Inspirational quotes about making mistakes are so ubiquitous that they fill entire books, not to mention all those stories of how inventions or other discoveries came about by accident. Well, time to look at the other side of the coin: mistakes where the brunt of the cost was borne by thousands, maybe millions of people with little to no say in the decision-making process, and who very often had to pay with their very lives. In some instances, all of humanity could have been affected by it, and will continue to be for the foreseeable future.
10. The Handcart Expedition
In 1856, the followers of Mormonism had brought 1,100 from the United Kingdom and Scandinavia to Missouri, and it was intended for them to press on to what Brigham Young declared would be Zion in Utah to escape the persecution they were experiencing in states that had been admitted into the Union at the time. As the converts were too poor to buy covered wagons or oxen to haul them, the expedition turned to hand carts. It was reasoned that not only would the alternative be cheaper, the light loads could be moved fast enough to get the new arrivals to Zion in two months.
Young and the other organizers’ calculations were wrong in just about every way they could be. For one, they overestimated the sturdiness of the greenwood material that went into the carts, meaning that they soon had dozens of wrecks. For another, the groups were allowed to head out in August instead of the recommended May departure. En route, supplies such as blankets – which could be lifesavers – weren’t just abandoned, but actively burned to destroy the temptation to turn back for them later in the journey. No resupply areas were set up for the converts, and word was not sent forward to any existing settlements. Salt Lake City, the main population from which any sort of rescue mission could be launched, didn’t even know they were coming.
The end result was that 210 people died from cold, starvation, and other causes on the way to Zion. Effectively, Young had inflicted five Donner Party disasters’ worth of losses on the Mormon flock. Rather than own up to it, the leaders of the church made the handcarts into a significant religious symbol and a tribute to the faith and stalwartness of their adherents, including using handcarts in reenactments for generations after.
9. The Overruled Yamamoto War Game
The 1942 Battle of Midway, which resulted in the destruction of four Japanese aircraft carriers, is widely marked to be the turning point in the war in the Pacific that made Japanese defeat inevitable. What certainly wasn’t inevitable was that on the afternoon of June 4, the Japanese carriers off the Aleutian Islands of Alaska would be having their planes refueled and rearmed (switching from dive bombs to torpedos, the preferred weapon against combat ships at the time) just in time for American aircraft to attack. In fact, the Japanese command had an ominous warning that this could happen.
On May 1, the Japanese naval command for the battle convened for a war game to test contingencies for their plan to attack the Aleutian Islands. When the eventuality of the carriers being attacked without air cover was tested (the main difference between the initial test conditions and reality on June 4 being that, in reality, the planes were still on the carriers, while in the game it was postulated they would be away on their bombing mission), there was a roll of the dice to determine the damage American bombers could inflict. When the results were a grievous loss of one carrier and damaging of another, Admiral Matome Ugaki overruled the findings, not believing American bombers could do nearly that damage even if they caught the carriers with their defenses down, and no one questioned the theorizing or reevaluated the strategy. This downplaying of the crisis impacted Japanese decision-making in a way that left them sitting ducks at the crucial moment.
8. Cuban LGBT Persecution
Even before the Cuban Revolution, homosexuality was taboo on the island nation. In the 1960s this state of affairs exacerbated, with homosexuals being arrested, losing jobs, or worst of all being sent to labor camps known as “Military Production Aid Camps” en masse. It wasn’t until 1979 that the Cuban government decriminalized homosexuality as long as it was not “publicly manifested.”
Unusually for a man in his position, in 2010 Fidel Castro admitted it was a mistake that such horrible acts had been committed against the LGBT community of Cuba. Furthermore, he admitted that it was his fault. Some have argued that this was only part of a public relations campaign headed by his niece Mariela Castro. Nevertheless, it was an unusual effort for a former head of state in a communist country.
7. The Traitor Secretary of War
When discussing blunders of the American Civil War, usually the focus is one single doomed attack, such as Pickett’s Charge or Marye’s Heights at the Battle of Fredericksburg. However, the thousands of deaths that those attacks caused pale in comparison to the blunder that made the war possible. That was when President James Buchanan appointed former governor of Virginia John Floyd to serve as Secretary of War in 1857.
As Secretary of War, Floyd would send huge portions of federal arsenals to isolated locations where they could be seized without a shot being fired by newly emergent Confederate militias, allowing the seceding states to field thousands of artillery pieces even though there was hardly a cannon factory in the entire South. He went so far as to sell 10,000 rifles to a pro-Confederate militia in South Carolina in secret. If there was any doubt of where his sympathies truly lay, when the Civil War started he joined the Confederacy as a general (though considering his disastrous performance at Fort Donelson, future president Ulysses S. Grant said that joining the Confederacy was the best service he could render the Union). In short, Floyd was the one man most responsible for ensuring that 600,000 men died during the Civil War, instead of the near zero that died from the 1833 abortive secession of South Carolina.
6. The August 24 Bombing of London
After the conquest of France, Hitler’s plans for Britain were surprisingly lenient. He intended to negotiate peace before launching his invasion of the Soviet Union (more on this later). To that end, a significant aspect of Fuhrer Directive 17 was that terror bombings would “reserve for (himself) the right to decide on terror attacks as measures of reprisal” in the interest in concentrating offensive power on the Royal Air Force and preventing the strengthening of the British support for the war.
Instead, on August 24, Luftwaffe air crews ended up dropping bombs on London by accident, and in reprisal on August 25 RAF bombs were dropped on Berlin. As a result, necessary Luftwaffe material was wasted trying to kill civilians instead of weakening the RAF, and the resolve to end the war went away. That anonymous bomber crew accidentally provided the Allied war effort the greatest propaganda service of the war.
5. The Potato Blight
As of 2016, the population of Ireland still hadn’t recovered from the Great Famine of 1845-1849. A million people were forced to flee the island and another million starved to death, reducing the population by a full 25%. Considering that the potato blight disease that caused this disaster was brought through mold on ships from North America, it might be the worst American export in history.
British laws and policies were almost intentionally unhelpful. For one thing, for years there was little official intervention allowed, and exports of Irish grain to England continued. For another, an 1838 Poor Law sent those bankrupted and evicted to workhouses, naturally massively discouraging the desperate from seeking aid and leaving many communities short on workers needed for fields. Absentee landowners in England were generally reluctant to contribute to aid programs, and many primarily expanded their landholdings, feeding the suspicion that the famine was, if not deliberate on England’s part, at least not something they were too motivated to fix.
4. The Orissa Famine
Speaking of British policies providing ineffective countermeasures for famines, this historical catastrophe is so obscure that even the TopTenz list on famines did not include it. And yet, it cost humanity a million lives in 1866. To a significant degree, it was due to the East India Company devastating the textile industry in India’s Orissa region, leaving economies much more vulnerable to the whims of the weather and thus allowing a severe monsoon season to exact a heavier toll.
Official imperial response was to not intervene, and especially not to regulate the prices of grain which would leave the stocks more accessible to the general population. The human toll of this decision cost many communities as much as a third of their people. The British Empire would pay a high price in time for this laissez-faire approach, as the famine was a galvanizing event in the development of Indian nationalism.
3. Stalin’s Kiev Order
In terms of immediate loss of personnel, no single military campaign decision was as devastating for a military as Stalin’s orders regarding the defense of Kiev that began on September 7, 1941. By September 9, 1941, Field Marshal Budenny could see that the situation was hopeless and ordered an “orderly phased withdrawal” of all Soviet forces around Kiev. Joseph Stalin expressly forbade that, and in amazingly candid language ordered, “Stay and hold, and if necessary, die!”
An estimated 600,000 Soviet soldiers would follow the second half of that order either in combat or later in prison/death camps. Of the forces arrayed, only roughly 15,000 would escape the encirclement. Later historians have claimed that the battle still arguably saved the Soviet Union because Hitler had directed tens of thousands of soldiers that otherwise would have taken Moscow to circle back to Ukraine. But there’s little reason to believe they wouldn’t have also been able to function as a holding force if they were not encircled.
2. The Cultural Revolution
The Cultural Revolution was a movement in China during the last 10 years of Chairman Mao Zedong’s life, wherein intellectualism and the alleged emergence of new bourgeoisie was purged from China. This largely took the form of forming paramilitary groups called Red Guards by closing down schools and having the students harass elderly adherents to traditionalist values and purely intellectual pursuits. Zedong would resort to having to send Chinese troops after Red Guard groups that he himself had made possible, and the civil war would continue until 1977 when Deng Xiaopang (who himself had been purged from power early in the revolution) took power and held office for the next 20 years. By the end of the revolution it had cost an estimated 1.5 million lives.
Like Castro with Military Production Aid Camps, the Chinese Communist Party was willing to admit to this lethal blunder. In May 2016, Tuesday People’s Daily, the official paper of the Chinese Communist Party, announced that it would “never allow a mistake like the Cultural Revolution to happen again.” The validity of this observation was muddled by the fact that even as the statement was being published an official celebration of the revolution was held in Beijing, and many Chinese intellectuals claim the economic reforms of the purge put China in a position to become the economic powerhouse it has become today.
TopTenz has talked about the harm that Thomas Midgley inflicted on the workers for Tetraethyl production, but that was only scratching the surface of the harm the lead supplement for gasoline, introduced in 1923, caused for the world in general. It’s hard to say just how many premature deaths, miscarriages, and ruined nervous systems it caused after it forced its very inventor to spend months recuperating. However, a 2011 California State University report distributed by the United Nations found that an estimated 1.2 million premature deaths were prevented every year by the phasing out of leaded gasoline, and roughly 125,000 miscarriages.
Additionally, $2.4 trillion in damages were prevented, including acid rain. So perhaps it could be said that the effort to phase out leaded gasoline, spearheaded by widely blacklisted scientist Clair Patterson, was one of the most undersung efforts in human history.
Despite the phase out as a global effort beginning in 1971, several countries remained holdouts well into the 21st Century. This was largely due to infrastructure difficulties in refitting their petroleum industries to remove lead from the chemical process. The holdout nations included Yemen, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Officially, the last nation completed its phase out in 2021. Leaded gasoline is still causing death and nervous damage directly and legally through use in small aircraft, so Thomas Midgley will likely be harming humanity for decades to come.
Is Dustin Koski’s fantasy novel A Tale of Magic Gone Wrong the exact opposite of one of humanity’s greatest mistakes? You’ll have to read it to find out!