The Role of Luck, Accidents and Misjudgments in Wars and Politics

Many factors are cited to determine the outcomes of key turning points in wars and politics--economics, military capacity, geography, demography and leadership, to cite only a few. But, there is another factor less often cited: the role of luck, accidents and misjudgments. These factors are not easily calculable but helped determine many historical outcomes.

Take World War II. The United States was lucky that Nazi Germany did not destroy the Soviet Union in a five-month campaign in the summer and fall of 1941. The War Department warned President Roosevelt that the Soviet forces could not last more than six weeks against the first rate Wehrmacht and Luftwaffe. President Roosevelt feared that if Nazi Germany did destroy the Soviet Union, its lone ally Great Britain would surrender. This would leave the unprepared United States alone against Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan in a war Roosevelt feared it could not win.

In the summer of 1941 Roosevelt's fears seemed justified. In 1941 Soviet losses were six times more than German losses on the field of battle and the Germans seemed on the edge of victory. The United States, largely unprepared for war with under two million soldiers, less than 15,000 experienced officers and infant war industry, could not alone defeat Germany and Japan.

And yet, the Soviet Union came close to losing the war. As Marshal Georgii Zhukov, commander of the Soviet Western front, said in a 1966 interview, in the fall of 1941 when the Wehrmacht got to within 15 miles of Moscow,

"It was an extremely dangerous situation. In essence, all the approaches to Moscow were open...Our troops on the Mozhaisk defense line could not have stopped the enemy if he moved on Moscow...I telephoned Stalin. I said the most urgent thing is to occupy the Mozhaisk defense line as in parts of the Western front in essence there were no (Soviet) troops"

But Germany made critical mistakes. Diverted by events in Greece and Yugoslavia, it attacked Russia in late June rather than in early May. When the Russian winter descended in October, the German army bogged down to a halt. Hitler also ignored the advice of his generals to go straight to Moscow but instead wasted two vital months in seizing much of the Ukraine.

The result of these misjudgments: ultimately, at a stunning cost of seven million soldiers dead and 5.6 million soldiers captured, Moscow won the war in 1945.

At Pearl Harbor the Americans were again lucky. A third Japanese attack might have destroyed most of the ships in harbor, oil reserves, dockyards and maintenance facilities. This would have seriously damaged the American navy for another year or two and even might have led to an American withdrawal to California. But the Japanese, fearing American reinforcement and other factors, withdrew and lost their opportunity to destroy the American navy and dominate the Pacific Ocean.

The same is also true of politics. Take Joseph Stalin. Who imagined that someone like Stalin would ever become the leader of the cosmopolitan Bolshevik party? Stalin was a non-intellectual Georgian, with a damaged left arm and smallpox scars from childhood and accidents. He was born of an abusive, alcoholic cobbler and had gone to school for four years to study for being a priest. Even when Lenin promoted him for his organizing skills and national minority background, he had decided by 1922 to oust him from the Politburo. But, Stalin was saved by the fact that Lenin had been shot by an anarcho-syndicalist in 1918 and died in January 1924.

There was Abraham Lincoln. Born on the frontier with only 18 months of schooling, he had an estranged father and twice was saved from dying as a child. Lincoln was prone to recurrent clinical depression and seances. He lost two races for the US Senate and one for the Vice Presidency and failed in business. Even when he won the Presidency in 1860 it was in a four-way race.

Finally there was Harry Truman. A protege of the Prendergast machine in Missouri, he never attended college and was a captain in the army. A failed haberdasher and US Senator from Missouri for several terms, he was lucky to be promoted to the Vice Presidential spot on the Democratic ticket in 1944 when President Roosevelt was fading and he took his place in 1945 when Roosevelt died.

Luck, accidents and misjudgments, though often inglorious, have often proved important in wars and politics.