Wars that nearly happened are some of history’s most fascinating moments. To ponder what could have been is both terrifying and intriguing. Often, these moments are defined by a single small action that saves the day, and therefore saves human lives.
Here is a list of wars that very nearly happened.
The Trent Affair
In November 1861 during the opening months of the American Civil War, the San Jacinto, a US Navy vessel, approached and boarded the neutral British ship Trent. Onboard, the ship’s sailors from the San Jacinto found two Confederate diplomats who were subsequently detained. The diplomats were on their way to try to convince the British and French to assist the Confederates in the war.
The Confederacy was also seeking international recognition.
The seizing of the ship caused extreme anger back in England, as officials in the country were insulted and now thirsted for war against the US. The British bolstered its military forces around the US and demanded an apology.
President Abraham Lincoln did not want to bring Britain or France into the war, so he eventually released the two diplomats and condemned the captain of the San Jacinto.
The 1971 nuclear war false alarm
Near the peak of the Cold War in 1963 the US government introduced the Emergency Broadcast System (EBS) which gave them the ability to quickly communicate important information to the nation during a nuclear attack.
The EBS was tested every week to ensure broadcasters and networks were ready if a real message needed to be relayed.
On a Saturday morning in 1971 though, a real message was broadcast to the nation instead of the scheduled test. “This is an Emergency Action Notification (EAN) directed by the President,” the message said. “Normal broadcasting will cease immediately.”
Once every three months broadcasters received a list of authenticator codes, one for each day. During an alert, if the station received an authentication code that matched the one selected for that day, they knew the test was real. An EBS error accidentally sent that day’s correct code, “Hatefulness,” to broadcasters, causing them to trigger a real alert.
After 40 minutes of panic and six attempts to cancel the alert, the nation was told it was in fact just a test. Although it was terrifying, the false alarm revealed a number of issues with the system, mostly related to broadcasters failing to issue the alert.
The Franco-British War of 1858
It was January 14, 1858, and French emperor Napoleon III was traveling down a crowded Paris street in his carriage. Suddenly, Italian nationalist Felice Orsini threw three bombs at the carriage. The ensuing explosions failed to harm Napoleon III but killed 8 people in the crowds and injured 140 more.
A French investigation into Orsini discovered that he had recently visited England and acquired the explosives. The French people believed Britain was involved and were furious. Across the Channel, the British were completely shocked by the unfolding situation.
They were in no state for war at the time. Luckily for the British, France’s attention was diverted to fighting Austria the following year.
Stalin pretends to panic about an imminent invasion
During a political struggle in the late 1920s, Stalin used the false threat of an imminent invasion to solidify his power.
Lenin had recently passed away and the fight to take his spot was fierce among the USSR’s political figures. To solidify his position, Stalin cleverly used scare tactics to get his own way.
In 1927 he claimed that the USSR was about to be invaded by its many enemies. A powerful propaganda campaign convinced the Soviet Union that it would soon be at war. This was about as far from the truth as possible though, as most European powers were still recovering from WWI, which ended less than a decade before. But his plan worked, and he was able to seize control over both Soviet society and its politics.
The “War In Sight” Crisis
The 1870s saw France undertake major rearmament after their embarrassing defeat against Prussia at the start of the decade. The rearming was meant to prevent such a loss from happening again, but it unsettled some of France’s neighbors.
Otto von Bismarck, the chancellor of Germany at the time, attempted to gain the nation’s favor by mounting a pre-emptive strike against the increasingly capable France. To do this, he began a campaign to appeal to the public.
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An article in a popular Berlin newspaper, likely printed at Bismarck’s request, was titled “Is war in sight?” The article succeeded in convincing the public, but Britain and Russia used diplomatic pressure to quash Germany’s ambitions.
While this war was prevented, having both Russia and Britain at their throat prompted Germany to draw up a battle plan to fight on two fronts, which it would later use during WWI.