Terrible Schemes that Governments and People Have Tried

Terrible Schemes that Governments and People Have Tried

Khalid Elhassan - November 1, 2019

Most brainstorms come nowhere near to producing useful and practical ideas. Indeed, if we are honest with ourselves, most brainstorms result in what, upon closer inspection, often turn out to be brain farts that should be left alone. Sometimes, however, those stinkers are not subjected to close inspection, or are not inspected at all. As a result, terrible ideas end up getting taken seriously, with sometimes embarrassing, or even catastrophic, results. Following are twenty things about historic brainstorms of the bad kind, that led to harebrained schemes, poorly thought-out plans, and assorted craziness.

Terrible Schemes that Governments and People Have Tried
Feral rabbits in the Australian Outback. Rabbit Free Australia

20. The British Introduce Rabbits to Australia

In hindsight, few ideas have been as hare-brained as that of the British introducing hares and rabbits to Australia, and deliberately releasing them into the wild to breed like, well… rabbits and hares. Looking back at it today, knowing what we now know about the harmful effects of messing with local environments and ecologies, it seems incredible that the British deliberately released breeding rabbits into the Australian Outback. Equally or even more incredible is the train of logic that got them there: as a food source, which was shortsighted but understandable, and as prey to hunt for fun, which was bonkers.

Australia was initially seen by the British as a convenient dumping ground for convicts. For generations, the American Colonies had served that role, but that outlet was foreclosed after America’s independence. Understandably, the new republic was not eager to go on accepting shiploads of jailbirds. So the British began transporting their convicts to Australia, which had been recently explored by Captain Cook. Ever eager to economize, the British authorities shipped rabbits along with the convicts, as a rapidly breeding food source. Eventually, some rich settlers released rabbits and hares into the wild for hunting sport. As seen below, the results were disastrous.

Terrible Schemes that Governments and People Have Tried
The Rabbit-Proof Fence that wasn’t. Pintrest

19. Australia Ends Up Overrun With Rabbits

Rabbits, which are not native to Australia, did not face as wide and lethal a variety of predators to keep their population in check Down Under as was the case in their native habitats. So from cute and cuddly and sometimes delicious animals, they morphed in Australia into feral and invasive pests that devastated much of their new home. As early as the 1820s, settlers were complaining of rabbits overrunning the place. By the 1860s, between the disappearance of many natural predators, mild seasons allowing for year-round breeding, and natural selection producing a hardier breed of wild rabbits, their population exploded.

Terrible Schemes that Governments and People Have Tried
A prescient cartoon depicting the anticipated impact of the Rabbit-Proof Fence. The rabbits did not learn to play tennis, but they did hop over and burrow beneath the fence. Wikimedia

By 1920, there were an estimated 10 billion feral rabbits hopping around Australia. They competed with livestock for pasture, ate crops, and stripped the soil of vegetation. The latter is particularly problematic, as Australia has the most vulnerable soil and the most susceptible to erosion of all the continents, except for Antarctica. For over a century, Australia has struggled to control its rabbit population, with measures that included shooting, poisoning, and infecting pests with epidemic diseases. The most conspicuous measure though was and remains fencing, ranging from fences around individual farms and pastures, to massive fences stretching for hundreds of miles, such as Western Australia’s Rabbit-Proof Fence. The latter failed to live up to its name: rabbits jumped over and burrowed beneath it.

Terrible Schemes that Governments and People Have Tried
A European Red Fox preying upon a native Australian marsupial. Fox Scan

18. The British Introduce Foxes to Australia for Sport Hunting

As early as the 1820s, it was becoming clear to all and sundry in Australia – if settlers’ complaints and newspaper editorials were anything to go by – that releasing rabbits into the Outback had been a huge mistake. Yet, the evidence hopping all over the place, that releasing a non-native species into a new environment might produce unintended negative consequences, was not enough. As early as 1833, European Red Foxes were released into the Australian wild so they could breed. Why? To allow upper-class settlers to engage in the traditional English “sport” of fox hunting.

Within two decades of their introduction, fox populations had exploded, and they were declared pests. Throughout much of Australia – with the notable exception of Tasmania, where they were out-competed by the native Tasmanian Devil – foxes became apex predators. They hunted numerous native species into extinction, and drove many more to the brink. Not even tree-dwelling animals are safe: researchers documented in 2016 that some Red Foxes in Australia had learned how to climb trees in search of baby koalas and other unsuspecting creatures.

Terrible Schemes that Governments and People Have Tried
The proposed Silbervogel rocket airplane. Global Security

17. The Nazis Wanted to Use Space Planes to Dump Radioactive Sand on New York

On December 11th, 1941, Hitler inexplicably declared war on the US – a decision discussed in an entry below. It did not take long after America was thus brought into the war in Europe for American heavy bombers to join the RAF in raining devastation upon the Third Reich. The Germans wanted to return the favor, but aside from lacking aerial superiority to go on the offensive, the US homeland, all the way across the Atlantic Ocean from Nazi-occupied Europe, was too far away. So German scientists set about trying to solve that problem.

Terrible Schemes that Governments and People Have Tried
Silbervogel launch site. Grey Falcon

One of them, Eugen Sanger, proposed a Racketenflugzeug – a rocket airplane. Known as Silbervogel, or Silver Bird, the proposed aircraft was to be propelled at 1200 miles per off railroad tracks from a rocket-powered sled, then fly to a height of 90 miles. There, at the edge of space, the Silbervogel would use a series of roller-coaster-like “skips”, entering and exiting the upper atmosphere en route to New York City. Upon reaching its destination, it would detonate a bomb packed with radioactive sand, to devastate the Big Apple with a radiation cloud. It sounds cartoonish, but the theory was sound, and it might actually have worked. Luckily for NYC, the Nazis were defeated before either the space plane or the villainous plan became a reality.

Terrible Schemes that Governments and People Have Tried
The Owen Falls Dam in Uganda. Pintrest

16. Britain Wanted to Steal the Nile

From 1882 to 1952, Egypt was a de facto British client state and protectorate, and Britain had the right to base troops in Egypt to protect her interests. The most important of those interests was safeguarding the Suez Canal, of which the British government was a majority shareholder. Then in 1952, a military coup by 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 and his nationalist government infuriated British Prime Minister Anthony Eden, who was determined to cut the Egyptian upstart down to size and put him in his place.

So the British government drew up secret plans to cut off the flow of the water, in an attempt to force Nasser to toe the line. In 1956, Britain still 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 by seven-eighths by the time it reached Egypt. The plan was ultimately rejected because doing so 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 being forced into a humiliating climb down, and the demise of Anthony Eden’s political career.

Terrible Schemes that Governments and People Have Tried
Operation Popeye. Ripley’s Believe it or Not

15. The CIA Wanted to Discourage South Vietnamese Protesters by Controlling the Weather

By 1963, South Vietnamese president and US puppet ruler Ngo Dinh Diem was on the ropes. His regime, marked by extreme nepotism, extraordinary graft, and astonishing levels of corruption, was hugely unpopular. Between that, a steadily intensifying Viet Cong insurgency, and economic hardships, South Vietnam was seething. Protests were erupting up and down the country, only to be brutally put down by Diem’s security forces. That only added more fuel to the fire and gave the South Vietnamese more cause for protest. However, bad as Diem might have been, he was still America’s Man in Saigon. So the US government tried to do what it could to prop him up – before finally abandoning Diem and backing a coup that overthrew him. Before washing its hands of Diem, however, the US thought up some batty ideas for supporting him.

One plan cooked up by the American military and the CIA involved seeding clouds to make them, literally, rain on the parades of anti-Diem protestors, in the hopes of damping turnout and dispersing the crowds. That did not save Diem, who was overthrown and assassinated in 1963, but cloud seeding survived to be used as a tactic in the Vietnam War. Codenamed Operation Popeye, modified cargo planes began flying over the Ho Chi Minh Trail in 1967, releasing silver and lead iodide flares. The goal was to heavily increase the monsoon period’s rainfall, and thus negatively impact the routes used to supply and reinforce communist forces in South Vietnam. By the time Operation Popeye was terminated in 1972, over 2600 missions had been flown, during which roughly 47,000 cloud seeding charges were dropped. Their impact on the Ho Chi Minh trail and communist supplies and reinforcements were next to nil.

Terrible Schemes that Governments and People Have Tried
The circulation of cold Pacific Ocean currents (blue) and warm Atlantic Ocean current (red) in the Arctic. Motherboard

14. The Soviet Plan to Melt the Arctic

Today, melting polar ice caps are a major concern, seeing as how the resultant rise in sea levels threatens low-lying coastal plains around the world where billions live. However, in the 1950s, when most people had never even heard of “global warming”, let alone understood its ramifications, things were pretty different. Back then, polar ice was seen by many not as something positive worth preserving, but as a negative, that should be gotten rid of, the sooner, the better. It was a view especially popular in the Soviet Union, a huge chunk of which lay under permafrost. That held up many economic development plans, so authorities explored plans to warm up the country. The plan that got the most traction was to melt the entire Arctic ice cap.

Soviet scientist Petr Mikhailovich Borisov proposed a 55-mile dam spanning the entire Bering Strait between the Soviet Far East and Alaska. Doing so 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 completely ice-free. The Soviet government found Borisov’s concept intriguing, and his idea even made waves in the West, where JFK called it “certainly worth exploring“. However, the plan fizzled out – not due to environmental concerns, but cost concerns, and the difficulty of securing the US-Soviet cooperation necessary to carry out such an ambitious geoengineering project.

Terrible Schemes that Governments and People Have Tried
New Orleans in the 1890s. Pintrest

13. Trying to Intimidate US Law Enforcement Seriously Backfires on Early Italian Mafia

Most people assume that the Italian-American mafia had it its roots in New York City. After all, NYC is home of the Five Great Crime Families and the Godfather, and was the destination of millions of Italian immigrants in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In reality, however, America’s first Italian mafia emerged deep in the heart of Dixie, in New Orleans. The favored destination of southern Italian immigrants for much of the nineteenth century was not America, but Argentina and Brazil, whose culture, languages, religion, and climate were more agreeable to Italians.

New Orleans became a secondary destination of Italian immigration during the 19th century, because of its extensive traffic with the aforementioned South American countries. Some of the new arrivals were not exactly honest citizen types. As the New Orleans Times reported in 1869, that city’s Second District was overrun with “well-known and notorious Sicilian murderers, counterfeiters and burglars, who, in the last month, have formed a sort of general co-partnership or stock company for the plunder and disturbance of the city.” One of the greatest mistakes committed by those early Italian criminal immigrants was to assume that they could intimidate American law enforcement the same way they had intimidated law enforcement back in the Old Country.

Terrible Schemes that Governments and People Have Tried
A New Orleans mob breaking into a jail to lynch Italian mafiosi within. History

12. How The Mafia Realized that Killing American Cops Was Not Good

By the 1870s, Italian criminals in New Orleans had established the Matranga crime family. Operating out of a salon and brothel, they expanded their activities from prostitution to labor racketeering and extortion rackets known as the Black Hand. They collected “tribute” from Italian workers, as well as from a rival Italian crime family, the Prozenzanos, who monopolized fruit shipments. In the 1880s, fighting broke out between the crime families, over control of New Orleans’ waterfront. As each family brought in more goons from Italy, the violence spilled over, putting pressure on the authorities to act. When New Orleans’ police chief launched an investigation, he was assassinated in 1890. His dying words before expiring were “the Dagoes shot me“.

19 Mafiosi were arrested and prosecuted, but in the first trial of 9 of them, the mafia tampered with the jury. Despite overwhelming evidence, 6 were acquitted outright, while the remaining 3 got hung juries. Next day, March 14th, 1891, a mob of thousands, including some of New Orleans’ most prominent citizens, gathered. They broke into the prison housing the defendants, and lynched 11 of them – the biggest single mass lynching (as opposed to massacre) in US history. It was an object lesson that the mafia never forgot. Unlike Sicily and southern Italy, where criminals could act in brazen contempt of the authorities and society, there were limits to what could be gotten away with in America. From that day to the present, the Italian-American mafia followed strict rules against targeting law enforcement, lest doing so invite a backlash ruinous to their business and to their health.

Terrible Schemes that Governments and People Have Tried
Some of the Quebec Catholic Church’s deliberately misdiagnosed orphans. Suptnik International

11. The Well-Intentioned Subsidy That Doomed Thousands of Children

Until the 1960s, the Catholic Church held significant, and sometimes pernicious, sway over Quebec. The 1940s and 1950s in particular were considered an era of widespread poverty, few social services, and Church predominance. In those dark days, Maurice Duplessis, a strict Catholic, became premier of Quebec. He immediately proceeded to place the province’s schools, orphanages, and hospitals, in the hands of various Catholic religious orders. Duplessis then hatched a scheme with Church authorities to game the Canadian federal government’s subsidy assistance program to the provinces. The goal was to divert as many taxpayer dollars as possible into the coffers of Quebec’s Catholic Church. Canada’s federal subsidy program incentivized healthcare and the building of hospitals, more so than other social programs and infrastructures. Provinces received a federal contribution of about $1.25 a day for every orphan, but more than twice that, $2.75, for every psychiatric patient.

So Duplessis and the Catholic Church decided to turn orphans into psychiatric patients. They set up a system to falsely diagnose orphans as mentally deficient, in order to siphon more federal subsidy dollars into the Church’s coffers. As a first step, Duplessis signed an order that instantly turned Quebec’s orphanages into hospitals. That entitled their religious order administrators – and ultimately the Catholic Church of Quebec – to receive higher subsidy rates for hospitals. It took decades before the scandalous state of affairs was finally uncovered. By then, over 20,000 otherwise mentally sound Quebecoise orphans had been misdiagnosed with psychiatric ailments. Once they were misdiagnosed, the orphans were declared “mentally deficient”. It was not just a paperwork technicality: the orphans’ schooling stopped, and they became inmates in poorly supervised mental institutions, where they were subjected to physical, mental, and sexual abuse by nuns and lay monitors.

Terrible Schemes that Governments and People Have Tried
Joseph Stalin. Biography

10. Fear of Provoking the Nazis Led Stalin to Ignore Evidence of Impending German Attack

On August 23rd, 1939, the world was stunned when Nazi Germany and the communist USSR, avowed enemies, signed the German-Soviet Non Aggression Pact, commonly known as the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. It was a benevolent neutrality treaty that divided Eastern Europe between Germany and the Soviet Union. It freed Hitler to turn his attention against Britain and France in the west, without having to worry about a war with the USSR in the east. A week later, the Germans launched WWII by invading Poland.

Hitler’s ultimate ambition was to create a German empire in the east, at Soviet expense. So all along, he intended the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact merely as a temporary measure to free him to deal with the Western Allies, before turning on the USSR. Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, however, thought that the Pact was more solid than it actually was. Although Stalin realized that war with Germany was inevitable, he reasoned that Hitler would first have to settle the war against Britain, before turning against the Soviet Union.

Terrible Schemes that Governments and People Have Tried
The stab in the back. Pintrest

9. Stalin’s Wishful Thinking Nearly Doomed the USSR

By 1939, Stalin was the center of a personality cult that painted him as infallible. He began believing some of the hype about his supposed omniscience, and that omniscience told him that Hitler would not attack anytime soon. He was also surrounded by yes men, who dared not contradict him. Moreover, Stalin had gone far out on an ideological limb by signing the Non-Aggression Pact with communism’s avowed enemy. War with Germany so soon after signing the treaty would mean that Stalin was wrong, and saying that Stalin was wrong was ill-advised in the USSR. When evidence mounted of an impending German attack, Stalin refused to believe it, dismissing it as fake news, incompetence by Soviet agents, and a scam by British intelligence to instigate a war with Germany.

Those who raised the alarm were punished, as Stalin insisted their evidence was part of a British plot to provoke war, and use the Soviets “as a cat’s paw to pull the capitalists’ chestnuts out of the fire“. To avoid provoking Hitler, Stalin prohibited military commanders from taking precautionary measures. So when the Germans attacked on June 22nd, 1941, the Soviets were caught off guard. Even hours after the invasion had begun, Stalin disbelieved Soviet commanders reporting that they were being overrun, insisting that they were experiencing border clashes, not war. The Soviets survived only by the skin of their teeth, before the German advance finally ran out of steam that winter, within sight of the Kremlin. In the first six months of the war, the USSR suffered over 6 million military casualties, plus millions more civilian casualties – more than any country has ever suffered in a similar period.

Terrible Schemes that Governments and People Have Tried
Hitler declaring war on the US, December 11th, 1941. Wikimedia

8. Hitler’s Insane Declaration of War Against the US

As seen above, Japan might have made a terrible decision when it chose to go to war with the US, but at least it was a reasoned decision. Perhaps poor reasoning, but there was nonetheless some coherence in the argument linking Japanese interests and the decision to pick a fight with the US. It was the kind of decision that historians could examine, and think: “I see what they were trying to do. They got it wrong, but I see where they were coming from, and where they thought they were going with this“. Such coherence and a rational connection between decisions and goals were decidedly absent when Adolph Hitler declared war on the US soon after the attack on Pearl Harbor. It was as if he saw Japan doing something utterly dumb, then did the equivalent of going: “oh yeah? Well here, hold my beer!

In the 1930s, Germany and Italy signed an anti-communist pact directed against the USSR, forming the Berlin-Rome axis – from which WWII’s Axis Powers derived their name. Japan’s militarist rulers, vehemently anticommunist in their own right, eventually signed the treaty, forming the Tokyo-Berlin-Rome axis. The pact’s clauses included a defensive treaty, binding the signatories to aid any member that came under attack from a foreign aggressor. Notably, the treaty did not bind its signatories to aid any member waging an offensive war in which it was the aggressor. That was illustrated in the summer of 1941: after attacking the USSR, the Germans pled with Japan to join in finishing off the Soviets by attacking from the east. The Japanese refused: since Germany was the aggressor, Japan was not treaty-bound to come to its aid. In short, Germany was under no obligation to go to war against the United States.

Terrible Schemes that Governments and People Have Tried
WWII GDP comparisons. Quora

7. Hitler Seals Germany’s Fate

Japan’s going to war with America did not obligate Germany to do the same, but when Hitler learned that Japan had devastated America’s Pacific Fleet in Pearl Harbor, he decided to declare war on the US. Hitler loathed America, which he deemed a degenerate mongrel nation, controlled by Jewish capitalists. The US government was also avowedly anti-Axis and generously furnishing Germany’s enemies with supplies under the terms of Lend-Lease. Nonetheless, the US was not at war with Germany – and by December of 1941, the war was not looking too good for Germany. Britain, whom Hitler had expected to defeat in 1940, was still fighting. The USSR, which Hitler had expected to defeat in a few weeks, had put up a far fiercer resistance than anticipated, and Germany found herself in a protracted war of attrition against an industrial and manpower giant.

Only days before the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Soviets had launched a counteroffensive in front of Moscow, that brought the German Army Group Center to the brink of collapse. Given the preceding, Germany had nothing to gain from adding the world’s wealthiest and greatest industrial power to the ranks of its enemies. Yet, despite the opposition of his generals, Hitler, driven by emotion instead of reason, declared war against the US on December 11th, 1941. It was a rash decision that all but guaranteed Germany’s doom. At a stroke, Hitler added to his enemies a country whose GDP was nearly four times that of Germany’s, and whose factories and homeland were thousands of miles beyond the reach of German arms.

Terrible Schemes that Governments and People Have Tried
Chinese propaganda poster, extolling the Great Leap Forward. Chinese Posters

6. Chinese Dictator’s Brainstorm Almost Wrecks China

In the late 1950s, China was in sore need of 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 Zedong 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 turned out to be faulty, and his expectations turned out to be wildly unrealistic.

Terrible Schemes that Governments and People Have Tried
Backyard furnaces during the Great Leap Forward. Missed in History

Mao wanted to increase steel production – a benchmark of industrialization – without waiting for the development of infrastructures such as steel plants, or the training of a skilled workforce. Instead, people would use blast furnaces behind their communes – literal 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. However, making steel is complicated, and the girders produced were of low quality and cracked easily. What came out of the backyard furnaces was actually not even steel, but pig iron, which had to get its carbon removed to become steel. And in some regions, where there was little metalworking tradition or understanding of metallurgy, even the pig iron produced was too useless to get turned into steel.

Terrible Schemes that Governments and People Have Tried
Chinese peasants toiling on collectivized farms during the Great Leap Forward. Alpha History

5. The Great Leap Forward Sets China Back

As it turned out, Mao’s backyard furnace fiasco was not the worst part of the Great Leap Forward. The Chinese dictator 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. The theory was that economies of scale would come into play, and the big collectivized fields would prove more efficient and productive than the small plots. However, poor planning led to poor implementation of 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.

As a result, collectivization ended up being 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. The diversion of labor from farms to ill-advised industries such as backyard furnaces, plus the disruptions of collectivization, combined to produce a catastrophe. Between 1959 to 1962, about 20 million Chinese starved to death, and some estimate that the casualties might have been as high as 50 million.

Terrible Schemes that Governments and People Have Tried
Rasputin. Wikimedia

4. Russia’s Rulers Trust an Illiterate Religious Charlatan

One of history’s worst decisions was that of Russian Emperor Nicholas II and his wife Alexandra to believe in Grigori Rasputin, a religious charlatan. After gaining their confidence with his holy man act, Rasputin transformed Russia’s rulers, particularly the airheaded Empress Alexandra, into his puppets. He offered them advice on governance, which the royal couple accepted in the belief that Rasputin was blessed by God, and so would not led them astray. He ended up leading them not only astray, but to outright disaster.

Rasputin kept up a pretense of being a humble and holy man in the royal family’s presence. Beyond their gaze, however, he was a depraved drunk who claimed that his body had holy healing powers and led a Christian sex cult that engaged in wild orgies. The Emperor and Empress were unwilling to hear any criticism of their pet holy man, however, and turned on those who spoke ill of Rasputin. Towards the end of his life, Rasputin was wielding such influence over the imperial nincompoop couple that ministers, high-ranking officials, and generals, were appointed and dismissed based upon his advice.

Terrible Schemes that Governments and People Have Tried
Empress Alexandra with Rasputin, her children and a governess. Pintrest

3. The Holy Man Wrecks an Empire

Rasputin’s worst advice came during the First World War. When he sought to visit the front to bless the troops, Russia’s army commander, who viewed Rasputin as a charlatan, vowed to hang him if he came anywhere near the front. So Rasputin bad-mouthed him to the Emperor, and claimed that he had a religious revelation that Russia’s armies would not succeed until Nicholas II went to the front and took personal command. So in 1915, the Emperor appointed himself commander of the armed forces, and announced that he would assume personal command of the war. It was a disastrous decision. Absolutist imperial rule was made psychologically palatable to the Russian masses with the myth that whatever was going wrong, the Emperor was blameless. Corrupt officials were responsible, and they hid the truth from the Emperor.

That myth became untenable once Nicholas took personal command. From then on, responsibility for defeat, mismanagement, and incompetence in conducting the war would be laid directly at the Emperor’s feet. Since Nicholas knew next to nothing about running a war, there was bound to be plenty of defeat, mismanagement, and incompetence to lay at his feet. It was made worse by another decision, based on Rasputin’s advice, to place Empress Alexandra in charge of running Russia while Nicholas was running the war. On the one hand, there was no doubt of her loyalty to the royal family. On the other, she was incompetent and stupid. And the worst kind of stupid: the kind in which the stupid person is too ignorant to even grasp the extent of said ignorance, and thus gets deluded into believing that he or she is intelligent.

Terrible Schemes that Governments and People Have Tried
A contemporary cartoon depicting Rasputin’s hold on Russia’s Emperor and Empress. Pintrest

2. The Religious Charlatan’s Contribution to The Collapse of Imperial Russia

Before long, Empress Alexandra was soliciting the barely literate Rasputin’s advice on matters of state and government. She then heeded the charlatan’s advice, or badgered her husband into carrying out his recommendations. Soon, officials were being hired and fired based on Rasputin’s say so, and those seeking to advance or secure their positions showered him with bribes. Others sent their wives and daughters to seduce Rasputin into putting in a good word for them with the royal couple. Rasputin’s influence during this period ranged from appointing high-ranking members of the church hierarchy to selecting cabinet members and high-ranking government officials, many of whom proved incompetent opportunists. On occasion, he intervened in the conduct of the war by writing the Emperor, offering him advice on this or that general or this or that plan, based on religious visions and holy dreams.

Rasputin’s influence was exploited by opponents of the Emperor to challenge his competence, the integrity of the imperial dynasty, and the very concept of absolutist rule. Rasputin helped his enemies and those of his royal patrons with scandalous behavior visible for all to see. In addition to his dissoluteness and licentiousness, Rasputin got into drunken public brawls with church officials, and bragged about his influence over the Emperor and Empress. While drunk, he even boasted of having slept with Empress Alexandra. Notwithstanding a mounting public clamor for his removal, Alexandra continued to fiercely defend Rasputin, insisted that he remain by her side, and compelled her husband to resist all calls for his banishment. That undermined public respect for imperial rule, and prepared the ground for the institution’s overthrow in the Russian Revolution of 1917.

Terrible Schemes that Governments and People Have Tried
Qin Shihuangdi. Encyclopedia Britannica

1. “Immortality Drugs” Kill Emperor

Qin Shihuangdi (259 – 210 BC), whose name means “First Emperor“, was the first ruler to unify China’s disparate kingdoms into a single empire. One of history’s most capable rulers, he was also one of history’s cruelest despots. In a great karmic plot twist, Qin Shihuangdi wanted to live forever and pursued a “Life Elixir” to that end, but instead of prolonging his life, the quest for immortality ended up killing him. To live forever, China’s First Emperor sought the advice of philosophers, alchemists, opportunists, sketchy characters, and outright charlatans. One of the charlatans gave him mercury pills, which he claimed were a life-prolonging intermediate step in his research for immortality drugs. Using them every day should tidy Qin Shihuangdi over until the Life Elixir was ready. However, ingesting mercury every day gave the emperor a nasty dose of mercury poisoning, and drove him insane.

He became a recluse, and spent his days listening to songs about “Pure Beings”. During this period, he did many bizarre things, such as ordering the live burial of hundreds of scholars, and had his son and heir banished. Mercury poisoning finally finished Qin Shihuangdi off at the relatively young age of 49. While touring the provinces, he dropped dead inside his huge imperial wagon – a miniature house on wheels – on September 10th, 210 BC. His corpse was discovered by his chief bodyguard, who informed the emperor’s most trusted adviser, Li Ssu. The duo sat on the information until they returned to the capital, and in the meantime, put on a show to pretend that the emperor was still alive and kicking. They sent food and official reports to the wagon and its ripening corpse, whose stench they concealed by placing wagons of rotting fish nearby.


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

Agriculture Victoria – Red Fox

Bentley, Matthew A. – Spaceplanes: From Airport to Spaceport (2009)

Central Intelligence Agency – What Stalin Knew: The Enigma of Barbarossa

Cracked – 5 Bonkers Supervillain Plans Real Governments Actually Tried

Diamond, Jared – Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (2005)

Encyclopedia Britannica – Great Leap Forward

Guardian, The, December 1st, 2006 – Lawyers Warned Eden That Suez Invasion Was Illegal

History Dot Com – The Grisly Story of America’s Largest Lynching

Kershaw, Ian – Hitler 1936-1945: Nemesis (2000)

Live Science, December 27th, 2017 – China’s First Emperor Ordered Official Search For Immortality Elixir

Maniates, Michael, et al The Environmental Politics of Sacrifice (2010)

Massie, Robert K. – Nicholas and Alexandra: An Intimate Account of the Last of the Romanovs and the Fall of Imperial Russia (1966)

Mob Museum – Prohibition Profits Transformed the Mob

Vice, April 26th, 2013 – The Soviet Scientist Who Dreamed of Melting the Arctic With a 55 Mile Dam

New York Times, May 21st, 1993 – Orphans of the 1950s, Telling of Abuse, Sue Quebec

Rabbit Free Australia – The Rabbit Problem

Radzinsky, Edvard – The Rasputin File (2000)

Smithsonian Magazine, September 4th, 2018 – When the US Government Tried to Make it Rain by Exploding Dynamite in the Sky

Tucker, Spencer T., Ed. The Encyclopedia of the Vietnam War: A Political, Social, & Military History (2001)

Wikipedia – Juan Pujol Garcia

Yorkshire Post, November 30th, 2016 – How the Suez Crisis Sank the British Empire