We move from the Americas to China to Africa for some grand historical mistakes.
The Seven Greatest Blunders in History
Blunder; a stupid or careless mistake.
"Any blunder committed in the past opens the avenue for the success of the future. However, the success of the future massively is fueled by how positively the mistakes of the past are handled!"
― Israelmore Ayivor
"Errors were not only meant to be committed by fools."
― Michael Bassey Johnson,
Criteria for this list include influence and impact. When one thinks of blunders, one thinks of head-slapping idiocy such as Custer's decisions before Little Bighorn, Caligula's failure to read his audience, or Kublai Kahn's inability to learn, in his second failed invasion of Japan, that there are typhoons in the Sea of Japan. In each of these cases, the blunders did not alter the direction of history. The Plaines were still taken from the Native Americans despite Custer's disaster. Caligula's madness did not bring about the collapse of the Roman Empire. Though Kublai was weakened by the Kamikaze storms that wrecked his second invasion of Japan, the Mongolian Empire's breakup, the Chinese favoring Kublai on one side, and the more traditionalist nomads on the other, was inevitable. We are exploring blunders that resulted in historical change.
Another aspect of this list is to exclude the historically stupid. For example, Edward II of England made many mistakes, favoring the wrong people and underestimating his wife among them. And though his errors could be categorized as blunders, the definition uses the term careless. I am looking for those mistakes made by otherwise intelligent, or at least, sane people.
Finally, I am looking at context. Neville Chamberlain, rightly, gets a lot of historical lambasting for his appeasement of Hitler. However, the level of vitriol depends on a mistake that many historians, especially progressive ones, make. The projection of our knowledge or values to an earlier time clouds a proper understanding of the decisions. In 1938 Chamberlain was just 20 years removed from the most horrific war in human history, one that had claimed the lives of nearly 1 million British people. Additionally, he did a stint in World War I as the prime governmental recruiter for the British Army. He found the young men and would help send them to their doom. Now politicians are elected to make hard calls, and his failure at Munich cannot be excused, but it can be understood. Given the context of World War I, probably the fiery Churchill was the only national figure who would have stood up to the Nazis in 1938.
And then there is blunder vs. a pattern. I wanted to put Franklin Delano Roosevelt on this list – really, really badly. He made many mistakes, from interning 70,000 American citizens to Pearl Harbor. The largest, and the one we are still dealing with, is the New Deal. Rather than saving us from the Great Depression. WWII got us out of the Depression, and yet we have New Deal this and new Deal that. The problem was that the New Deal was not some blunder but a piece with a trend that went back to 1894. From Teddy Roosevelt to the progressive movement to Woodrow Wilson to even Herbert Hoover, the belief in expansionist government was set 40 years before Roosevelt became president. He just received the crisis necessary to implement that vision fully. Yet the influence of Wilson, so germane to Roosevelt's schemes, cannot be so dismissed. Yet without Teddy, there may not have been a President Wilson. So a Roosevelt makes a list, just not the New Deal one. Perhaps in the future, I will craft an All-American collection.
With that, here is my list.
One of the strange aspects of history is how two Pre-Columbian Emperors allowed two Spanish adventurers, Cortes in the case of the Aztecs and Pizarro in the case of the Incas, close to the royal personages. Close enough to take them, prisoner. In neither case did the two Emperors, Montezuma of the Aztecs and Atulhalpa of the Incas, whose capture was affected just 20 years apart, take the simple precaution of only meeting with the leader alone with a bunch of guards.
In the Jet Li movie Hero, the tale takes place in ancient China during the Warring States period; Nameless, a Qin perfect, arrives at the Qin capital city to meet the king of Qin, who has survived multiple attempts on his life by the assassins Long Sky, Flying Snow, and Broken Sword. As a result, the king has implemented extreme security measures: no visitors can approach the king within 100 paces. Nevertheless, nameless claims that he has slain the three assassins and their weapons are displayed before the king, who allows the former to approach within ten paces and tell him his story. Yet Nameless later decides not to go through with the assignation; instead, choosing a unified China is better than one at war. It is odd, especially on the part of Atulthalpa, given that when he meets Pizarro, he had just overcome his brother in an Incan Civil War. This was not a naïve man.
Does the same argument apply to that of Custer? Would the conquest of the two Empires have been affected had Cortes and Pizarro not been so lucky or the Emperors so careless? The Europeans possessed incredible technological advantages in ships, guns, gunpowder, steel, and writing. They had domesticated horses, an advantage lacking the Aztecs and Incans whose only large domestic mammal was the Llama. And, of course, the Europeans had the Germs. Before the winter of 2020, people could imagine the impact of microbes. Still, in our COVID world, it is far easier to see how devastating bringing Eurasian microbes to an unaffected hemisphere is. And what the Europeans brought was on a factor of x times anything we have seen.
Yet if the Emperors simply not met with the Europeans and chose to fight, there were certain advantages. The Spanish ability to project large armies across the ocean was problematic. To be more accurate, Emperor Charles V, or Charles I of Spain, was busy fighting the French, Germans, and even the Ottoman Empire. His son and successor, Phillip II, would add the Dutch and English to that list. It is not as though these men had the money or spare troops to send thousands of miles overseas, whatever the lure of gold. Given the germ aspect of European advantage, the Empires would have been overwhelmed, eventually. Still, the time and cost necessary to do so would have allowed other nations, most notably the English and French, to consider their plans and interventions. This is all speculative, but the rapid fall of both Empires in just a decade and a half was not.
2. Charlemagne takes a crown and divides his realm.
Okay, technically, these are two blunders, but both had the effect of dividing Europe for the next 1,000 years. Charlemagne was the most powerful Western European between the time of the Roman Emperor Constantine in the 4th Century and his eventual successor, Charles V Habsburg, in the 16th. Yet, he would make two blunders.
The first, his taking the Crown from a pope. On Christmas Day in the year 800 A.D. Charlemagne, king of the Franks and part of the Carolingian line, was crowned Holy Roman Emperor by Pope Leo III. The coronation took place during mass at the Basilica of St. Peter in Rome; immediately following the coronation, the acclamation of the people of Rome was heard: "To Charles, the most pious Augustus, crowned by God, the great and peace-giving Emperor, life and victory." After this proclamation was made three times, the king "was adored by the pope in the manner of ancient princes; and, the title of patricius being dropped, he was called emperor and Augustus." The coronation of Charlemagne created the Holy Roman Empire, which endured until 1806. Unlike Charlemagne's contemporary scholar Einhard, I do not believe the crowning was a surprise.
Given that a Byzantine Emperor was in the east, this elevation would create parity for Charlemagne. And his attempts to achieve legitimacy over places such as Italy and Saxony, provinces beyond his original Frankish lands, also helped him rule these conquered lands. Even though Charlemagne did not view himself as a Roman emperor, he accepted the title granted by the pope in the face of potential Eastern objections. But where he blundered was not a simple assumption of the title, as had the Roman Emperors before him. For the likes of Augustus to Diocletian, the simple premise of the role has added the title. But by having Leo crown him, he added legitimacy to the church's role.
A contention could be made that given the timing of the 800s and the power of Christianity, it would have been impossible to achieve the rank of emperor without the papal blessing. But there would have been ways around it, including crowning himself and receiving the blessings of all the Cardinals, thus minimizing the pope's role.
For the next 400 years, Charlemagne's Holy Roman Empire heirs would contend with Popes in all manner of ways culminating in the investiture controversy. Henry IV, who ruled from 1056 to 1105, helped the German monarchy reach the height of its power, but he also started a bitter argument with the reigning pope. Like Otto III before him, Henry argued with the reigning pope - this time Gregory VII - over who had the right to authorize the appointment of officials. This action is known as an investiture. This fight, known as the Investiture Controversy, led to the king and the pope renouncing each other's position. Because German nobles were loyal to the pope, the king had to renounce some of his authority by begging the pope to recognize him as king. This is supposed to have happened with the emperor of the West standing like a penitent beggar in the snow outside the papal residence.
The second blunder followed a Frankish tradition of dividing the realm upon the ruler's death. Charlemagne had planned on dividing his lands among his three sons. These included King Charles the Younger, who received Neustria; King Louis the Pious, Aquitaine; and King Pepin, who received Italy. Pepin died with an illegitimate son, Bernard, in 810, and Charles died without heirs in 811. Although Bernard succeeded Pepin as King of Italy, Louis was made co-emperor in 813, and the entire empire passed to him with Charlemagne's death in the winter of 814. Though Louis ruled alone, the pattern was set. Unlike China or India, this precedent meant that at Louis' death, the empire would see division among Louis' three sons. Lothar received the imperial title, the kingship of Italy, and the territory between the Rhine and Rhone Rivers collectively called the Central Frankish Realm. Louis was guaranteed the kingship of all lands to the East of the Rhine and to the north and east of Italy, which was called the Eastern Frankish Realm, the precursor to modern Germany. Charles received all lands west of the Rhone, called the Western Frankish Realm, and the precursor to France.
For the next 1,000 years, that middle realm of Lothar's would become a bone of contention for the other two realms and even a thorn in the side of the French Kings into the 1400s.
How much bloodshed would have been avoided had Charlemagne set a different course.
Understood that as a medieval monarch, Charlemagne, like all western Europeans, was limited by custom and reliance upon his nobles. But if there was any medieval figure who could have changed this custom, made an argument for it, it was Charlemagne.
3. The Byzantines and Persians fight each other Into Exhaustion.
The Byzantine–Sasanian War of 602–628 was the final and most devastating series of wars fought between the Byzantine Empire and the Sasanian Empire of Iran. In 602, Emperor Maurice was murdered by his political rival Phocas. With this disunity within Byzantium, The Sasanian Emperor Khosrow proceeded to declare war, ostensibly to avenge the death of the deposed emperor Maurice. This became a decades-long conflict, the longest war in the series, and was fought throughout the Middle East: in Egypt, the Levant, Mesopotamia, the Caucasus, Anatolia, Armenia, and the Aegean Sea and before the walls of Constantinople itself.
By the end of the conflict, both sides had exhausted their human and material resources and achieved very little. Consequently, they were vulnerable to the sudden emergence of the Islamic Rashidun Caliphate, whose forces invaded both empires only a few years after the war. The Muslim armies swiftly conquered the entire Sasanian Empire and the Byzantine territories in the Levant, the Caucasus, Egypt, and North Africa. In the following centuries, the Byzantine and Arab forces would fight a series of wars to control the Near East.
Would the Arab armies have prevailed had there been a vigorous foe to contend. In over 3000 years, the Arab armies had never been united, and it is possible that even fired by the prophecies of Mohammad, defeats would have led to disunity. There were always tribal divisions and, at the inception, a schism between the Caliphs and the followers of Ali, soon to be the Shiites. Persia or Iran's fortunes have waxed and waned but they never (or at least not yet) regained the hegemony over the near east both the original Persians under Cyrus, and the later Empire under Sasan, achieved. The Byzantines descended into arguably the slowest but perpetual decline in history, finally succumbing to the Ottoman Turks 800 years later in 1453. And the impact upon Islam on world history, now the second-largest religion, would not only fill up an entire book, but it could also fill a sized sound library.
4. The Ming turns inward.
After a period of maritime explorations in the early 15th Century, the Ming Dynasty started shutting the Middle Kingdom out of the rest of the world. This, of course, continued with the Qing, and the empire remained primarily isolated until the 19th Century because of foreign "initiative." However, just when Spain and Portugal started flourishing with an economy based on trade, the Chinese chose to close their doors to the world.
They pretty much had all they needed resource-wise in the country, trade was not a prerogative, and even though Zheng He did go out exploring, they were not interested in colonies. Mercantilism was frowned upon within the Confucian system; merchants did not produce goods. Instead, they moved them around and made money, making them a drain on the system. The few who were enterprising and maybe came up with some new product might often find themselves in competition from the government. The Emperor system considered itself the center of the world, the focus of the heavens. When outsiders came, they gave tribute and fealty to the emperor, so the outside world came to them; they did not need to go out.
In the 15th Century, China possessed gun powder, ocean-going ships, writing, and printing. In other words, of all the non-European empires we have seen or will see later in this piece, they were best positioned to contend with Europe. But, by turning inward, they ceded the technological advantage to the West, and from that lack of power has come the Opium Wars, the Boxer Rebellion, Japanese invasions of the 1930s, and developing status, or at least until 30 years ago.
5. Teddy Runs Again
In a previous podcast, I provided a speech from George Will on Woodrow Wilson; its quality dictates. So I use it again, "I firmly believe that the most important decision taken anywhere in the 20th century was where to locate the Princeton graduate college," Will declared. The university's president, Woodrow Wilson, then a high-minded political scientist who'd yet to run for public office, insisted that the new residential college be integrated into the main campus. But after a lengthy and bitter academic feud in 1910, the university's trustees and donors sided with the graduate school dean, who chose a more secluded location adjoining a golf course. "When Wilson lost," Will told the black-tie crowd, "he had one of his characteristic tantrums, went into politics and ruined the 20th century."
Woodrow Wilson is one of the worst presidents ever to serve for one fundamental reason. He was the first to reject the precepts of our Constitution. I have spoken at length about this in ano, their podcast but suffice for this one to say that the concepts of limited government, checks and balances, separation of powers, federalism, and individual autonomy, all were rejected by Wilson as impediments to his grand vision of America as a … a beehive. Yes, he used that analogy. And keep in mind that there are only three kinds of bees in the hive, workers, a Queen, and drones. You can decide which of these you may occupy in the Wilsonian analogy, but note hives are not exactly models of self-determination. But what Will does not elaborate upon was that Wilson should never, or would never be elected, had it not been for the relentless ego of Theodore Roosevelt, the first president (not the last) to attempt to serve more than the two-term precedent set by Washington.
Populist Theodore "Teddy" Roosevelt came to the presidency after the assassination of President William McKinley in 1901. He was elected in his own right in 1904, served his second term, and then, following tradition, announced he would not seek a third term in 1909. However, by 1912, he has become so disenchanted with the man who followed him, William Taft, which he decides to run. Unfortunately, he does not get the nomination of the Republican Party, so he organizes the Progressive Party, which is also known as the Bull Moose Party, and runs under its banner. Although he received more votes than Taft, the split among Republicans hands the election to Democrat Woodrow Wilson.
After the mid-term election of 1894, which saw the Democratic Party lose an astounding 107 seats in the House of Representatives, the Republican Party was in the ascendancy. They would easily win 7 out of 9 presidential elections from 1896 through 1928. Of the two they lost, both to Wilson, one was in 1916 when Wilson was not only an incumbent but running on a peace platform amidst the carnage of World War I. But there is every reason to believe that if Taft had been running in 1912, alone against Wilson, he would have won. Teddy stands far above in an office in which egos are part of the game (think of Obama's boasts that he was better at everything than his staff). And he brought us the progressive spirit into the fore with his megalomania. Will was close but wrong. It was Teddy who ruined the 20th Century.
6. Five leaders all think they can win.
Different leaders, different positions, but five key European leaders, HH Asquith, René Viviani, Emperor Franz Joseph, Kaiser William the II, and Russian Tsar Nicholas II, all went into the war not reluctantly, but with enthusiasm. The spark that ignited World War I was struck in Sarajevo, Bosnia, where Archduke Franz Ferdinand—heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire—was shot to death along with his wife, Sophie, by the Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip on June 28, 1914. Princip and other nationalists struggled to end Austro-Hungarian rule over Bosnia and Herzegovina.
The assassination of Franz Ferdinand set off a rapidly escalating chain of events: Austria-Hungary, like many countries around the world, blamed the Serbian government for the attack and hoped to use the incident as justification for settling the question of Serbian nationalism once and for all.
Because mighty Russia supported Serbia, Austria-Hungary waited to declare war until its leaders received assurance from German leader Kaiser Wilhelm II that Germany would support their cause. Moreover, Austro-Hungarian leaders feared that a Russian intervention would involve Russia's ally, France, and possibly Great Britain.
On July 5, Kaiser Wilhelm secretly pledged his support, giving Austria-Hungary a so-called carte blanche, or "blank check" assurance of Germany's backing in the case of war. The Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary then sent an ultimatum to Serbia, with such harsh terms as to make it almost impossible to accept. Convinced that Austria-Hungary was readying for war, the Serbian government ordered the Serbian army to mobilize and appealed to Russia for assistance. Finally, on July 28, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia, and the tenuous peace between Europe's great powers quickly collapsed. Russia, Belgium, France, Great Britain, and Serbia had lined up against Austria-Hungary and Germany within a week. World War I had begun, and an entire generation of European men would be destroyed to list one result; the Soviet Union would be born.
Why were all of these nations and their leaders so eager to go to war? Because all thought they would win. France, smarting from the defeat in the Franco-Prussian war, felt the spirit of Napoleon would carry them through. Germany was at that point, possessed the preeminent army in the world. Austria-Hungary had the support of Germany.
Russia had the most people and felt that the sheer size of their army would prevail. England possessed the largest empire the world had ever seen, with provinces on every continent and the world's largest navy. None of them could imagine defeat. And none of them had a clue about modern warfare. So for the next four years, various countries would hurl troops at trenches and machine guns.
7. The Songhay Disunite
Songhay was the largest of the indigenous empires in Africa. At its zenith in the late 15th Century and early 16th centuries, it covered around 540,000 square miles, stretching east-west for 1,200 miles along the River Niger with the Sahara to the north and the Sudan savannah to the south. Although it incorporated the great center of Islamic learning and culture at Timbuktu, its capital was further East at Gao.
Eventually, the empire was crushed by an army of Moroccans equipped with modern firepower, including Harquebuses. But by the time that army arrived, Songhay had been weakened by internal strife. While some emperors, such as Askia Toure and Askia Dawud, were able to secure their thrones and rule successfully, the succeeding periods were characterized by fratricidal rivalries and rifts.
By 1515, the Songhay Empire had reached its peak, but it would soon enter into a decline. Askia Muhammad maintained numerous concubines, and the equally numerous (and jealous) sons they produced played a part in the empire's downfall. In 1528, a son named Musa rebelled against their elderly and blind father and some of his brothers. Askia Muhammad was forced to abdicate so that his rebellious son, Askia Musa, could reign.
Askia Musa's reign was off to a bad start when his brothers rebelled against his rule. Battles raged between his troops and brothers, but he still emerged as the victor. Those who were not killed in battle were driven into exile. He killed the rest of his brothers in Gao and ruled the empire until he, too, was killed in 1531.
In terms of political history, much of the narrative around empire is dominated by the rise of a particular dynasty, their peak, and then their fall until the next one rises again, albeit with a brutal period in between as factions scramble for power. The area of Africa along the Niger River saw the rise of Ghana in the 6th century CE, the rise of Mali in the 1200s, and that of the Songhay. But the modern age changed that dynamic. With European powers and modern ship-borne travel, the situation changed. The Songhay Empire fell apart right as the Europeans began to both take an interest in central African wealth and just when large workforces were needed for American colonies whose natives had been decimated by plague. The trans-Atlantic slave trade was the most significant long-distance forced movement of people in recorded history. From the sixteenth to the late nineteenth centuries, over twelve million (some estimates run as high as fifteen million) African men, women, and children were enslaved, transported to the Americas, and bought and sold primarily by European and Euro-American slaveholders as chattel property used for their labor and skills. Many of these people were taken from lands near the original Songhay realm.
Could a united and powerful Songhay have stopped the Europeans given the latter's technological advantage? Though the Songhay would have been hard-pressed. It would have at least delayed the expansion. And having a rallying point might have led some of the resultant nations on a different course. We know that after its fall, history is a brutal one of slaves, colonization, rule by tyrannical African strong men, and continued exploitation. Even today, in 2021, the pattern does not end. This from the New York Times, "Outsiders are discovering — and exploiting — the natural resources of this impoverished Central African country are following a tired colonial-era pattern. The United States turned to Congo for uranium to help build the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and then spent decades, and billions of dollars, seeking to protect its mining interests here.
Now, with more than two-thirds of the world's cobalt production coming from Congo, the country is once again taking center stage as major automakers commit to battling climate change by transitioning from gasoline-burning vehicles to battery-powered ones. The new automobiles rely on a host of minerals and metals often not abundant in the United States or the oil-rich Middle East, which sustained the last energy era. It is worth considering that if the Songhay royal family members knew their fates, much less those of their peoples, they might have made different choices.