MIGHTY HISTORY

5 last-minute decisions that changed American military history

The former special operators who responded to the 2012 Benghazi attacks on the U.S. State Department in Libya didn't hesitate, they just reacted. They aren't alone. People in the military are famously trained to "move with a sense of purpose" at all times. This means they are taught to think fast, move fast, and act fast. It's just good practice – who knows when you might need to have a quick reaction time. Sometimes, we just have to make a quick judgment call and accept the consequences. Those consequences can be severe. It's the nature of the work we're in.

For better or for worse, the following six examples illustrate the need for decisive action.


1. The Confederates needed new shoes.

In 1863, things weren't looking good for the Confederate Army in the Civil War. Despite their early successes, time was not on their side. The North was ramping up war production and outfitting its men with clothes, food, and, most importantly, shoes. In an effort to resupply his forces at the Union's expense, Robert E. Lee decided to send a party north looking for railway depots that might be hoarding supplies for the Union Army. They didn't find as much as they'd hoped, and the entire Army of Northern Virginia stopped at a town in Pennsylvania called Gettysburg.

Before the entire massive army could arrive, Confederate cavalry began skirmishing with Union troops until it turned into full-on fighting. Lee was obliged to send reinforcements piecemeal before he could use his entire force. By the time he was ready, a Union Army had already arrived. What started out as a search for shoes became the turning point of the entire war.

2. Ulysses S. Grant declined a trip the the theater.

Just a few days after accepting the surrender of Robert E. Lee at Appomattox Court House, a Union victory was all but assured. The surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia would sap the will of the Confederates to continue fighting and lead to the era of Reconstruction. There was nothing that would revive the hopes of the Confederate States... unless the entire Union leadership were to be taken out in one fell swoop – and it nearly was.

On the night President Lincoln was assassinated, Secretary of State William Seward was brutally attacked in his home by John Wilkes Booth's co-conspirators, and Vice President Andrew Johnson was targeted but not attacked. One more person was to be targeted in the conspiracy: General Grant. Lincoln had invited the general to the theater with his wife, but too tired from years of Civil War, Grant declined. He later recounted in his memoirs having seen Booth tail him to the train station.

3. One Russian officer decides not to blow up the planet.

In September 1983, the Soviet Union's early warning system used to detect nuclear missile launches from the United States suddenly started going off. There was a very good chance the Americans had just launched a first strike against Soviet missile sites, precipitating a full-scale nuclear war. This required the officer on duty to return fire using the Soviet Union's nuclear arsenal. The computer told that officer the Americans had launched five nuclear weapons, and he was obliged to return fire using the USSR's 35,000-plus weapons.

The officer on duty that day was Lt. Col. Stanislav Petrov, and he wasn't as concerned about the nuclear exchange as some other officers might have been. Instead of launching an attack that would have turned into a U.S. counterstrike and potentially killing hundreds of millions of people. He just did nothing. For his troubles, the Russians interrogated him mercilessly.

4. The U.S. and USSR decide not to blow up the planet.

Even though the entire course of events lasted some 13 days, the entire course of events could have precipitated a nuclear exchange at almost any time. When the United States discovered the Soviet Union setting up a nuclear missile site in Cuba, it was too much for the Americans. President Kennedy told the Russians to move them off and set up a total blockade around the island. The next move belonged to the Soviet Union, and their response was anyone's guess. The United States mobilized for World War III.

It was later revealed in the documentary the Fog of War that Fidel Castro recommended a full nuclear first strike to the Soviet Union, but Nikita Khrushchev was much smarter than that, apparently. The White House received two messages from Moscow, the first was written very cordially and offered a peaceful solution. The second was written by a "bunch of hard-liners" that threatened the destruction of the United States. President Kennedy was forced to choose which message to respond to and which to ignore. Of course, he chose the diplomatic one.

5. The Kaiser changed the course of the 20th Century.

It's a well-known fact that World War I was entirely avoidable. With that goes World War II, the Cold War, nuclear arms races, communism, etc. Everything that happened in the 20th Century can be traced back to Germany's push for war in 1914. There was one man who could have just side-stepped the whole thing: Kaiser Wilhelm II.

As German and Russian allies declared war on each other, the Kaiser and the Tsar of Russia, Nicholas II, exchanged a flurry of personal telegrams aimed at stopping the tide of war just days before what would become known as "the Great War" would begin. Reading what "Nicky" wrote, the Kaiser (addressed by the Tsar as "Willy") was flustered about whether or not to actually attack and almost called the whole thing off. Instead of that, the German General Staff convinced him their plans were already in motion and could not be stopped for any reason. With this in his ears, he allowed the attacks to go forward, and the rest is history.