20 Last-Gasp Decisions That Completely Altered The Course Of World History

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Throughout history, there have been times when people have made last-minute decisions on the spur of the moment. Sometimes the decision-makers have been prominent people, in other instances they’ve been unknowns. But the last-gasp decisions we describe here all have one thing in common: they changed history.

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20. Armageddon averted

The year 1983 was a particularly tense time in the Cold War stand-off between the Soviet Union and the United States. When Flight 007, a scheduled Korean Airlines service between New York City and Seoul, strayed into prohibited Soviet airspace on September 1, a Russian Su15 fighter shot it down. All of the 269 passengers and crew died, and the animosity between Russia and America was dialed up more than a few notches.

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Subsequently, on September 26 the Soviet Air Defense Force’s Lieutenant Colonel Stanislav Petrov was on duty monitoring systems designed to detect a U.S. attack on Russia. Terrifyingly, the equipment indicated the launch of up to six missiles targeting the Soviet Union from the U.S. But Petrov decided it must be a false alarm. As a result, he went against his standing orders, which called for instant retaliation – in other words, nuclear Armageddon. A later enquiry confirmed that the Soviet system had created a false positive. And that means everyone in the world owes Petrov a huge amount of gratitude.

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19. I have a dream

Probably more than any other single American, Martin Luther King can take credit for the successes of the human rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s. Indeed, King was recognized for his non-violent campaigning against racism by receiving a Nobel Peace prize in 1964. Grief and disbelief echoed around the world after King’s assassination four years later.

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The episode in King’s life that is perhaps the most remembered is the speech he made in 1963, when he addressed the huge crowds who’d joined the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. That was when he used the famous phrase “I have a dream…” several times. But those iconic words weren’t actually in his prepared text. He used them spontaneously, in fact, only deciding to do so as he gave his speech. A momentous last-minute decision indeed.

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18. Saved by a speech

Taking office in 1901, the 26th president of the U.S. Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt was a swashbuckling character. He’d chased and captured bandits, fought in the Spanish-American War of 1898 and taken and given punishment in the boxing ring. But he had a fantastically lucky escape in 1912 from a determined assassination attempt. That year, Roosevelt was in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on the political campaign trail.

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An incredible stroke of good fortune saved the great man. A would-be assassin called John Schrank sprang from the crowd and shot Roosevelt in the chest. But just before his speech, the former president had decided to stuff a 50-page text and his steel eyeglass case into the inside pocket of his jacket. The power of the bullet was sufficiently dissipated to allow Roosevelt to survive. Nevertheless, the bullet entered his chest. True to form, though, Roosevelt continued his speech for another 90 minutes, only seeking medical attention when he’d finished.

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17. Deadly laundry run

Buddy Holly was a huge star in his time, and his music lives on today. With his bespectacled, geeky good looks, the master songsmith wrote some of the best known and influential popular songs of the 20th century. Just think of titles such as “That’ll Be The Day,” “Peggy Sue” or “Maybe Baby.” And the guy only made three albums.

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Although he didn’t put a foot wrong in the world of music, Holly made a fatal decision while on tour with his band in 1959. The boys were traveling from one gig to another by bus. But Holly was desperate to have a brief break, in part to get some laundry done. So he chartered a small plane to take him to the next concert. Holly hoped that the speedy journey would allow him some much needed downtime. The plane crashed, however, killing the 22-year-old Holly and three others. It was truly the day the music died.

Image: F.G.O. Stuart

16. For the want of binoculars…

The largest ship in the world at the time, RMS Titanic set sail for her maiden voyage from the English port of Southampton on April 10, 1912. With more than 2,200 passengers and crew on board, she made short stops at Cherbourg, France, and Cobh, Ireland. Then she sailed into the open waters of the Atlantic, heading for New York City.

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The Titanic hit an iceberg and sank three days after she’d left England. The death toll was 1,572. A subsequent enquiry heard that second officer David Blair had initially been on the roster to crew the ship, but a last-minute decision led to him being left him on shore. However, Blair disembarked from the Titanic with the key to the locker where the ship’s binoculars were stored. At the enquiry Fred Fleet, who’d been acting as a lookout on the liner, said that if he’d had binoculars, he would have seen the berg earlier. And that would probably have allowed the vessel to take evasive action.

Image: United States Army Air Force

15. Japan’s luckiest city

Kokura is a Japanese city, and it can lay claim to being that nation’s luckiest place. Actually, it might well be the luckiest city in the world. In 1945 as the Second World War drew towards its end, the U.S. decided to hasten that conclusion by dropping two atomic bombs on Japan. The tactic proved to be successful, with the Japanese government surrendering not long after the obliteration of Hiroshima on August 6 and Nagasaki on August 9.

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But the original plan was to drop an atomic bomb on Kokura on August 9, 1945. However, the crew of the B-29 that was to release the bomb on Kokura had orders to do so only if they had a clear view of the target. It was cloudy that day over Kokura, though, so the crew decided to fly the plane on. The bomber dropped its deadly payload on Nagasaki instead, probably making Nagasaki the unluckiest city in the history of the world.

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14. Wrong turn that led to world war

Historians still argue about what precisely caused the outbreak of the First World War in 1914. But there’s general agreement that the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the crown of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, was a key contributing factor. The attack, which also killed the Archduke’s wife Sophie, took place in the Bosnian city of Sarajevo in June 1914.

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There had already been an attempt on the Archduke’s life earlier on that day, and so the route that his car was to take was changed. But the driver decided to turn up a street where one of the would-be assassins was by chance standing. Gavrilo Princip fired two fatal shots at the Duke and his wife. A month after their deaths, the First World War started.

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13. The mistake that felled the Berlin Wall

The Berlin Wall had divided West and East Germany since 1961. The East Germans had built the barrier to protect themselves from the evil capitalists in the West, or so they claimed. But many believed that it was actually to prevent their own people from defecting. In any case, by 1989 the state apparatus of the East German communists was on the brink of collapse.

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In an attempt to calm the situation, a senior East German official, Guenther Schabowski, called a press briefing. His plan had been to say that at some future date East Germans would be allowed to travel to the West. But for some reason, he decided to blurt out that this concession would be enacted immediately. As a result, an unstoppable flow of humanity consigned the Berlin Wall to the dustbin of history.

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12. Field Marshall Rommel takes a holiday

In June 1944 the Germans were well aware that a seaborne landing in northern France by the Allies was coming. The question was: when? The Allies had been cunning in concealing their precise plans. And on June 5 the German meteorological service believed that weather conditions precluded any chance of Allied troops crossing the Channel from England in the near future.

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With that in mind, Field Marshall Erwin Rommel, one of Hitler’s most effective generals, decided that it would be safe to take a trip to Germany to mark the birthday of his wife. Just a day later, the Allies launched the decisive amphibious attack that would eventually lead to the crushing of the Nazis. Rommel was still in Berlin, causing something of a leadership vacuum at a crucial moment. How different might things have been if the field marshal hadn’t decided to take that last-minute break?

Image: Jean-Baptiste André Gautier-Dagoty

11. Marie Antoinette prevaricates, loses head

During the French Revolution of 1789, things didn’t look great for France’s royal family, which was headed by Louis XVI and his queen, Marie Antoinette. Whether she really ever said “Let them eat cake” is questionable. But due to various incidents, she was certainly far from popular with her own citizens, particularly the revolutionaries among them.

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By 1791 the royals felt that their only guarantee of survival was to flee the country. Two light and speedy carriages were available to accomplish this plan. But Marie Antoinette decided that she wouldn’t split her family and entourage up in separate carriages. She insisted on taking a larger, slower and showier one instead, and a result they were soon captured. The guillotine performed its grim work on Louis in January 1793 and on Marie Antoinette later that same year.

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10. Killing Castro was too hard

American spooks hatched various plots to kill off Cuba’s communist leader, Fidel Castro. These plans ranged from the unusual to the downright bizarre. A giant shell would be booby-trapped with a bomb to blow Castro up when he was diving. His favorite ice cream would be laced with poison. An exploding cigar would blast his head off. Unsurprisingly, none of those plans came to anything.

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Eventually, a new plot was devised by the CIA: a woman would seduce and then kill Castro. Marita Lorenz was recruited and given poisonous pills with which to murder the Cuban leader. But when she met him, they made love instead. According to Lorenz, Castro actually handed her his pistol and offered her the chance to kill him. But she couldn’t do it. She seems to have decided that sex was better than murder. And who would argue with that?

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9. Hannibal’s stupid mistake

The Carthaginian general Hannibal Barca, born in 247 B.C., had an extraordinary plan to capture Rome. He would make a seemingly impossible journey across first the Pyrenees and then the Alps to take the city by surprise from the north. And one way in which he hoped to achieve this was by employing 38 elephants as pack animals.

Image: Heinrich Leutemann

But Hannibal’s bold tactic of invading via the Alps almost came to nothing. Heavy snowfall impeded the progress of his army. Angry at the delay, Hannibal jammed his walking stick into the snow to show it was passable. This inadvertently triggered an avalanche, however, in which many men were lost. Although Hannibal did eventually make it across the Alps and caused havoc in Italy, his weakened forces never captured the city of Rome, which had been his main objective. Perhaps if he hadn’t decided to whack the snow in a fit of temper, things might have been different.

Image: Julian Vannerson

8. A major general makes a mistake

It’s 1862, and the American Civil War is raging. One of the Confederacy’s generals, Robert E. Lee, is leading an expedition into Maryland. This will culminate in one of the war’s most important battles, Antietam. Naturally, Lee has carefully drawn up detailed plans for the impending battle.

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Unfortunately for Lee, he then decided to entrust a draft of the plans to one of his subordinates, Major General D.H. Hill. This turned out to be bad decision since, unaccountably, Hill stashed the crucial document in a box of cigars. He is said to have mislaid the box, and the plans came into the possession of the Unionists. The intelligence they gained helped them to win the Battle of Antietam, a key encounter in the conflict.

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7. Abraham Lincoln goes to the theater

President Lincoln had plans to visit the theater in Washington, D.C., on April 14, 1865. He was going to see Our American Cousin and would be accompanied by his wife Mary, as well as and Ulysses S. Grant and his spouse Julia. But those plans started to go awry – Julia refused to attend, apparently because she and Mary weren’t particularly fond of each other.

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Lincoln’s own bodyguard told the president that he should cancel his plans. But Lincoln felt obliged to turn up, as the public were expecting him to attend. Eventually, with some reluctance Lincoln and Mary went to the theater. John Wilkes Booth subsequently walked into Lincoln’s box and shot him dead. If only the president had heeded his bodyguard and had decided to stay at home.

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6. Rall lets Washington roll

German officer Colonel Johann Rall led a detachment of Hessian soldiers fighting in America alongside the British in the Revolutionary War. The story goes that Rall was engaged in a card school on Christmas Eve, when a loyalist spy handed him a note. Rall stuck the piece of paper in a pocket and apparently forgot about it.

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The very next day, General George Washington led his rebel army in an attack on Trenton, New Jersey, which turned out to be an important victory for the Revolutionaries. Rall was killed in the battle, and the note was subsequently discovered in his pocket. It revealed that Washington was about to attack. If Rall hadn’t decided to stick that crucial bit of paper in his pocket, he might have survived and Washington and his men might not have made it across the Delaware.

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5. The timing was all wrong

The U.S. government found the presence of a communist state, Castro’s Cuba, on its doorstep intolerable. As well as trying to assassinate Castro, a plan was hatched to support an invasion of Cuba by forces opposed to the regime. The operation was to take place on April 17, 1961, with an amphibious landing at the Bay of Pigs.

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The landing went ahead, but a key element of the invasion was a complete washout. The troops on the beach were supposed to have air support from American fighters. Somebody forgot to make sure that the ground invaders and the airforce were working to the same time, however. They weren’t. As a result, the planes turned up an hour too late to be effective, and the invasion was defeated.

Image: Jacek Halicki

4. The wrong seat on the bus

Born in 1913, Rosa Parks is of course a legendary figure of the American civil rights movement. On December 1, 1955, she was on her way home from her job as a seamstress in Montgomery, Alabama, when she boarded a bus. As usual, she sat in one of the seats reserved for “coloreds.” On this day, she happened to sit directly behind the seats that were for whites only.

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The bus became busy as it trundled through Montgomery. Consequently, the driver ordered Parks and others to vacate their seats so that white passengers would be able to use them. It seems that Parks had taken as much as she could stomach, and on the spur of the moment she refused. Parks was arrested and charged as a result. Her case became a cause célèbre and turned out to be an important step towards equal rights for African-Americans.

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3. He had Hitler in his sights

That Private Henry Tandey was a courageous soldier during the First World War is not in doubt. The Englishman won the Victoria Cross in 1918, Britain’s most senior military award for bravery. That medal came for Tandey’s outstanding courage in destroying a German machine gun post and then fighting on despite being wounded.


But it was another episode that Tandey became best remembered for. On the same day that he won his Victoria Cross, Tandey spotted a German soldier, apparently wounded and exhausted. Tandey had the German in the sights of his rifle. But the enemy soldier showed no signs of aggression, and Tandey decided to let him live. That man, it is believed, was Adolf Hitler.

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2. The miracle of the dirty dish

It’s August 1928, time for medical researcher Dr. Alexander Fleming to take his annual vacation. On his last day at work, there’s a pile of Petri dishes containing various samples of staphylococci bacteria stacked up in a corner of his laboratory. Fleming, notorious for his untidiness, decides not bother cleaning them. They can wait until he comes back to work, after all.

Image: CDC/Dr. William Kaplan

Fleming duly returns to his lab at St Mary’s Hospital in the Paddington area of London in September. Examining the dirty Petri dishes he’d left out, he notices something strange. A mold has formed, killing much of the bacteria in the dishes. Fleming has just stumbled across one of the most revolutionary discoveries in modern medicine: penicillin. That decision not to do the washing up eventually won the Scotsman a Nobel Prize, a knighthood and the gratitude of the human race.

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1. Clinton failed to kill Bin Laden

Three years before the September 11 attacks of 2001, Osama Bin Laden was already a wanted man. In 1998 President Bill Clinton had given CIA special forces authority to arrest Bin Laden and bring him to the U.S. to stand trial. This was after Bin Laden had masterminded the attacks on the American embassies in Tanzania and Kenya, bombings that had resulted in more than 200 deaths.

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In a speech Clinton made to businessmen in Australia on the day before the 9/11 attacks, he revealed that he had actually spurned an opportunity to kill Bin Laden. The terrorist leader had apparently been located in the Afghani town of Kandahar. But Clinton said that killing Bin Laden at that point would also have resulted in the deaths of 300 innocent civilians. As a result, the then president decided not to give the order.