It was a freezing Christmas night in Trenton, New Jersey during the Revolutionary War. English Colonel Johann Gottlieb Rahl, commander of a mercenary infantry regiment of 1400 Hessian soldiers from Germany, sat down to a good supper and an evening of entertainment. He and his men were celebrating their recent victories over George Washington’s volunteer army and, of course, Christmas, safe from the bitter cold and pelting sleet inside the wealthy merchant’s home they have commandeered. They relaxed, safe in the assumption that no one in their right mind would try to cross the Delaware River at night in a blinding winter storm.
Someone challenged Rahll to a game of chess and before long he was deep in tactics and strategy. There was a knock at the door. An exhausted young messenger boy came in bearing a note from a Loyalist farmer. It’s important to remember that about a third of colonists still considered themselves to be British and did not want the revolution. Rahl paid the boy little notice, took the note, and put it into his coat pocket without opening it. That mistake cost him and the war effort dearly.
Two hours earlier and ten miles away, Washington’s men had begun being ferried across the icy Delaware River. It took ten hours to get all 2,400 men were on the New Jersey side. The conditions were so adverse that five men froze to death. Then began the arduous march to Trenton in the dark. The plan was to attack from all sides of the town before dawn, but they did not arrive until 8 am. During the attack, which lasted only an hour, 40 German soldiers were killed and some 1,000 surrendered. Colonel Rahl was mortally wounded. When his body was found, the unopened note warning of Washington’s crossing was still in his pocket. If Rahl had read it, he would surely have had his professional soldiers prepared. He had allowed his pride and the weather to lull him into thinking his enemy was not a threat. Had he won the battle, he may well have killed George Washington, James Madison, James Monroe, John Marshall, Aaron Burr, and Alexander Hamilton.
The second most common question in Alternate History circles, behind “What if Germany won WW2?” is “What if the South won the American Civil War?” Two pieces of paper, dropped in a farmer’s field, might have brought that about. Confederate general Robert E. Lee issued Special Order 191 during the Maryland campaign, before the Battle of Antietam. In the Order, Lee divided his army, delineating the routes and roads to be taken and the timing for the units to reconvene. Adjutant Robert H. Chilton penned copies of the letter and endorsed them in Lee’s name. Staff officers distributed the copies to various Confederate generals. General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson in turn copied the document for one of his subordinates, Major General D. H. Hill, who was to exercise independent command as the rear guard.
A Union soldier, Corporal Barton W. Mitchell of the 27th Indiana Volunteers, found two pieces of paper, bundled with three cigars, as he marched across a farm in Maryland, an area recently vacated by Hill and his men after they had camped there. The order provided the Union Army with valuable information concerning the Army of Northern Virginia’s movements and campaign plans. Upon receiving Lee’s “Lost Order”, Major General George McClellan, leading the Union Army of the Potomac, proclaimed “Here is a paper with which, if I cannot whip Bobby Lee, I will be willing to go home.” He immediately moved his army in hopes of foiling Lee’s battle plans. When Lee heard a copy of Special Order 191 was missing, he knew his scattered army was vulnerable and rushed to reunite its units at Antietam Creek near Sharpsburg. Lee’s troops arrived tired, hungry and many were sick.
The Battle of Antietam would go down as the bloodiest battle of the civil war, the casualties recorded as 23,000 men dead, wounded (which was often as good as dead), or unaccounted for over the course of the half-day battle. That’s nearly 2,000 soldiers an hour, 1 every two seconds. When night fell, both sides ceased fire to gather their dead and wounded. The next day, Lee began the painstaking job of moving his ravaged troops back to Virginia. Here, some scholars argue, another solitary decision had far-reaching. Despite having the advantage, McClellan allowed Lee to retreat without resistance. From his point of view, he’d accomplished his mission of forcing Lee’s troops from Maryland and preventing a Confederate win on Union soil. President Lincoln, however, thought McClellan missed a great opportunity to potentially end the war three years earlier than it ultimately would. After the war-weary general repeatedly refused Lincoln’s orders to pursue Lee’s retreating troops, Lincoln removed McClellan from command.
If you paid the slightest bit of attention in high school history, you probably know that the event the launched WWI was the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria. The assassination plot was formed by members of the Young Bosnia, a splinter group of the Black Hand Society, whose goal was uniting all of the territories with a South Slavic majority not ruled by either Serbia or Montenegro. They were incensed that the head of the oppressive state would come to Sarajevo for a parade on the anniversary of the Battle of Kosovo, which was one of their main rallying points.
Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife passed through the city, never knowing they were driving past would-be assassins in an open-top car. Of the six young men who had conspired to kill the Archduke, two lost their nerve, one took pity on Duchess Sophie — the couple was also on holiday for their anniversary — and one had equipment failure. Nedeljko Čabrinović, however, would not waste his chance. As the limo passed over a bridge, he hurled the bomb he was carrying. Perhaps from adrenaline, he threw too hard and the bomb sailed over the target car, detonating the car behind it, wounding twenty people. The Archduke’s car sped off. The last man stationed along the route, too far from the bridge to know what had happened, was Gavrilo Princip. Seeing that the Archduke was alive and his comrades had failed, he became disheartened and slunk away. He would not become an immortal hero to like-minded people that day and he went to a cafe for a consolation snack. What Princip could not know was that shortly after the explosion, Ferdinand ordered the motorcade to go to the hospital where the wounded were being treated. The car was driven by his regular chauffeur, not a local, and the change in route caused him to get lost, turning down a street they were never supposed to be on, directly in front of the cafe where Princip stood eating. The driver was in the midst of turning the car around when Princip leapt up and fire two shots that would ultimately take over 18 million lives.
What became of Cabrinovic, you may ask. He had to escape quickly, so he lept over the side of the bridge…into a river only inches deep. One leg was too badly injured for him to run, so in a defiant ‘you’ll never take me alive’ act, he swallowed the cyanide pill each of the members of Young Bosnia had been given. This was when he learned that suicide pills are not the sort of thing to scrimp on. Rather than dying, he sat on the riverbank vomiting as police came to arrest him.
One of the most murderous dictators of the twentieth century, Joseph Stalin, had actually been an ally of the United States during WWII. The Grand Alliance, as it was called, was at best an uneasy union. It was an alliance born from the need to stop Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party from taking over Europe. American president Franklin Roosevelt didn’t trust Stalin and the US rejected the growing list of demands from the USSR between 1943 and ‘45. The USSR hadn’t forgotten America’s participation in the armed intervention against the Bolsheviks in the Russian Civil War, as well as its long refusal to recognize the Soviet Union as a legitimate country.
Stalin was rightfully feared at home and abroad. The actual death toll of his regime will never truly be known. No one disputes that it runs into the millions. People disappeared for [reasons], some sent to gulags –prison camps where they would be worked or starved to death, if they didn’t freeze first– while others were executed on the spot. Stalin’s senior officers, their homes and offices bugged by the secret police, were all terrified of him. He refused to trade prisoners of war with Germany to get his own son back, a son he had mocked after a failed suicide attempt by saying he couldn’t even shoot straight. Stalin even had his doctor jailed as a British spy, for suggesting he take things a little easier in his later years. This and one other factor brought down an absolute tyrant. Stalin’s personal guards were as frightened of him as anyone else. He had given them explicit instructions that he was not to be disturbed, except in the case of a state emergency. The threat of death was implied. So it came to pass on March 2, 1953, that the guards did not go into Stalin’s quarters, even as the clocks ticked past the hour he would normally rise. By the time one of them mustered the courage to open Stalin’s bedroom door that evening, Stalin had been laying on the floor, incapacitated by a stroke, for as long as 16 hours. He died a few days later, sealing his chapter of the often brutal history of Russia.
To the east, in the Pacific theater of WWII, another tiny detail changed the course of history for every occupied continent. Most public school education and pop culture, such as video games and movies, focus on European battles, almost entirely ignoring the Pacific war. The best-known incident, the attack on Pearl Harbor, saw American casualties over 3,500 airmen and sailors, along with the loss of two destroyers and nearly 200 aircraft. For the next six months, Japan dominated the Pacific skies with their A6M Zero fighters, winning nearly every battle against less-experienced American pilots in technologically-inferior planes. Attacks and occupations of China, which began in the 1930’s, killed between 15 and 20 million people. One out of every six American POW’s taken after the Fall of Singapore would die. It would take the loss of four aircraft carriers at the Battle of Midway, which saw ten Marines killed for every Japanese combatant, to begin to push the Japanese forces back.
Held near Berlin in July 1945, the Potsdam Conference was the last meeting of the “Big Three” heads of state, American President Harry S. Truman, who had recently succeeded Roosevelt upon his death, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin. They established a Council of Foreign Ministers and a central Allied Control Council for administration of Germany. Although talks centered primarily on postwar Europe, the Big Three also issued a declaration demanding “unconditional surrender” from Japan. After their terms were translated into Japanese, they waited anxiously for the reply from Japanese Prime Minister, Kantaro Suzuki. The terms included a statement to the effect that any negative answer from Japan would invite “prompt and utter destruction.”
Newspaper reporters in Tokyo pressed the Prime Minister to say something about Japan’s position. No formal decision had been reached and Suzuki replied “mokusatsu.” The word mokusatsu, derived from the word for “silence,” can be interpreted in several different ways. Suzuki meant it as the press release standard “no comment.” However, translators for media agencies in the west interpreted the word to mean Suzuki was ignoring the surrender demand, that it was not worthy of comment and he was treating it with silent contempt. The Americans took this reported arrogance to mean there could never be a diplomatic end to the war. The atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima 10 days later. The mistranslation of a single word killed more than 70,000 people instantly and 100,000 more died as a result of the destruction and radiation. Blame could be split between whoever decided to translate “mokusatsu” by the one meaning without considering or denoting the alternatives and the Prime Minister himself for using such an ambiguous term.
Dealing with the press is often a prickly situation. The conclusion of WWII saw Germany and its capital of Berlin split into East and West sections, with the West (controlled by America, Britain and France) being capitalist and the East (controlled by the USSR) being Communist. While we often refer to them as East and West Germany, their official names were German Democratic Republic and Federal Republic of Germany, respectively. Life in East Berlin was difficult, to say the least, with the Soviets draining resources from the economy as a form of war reparations and the secret police, with wire taps and informations, always listening for dissent or disloyalty. As much as 20% of the East German population fled to the west before the government began to build the infamous wall in 1961, putting up over 100 miles of brick wall and barbed wire fence in a single night. The wall would eventually include spike strips, guard towers, and even land mines, as well as the demolition of nearby buildings to stop people from escaping by jumping from high windows. Contrary to how you’ve probably pictured it, the wall did not bifurcate the city, but instead went around West Berlin. This was because the capital city was entirely within the country of East Germany. The term for this is an enclave, a portion of a state or country surrounded by another state or country. A passport, which was hard to obtain, was required to go from one side to the other and people had to pass through one of three heavily guarded military checkpoints, designated Alpha, Bravo, and Charlie. Families were divided and people lost their livelihoods because their jobs were on the other side of the wall. Much in the way of a prison, soldiers patrolled the wall and shot-on-sight anyone trying to go over, under, around, or through. While there were successful escapes in the nearly three decades the wall stood, many people lost their lives in the attempt.
As time went on, the government began to grant people greater freedom of travel, but with near-prohibitive fees and paperwork requirements, though these did not deter people. By 1989, the Cold War had warmed significantly and there were sweeping changes in Eastern Block governments. Protests for democracy, free elections, and greater personal freedom were gaining strength. The government tried to placate the citizens by making travel permits easier to obtain. This was announced at a live press conference by Guenter Schabowski, a low-level official in the Socialist Unity Party of Germany. At the press conference, he read a list of sundry announcements, but one, concerning passports, caught the reporters’ attention. Schabowski said, in effect that every East German would now be able to get a passport and could go where they wanted, including to the West. A voice came from the back of the room, asking “When does it take effect?” Schabowski, caught off guard by the sudden interest, flipped through his papers and tossed out his best guess – ab sofort – now, immediately.
This statement hitting the airwaves was like a match touching a fuse. The citizenry did not know, nor care, that the rule was meant to go into effect the next day, with a litany of fine print and restrictions. Tens of thousand descended on Checkpoint Charlie and other crossing points to West Berlin. The East German border police, surprised and severely outnumbered, with no idea what was happening and no orders on how to respond, eventually opened the gates. People poured the checkpoint, while others on both sides began to climb the wall, sitting on top triumphantly. Someone swung a sledgehammer and so the Berlin Wall, both the structure and what it stood for, came down. Germany was reunited less than a year later and the Soviet Union dissolved soon after. This nation-changing moment could be viewed as a treatise on the importance of preparation. Schabowski had been given the memo shortly before the press conference and had only skimmed it in the car on the way there.
The single overarching characteristic of the Cold War, which had held the world in a state of tension for over forty years, was the imminent threat of a third world war, one that would be fought not with planes and tanks, but with nuclear weapons. This extinction-level event nearly began on the morning of Sept. 26, 1983. An alarm sounded in Serpokhov-15, the secret command center outside Moscow where the Soviet military monitored its early-warning satellites over the United States. Five Minuteman intercontinental ballistic missiles had been launched from an American base, the computer warned. The timing could hardly have been worse. Three weeks earlier, the Soviets had shot down a Korean Air Lines flight after it entered Soviet airspace, killing all 269 people on board, including a US congressman. President Ronald Reagan had rejected calls for freezing the arms race, declaring the Soviet Union an “evil empire.” Soviet leader, Yuri Andropov, was obsessed by fears of an American attack.
The critical link in the decision-making chain that day was one lieutenant colonel Stanislav Petrov. He was only two steps removed from the people who would advise Andropov to launch a retaliatory strike. His recommendation would have taken with little or no second-guessing. For five agonizing minutes, Petrov tried to assess the information that flooded into him from computer screens, the telephone, and the intercom. Finally, he made his decision. The alert was probably a false alarm. He called headquarters and reported the system malfunction. If he were wrong, the first nuclear blasts would have been within minutes. What did he base this world-saving call on? His gut. He had never fully trusted the early warning systems. Further, he suspected an attack that brazen would involve more than five missiles. His decision was actually a breach of protocol and disobeying order was not something taken lightly by the Soviet military. A later investigation concluded that Soviet satellites had mistakenly identified sunlight reflecting off clouds as the engines of intercontinental ballistic missiles.
It would be some years before the incident came to light and people learned the name of the man who quite possibly saved the entire world with a phone call. Petrov received no reward for his action. This incident and other bugs in the missile detection system embarrassed his superiors and the influential scientists responsible for it; if he had been officially recognized, they would have had to be punished. He was reassigned to a less sensitive post and then took early retirement, passing away at age 77 in May 2017.
Going back to the middle of the Cold War, we have Hemingway, Eichmann, “Stranger in a Strange Land,” Dylan, Berlin, Bay of Pigs invasion. The Bay of Pigs Invasion was a spectacular failure to invade Cuba by a brigade of former Cuban military officers backed by the CIA in April 1961. In an attempt to undermine the communist-leaning government of Fidel Castro, the members of the 1,400 man paramilitary Brigade 2506 launched their attack from their training base in Guatemala, landing at Playa Girón in the Bahía de Cochinos (Bay of Pigs in Spanish, obviously). Overwhelmed by Castro’s forces, the invaders surrendered less than three days later. But how did the tiny island nation route American-backed forced? There were a number of mistakes and missteps, but arguably the lynchpin error was that someone forgot about timezones.
The original invasion plan called for two airstrikes against Cuban air bases, with forces disembarking under cover of darkness for a surprise attack. The main force would advance across the island to Matanzas and set up a defensive position. The United Revolutionary Front, a rebel army of anti-Castro exiles, planned to send leaders to establish a provisional government, providing the Cuban population joined the invaders in overthrowing the regime.
The first mishap occurred on April 15, when eight bombers left Nicaragua to bomb Cuban airfields. The CIA had used obsolete World War II B-26 bombers, which missed many of their targets, and painted them to look like Cuban air force planes, though that ruse fell apart when photos of the planes hit newspapers. On April 17, Brigade 2506, hampered by bad weather and insufficient ammo, landed at beaches along the Bay of Pigs and immediately came under heavy fire. Cuban planes strafed the invaders, sank two escort ships, and destroyed half of the exile’s air support. Over the next 24 hours, Castro ordered roughly 20,000 troops to advance on the beach, and the Cuban air force continued to control the skies. As the situation grew increasingly grim, President Kennedy authorized an “air-umbrella” at dawn on April 19. Six unmarked American fighter planes took off to help defend the brigade’s B-26 aircraft flying. But the B-26s arrived an hour late. They took off from Nicaragua, which is GMT -6, headed for Cuba, which is GMT -5. No one had accounted with the loss of that hour when the attack was scheduled. They were shot down by the Cubans, and the invasion was crushed later that day.
The failure was a blight for the American government but a boon for the Cubans. Revolutionary leader Ernesto “Che” Guevara actually thanked White House adviser and speechwriter Richard Goodwin for the attack six months later at a conference of the Americas. As Goodwin recorded in a memo declassified in the 1990s, Che “went on to say that he wanted to thank us very much for the invasion—that it had been a great political victory for them—enabled them to consolidate—and transformed them from an aggrieved little country to an equal.” At least the invasion didn’t happen on a daylight savings weekend or who knows what could have happened.
If you started singing “We Didn’t Start the Fire” once you recognized that opener, that’s okay; you’ve probably got a lot of company there. It’s been looping in my brain until I finished today’s script.
And that’s where we run out of ideas, at least for today. Call it the butterfly effect, if you want, or dominoes, or snowballing. By any name, it shows that tiny, seemingly inconsequential things can have unbelievably far-reaching effects. An ignored note helped lose England the colonies, a mistranslation brought on the first nuclear strike and a computer glitch could have killed us all. Thanks for spending part of your day with me.