Mistakes That Created Modern America

The biggest political mistakes of both the past and present are debated ceaselessly, but governance-related blunders aren’t the only miscalculations that can change the world. In fact, some of the biggest mistakes in American history were unrelated to politics. Important and impactful gaffes can occur in any field - including science, engineering, business, and the military - and their consequences can often impact all of society.

Some of those mistakes have been so impactful that they’ve changed the course of American history, especially when they coincide with important events. Errors in judgment or judiciousness can happen to anyone, but only a select few are unfortunate - or in some cases, fortunate - enough for their screwups to alter the history books in a major way. It’s safe to say the modern United States of America would not exist as it does now without a handful of notable bungles along the way. 


  • Columbus Miscalculated His Way Into 'Discovering' The New World
    Photo: L. Prang & Co. / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Columbus Miscalculated His Way Into 'Discovering' The New World

    The Mistake: The notion that Christopher Columbus set sail to disprove the flat Earth theory has long been debunked, but his legendary 1492 voyage did draw inspiration from a scientific misconception of his own. Columbus’s journey to the New World was made possible by a handful of critical miscalculations on his part, including the failed conversion of Arabic miles to Roman miles and misguided corrections to old maps. As a result, Columbus planned his trip to Asia using calculations that were 8,000 miles off.

    The Consequences: Because of Columbus’s mismeasurements, he anticipated a far simpler westward trip from Europe to Asia than what he encountered. This error allowed him to stumble upon the New World amid his journey. The consequences of that discovery were as devastating to the native populations of the Americas as they were vital to the further development of Western civilization. 

  • Misread Gauges At Three Mile Island Prevented Acceptance Of Nuclear Power
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Misread Gauges At Three Mile Island Prevented Acceptance Of Nuclear Power

    The Mistake: The partial meltdown at Three Mile Island occurred on March 28, 1979, and remains the most serious nuclear disaster in American history. It happened due to an unlikely combination of malfunction and human error. After a relief valve for the reactor core became stuck open, plant staff were unable to read the signs of impending trouble on their array of gauges until it was too late.

    The Consequences: Although nobody perished during this event at Three Mile Island, and any adverse health effects caused by the release of radiation have been minimal, the real consequence was Americans' distrust of nuclear power. The incident at Three Mile Island essentially ended any chance the United States had of adopting such energy in greater force. This resulted in further reliance on climate-harming fossil fuels. 

  • A Dropped Document Aided The Confederacy's Defeat

    The Mistake: In the early stages of the American Civil War, the Confederate Army seemed poised for victory. As the rebels headed further and further north, winning several key victories along the way, General Robert E. Lee concocted "Special Orders No. 191," an 1862 plan to take control of several important Maryland locations. One copy of these orders, however, was somehow lost, only to be picked up by a Union soldier. The leaked details of Lee’s plan allowed the Union to defeat him at South Mountain and Antietam.

    The Consequences: While the exact importance of South Mountain and Antietam are up for historical debate, at the very least, they're both recognized as turning points in the conflict. The discovery of "Special Orders No. 191" allowed the Union to stop Lee’s northward march in its tracks and firmly turn the tide. The victory at Antietam also provided the pretext Lincoln needed for issuing his Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, which transformed the Union cause into a crusade against slavery.

  • The Bay Of Pigs Plan Failed In Part Because The Air Force Forgot About Time Zones
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    The Bay Of Pigs Plan Failed In Part Because The Air Force Forgot About Time Zones

    The Mistake: The United States made several attempts to topple Fidel Castro’s government in Cuba, but the most concerted effort was the failed Bay of Pigs invasion that occurred under the Kennedy administration. The Americans landed some 1,200 soldiers - mostly Cuban exiles - on the shores of Cuba on April 17, 1961, a force meant to be backed by air support. The six B-26 planes arrived unescorted, as the Air Force forgot to consider the one-hour time zone difference when dispatching them from Nicaragua to Cuba.

    The Consequences: The planes fell to Castro’s T-33s, ground forces were overwhelmed, and the vast majority of the intruders were either captured or slain. The incident was an unmitigated failure and drastically increased tensions between the United States and Cuba - which culminated in the Cuban Missile Crisis.

  • A Mistranslation Influenced Truman’s Launches On Japan
    Photo: 509th Operations Group / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    A Mistranslation Influenced Truman’s Launches On Japan

    The Mistake: When the United States delivered its terms of surrender to Japan in July 1945, the world breathlessly awaited their response. Japanese Premier Kantaro Suzuki told reporters he had no comment at the moment, and he used the phrase “mokusatsu” - or “silence” - to express his message of patience. Unfortunately, mokusatsu has multiple meanings, and the press chose the translation that read “to ignore with silent contempt.” Miffed by the seemingly flippant statement, President Harry Truman proceeded with the planned devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

    The Consequences: Had the phrase not been mistranslated, perhaps the bombs would not have been dropped, and Japan would have peacefully surrendered. This was not the case, however, and as a result, the world has been caught up in an arms race ever since. But even more devastating was the loss of Japanese life that resulted from the event.

  • Americans Won Their Independence Because A British Commander Ignored A Note
    Photo: Emmanuel Leutze / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Americans Won Their Independence Because A British Commander Ignored A Note

    The Mistake: George Washington’s crossing of the Delaware is one of the most iconic moments in US history, and his subsequent defeat of the Hessian forces on the other side was a vital victory in the American Revolution. But this victory almost never occurred. 

    A local farmer arrived at the Hessian camp beforehand warning of Washington’s approach, but Colonel Johann Rall was busy playing cards and refused to see him. The farmer wrote him a note explaining the dire circumstances, but Rall - a German-speaker who couldn't decipher the message English - stuffed it in his pocket and returned to his game. That morning, Washington caught the Hessians by surprise.

    The Consequences: Washington’s victory at Trenton was as decisive as it was important to America’s eventual independence. More than two-thirds of the Hessian forces were captured, and the Revolutionary Army gained a foothold in New Jersey. Rall and over a dozen others paid for the mistake with their lives.