Mistakes That Helped Shape U.S. into What it Is Today

Mistakes That Helped Shape U.S. into What it Is Today

Khalid Elhassan - October 16, 2019

Countries, like people, are the sum total of the experiences encountered en route to the present, be such experiences good, bad, or neutrally indifferent. Sometimes we get things right, and sometimes we do not. When we do not, sometimes the mistakes turn out to be insignificant, but other times, they turn out to have a huge impact on us, whether as individuals or as a country. Following are forty things about mistakes that greatly impacted and helped shape America as we know it.

Mistakes That Helped Shape U.S. into What it Is Today
An early Coca-Cola ad. Coca-Cola Company

40. Coca-Cola Failed to Buy Pepsi When it Had the Chance

Pepsi was created in 1893, and for decades, it was a niche drink with a tiny market, nowhere close to getting noticed by Coca-Cola, let alone standing a chance of challenging the soft drink giant. In the 1920s, Charles Guth, president of candy manufacturer Loft Inc., asked Coca-Cola for a discount on its syrup, which was used in the soda fountains of some of his retail stores.

Coca-Cola refused, so when Pepsi entered bankruptcy in 1923, Guth bought it for $10,500 (roughly $175,000 today), and had chemists rework its formula to come as close to Coke as possible. Over the following decade, Pepsi-Cola was offered to the Coca-Cola Company for purchase on various occasions, but the soda giant declined the offer each time. It would regret it.

Mistakes That Helped Shape U.S. into What it Is Today
A 1940s Pepsi ad targeting African Americans, a niche market ignored by Coca-Cola and other white-owned businesses at the time. Dawn

39. Pepsi Emerges As Coke’s Main Rival

Charles Guth turned Pepsi around within two years of buying it, and made it a profitable enterprise. By 1936, Pepsi was selling half a billion bottles a year – the second largest soda company, behind only Coca-Cola. It was right around then that Loft Inc. sued Guth, accusing him of breach of fiduciary duty, and took Pepsi from him in 1939.

Loft then concentrated on Pepsi, and spun off its non-soda businesses in 1941. The brand kept growing, and eventually merged with Frito Lay in 1965, to become PepsiCo. That new company went on to finally eclipse Coke in sales in the 1980s, and in 2005, PepsiCo surpassed the Coca-Cola Company in market value.

Mistakes That Helped Shape U.S. into What it Is Today
Copy of Special Order No. 191, displayed at Crampton’s Gap, Maryland. Wikimedia

38. The Misplaced Papers That Changed the Course of the Civil War

The fall of 1862 was a low point for the US government and for the Union. The year had started promisingly enough, with a campaign that sought to capture Richmond, but a series of mistakes (see entry 16, below) turned that into a fiasco. Then the Confederates under Robert E. Lee dealt the federals a humiliating defeat at the Battle of Second Bull Run, and early in September, Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia invaded Maryland.

Things were looking bleak, with Britain and France on the verge of recognizing the Confederates’ independence, when the Union caught a lucky break. On September 13th, as the Army of the Potomac hurried to catch up with the rebels, Union Corporal Barton Mitchell arrived at a campsite recently vacated by the enemy, and found an envelope with three cigars wrapped in some papers. The papers turned out to be Special Orders No. 191, in which Robert E. Lee spelled out the movements of his forces.

Mistakes That Helped Shape U.S. into What it Is Today
Battle of Antietam. Pintrest

37. The Lost Orders Save the Union

The fortuitously-found Special Orders No. 191 were rocketed up the chain of command, until they reached General George B. McClellan, the Union commander. McClellan was pleasantly surprised to discover that Lee’s army was spread out, and that the Union had a golden opportunity to defeat the rebels’ scattered units one by one, before they had a chance to concentrate. Unfortunately, McClellan was not that good at seizing golden opportunities.

Lee concentrated his army, just in time to fight a major battle at Antietam Creek on September 17th, 1862. The result was the bloodiest day in American history, with a combined tally of over 22,000 dead, wounded, and missing. McClellan had a chance to finish off Lee’s army, but failed to do. Nonetheless, the horrific casualties ended Lee’s Maryland Campaign, and forced him to withdraw to Virginia. The Confederates never came as close again to winning the war as they did that September of 1862.

Mistakes That Helped Shape U.S. into What it Is Today
President Jimmy Carter visiting the Three Mile Island plant’s control room soon after the accident. Wikimedia

36. The Nuclear Meltdown With An Outsize Impact

On March 28th, 1979, reactor number two of the Three Mile Island Nuclear Generating Station in Dauphin County, Pennsylvania, experienced an accident. First, the plant’s non-nuclear secondary systems experienced some problems, then a relief valve in the primary system got stuck open.

Between mechanical failures, poor personnel training, and human errors, there was a partial meltdown, leading to a radiation leak. However, it took two days before government officials informed nearby residents to stay indoors and keep their doors and windows tightly shut to avoid inhaling potentially contaminated air. As seen below, the accident effectively doomed the future of nuclear energy in the US.

Mistakes That Helped Shape U.S. into What it Is Today
Anti-nuclear protesters near Three Mile Island, one year after the meltdown. Getty Images

35. Three Mile Island Stopped the Growth of American Nuclear Energy

The Three Mile Island meltdown was alarming. Cleanup lasted until 1993, cost over a billion dollars, and residents nearby were worried about the exposure’s impact on their health. However, various studies in and around the area since the meltdown only found a statistically insignificant small increase in cancer rates, and no causal connection between the accident and those cancers.

The greatest impact was turning the American public against nuclear energy. In some Developed Countries, such as France, nuclear energy accounts for over 70% of electricity, and other European countries get 25% to 55% of their energy from nuclear plants. In the US, that figure today is about 19%. Before the Three Mile Island meltdown, we were on track to get a steadily growing share of energy from nuclear, but the meltdown halted that growth.

Mistakes That Helped Shape U.S. into What it Is Today
Percy Spencer. Mass Moments

34. The Accident That Revolutionized American Eating Habits

Percy Spencer (1894 – 1970) was not highly educated – he quit school in fifth grade – but that did not stop him from patenting inventions that contributed to America’s victory in WWII. Nor did it stop him from inventing the microwave oven. As an MIT scientist put it: “The educated scientist knows many things won’t work. Percy doesn’t know what can’t be done“.

Spencer dropped out of school in fifth grade to work in a mill. In his teens, he became fascinated by the then-new phenomenon of electricity, and became an electrician. He joined the US Navy at 18, made himself an expert on radio technology, and by 1939, he was one of the world’s leading experts in radar tube design. It was that expertise that got Spencer to (accidentally) invent the microwave oven.

Mistakes That Helped Shape U.S. into What it Is Today
Raytheon’s first commercially successful microwave oven, the Radar Range III, which debuted in 1955. IEEE Spectrum

33. A Melted Chocolate Bar Leads to the Invention of the Microwave Oven

When America joined WWII, Percy Spencer was working for defense contractor Raytheon as head of its power tube division. His expertise earned Raytheon contracts to produce radars for the military – the second highest priority after the Manhattan Project. One day, while standing in front of an active radar, Spencer noticed that a chocolate bar in his pocket had melted.

He investigated, and began experimenting with food, including popcorn – resulting in the world’s first microwaved popcorn. He eventually attached an electromagnetic field generator to an enclosed box, and thus created the world’s first microwave oven, which Raytheon patented in 1945. Spencer’s only reward was a one-time $2 gratuity from Raytheon, a standard token payment the company paid all inventors on its payroll back then.

Mistakes That Helped Shape U.S. into What it Is Today
George Armstrong Custer, circa 1865. Wikimedia

32. The Civil War Prodigy Who Came to a Boneheaded Ending

George Armstrong Custer (1839 – 1876) was a military version of Doogie Howser, MD. He graduated from West Point in 1861 at the bottom of his class, but went on to prove himself a cavalry prodigy during the Civil War. He became one of that conflict’s “Boy Generals” when he was brevetted as a brigadier at age 23.

After the war, Custer’s rank came back down to earth, and he had to make do with being a lieutenant colonel. For years, Custer’s career languished, but he was an ambitious drama queen, with a constant itch to regain the celebrity status of his Civil War days. Trying to scratch that itch in foolhardy ways ended up dooming him and hundreds of his men to an ignominious end.

Mistakes That Helped Shape U.S. into What it Is Today
Little Bighorn. Wartime

31. Custer Gets Himself And Everybody Around Him Killed

In 1876, the US government sought to seize the Black Hills in the Dakotas, where gold had recently been discovered, from the Sioux and Cheyenne tribes. However, the Native Americans refused to give way. So the Army was despatched, with Custer and his 7th Cavalry Regiment sent out on a scouting sweep. On June 25th, 1876, her came across a large Sioux village on the Little Bighorn River, and he saw it as a golden opportunity to gain military glory.

Failing to adequately scout, Custer catastrophically underestimated the strength of his enemy and divided his men in the hopes of surrounding the Natives. He might have imagined his force as wolves falling on a flock of sheep, but given the disparity in numbers, it was more like mice charging a buffalo. The Sioux and their allies, led by Crazy Horse and Chief Gall, counter-charged, chased Custer and his contingent, then surrounded and annihilated them. It was the worst defeat ever dealt the US Army by Native Americans.

Mistakes That Helped Shape U.S. into What it Is Today
The McMartin preschool. New York Times

30. The 1980s Child Abuse Hysteria That Devastated Innocents

In 1983, Ray Buckley, an employee of the McMartin preschool in Manhattan Beach, California, was accused by a mentally unstable woman of raping her child. The accuser added that people in the preschool had sex with animals; that Ray Buckey’s mother and preschool owner Peggy McMartin had perforated a child under the arm with a power drill; and that “Ray flew in the air”.

The cops were skeptical, but they nonetheless sent a letter to other McMartin parents, asking them to question their children about abuse at the school. As parents talked to their children and other parents, other allegations of sexual abuse began trickling in. Soon, the accusations had turned into a flood of wild, weird, and increasingly incredible stuff that stretched credulity amidst a mass hysteria of false accusations.

Mistakes That Helped Shape U.S. into What it Is Today
The McMartin preschool. Investigation Discovery

29. Bizarre Allegations Invite a Flood of Even More Bizarre Accusations

As the tales of the goings on in the McMartin preschool grew weirder and weirder, social workers were brought in to gather more information. Between incompetence and leading questions, the children’s accusations grew steadily wilder and more bizarre. In addition to being molested by Ray Buckey and his mother Peggy McMartin, the children alleged satanic rites, during which they were forced to drink the blood of a baby that was sacrificed in church.

The kids also said that they saw witches fly, and that they had been abused in a hot air balloon and in (nonexistent) tunnels beneath the preschool. One child even claimed to have been sexually molested by actor Chuck Norris. Other children added that, after being abused in secret rooms, they were flushed down toilets, then cleaned up and presented to their parents.

Mistakes That Helped Shape U.S. into What it Is Today
Ray Buckey and his mother, Peggy McMartin, at their trial. How Stuff Works

28. The Weirder the McMartin Preschool Accusations Got, The More They Were Believed

Although the McMartin preschool accusations were incredible, they were believed. At the time, America was gripped by widespread fears of ritual sexual abuse of children, connected in some way to satanic worship and dark magic rites. With elections drawing near, ambitious Los Angeles District Attorney Ira Reiner sought to capitalize on the mounting public hysteria, and slapped Ray Buckey and his mother Peggy McMartin with 208 counts of child molestation.

Mother and son were arrested in 1984, and the investigation lasted until 1987, when they were put through a 3 year trial, which lasted from 1987 to 1990. It was the longest and most expensive criminal trial in American history. It ended with Peggy McMartin acquitted of all charges, while Ray Buckey was acquitted of 52 of 65 charges, with the jury deadlocked on the remaining counts, 10 to 2 in favor of acquittal. Those charges were then dropped, and the mass hysteria and subsequent trial concluded without a single conviction.

Mistakes That Helped Shape U.S. into What it Is Today
KGB logo. Wikimedia

27. US Intelligence Misses Numerous Clues About a Major Mole in Their Midst

Central Intelligence Agency official Aldrich Ames rose to high rank within the agency’s Soviet and East European division, which gave him access to sensitive information. He decided to cash in on that by turning traitor, and sold his services to the KGB as a deep mole within their enemy’s camp. Before long, Ames became one of the Soviet Union’s, and later Russia’s, most effective double agents in the US.

He was helped by numerous mistakes, as the CIA kept missing – and sometimes ignoring – glaring clues that all was not right with Ames, the son of a CIA analyst whose family connection paved the way for his joining the agency in 1962. Notwithstanding heavy drinking, drunken run-ins with the police and drunken brawls in public with foreign diplomats, and sloppiness that once led him to forget secret documents in an NYC subway car, Ames rose steadily through the CIA’s ranks.

Mistakes That Helped Shape U.S. into What it Is Today
CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia. Library of Congress

26. Ames Begins His Career as a Traitor

Aldrich Ames spent a stint in Turkey recruiting Soviet spies in the 1960s, before returning to the US in the 1970s. He was posted to Mexico in the early 1980s, where he met his second wife, a Colombian whom he had recruited. They wed in 1985, and that same year, the couple began selling secrets to the KGB. During their run of treason, which lasted until they were finally unmasked in 1994, Ames and his wife were paid over $2.7 million by the Soviets, and after 1991, the Russians.

There were warnings aplenty, but they were ignored. They included conspicuous consumption and extravagant spending; a big $520,000 house paid for in cash; luxury vacations; premium credit cards whose minimum monthly payment exceeded Ames’ salary; and luxury cars that stood out in the CIA’s parking lot. Those were things that no honest public servant could afford on government pay, but no suspicions were aroused for years.

Mistakes That Helped Shape U.S. into What it Is Today
Aldrich Ames. Documentary Tube

25. The CIA Turns A Blind Eye to Aldrich Ames’ Activities

When suspicions were belatedly aroused, it still took years – until 1993 – before Aldrich Ames’ employers took a serious look. In the meantime, he had passed two polygraphs while spying. Ames needed no high tech means or complicated capers: he simply stuffed whatever documents he wanted to give his KGB and FSB handlers in a briefcase or in trash bags, and brazenly carried them out of the CIA headquarters at the end of the workday, without anybody questioning him.

As a result, at least 12 CIA spies in the Soviet Union were captured, of whom 10 were executed. By the time Ames was finally unmasked, he and his wife had revealed to the Soviets and Russians the identity of every CIA spy operating in their country. After his arrest in 1994, he cut a deal with prosecutors that spared him the death penalty, and ensured that his wife got no more than five years behind bars. He is currently serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole.

Mistakes That Helped Shape U.S. into What it Is Today
Washington Crossing the Delaware. Metropolitan Museum of Art

24. The Mistake That Saved the American Revolution

As 1776 drew to a close, the Patriots’ bid for independence was not going well. They had been outgeneralled, outfought, and soundly beaten, most notably in New York City, where only a near-miraculous escape had saved them from annihilation. Morale was low, so George Washington planned a surprise raid to score a quick victory and restore some confidence. He was helped by the opposing commander’s mistake in not bothering to read a warning alerting him to what the Americans were up to.

From Pennsylvania, Washington sought to cross the Delaware River, and suddenly descend upon and destroy Hessian mercenaries in Trenton, New Jersey. On the night of December 25th – 26th, cold, hungry, and demoralized Americans got into boats on a freezing night, made even more miserable by driving sleet. Bad weather and icy river conditions prevented two detachments from crossing, so Washington made it to the far bank with only 2400 men – 3000 fewer than planned for.

Mistakes That Helped Shape U.S. into What it Is Today
‘The Capture of the Hessians at Trenton, December 26, 1776’, by John Trumbull. Yale Art Gallery

23. The Hessian Commander Who Let Himself Get Caught Off Guard

Fortunately for George Washington and his men, they were unopposed as they marched 9 miles to Trenton without alerting the enemy. Early on December 26th, 1776, the Americans surprised the Hessians. In a swift victory, Washington’s men killed, wounded, and captured about a thousand foes, for the loss of only two dead and five wounded. The Hessian commander, Johann Rall, was mortally wounded.

In Rall’s pocket was discovered a note from a Loyalist farmer, who had spotted the approaching Americans and sent a warning. Fortunately, Rall had not read the warning, and the note was still unopened when it was recovered. Trenton was a small battle, but one with far-reaching consequences. It inspired the Patriots when they needed a morale boost, saved their army from disintegration by attracting new recruits, and stemmed the tide of desertions by convincing many veterans to stick around.

Mistakes That Helped Shape U.S. into What it Is Today
A medieval map. Beyond Foreignness

22. The Americas Were Discovered Because of a Math Mistake

Christopher Columbus thought he was less than 3000 miles away from Japan when he sailed westward from Spain in 1492. Not much further past Japan, he would reach the Indies, with their rich spice trade. In reality, Japan is about 12,000 miles away from Spain, not 3000. Columbus thought it was much closer because he erred in calculating the size of the globe, and concluded it was far smaller than it actually is.

Contrary to myth, neither Columbus nor his crew feared that they might fall off the edge of the world. The Ancient Greeks knew the earth was a globe two millennia earlier, and educated people and sailors in Columbus’ day had no illusions about the earth being flat. The issue for Columbus was not the shape of the earth, but the size of the ocean he planned on crossing. In addition to screwing up the calculations, he did not know that an unknown continental landmass lay between Spain and Asia.

Mistakes That Helped Shape U.S. into What it Is Today
Christopher Columbus. History

21. Turns Out the World Was Bigger Than Columbus Calculated

Columbus reached the Caribbean, whose islands he believed were the western outskirts of Asia, so he named them the West Indies. In subsequent voyages, he explored the Caribbean and the northern coast of South America. When not exploring, he was the governor and viceroy of the Caribbean. In that capacity, he brutally treated, enslaved, and decimated the native population, whom he incorrectly labeled Indians.

To his dying day, Columbus insisted that he had reached Asia. Ironically, the New World discovered by Columbus ended up named after another Italian explorer, Amerigo Vespucci. Amerigo mapped the eastern shore of South America down to Brazil, and demonstrated conclusively that what Columbus had reached was not Asia, but a hitherto unknown world. A German mapmaker labeled the New World “America” after Amerigo. His maps were quite popular during the 1500, so the name America spread and stuck.

Mistakes That Helped Shape U.S. into What it Is Today
Mark 14 Torpedo. Pacific War Online Encyclopedia

20. Stubbornly Conservative Admirals Doomed Many American Submariners

The Mark 14 Torpedo, designed in 1931, was the standard weapon of American submarines when the US entered WWII in 1941. Unlike earlier torpedoes which detonated on impact with a ship’s hull, the Mark 14 had an advanced magnetic detonator that was supposed to set off the explosive charge directly beneath the enemy’s keel and break its back – fatal damage to any ship.

The concept was good, as it meant that just one Mark 14 could sink an enemy ship, regardless of size, unlike its predecessors which frequently required multiple torpedoes. However, secrecy and frugality led to the live testing of only two torpedoes – and one of the two was a failure. A 50% failure rate did not prompt the Navy to conduct further testing, or stop it from approving the Mark 14 and issuing it to the US submarine fleet in 1938.

Mistakes That Helped Shape U.S. into What it Is Today
The magnetic exploder used in the Mark 14 failing to go off, and the torpedo continuing past its target in one of the two (and sole) live fire tests before WWII. Wikimedia

19. The Mark 14 Torpedo’s Flaws Emerge At the Worst Possible Time

The US Navy’s failure to further examine the Mark 14 Torpedo despite a 50% test failure rate led to tragedy, as the torpedo’s flaws became glaringly apparent after war broke out. Within the first month of hostilities submarine commanders correctly reported that the Mark 14 had serious problems.

It had trouble maintaining accurate depth. The magnetic detonator often detonated prematurely or did not detonate at all. The contact detonator frequently failed to set off the torpedo, even when striking a hull at a perfect angle. Worst of all, the Mark 14 had an unfortunate tendency to boomerang, missing its target and running in a wide circle to come back and strike the firing submarine.

Mistakes That Helped Shape U.S. into What it Is Today
US Navy Bureau of Ordnance personnel inspecting a Mark 14 Torpedo in 1943. National Interest

18. Navy Higher-Ups Ignore Their Torpedo’s Flaws

US Navy higher-ups in charge of ordnance ignored numerous reports from submarine commanders complaining about the Mark 14. In one incident, a submarine’s skipper fired two spreads totaling a dozen torpedoes at a large Japanese whaler, but only managed to cripple it. Then, with the enemy ship dead in the water, he maneuvered his submarine and carefully positioned it so his torpedoes would have a perfect angle of impact, then fired off 9 more Mark 14s. Not a single one detonated.

Despite a flood of complaints about the Mark 14’s shortcomings, it took the Navy two years from the start of hostilities to acknowledge the possibility that a problem might exist, and to conduct tests to find out what, if anything, was wrong. The tests verified what American submariners had been complaining about, and remedial steps to address the problems were finally begun.

Mistakes That Helped Shape U.S. into What it Is Today
George B. McClellan. Wikimedia

17. The General Who Snatched Defeat From the Jaws of Victory by Mistaking His Enemy’s Strength

Union General George B. McClellan was a great organizer, but he was no fighter and was excessively cautious. In March of 1862, McClellan outflanked the Confederate main army in Northern Virginia by landing 121,000 men on the Virginia Peninsula to the south, between the James and York rivers. The goal was to march up the Peninsula and capture Richmond before the Confederates had time to rush in reinforcements to protect their capital.

Things went smoothly at first, as McClellan successfully disembarked with no difficulty, and began marching to Richmond. The only opposition standing between his forces and Richmond were 12,000 Confederates at Yorktown, commanded by John B. Magruder. Outnumbered 10 to 1 by Union forces, Magruder realized that he stood no chance in a fight. So to buy time until reinforcements arrived, he set out to trick McClellan into slowing down by exaggerating Confederate strength. McClellan swallowed Magruder’s con, hook, line, and sinker.

Mistakes That Helped Shape U.S. into What it Is Today
John B. Magruder. Calisphere

16. McClellan Lets Himself Get Bamboozled

Unfortunately for the Union and fortunately for the Confederates, Magruder, who was known before the war for his florid manner, theatrics, and ostentatious displays, was the right man in the right place at the right time. In the spring of 1862, he turned to theatrics and display to put on a show and trick McClellan into believing that he faced far stronger opposition than was actually the case.

Taking advantage of the small Warwick River which separated him from the advancing Union forces, Magruder set out to convince McClellan that its 14-mile length on the opposite bank was heavily fortified and strongly garrisoned. While the fortifications were real, Magruder lacked the men to occupy them in any strength that could have stopped McClellan had he attacked.

Mistakes That Helped Shape U.S. into What it Is Today
The Warwick Line and Siege of Yorktown. Wikimedia

15. The Confederate Con

Magruder ordered his men to create a ruckus and din, with drumrolls and cheering in woods behind the lines, to fool their foes into believing there were far more Confederates in the vicinity than was the case. He also used the same column of men over and over, marching them within sight of the federals to take up positions on the defensive line, then slipping them away outside the Union observers’ line of sight. He then reassembled in column, and marched them again to the defensive line to take up defensive positions once more.

Magruder’s theatrics convinced McClellan that the Confederate positions were too strong for a frontal attack – a task made easier by McClellan’s readiness to believe himself outnumbered. On April 5th, 1862, the Union commander ordered a halt on his side of the Warwick River, had his men dig in, and set out to conduct a siege when he could have simply bulled through, swatted Magruder aside, and seized Richmond.

Mistakes That Helped Shape U.S. into What it Is Today
A field hospital with weary and wounded Union men in the aftermath of the Seven Days Battle. Encyclopedia Britannica

14. McClellan Misses the Chance to Capture Richmond

For a good month, McClellan methodically prepared his army for a huge attack to break through Magruder’s supposedly “strong defenses”. The Union commander concentrated men, guns, and munitions for a massive bombardment scheduled for May 5th, 1862, followed by an overwhelming attack. His opponent had other plans.

Having already bought his side a month to prepare the defense of Richmond, Magruder slipped away on the night of May 3rd, 1862, leaving behind empty trenches for his enemy to occupy. McClellan resumed his advance on Richmond, but by then the Confederates had concentrated sufficient forces to thwart him. The Union forces were halted, then pushed back to their starting point with furious attacks during the Seven Days Battles, which brought McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign came to an ignominious end.

Mistakes That Helped Shape U.S. into What it Is Today
General William Hull. Alchetron

13. The American Hero Who Got Bamboozled Into Surrender

Soon after the War of 1812 began, British general Isaac Brock marched on the American-held Fort Detroit. Brock had 1330 men, comprised of 330 Redcoats, 400 Canadian militia, and 600 Native Americans, supported by 3 light guns, 5 heavy guns, 2 mortars, and 2 warships. His target was garrisoned by a force nearly twice as big as his own, comprised of 600 US Army regulars and nearly 2000 militia. The Americans were sheltered within the protective walls of a fortress bristling with over 36 cannons, and were commanded by an American Revolutionary War veteran and hero, General William Hull.

Brock learned from captured messages that American morale was low, that the garrison was short of supplies, and that his enemies were in mortal fear of his Native American allies. Emboldened by that information, Brock decided to immediately attack Detroit. Playing upon American fear of Indians, he arranged for a misleading letter to fall into American hands, which greatly exaggerated the number of his Native allies from an actual 600 to a fanciful 5000.

Mistakes That Helped Shape U.S. into What it Is Today
General Isaac Brock. Legislative Assembly of Ontario

12. Getting Hull to Mistakenly Believe He Was Outnumbered

British general Isaac Brock tricked the Americans into believing that he had more regulars under his command than was the case, by dressing up his Canadian militia in castoff British regimental uniforms. Outside Detroit, he had the same troops march in a loop over the same stretch within eyesight of the garrison, duck out of sight, then return to march anew as if they were fresh reinforcements. Brock also ordered his troops to light 5 times as many fires at night than was the norm, in order to further convey an illusion of greater strength.

General Hull’s already low confidence collapsed at the prospect of facing a strong British army accompanied by 5000 Native Americans. Brock then sent a message demanding surrender, informing Hull that he did not want to massacre the defenders, but that he would have little control over his Indian allies once fighting commenced.

Mistakes That Helped Shape U.S. into What it Is Today
General Hull in Fort Detroit. Imgur

11. Hull Falls For the British Trick

The British deception worked, and the American commander decided it was futile to resist. General Hull was unwilling to sacrifice his men against what he mistakenly believed to be hopeless odds. He also feared for the women in children in the Fort, including his own daughter and grandchild. So he raised a white flag and asked Brock for three days to negotiate the terms of surrender.

Brock gave him only three hours before he would attack. Hull caved in, and surrendered his entire command of nearly 2500 men, three dozen cannons, 300 rifles, 2500 muskets, and the only American warship in the Upper Lakes. The British cost was 2 men wounded.

Mistakes That Helped Shape U.S. into What it Is Today
General Hull’s surrender. What Happened Today in History

10. The Far-Reaching Consequences of Hull’s Mistake

General Hull’s surrender of Fort Detroit derailed American plans to invade and seize Canada early in the war, before the British had time to rush in reinforcements. It reinvigorated the Canadians, who had been pessimistic about the prospects of preventing forcible annexation by the US, and fired up Native Americans to war against US outposts and settlers.

An American invasion of Canada was attempted later on, but by then the British and loyal Canadians were better prepared and more confident, and the invasion was beaten back. As to general Hull, after his release from British captivity, he was tried, convicted, and sentenced to be shot. However, his life was spared out of consideration for his heroism decades earlier during the American Revolution.

Mistakes That Helped Shape U.S. into What it Is Today
Battle of Leyte Gulf map, with Japanese moves in red. Wikimedia

9. The Mistake That Handed America a Great Victory

History’s biggest naval engagement was the Battle of Leyte Gulf, October 23 – 26, 1944. During the battle, American defenders showed sublime courage and committed heroic acts of self-sacrifice. Nonetheless, Leyte Gulf would have ended in an American disaster if not for a crucial mistake by the Japanese commander, who ended up snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

The battle was the culmination of a complex Japanese plan, featuring many moving parts and attacks from various directions. Collectively, they were intended to draw off the main American fleet guarding the American landings at Leyte Gulf, and send it on wild goose chase. At that point, a powerful Japanese naval force would fall upon the unprotected Leyte Gulf, and devastate the Americans there.

Mistakes That Helped Shape U.S. into What it Is Today
American forces landing on Leyte. Encyclopedia Britannica

8. Leyte Gulf Started Great For the Japanese, and Looked Super Dicey for the US

The Japanese deception plan actually worked. Japanese aircraft carriers were dangled as decoys for Admiral William F. Halsey, whose powerful 3rd Fleet was guarding the amphibious landings at Leyte. Halsey took the bait and steamed off with his powerful fleet to sink them, without telling anybody. He left behind a small force of escort carriers and destroyer escorts that had been repurposed for ground attack and support duties, and which had had little in the way of anti-ship weapons.

While Halsey was off chasing the Japanese decoys, a powerful fleet of 23 Japanese battleships and heavy cruisers, including the world’s most powerful battleship, the 18.1 inch gun Yamato, showed up north of Leyte Gulf. It steamed towards the American landing sites, under the command of admiral Kurita. The Americans were caught by surprise, as it was assumed that Halsey was in the north guarding against attack from that direction.

Mistakes That Helped Shape U.S. into What it Is Today
American light aircraft carrier Princeton during the Battle of Leyte Gulf. Wikimedia

7. The Tiny Force Between the Japanese and Victory

The only thing standing between the Japanese and a massacre of the Americans at Leyte Gulf was an underwhelming collection of escort carriers and destroyer escorts. The northernmost American contingent, which first came in contact with the Japanese, was known as “Taffy 3”. It consisted of 7 destroyers and destroyer escorts nicknamed “tin cans” for their lack of protection, under the command of rear admiral Clifton Sprague.

Sprague knew that his destroyers’ 5 inch guns stood no chance against the 23 armored Japanese battleships and cruisers steaming towards Leyte Gulf. He also knew that thousands of Americans would die if the Japanese reached the unprotected ships in Leyte. So Sprague ordered Taffy 3 into a suicidal charge.

Mistakes That Helped Shape U.S. into What it Is Today
Taffy 3 destroyers laying a smoke screen under fire. Pintrest

6. Kurita Chickens Out

The American “tin can” destroyers’ desperate attacks at Leyte Gulf were supported by planes flown from escort carriers, which made strafing attacks, or dropped high explosives suitable for ground attack but mostly useless against the Japanese ships. When the American planes ran out of ammunition, they continued to brave Japanese antiaircraft fire by making dry strafing and bombing runs, just to discomfit the enemy.

So reckless and incessant were those gadfly attacks that the Japanese admiral lost his nerve. Kurita convinced himself that the opposition he faced was far stronger than it actually was, and must be the first outer layer of a powerful US naval presence. So Kurita, who had an overwhelming victory in his grasp had he simply steamed on for another hour to bring his heavy guns within range of Leyte, turned his ships around and sailed away. In so doing, he gifted the Americans in Leyte Gulf with a miraculous reprieve.

Mistakes That Helped Shape U.S. into What it Is Today
Cuban exiles training in preparation for the Bay of Pigs Invasion. Getty Images

5. Mistake in Setting Clocks Leads to Disaster

Failing to correctly set the time, like when daylight savings come around or roll away, can lead to minor inconveniences, say, showing up for work an hour late or an hour early. Failing to correctly set the time when there’s fighting to do, however, can lead to disaster. Such was the case in the spring of 1961, as American-trained Cuban exiles readied themselves to overthrow Fidel Castro.

The Cuban exiles were convinced – or more accurately, they convinced themselves – that when they landed in Cuba, they would be supported by the US Air Force, with the US Marines right behind them. The aerial cover actually promised the Cuban exiles by the CIA was support from 16 WWII-era B-26 medium bombers, flying out of bases in Nicaragua. However, that number was halved to 8 bombers when the new president, JFK, insisted that the operation be kept minimal.

Mistakes That Helped Shape U.S. into What it Is Today
Some of the B-26 bombers used in the Bay of Pigs fiasco. CIA

4. Failure to Account For Time Zones Drives the Final Nail Into a Doomed Endeavor’s Coffin

On April 17th, 1961, Cuban exiles landed on the Bay of Pigs, but the 8 B-26s turned out to be woefully inadequate support. Pinned down, with their backs to the sea, no means of retreat, and no chance of advancing into Cuba’s interior, the invaders were cut to pieces. The invasion had failed, but on the following day, JFK made a final gesture. With Castro’s forces now on full alert, any follow-up strikes by the B-26s would require fighter protection.

Mistakes That Helped Shape U.S. into What it Is Today
Cuban exiles captured in the Bay of Pigs Invasion. Getty Images

So the president authorized 6 fighter jets from the aircraft carrier USS Essex to fly cover over the Bay of Pigs for an hour on April 18th, to protect the B-26s as they carried out another strike. However, the invasion, which had already gone from failure to fiasco, was destined to conclude with a farce. The rendezvous between the carrier jets and the B-26s was missed, because the Pentagon had failed to factor in the one-hour time zone difference between the bombers’ base in Nicaragua and Cuba.

Mistakes That Helped Shape U.S. into What it Is Today
Churchill, Truman, and Stalin at Potsdam, where they jointly issued a declaration calling for Japan’s unconditional surrender. Atomic Heritage

3. A Simple Error Led to America’s Use of Atomic Bombs Against Japan

America is the only country to have ever used atomic weapons in war, and it all might have been the result of a misunderstanding. There is a myth that the atomic bombing of Japan was unnecessary because Japan was about to surrender. Supposedly, the Allies simply had to blockade Japan, and the Japanese government would have given in. That might have been true if the war had been confined to the Japanese home islands, where the Japanese could have been isolated. Unfortunately, that was not the case.

At the war’s end, Japan still held an extensive empire in the Pacific and Asia, in which hundreds of millions were forced to endure a brutal occupation. Additionally, millions of Japanese soldiers were still fighting Allied forces in China, Burma, and in the Pacific. Whether or not the Japanese homeland was blockaded, the war still went on beyond Japan. Also, the Japanese held hundreds of thousands of Allied POWs, and treated them barbarically.

Mistakes That Helped Shape U.S. into What it Is Today
Little Boy, the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. Wikimedia

2. Japanese Intransigence Sets The Stage for a Tragic Mistake

Every day the war continued was another day in which millions suffered, and in which thousands more became casualties. In the meantime, the Japanese government, run by militarists hopped up on bushido and machismo, vowed to fight to the end. So America correctly saw Japan as a formidable foe that was inflicting significant harm every day, and that would continue to do so indefinitely if not stopped.

In short, Japan was a menace that needed putting down ASAP. However, a simple mistake in translation might have determined when and how the US went about putting Japan down, and led to the decision to drop the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. As such, it might have been the most momentous translation mistake in history.

Mistakes That Helped Shape U.S. into What it Is Today
Translation of leaflet dropped on Japanese cities after atomic bombing. Harry S. Truman Library

1. The Momentous Translation Error

It began with the Proclamation Defining Terms for Japanese Surrender, also known as the Potsdam Declaration, which was issued by the Allies on July 26th, 1945. America, which had successfully tested the atomic bomb ten days earlier, along with her allies, issued a blunt ultimatum, warning Japan that if it did not surrender, it would face “prompt and utter destruction“.

The terms were hotly debated within the Japanese government. Subsequently, Prime Minister Kantaro Suzuki stated that Japanese policy towards the Potsdam Declaration would be one of “mokusatsu“. That Japanese word meant 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 various meanings. Another meaning for mokusatsu is to “contemptuously ignore”, and that was the meaning the translators gave President Harry Truman. 10 days later, an atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima.


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

American Battlefield Trust – Battle of Yorktown, Facts & Summary

Antietam on the Web – Special Order 191: Perhaps the Greatest ‘What If’ of American Military History

Catton, Bruce – Mr. Lincoln’s Army (1951)

Daily Beast – What Fueled the Child Sex Abuse Scandal That Never Was?

Defense Media Network – The Mark 14 Torpedo Scandal

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

Encyclopedia Britannica – Battle of Trenton

History News Network – Failures of the Presidents: JFK’s Bay of Pigs Disaster

Hornfischer, James D. – The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors: The Extraordinary World War II Story of the US Navy’s Finest Hour (2005)

Maas, Peter – Killer Spy: The Inside Story of the FBI’s Pursuit and Capture of Aldrich Ames, America’s Deadliest Spy (1995)

Motley Fool – How Coke Helped Create Pepsi, and Other Historic Market Moments

History Collection – Little Mistakes from History With Huge Consequences

New England Historical Society – Percy Spencer Melts a Chocolate Bar, Invents the Microwave Oven

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

Nuclear Regulatory Commission – Backgrounder on the Three Mile Island Accident

Ranker – Mistakes That Created Modern America

Smithsonian Magazine, October 2009 – Columbus’ Confusion About the New World

Wikipedia – Pepsi

Wikipedia – Siege of Detroit