilemma: bow to the sanctions, or forcibly seize the resources, particularly oil from the Dutch East Indies and rubber from British Malaya, that her economy needed? Japan’s rulers feared that they would be reduced to an American client state if they caved: what was to stop the US from coercing Japan with sanctions again in the future? Between that, pride, and the fear of losing face, Japan’s rulers chose war.

History’s Most Catastrophic Man-made Errors
Aftermath of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Japan Times

14. Japan’s Response to US Sanctions Brought Disaster Upon Its Head

The Japanese hoped for a short war against the US and her allies, with a few severe blows at the outset to bloody the American giant’s nose and let it know that Japan was serious. They would then seize and establish a defensive perimeter far out into the Pacific and Asia, behind which they would wage a defensive war. The Americans, merchants at heart and thus driven by rational cost-benefit calculations, would eventually conclude that the war was not worth the effort, and negotiate a settlement. Things did not turn out that way.

After going on the offensive and winning a series of stunning victories in the war’s first six months, Japan suffered her first major defeat at the Battle of Midway in June, 1942. As the US mobilized for war, its advantages in industry and manpower began to be felt. America treated the Pacific Theater and the war against Japan as secondary to the European theater and the war against Germany. Nonetheless, America’s industrial might allowed her to pour massive resources into the lower priority Pacific Theater that were still greater than anything that Japan could match.

History’s Most Catastrophic Man-made Errors
Part of ‘Murderers’ Row’, 6 American fleet carriers at anchor in Ulithi Atoll in December, 1944. Quora

13. America’s Resources and Industrial Might Were Beyond Anything That Japan’s Rulers Had Imagined

To put in perspective the disparity between Japanese and American resources, we can compare each country’s aircraft carriers. In a mostly naval conflict, in which flattops proved decisive, Japan began the war with 10 carriers. Including what it started with plus what it produced during the war, Japan had a total of 15 large fleet carriers, 5 light carriers, and 5 escort carriers, known as “baby flattops”.

America started the war with 7 carriers. By the time the conflict was over, it had built an additional 160. They included 24 fleet carriers capable of carrying 90 – 110 planes; 9 light carriers capable of carrying up to 35 planes, and about 125 escort carriers capable of carrying 24 – 30 planes. Against such resources, and well-trained and well-equipped men to use them, Japan stood no chance. America went on an irresistible counteroffensive that gathered steam and pace as it went along. By 1945, it was obvious to all but Tokyo’s leadership that Japan had lost the war. The atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki finally forced the Japanese government to face facts, realize that they had brought disaster upon their country, and throw in the towel.

History’s Most Catastrophic Man-made Errors
Chinese soldiers captured by the Japanese. Pinterest

12. China’s Rough Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries

China had a rough nineteenth century, and the twentieth century was no better. From a pinnacle of global wealth and power, the country declined during the 1800s into a powerless giant and a plaything for foreigners to push around and exploit at their pleasure. The 1900s, if anything, were worse. The twentieth century began with a revolution that was promising at first, but eventually produced chaos and widespread – or wider spread – misery.

The imperial dynastic system that had governed China for over 2000 years was overthrown, to be replaced by a modern republic. However, the republic quickly fractured into regions ruled by exploitative warlords, whose abuses were only slightly alleviated by a notoriously corrupt nationalist government that nominally unified much of the country. Then came a foreign war with Japan in which Chinese perished by the tens of millions, and a civil war between the communists and nationalists. The communists won, and finally asserted powerful centralized control that seemed to end the chaos. Until they imposed their own chaos with ambitious but poorly thought-out plans that produced disaster.

History’s Most Catastrophic Man-made Errors
Mao Zedong proclaiming the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. China Org

11. A Tyrant’s Ambitious but Poorly Thought-Out Plan Led to Disaster

China’s communists, led by Mao Zedong, seized power in 1949. Referring to the period of Chinese weakness before their victory as “The Century of Humiliation”, the communists set out to restore the country’s standing as a global power. That could only be accomplished via rapid and massive industrialization. Other countries had industrialized gradually, by accumulating capital and buying heavy machinery. China had neither the time nor the money. Its population was rapidly outstripping the available resources, and it was too poor to accumulate enough capital anytime soon for the massive industrialization necessary.

So Mao and his communist acolytes decided to mobilize China’s vast population. They would use labor-intensive means of industrialization that emphasized manpower, of which China had plenty, instead of machinery and industrial plant, of which China had little. Thus was born the Great Leap Forward in 1958, a revolutionary campaign to rapidly transform China from an agrarian economy into an industrial giant. Unfortunately, Mao’s understanding of economics was faulty, and his expectations were wildly unrealistic. The result was a disaster on a massive scale.

History’s Most Catastrophic Man-made Errors
Propaganda poster extolling the production of steel during The Great Leap Forward. Pinterest

10. The Great Leap Forward’s DIY Home Steel Furnaces

A hallmark of the Great Leap Forward was Mao’s brainstorming about increasing steel production, a benchmark of industrialization. Mao figured that China did not need to wait for the development of infrastructures such as steel plants, or the training of a skilled workforce.

Instead, the intrepid Chinese could produce steel by using blast furnaces in the back of their communes – literal do-it-yourself backyard furnaces. People used whatever fuel they could get their hands on to power the furnaces, from coal to wooden furniture to the wood of coffins. When they lacked iron ore, they melted whatever steel objects they could find to produce steel girders. The results were less than what Mao had hoped.

History’s Most Catastrophic Man-made Errors
Backyard furnaces during The Great Leap Forward. Wikimedia

9. DIY Home Steel Furnaces Turned Out to be a Bad Idea

Making steel is complicated – something that Mao and his fervent followers ignored when they pushed the idea of DIY backyard furnaces. The steel girders produced were of low quality and cracked easily. Technically, what came out of the backyard furnaces was not even steel, but pig iron, which had to get its carbon removed to become steel. In some regions with little metalworking tradition or an understanding of metallurgy, the pig iron produced was too useless to get turned into steel.

The backyard furnace fiasco was not the worst part of the Great Leap Forward, however. Mao and his followers sought to revolutionize China’s countryside, where most of the population toiled as peasants. So they prohibited private farming, and ordered mandatory agricultural collectivization – combining communities’ private plots into big fields, belonging to the entire community. As with Stalin’s collectivization, the result was a disaster – but on a far greater scale.

History’s Most Catastrophic Man-made Errors
Chinese villagers welcome the arrival of tractors during The Great Leap Forward. NPR

8. Mao’s Collectivization Disaster Killed More People Than Stalin’s Collectivization

As with the Soviet Union’s collectivization in the 1930s, China’s collectivization a few decades later rested on the hopes of higher returns from economies of scale. Big collectivized farms in theory should be more efficient and productive than small individual peasant plots. However, poor planning led to poor implementation of China’s collectivization, and the big fields ended up yielding less than private plots. Additionally, the Great Leap Forward emphasized ideological purity and fervor, rather than competence. So collectivization was led by enthusiastic and zealous overseers, instead of capable and competent managers. A series of natural disasters from 1959 to 1961 made things worse.

The result was history’s greatest man-made disaster. By 1960, it was obvious that the Great Leap Forward had been a bad decision, but by then it was too late. Diverting labor from farms to ill-advised industries such as backyard furnaces, plus the disruptions of collectivization, combined to produce a catastrophe. From 1959 to 1962, about 20 million Chinese starved to death, with some estimates going as high as 50 million.

History’s Most Catastrophic Man-made Errors
Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte. Pintrest

7. An Emperor’s Hubris Led to One of History’s Most Stunning Defeats

In 1812, France’s Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte made what turned out to be one of history’s worst decisions. At the start of that year, Napoleon bestrode Europe like a Colossus, and was at the height of his power. Then he invaded Russia with about 658,000 men – at the time, the biggest army ever assembled.

By the end of 1812, Napoleon had endured a catastrophic defeat. He lost most of his army, and began the downward slide that would culminate two years later in his exile to St. Helena. The disaster can be traced back directly to Napoleon’s own hubris and wishful thinking.

History’s Most Catastrophic Man-made Errors
Napoleon’s stepson, Prince Eugene de Beauharnais. Wikimedia

6. Nepotism Set the Stage for a French Disaster

Napoleon’s disaster in Russia was caused by not just one bad decision, but by a whole series of bad decisions. L’Empereur’s first bad decision was his poor choice of subordinates. Napoleon’s strategic goal was to bend Russia’s Tsar to his will by decisively defeating the Russian army as soon as possible. However, Napoleon appointed his unqualified stepson, Prince Eugene de Beauharnais, to a major command. Early in the campaign, Napoleon maneuvered the Russians into a situation that should have forced them to stand their ground and fight the decisive battle that the French emperor sought. Should have, but didn’t: Napoleon’s inexperienced stepson screwed up his part of the plan, which allowed the Russians to escape.

History’s Most Catastrophic Man-made Errors
Napoleon’s Grande Armee crossing the Niemen River at the start of the invasion of Russia. Wikimedia

Napoleon then plunged into Russia, chasing after the Tsar’s army. The Russians retreated for hundreds of miles, refusing to give battle and scorching the countryside behind them. L’Empereur had planned to halt at Smolensk, halfway to Moscow, go into winter quarters, and resume the campaign the following year. Once in Smolensk, however, Napoleon committed his second mistake, by deciding to continue on to Moscow and into the jaws of disaster.

History’s Most Catastrophic Man-made Errors
Napoleon and his staff at the Battle of Borodino. Art Catalog

5. Napoleon Was a Genius, But In 1812 He Kept Piling One Mistake Atop Another

On September 7th, 1812, the retreating Russian army finally turned around to fight Napoleon at Borodino, near Moscow. Napoleon won a tough fight, but not a total victory. At the decisive moment, L’Empereur made his third bad decision by wavering. He refrained from his usual tactic of sending in his elite Imperial Guard, kept in reserve, to finish off the reeling enemy. That prevented the victory from becoming a complete one that could have won the war. The battered Russians were able to retreat, and thus live to fight another day.

Napoleon marched into Moscow, and assumed that the Russians would sue for peace, now that he held their capital. He made his fourth bad decision by waiting in Moscow for Russian peace feelers, as winter drew near. The Russians strung Napoleon along, but no more than he strung himself along with wishful thinking of a negotiated peace long after it became clear that the Russians were not interested. By the time Napoleon accepted that there would be no peace and marched back to Smolensk, it was too late. His unprepared army was caught by winter during the retreat.

History’s Most Catastrophic Man-made Errors
Napoleon and the remnants of his army during the retreat from Moscow. Total War Center

4. “From the Sublime to the Ridiculous Is Only One Step

Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow during winter was made worse by his final bad decision, this one in his choice of route. L’Empereur had the choice of two routes, and ended up taking the one 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 during the retreat, or were killed by Cossacks who harried the rear and flanks of the retreating columns.

Napoleon had marched into Russia with a Grande Armee numbering 685,000 soldiers. 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 disaster, Napoleon commented: “From the sublime to the ridiculous, is only one step“.

History’s Most Catastrophic Man-made Errors
A Japanese soldier training women in 1945 to fight off an expected Allied invasion with sharp sticks. Air Force Magazine

3. The Myth That the Atomic Bombing of Japan Was Unnecessary

After 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 could have blockaded Japan, and the Japanese government would have given in. That might have held water if the war had been confined to Japan itself, where the Japanese could have been isolated. Unfortunately, that was not the case.

History’s Most Catastrophic Man-made Errors
Japanese strength overseas in what was left of the empire on August 15th, 1945, when Japan threw in the towel. US Army Center of Military History

At war’s end, Japan still held an extensive empire in the Pacific and Asia, in which hundreds of millions of conquered subjects 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 Japan was blockaded – and it was – the war still went on elsewhere. Also, the Japanese held hundreds of thousands of Allied POWs, who were daily subjected to brutal treatment. In short, every day the war continued was another day in which millions suffered, and in which thousands more became casualties.

History’s Most Catastrophic Man-made Errors
Churchill, Truman, and Stalin at Potsdam, where a declaration calling for Japan’s unconditional surrender was issued. Deseret News

2. History’s Worst Translation Mistake Led to Disaster for Hundreds of Thousands

Given Japan’s reduced but still great power in 1945, America and her allies correctly treated 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 America went about putting Japan down, and led to the decision to atomically bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki. As such, it might have been the most momentous translation mistake in history. The result was a disaster for hundreds of thousands of innocent Japanese.

History’s Most Catastrophic Man-made Errors
Colonel Paul Tibbets, the Enola Gay’s pilot, waving from the cockpit before taking off for Hiroshima. Wikimedia

1. What’s in a Word?

On July 26th, 1945, the leaders of the US, UK, and the USSR issued the Proclamation Defining Terms for Japanese Surrender, also known as the Potsdam Declaration. It was a blunt statement from America, which had successfully tested the atomic bomb ten days earlier, and her allies, calling for Japan’s surrender. The ultimatum warned Japan that if it did not surrender, it would face “prompt and utter destruction“.

The Declaration’s terms were hotly debated within the Japanese government. Subsequently, Prime Minister Kantaro Suzuki stated at a press conference that Japanese policy towards the Declaration would be one of mokusatsu. It was a Japanese word meaning that he had received the message, and was giving it serious consideration. Unfortunately, Japanese is a subtle language in which the same word could convey a variety of meanings. Another meaning for mokusatsu is to “contemptuously ignore”, and that was the meaning that American translators gave US President Harry Truman. 10 days later, the B-29 bomber Enola Gay flew from Tinian to drop an atomic bomb on Hiroshima.


Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading

Applebaum, Anne – Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine (2017)

Atlantic, The, October 13th, 2017 – How Stalin Hid Ukraine’s Famine From the World

Awesome Stories – Bitter Harvest: Story of the Holodomor

Barnhart, Michael A. – Japan Prepares For Total War: The Search For Economic Security, 1919-1941 (1987)

Caulaincourt, Armand-Augustin-Louis – With Napoleon in Russia (2005 Translation)

Encyclopedia Britannica – The Great Leap Forward

Encyclopedia Britannica – Ukraine, the Famine of 1932 – 1933

History Collection – Little Mistakes from History With Huge Consequences

Gailey, Harry A. – The War in the Pacific: From Pearl Harbor to Tokyo Bay (1995)

Holodomor Victims Memorial – The History of the Holodomor

Kyiv Post, June 1st, 2018 – Honest History, Episode 7: Holodomor Was Genocide Unleashed Against Ukraine

Napoleon.Org – Napoleon’s Russia Campaign

History Collection – 12 World War II Myths That Still Persist Today

New Republic, The, November 21st, 2017 – Why Stalin Starved the Ukraine

NSA, (b)(3)-PL 86-36 – Mokusatsu: One Word, Two Lessons

Pangeanic – The Worst Translation Mistake in History

Timeline – The Deadliest Structural Failure in History Might Have Killed 170,000, and China Tried to Cover it Up

Wikipedia – 1975 Banqiao Dam Failure

History Collection – 10 Major Historical Mistakes That Changed the World Forever

Wikipedia – Backyard Furnace

Wikipedia – Holodomor

World of Chinese – The Blast That Nearly Destroyed Beijing