Throughout the tapestry of stories that makes up human history, near misses and close calls have both threatened our existence and pushed us in directions few could imagine. We've survived natural disasters, diseases, dictators, rush hour traffic and have come out okay considering the circumstances. These brushes with death or destruction have come from all directions as black swan events and completely predictable occurrences brought on by us or fate. Nevertheless, historical close calls always leave a lasting impact. Sometimes literally!
He was born Vladimir Illych Ulyanov, but the world has come to know him by his more well-known Marxist nom de guerre, Vladimir Lenin. Leader of the 1917 Bolshevik October Revolution and first leader of the Soviet Union, Lenin was known to be caustic and irascible and his policies reflected that.
During the Russian Civil War following the October Revolution, the Bolsheviks, now known as Communists, were fighting against the White Russian forces whose aim was to reestablish the Imperial Russian Monarchy. To support the war effort Lenin instituted a policy of War Communism in June, 1918 and one of its most hated details was the forced requisition of food and grain surplus from the peasants in the countryside. While meant to feed soldiers, the policy caused starvation and discontent.
That same summer, Lenin's communist government launched the first Red Terror to eliminate all opposition to their rule. Only two months later, while speaking to factory workers, Lenin was approached by Fanya Kaplan and shot twice. Kaplan's fate is unclear, but what can be argued is that Lenin's survival would set in motion the rise of Joseph Stalin and 74 years of Communist rule in Russia that would affect the world for almost the entirety of the 20th century. Had he been killed in 1918, the world (and recent history) might have been a very different place.
Standing at around five feet tall, Queen Victoria had the second longest reign over the then-expanding British Empire, lasting for 63 years. She was born in May of 1819 and at 18 years of age, she was crowned Queen of Great Britain in 1837. All of that and her impact on Great Britain and the world could have changed, tragically, early in her life.
On June 10, 1840, Victoria, now Queen of Great Britain, and her husband Prince Albert were traveling by horse-drawn carriage when Edward Oxford stepped out from the crowd of spectators, aimed a pistol and fired at the couple. He missed, and before being subdued, drew a second pistol and fired, missing once again. Thankfully, neither Victoria, who was pregnant at the time, nor Albert was hurt. Oxford, now in custody, was found to be insane and incarcerated in an asylum until 1867 when he was deported.
More assassination attempts on Victoria's life would be made throughout her life, though the first one was the most significant because she was pregnant with her first child and would not have had any heirs. Furthermore, her later grandsons, King George V, Kaiser Wilhelm II, and Tsar Nicholas II wouldn't have been born and the outcome of World War I could have been entirely different, perhaps not occurring at all.
Anyone who has seen images of Hiroshima and Nagasaki after both cities were bombed in August of 1945 can recognize the destructive power of nuclear weapons. Though many Americans might lean on the distance between their own country and a place on the other side of the world, the sobering truth is that it almost happened in the United States 16 years later.
On January 24, 1961, at the height of the Cold War, an American B-52 bomber was flying over Goldsboro, NC when a catastrophic failure in one of its wings occurred. Though there are few available details, the plane began to break apart and two nuclear bombs were released. The parachute of one of the bombs opened and guided it safely to the ground but the other bomb's chute didn't open and it landed with enough force that the impact armed the weapon, bringing it extremely close to detonating.
According to Emma Lacey-Bordeaux of CNN, had the bomb detonated the blast would have sent thermal radiation spreading more than 15 miles and killing over 60,000 people. She adds that Fat Man and Little Boy, the two bombs dropped on Japan during World War II had the explosive power of 0.01 and 0.02 megatons, while the bombs that landed in Goldsboro had an explosive power of 3.8 megatons.
Lack of communication during conflict can mean the difference between life and death, and this is exactly what happened on October 27, 1962.
During the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, the American naval destroyer USS Beale began dropping blank depth charges into the waters above a Soviet submarine, the B-59, submerged off the coast of Cuba.
On board the B-59, the captain and crew were extremely nervous and began to believe they were under attack, that war had begun. The sub's crew and their captain, Valentin Savitsky, were in favor of arming and deploying the sub's nuclear-tipped torpedo. Had the decision to return fire been acted upon, a series of nuclear retaliations would have followed, escalating into what could have been the most destructive war in human history.
However, the decision to launch the torpedo required all three senior officers to agree. One of the sub's senior officers, Vasili Arkhipov, remained calm and urged his fellow officers to contact Moscow for further orders. Because of Arkhipov's hesitation, the torpedo wasn't launched and a nuclear war was averted.