Sometimes misunderstandings happen - and that's normal. But when those misunderstandings or mistakes happen on a global scale between leaders or warring nations, they're not so normal. There have been plenty of historical mix-ups that led to terrible things: death, destruction, and nuclear war. Some crises were averted, others were not. These historical snafus have shaped the way our world works, and have some huge historical consequences.
How do historical mistakes happen? A lot of times it has to do with bad communication. Other times it has to do with rumors spread just a little too far. One thing all of these mistakes from history have in common, though, is people acting without really double checking themselves. If anything, maybe we can all learn from these mix-ups from history.
Liquor is legendary for causing stupid fights, but the Karansebes Battle has got to be one of the stupidest of all time. On the night of September 19, 1788, a group of Austrian cavalrymen were scouting for enemy Turkish forces near Karansebes, a small town in modern Romania. But instead of violent resistance, the men found a band of gypsies. And promptly bought out their entire supply of schnapps.
A few hours later (an eternity in drunk time), a separate group of Austrian foot soldiers came along and wanted to join the booze-fest. But the cavalrymen refused to share. Then they built an ill-advised, makeshift wall around their liquor. Naturally, things got heated. Fighting broke out between the groups. To fool the cavalry in retreating, soldiers said they saw Turkish soldiers. But the move backfired superbly as everyone - soldier and cavalry alike - turned the violent stampede back towards camp.
Austrian officers tried to ease the pandemonium, but the army’s mixed forces of Italians, Slovaks, and Hungarians didn’t speak German very well. And the cries to “Halt!” were mistaken for “Allah!” only intensifying the brutal, confused madness.
Meanwhile, the rest of the camp of some 100,000 men woke to the sound of battle and assumed they were under attack by Ottoman forces. They jumped into combat and things got so out of hand, the army literally brought out the big guns. Eventually, the mixed up regiments were so terrified (of themselves, mind you) they abandoned Karansebes altogether. The troops razed and pillaged towns for nearly 30 miles 10 leagues before the army recollected itself under new leadership.
Two days after the battle, the Ottomans arrived at Karansebes to find 10,000 dead and wounded Austrian soldiers. After presumably laughing at their foolish enemies, they executed the survivors, and took the city without a fight.
People love bacon. But do they love it enough to go to war over it? Judging by an incident in 1859: maybe.
On June 15, 1846 the United States and Great Britain signed the Oregon Treaty. The treaty resolved one boundary dispute between the US and Canada, but unintentionally created a completely new mix-up in a cluster of islands near Vancouver. Due to some vague wording, the US and Britain had different ideas about who got what in this area. Specifically, San Juan Island was claimed by citizens from both countries. But things were peaceful enough.
That is, until June 15, 1859, when an American farmer shot and killed a pig that was eating potatoes in his garden. Turns out, that pig was owned by a British fur trader who tattled on him to the local British authorities. In response, the British authorities threatened to arrest the shooter and kick every other American off the island for good measure. So the Americans turned to General William S. Harney, a well-known (British-hating) US commander.
In a major case of “that escalated quickly,” Harney launched a military force of 64 men to the island. In response, the Governor of British Columbia sent three warships of his own. Both sides continued sending forces to the standoff until someone with an actual brain intervened. Admiral Lambert Baynes, a British commander, arrived on the scene and immediately told the governor that he would not “involve two great nations in a war over a squabble about a pig.”
News reached Washington and London about the swine standoff, which now involved as many as three warships, 84 guns and over 2,600 men. Both capital cities jumped straight into damage control mode. The whole dispute wasn’t resolved until May 21, 1871 when an international commission reinterpreted the original Oregon Treaty and gave the island to the United States.
Fortunately, America’s relationship with Canada (and its bacon) has come a long way since.
Language is tough. And sometimes a bad translation can lead to an embarrassing mishap. In this case, though, the consequence was very, very deadly. In the summer of 1945, World War II was winding down in Europe. Germany had surrendered in May, and Allied leaders including Harry Truman, Winston Churchill, and Joseph Stalin met at a conference in Potsdam, Germany to sort out the rest.
But the war in the Pacific was still ongoing. So on July 26, 1945, they issued the Potsdam Declaration to Japan, threatening “prompt and utter destruction” if Japan didn’t surrender. After the declaration was issued, reporters in Tokyo looked to Japanese Prime Minister Kantaro Suzuki for Japan’s response. Like a pro, Suzuki fell back on the good ol’ politician standby: “no comment.”
And yet, here’s where we get mixed up. Suzuki used the Japanese word "mokusatsu," a word that can mean “to withhold comment,” “to ignore,” or “to treat with silent contempt,” depending on the context. Quite a range, huh? Well, instead of indicating that the government was withholding comment on the surrender terms, a translator sent the message over the wire as, “The cabinet ignores the demand to surrender.”
Insulted, the Allies held true to their threat. Within 10 days, the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, followed by a second attack on Nagasaki on August 9. Two of the most devastating attacks the world has ever seen came to fruition, all because of one word taken in the wrong context.
In October 1962, stuff was going down. It was the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Russia was supplying the communists with nuclear arms and President Kennedy gave the order to blockade Cuba. The same week the blockade was announced, a squad of four Russian submarines arrived in Cuban waters. Unknown to the US, each carried a nuclear missile and could authorize an attack without the okay of central command. One of these vessels was a B-59 submarine captained by Valentin Savitsky.
As part of the blockade, the US announced it would use underwater explosions as warning shots - a way to communicate for Russian vessels to surface and identify themselves. However, in a mix-up of nuclear proportions, nobody bothered to tell the en-route-to-Cuba Russian submarine commanders this development.
So it’s no surprise that when Savitsky’s sub encountered US depth charges on October 27, 1962, he assumed it was the real deal. Explosions rocked the vessel. Temperatures on board climbed above 100°F. Two radio antennas on the vessel were damaged, hindering its ability to receive communications, and the decision to dive deeper dampened communications even further.
Low on air and under extreme stress, Savitsky ordered the officer assigned to the nuclear torpedo to ready the weapon. Launching required the agreement of three senior officers on board, and fortunately for all of planet Earth, Vasili Arkhipov was one of those officers. Some accounts state Savitsky’s second in command also approved launching the torpedo. So the captain only needed one more thumbs-up to launch World War III. But Arkhipov, a fleet commander equal in rank, refused. Keeping his cool in crazy conditions, he argued the noisy, off target detonations were an effort to communicate and convinced Savitsky to await instructions from Moscow before going full nuclear Rambo.
Ultimately, the captain listened to Arkhipov. The submarine surfaced and met with a US Destroyer without issue, before turning tail back to Russia. And the Cuban Missile Crisis ended on October 28, 1962.