The Berlin Wall stood for decades as both a literal dividing line, and the Cold War’s ultimate symbolic separator, marking off a dour communist east from a vibrant capitalist west. There was a reason why Ronald Reagan’s admonition in speech delivered during a 1987 visit to West Berlin, “Mister Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” resonated so well back then. At the time, few could have predicted that, little more than two years later, the Berlin Wall would come down with such suddenness so as to catch politicians and pundits alike off guard. And it came down because a bureaucrat made a mistake.
In the late 1980s, communism began to crumble in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, and East Germany’s communist leaders began to grudgingly ease their citizens’ travel restrictions. On November 9th, 1989, East Berlin’s communist party boss Gunter Schabowski held a press conference to explain some minor revisions to the travel code. However, he flubbed it, and mistakenly implied that travel restrictions were being completely removed. When a reporter asked when the changes would take effect, Schabowski shrugged and replied: “immediately, right away“. That hit the news, and when East Germans heard it, they swarmed the border, demanding the promised free passage. The border guards had received no such instructions, but rather than deal with a riot, they stepped aside, and the wall came down in a rapturous celebration – Berlin’s greatest citywide party, ever.
After World War II, 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 simply had to blockade Japan, and the Japanese government would have given in. That might have worked if the war had been confined to the Japanese home islands, where the Japanese could have been isolated. Unfortunately, both for the Japanese and for hundreds of millions of conquered subjects in Japanese occupied territory, that was not the case. At war’s end Japan still held an extensive empire in the Pacific and Asia, in which hundreds of millions 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 the Japanese homeland was blockaded, the war still went on beyond Japan. Also, the Japanese held hundreds of thousands of Allied POWs, and subjected them daily to brutal treatment. In short, every day the war continued was another day in which millions suffered, and in which thousands more became casualties. From that perspective, it was not a mistake for America and her allies to treat Japan as a formidable foe who was inflicting significant harm every day, and who would continue to do so indefinitely if not stopped. As far as the Allies were concerned, Japan was a menace that had to he put down ASAP. However, a simple translation mistake might have determined when and how the US put Japan down, and led to the decision to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
What might have been the most momentous translation mistake in history began with the Proclamation Defining Terms for Japanese Surrender. Also known as the Potsdam Declaration, it 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 statement calling for the surrender of all Japanese armed forces. It was an ultimatum that warned Japan to surrender immediately. Otherwise, it would face “prompt and utter destruction“. The terms were hotly debated within the Japanese government.
Eventually, Prime Minister Kantaro Suzuki stated at a press conference that Japanese policy towards the Potsdam Declaration would be one of “mokusatsu“. It was a Japanese word which meant that he had received the message, and was giving it serious consideration. Unfortunately, Japanese is a subtle language – sometimes too subtle – in which the same word could convey a variety of meanings. Another meaning for mokusatsu is to “contemptuously ignore”, and that was the meaning the translators gave President Truman. Ten days later, the Enola Gay flew from Tinian to drop an atomic bomb on Hiroshima.
Bad doctors and medical screw-ups are all too common. Indeed, thanks to negligent or outright incompetent medical professionals, there is a thriving field in the legal profession that focuses solely on medical malpractice. Fortunately for Dr. Robert Liston (1794 – 1847) of London, he practiced in an era when, and in a country where, medical malpractice litigation was not as big as it is today in the US. If not, medical malpractice lawyers would have had a field day suing him for that one time he managed to kill three people during a single surgery – two of whom were not even his patients.
Dr. Liston was a surgeon known for his speed. In the days before the use of anesthetics had become as widespread as today, an ability to operate speedily was a decided plus. It meant that patients spent less time enduring excruciating pain as a surgeon cut into them. It also increased the odds of survival, lessening the odds of patients going into shock, as well as reducing the time in which their vitals were exposed to germs and other vectors of infection.
Dr. Liston was famous for his ability to complete operations in a matter of seconds, and to amputate a leg in just two and a half minutes. Unsurprisingly, chances for a mistake were pretty high. Dr. Liston played up his reputation for speedy surgery for all it was worth. Surgeries back then were spectator events, and observers watched what was going on from galleries that surrounded operating rooms. As he brandished his cutting tools, Dr. Liston would often shout to the audience “time me, gentlemen!” It became his catchphrase.
During one surgery to amputate a leg, Dr. Liston accidently severed the fingers off the hand of an assistant who was holding down the patient’s leg. Liston continued with the job, and took off the patient’s leg. Both patient and assistant got gangrene, and died within a few days. In his frenzied slicing, Dr. Liston also accidentally cut an elderly spectator’s coat. The old man was not hurt, but he was splattered with blood from patient’s amputated leg and the medical assistant’s severed fingers. Thinking that he had been wounded, the elderly spectator panicked, had a heart attack, and died.
French master chef Francois Vatel was put in charge of a grand banquet for 2,000 people, scheduled at the Chateau de-Chantilly for April 25th, 1671, in honor of King Louis XIV. The banquet was scheduled on short notice, and Vatel, who had only fifteen days to prepare, got stressed out by a series of minor mishaps. During a preliminary dinner a few days before the banquet, there were more guests than expected, and two out of twenty six tables went without roast. That minor mistake mortified Vatel, and he wept that he had lost honor and could not bear the shame. Reassurances that the dinner had gone great, and that the king was pleased, did not comfort Vatel, who continued to obsess about the roast-less tables. Later that night, a grand display of fireworks flopped because fog and low clouds descended, which depressed Vatel even further.
Early the following morning, April 24th, one day before the banquet, Vatel encountered a supplier bringing two loads of fish, and asked him if that was all. The supplier, unaware that Vatel was referring to all fish from all suppliers, not just himself, replied that it was. That was the final straw for a frazzled Vatel, who had hardly slept for two weeks. He broke down, crying “I won’t survive this insult. My honor and reputation are at stake!” Unable to endure what he was sure would be a humiliation when the royal banquet turned into a flop, Vatel took a sword and ran himself through. As it turned out, it did not take long before the misunderstanding resolved itself, as fish from other suppliers began to arrive soon thereafter. As the master chef lay dying of his wound, wagon loads of fish trundled their way into the Chateau de-Chantilly.
In everyday life for most of us, a failure to correctly set the time, like when daylight savings come around or roll away, can lead to minor inconveniences. Things along the lines of showing up for work an hour late or an hour early. However, a failure to correctly set the time when there is fighting to do, 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.
Cuban exiles landed on the Bay of Pigs on April 17th, 1961, 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 to advance 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 followup strikes by the B-26s would require fighter protection.