History’s Most Catastrophic Man-made Errors

History’s Most Catastrophic Man-made Errors

Khalid Elhassan - December 9, 2020

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

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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