When we look at the past, it becomes obvious that the march of history is often more of a stumble. How you live, work, and love today are as much the result of mistakes as they are the result of some brilliant plans or an inspired leader's guidance. Take a good look around and then read the headlines. Really, did you think the world got this way on purpose?
Perhaps in what seem to be dark and foreboding times it can be somewhat reassuring to look at the grievous mistakes commanders and leaders have made in the past. No matter how incompetent the president or prime minister is today he or she is unlikely to match the poor judgment of the emperor in Samarkand who chose to personally insult Genghis Khan. No matter how we think of the U.S. Congress, it cannot cause as much trouble as did the Assemblies of the French Revolution, or the Long Parliament for Charles I. With modern communications and an active press, no leader can today be as out of touch as were Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. The world has progressed, technology has grown, and the human race has reached the moon, despite all of the errors and stupidities of the past. That is a thought that should give us all hope for the future as we look at the many almost unexplainable and often tragic mistakes made by the great leaders throughout history.
Alexander of Macedon, arguably the greatest general of ancient times, strove to be the greatest Emperor of the largest empire ever seen. But search all you like, you’ll never find a record of the "Alexandrian Empire." This is because Alexander refused, even when suffering from an extended illness, to name an heir. The apocryphal story is that when his general pressed the dying Alexander for a choice he answered, "to the strongest." More likely he said nothing, dooming his son and empire. After Alexander's death the empire splintered, resulting in two centuries of war. What may have been the first and greatest opportunity to meld the cultures of East and West into a peaceful whole was lost.
In 440, British King Vortigern thought he had come up with a solution to the raiding Picts and Scots. He would outsource the defense of Britain to the more warlike Saxons, Angles, and their allies. He would hire them as mercenaries and <em>they</em> could handle the invaders. This decision went horribly wrong. Once there, the Saxons realized they were the only real warriors in all of Britain and simply took over. Tens of thousands of Saxons and their allies flooded into a helpless Britain over the next century. Within 200 years most of the British Isles was under Saxon control and it stayed that way until an uninvited invader, the Normans, took it away from the Saxons in 1066.
Alā’ ad-Dīn Muḥammed, Emperor of the great Khwārezm Empire, feared spies and ordered that caravans travelling the Silk Road be raided and the Mongols on them killed. When Genghis Khan sent a delegation of fifty nobles to protest the attacks and demand restitution, Alā’ ad-Dīn Muḥammed made the "barbarian" ambassadors wait for weeks. Then he set their beards on fire and beheaded the lead ambassador. His court may have been amused, but Genghis Khan wasn't. Three years later 300,000 Mongol horsemen burst through the mountains and swept across Khwārezm. Within two years the Empire was a wasteland and most of the population enslaved or killed. Thanks to the Emperor’s ego, Islam’s renaissance was destroyed, changing the course of that faith forever.
Columbus did discover the New World because he made a mistake doing his numbers. For centuries scholars had known the world was round and even estimated its size fairly accurately. The explorer sailed west not because of any new theory or demonstration with an orange, but because he made a math error. Columbus researched the greatest scholars of his time, who were mostly Muslim. Then he failed to convert the much longer Hashemite mile into much shorter European miles. As a result, he was convinced the world was only 15,000 miles in diameter, and that the wealth of the Orient was only weeks away into the sunset. So Christopher Columbus sailed west, discovered the Americas, and the world was never the same.
For most of the 15th and 16th centuries Spain ruled the seas. At war with England, Phillip II created his Armada to drive the British from the Channel so his army could invade. Neither side seemed able to win the battle. Low on ammunition, the duke decided the Armada needed to go back to Spain. The duke was one of Phillip's best generals, but was not a naval commander. He thought like a land commander and consequently ordered the Armada to sail around the northern side of Britain and Ireland. For an army on land this would’ve been a good strategy, but the duke failed to consider the stormy, rough seas of the North Atlantic. Only a handful of the ships survived, and soon Britannia ruled the waves.
In 1917 the Bolshevik leader Vladimir Ilych Lenin was stuck in Switzerland. WWI raged and he was a wanted man in every other nation of Europe including Czarist Russia. Then German Army Intelligence had an idea. They would take the troublemakers trapped in Switzerland and ship them back to Russia, who was still at war with them. So that April, 19 known revolutionaries including Vladimir Lenin, were loaded into a sealed train car, given money to finance their revolt, and smuggled into Russia. The Germans didn't expect them to succeed, but Lenin and the Bolsheviks eventually did. Without the German Army's help, there might well never have been a Communist Revolution, Stalin, or the Cold War.
Desperate to avoid another war after the trauma of WWI, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and his French counterparts bowed time after time to extortion by Adolf Hitler and the Nazis. First they failed to react in 1936 when he threw out the Treaty of Versailles and reoccupied the Rhineland. Too weak to fight a war, the German army was poised to retreat at the first sign of resistance, but none appeared, and Hitler became a hero. Then Germany engineered an "invitation" to annex Austria in the Reich and no one protested. Finally, in 1938, the emboldened Nazis demanded a large portion of Czechoslovakia, the Sudetenland. Chamberlain convinced the Czechs to cede a quarter of their nation to buy "peace in our time." It didn't.
In 1940 Germany came <em>very </em>close to winning WWII. England was losing the Battle of Britain. The Luftwaffe's constant attacks on the RAF airfields and factories were taking their toll. Truce offers for Germany were being discussed and plans made for the government to flee to Canada. Lord Dowding warned that within weeks there’d be no RAF left to stop a German invasion. Then, by accident, three German bombers dropped bombs on a blacked out London. Two days later 70 British bombers hit Berlin. The only casualty was the Berlin zoo’s elephant, but Hitler and Goering were embarrassed and outraged. They ordered the Luftwaffe to concentrate only on bombing London. Churchill's "Few" were able to rest, repair and eventually won the air battle. Hitler lost his best chance at victory.
Months before the Germans invaded Russia in 1941, Soviet military intelligence reported their intentions. Later, the British sent a warning that they too had discovered the preparations for Operation Barbarossa. The top Russian spy in Japan even reported details of the plan that had been shared with the Nazi ally. Stalin stubbornly insisted it was all just a plot by the British to involve him in the war. Since disagreeing with Stalin was consistently fatal, no one dared to tell him differently. Even with over two million Wehrmacht soldiers poised on his frontier, Stalin reacted by telling his commanders to avoid provoking the Germans. In the next two months, millions of Russian soldiers and civilians paid for his mistake with their lives.
It isn't often a Secretary of State can start a war. But Dean Acheson managed with a small oversight during a major policy speech at the National Press Club on January 12, 1950. In the speech, he warned the Communists and allies to stay away from those areas in the American sphere of influence. He proclaimed America would protect those nations from Indonesia to Japan from any interference. This created a line that left out Korea. Imagine Stalin and Kim Il Sung's joy to learn that South Korea wasn’t included. They acted upon Acheson's policy statement, taking him at his word. A few months later, North Korea invaded South Korea, starting the Korean War.