Murphy's Law: Top Ten Bad Decisions of the 20th Century


January 21, 2014: War brings out the worst in people, especially when it comes to making really bad decisions that have horrendous consequences. Below are the ten worst wartime decisions of the 20th century.

1-Germany gives Austria-Hungary free hand in 1914.  The Austro-Hungarian Empire was falling apart in 1914. The assassination of the Austrian crown prince in 1914 by a Serb nationalist gave Austrian hard-liners an opportunity to crack down on Slav dissidents in the Balkans. But this meant threatening war in the Balkans. That could bring in the Russians. Cooler heads suggested that Germany be consulted. The Germans told the Austrians to do what they thought best, and that Germany would back them up. This was a popular decision in Germany, where there was sympathy for the Austrians (who, while Germanic, were a minority in their own empire). The Austrian bluff didn't work, the Serbs fought, and the Russians came to the aid of the Serbs. The French honored their treaty with Russia and went to war as well. What began as an assassination turned into World War I. That, in turn, led to World War II. All because Germany would not say "no" to Austria's desire to start a war over an assassination.

2-Germany declares unrestricted submarine warfare in 1917.  Once in the war, Germany slowly, but irresistibly, began to win. One minor problem was its submarine war against British shipping from North America. The United States was neutral in the war, and American popular opinion was very much against getting involved. Germany, aware of American public opinion tried to avoid torpedoing ships carrying Americans. This was difficult so in 1917 Germany decided to make things a little easier for German submarine captains by allowing them to sink anything they came across. This led to German subs sinking ships with a lot of Americans on board. That was enough to get America into the war, and prevented Germany from winning World War I.

3-The victorious allies impose harsh terms on Germany after World War I. This created the economic and political atmosphere that enabled the Nazis to come to power. It was the same kind of harsh treatment of the French by the Germans after the 1870 war that helped cause World War I. This pattern finally was noted after World War II and a more practical approach adopted. In the 1920s German politicians allowed petty feuds and a desire for political revenge to make it possible for Adolf Hitler to take power in 1933. None of the mighty politicians, generals and business leaders thought a petty operator like Hitler could hold onto power even after he got it. They were wrong.

4-Stalin signs a non-aggression treaty with Germany in August 1939. Stalin thought this would keep Germany at bay until Russia could launch its own mighty offensive in 1943. Germany attacked first, in June of 1941. The Russians weren't ready and took a major beating (30-million dead). Russia almost lost the war.

5-Germany declares war on the United States after Japan attacked the U.S. in December 1941. At that point Germany had Russia and Britain on the ropes. The Japanese attack brought America into the war, but only against Japan. German armies were stalled in front of Moscow and Hitler thought Japan needed a little nudge to attack Russia. This would tie down troops that would otherwise be sent against the Germans. But Japan had fought border battles with the Russians in 1939 and came off very poorly. Hitler had failed to note this. When Hitler declared war against America on December 11, 1941, Japan did nothing, and it took a while for Hitler to realize what happened to Germany when American entered World War I. Hitler has always belittled the Americans and did not realize his error until it was too late.

6-The Chinese government attack the communists right after Japan surrendered in August 1945. The Nationalist government of China underestimated the communists, who then proceeded to defeat all the Nationalist armies after about three years of fighting. The nationalists took a big gamble, sending their best troops into Manchuria in late 1945 to try to knock out the communists. This ignored the well-known fact that a huge Russian army had just defeated Japanese forces in Manchuria and the Russians were giving the Chinese communists huge quantities of military supplies. Had the nationalists been more prudent they would not have lost South China and the war, by 1948. Had the civil war gone on longer American aid could have delayed or prevented the communist takeover of the entire country.

7-President Johnson sends U.S. combat units to Vietnam in 1965. Despite the experience of the French and President Eisenhower's refusal to get involved, Johnson ignored dire reports from the CIA and instead reacted to possible charges of being "soft on communism." As a result, 58,000 Americans died, (as well as over a million Asians), the economy was damaged for more than a decade and the U. S. lost a potential ally in Southeast Asia. Johnson also failed to note that Vietnam had never got along with the Chinese and four years after conquering South Vietnam in 1975, was a war with China. That conflict was brief, but relations with China have been frosty ever since, as they had been for centuries before.

8-Arab states go to war with Israel in 1967.  Syria lost the Golan Heights, Egypt lost use of the Suez Canal and Jordan lost Jerusalem and the West Bank. But Israel gained a festering sore that won't go away and the Arabs developed the use of oil as a weapon.

9-The Soviet Union, led by Mikhail Gorbachev, adopts perestroika (restructuring) and "glasnost" (openness) policy in 1985. Gorbachev's predecessors had agreed (in 1982) that the centrally planned Soviet economy was a failure. But what to do? Ignoring the Chinese success at freeing up the economy while retaining political control, Gorbachev messed with the political system first. Big mistake. Soviet Union fell apart, as did the already fragile Soviet economy. Russia became a dangerous basket case. But at least the Cold War was over.

10-Playing down the Islamic terrorist threat. Islamic terrorism is an ancient and recurring threat. Despite signs in the 1970s that another upsurge was coming it became popular in Western diplomatic and academic circles to play down this threat. This happened despite a serious outbreak of Islamic terrorism in Saudi Arabia in the late 1970s. This one involved heavily armed Islamic terrorists seizing control of some of the holiest places in Islam. In the West this was dismissed as an isolated event. Similar excuses were created to explain the growing number of Islamic terrorist incidents for the rest of the decade. For many, the self-deception continues and so does the terrorist violence.  





Help Keep Us From Drying Up

We need your help! Our subscription base has slowly been dwindling.

Each month we count on your contributions. You can support us in the following ways:

  1. Make sure you spread the word about us. Two ways to do that are to like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.
  2. Subscribe to our daily newsletter. We’ll send the news to your email box, and you don’t have to come to the site unless you want to read columns or see photos.
  3. You can contribute to the health of StrategyPage.
Subscribe   Contribute   Close