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The most amazing thing about history is how ridiculously close things came to turning out differently. An inch here, a second there... that's the only difference between the world we live in now and an alternate universe where it's all Nazis and dinosaurs.

For instance, there are some great men who we take for granted, not realizing how close they came to getting snuffed out like Tupac, forever changing history as we know it.

George Washington

It should go without saying that pregnant women should stay clear of bolts of lightning. This is especially true when they are pregnant with the guy who is destined to invent the United States of America and get his face on the one dollar bill.

Came Within Inches of Death When:

Mary Ball Washington, mother of the future father of the USA, was enjoying a dinner party and sitting next to the fireplace. Suddenly, a bolt of lightning exploded down the chimney, zapping a girl sitting right next to her with enough gigawatts to fuse her fork and knife together and kill her to death.

Accidentally creating the useless knife-fork combination.

Mary got badly jolted, but not enough to scramble the infant Founding Father currently floating around in her belly. The party was understandably ruined.

Predictably, Washington was later attacked by the T-1000 on his 12th birthday.

If she'd been sitting a little closer, if her chair had been a little better at conducting electricity, if any one of a million variables played out the other way... no USA.

We don't think we're exaggerating, either. An American Revolution without George Washington--and an early America without him as president-- would have made this whole operation infinitely more difficult. Especially considering historian David McCullough described the Revolution as a near-failure on its own, and Washington biographer Thomas Fleming mused than an American Revolution commanded by Major General Horatio Gates instead of Washington would have "ended in a whimper."

Also, if we simply remove George Washington from the Revolution, his role would most likely have been filled by a seven-star General of the Armies of the United States named... Benedict Arnold. You know, the guy who, halfway through the war, changed his mind and joined the British.

Hernan Cortes Almost Has His Heart Torn Out by Aztecs

Cortes is the guy who is the reason they speak Spanish in Mexico. He showed up there in the 16th Century with just 600 guys and took on the Aztec Empire, and famously began his assault by triumphantly sinking his own ships the instant they arrived in Mexico, a tactic most military advisors would describe as "catastrophically retarded."

"No joke, I sank every fucking one."

Of course he eventually came out on top, utterly changing the course of history in the Western world.

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When Cortes' crew finally showed up at the Aztec island-capital of Tenochtitlan, the Spanish discovered that the Aztecs were #1 on the continent for a reason: They were the baddest motherfuckers in the jungle.

Cortes and a good chunk of his men were ambushed and dragged off kicking and screaming to be sacrificed atop the city's Great Pyramid, high enough for the Spanish camps to see them. According to The Immolation of Hernan Cortes by historian Ross Hassig, the Spanish were "made to dance before a statue of the Aztec god of war, Huitzilopochtli, and then, one by one, they were sacrificed... their hearts were torn out and their faces and hands flayed so they could be tanned and sent among the wavering towns as a warning."

Afterwards, there was a Pot Luck.

Fifty-eight Spaniards were sacrificed that night. When the Aztecs grabbed Cortes to carry him up to the heart-ripping table, a member of his crew named Cristobal de Olea decided he would intervene as best he could. Presumably feeding his balls spinach to make them grow to astronomic size, Cristobal attacked and killed the four Aztecs carrying his captain, freeing Cortes at the cost of his own life.


Had Cristobal not stuck out his skin that night to be flayed, Cortes would have died just like everyone else on the pyramid that night, and with him the Spanish Conquest of Mexico. After all, Spain wouldn't find out about any of it until whenever the fuck news reached the other side of the Atlantic by word of mouth, since Cortes sank the fucking ships.

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Kurt Vonnegut

Known by too many of us for his cameo in Back to School, he also happens to be one of the most influential writers of the last 100 years.

He accomplished all of this despite the fact that his own military dropped many, many bombs on him.

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After being pinned down, surrounded and captured during the Battle of the Bulge, aka "the bloodiest battle in American history," Private Vonnegut of the 106th Infantry volunteered to be the spokesperson of the POWs, just so he could tell his German captors "what [he] was going to do to them when the Russians came." Considering how this was when the Wehrmacht were executing prisoners even when they were not cracking jokes about the single most sensitive subject in the Third Reich, it's amazing that Kurt and his entire division weren't killed on the spot.

The Nazis would put up with shit like this for all of five fucking seconds.

The knee-slapping Vonnegut and his comrades were instead led off to POW life in the German city of Dresden. If you know anything about history or World War II, you just said, "Oh, shit."

For Dresden was about to become the worst place in the entire planet. For two days the U.S. and Britain firebombed the everloving Buddha out of the city with enough payloads to be considered a war crime, killing tens of thousands of civilians in an incendiary, revenge-fueled fuckstorm.

Most of the POWs were killed along with them. But not Kurt, thanks to an arbitrary decision made by his captors. They stuffed him and some other prisoners in an ad hoc detention facility: Schlachthof Funf, or Slaughterhouse Five. It was an underground meat locker that turned out to be the perfect spot to survive a bombing.

And work out.

Thus, after surviving the bloodiest battle in American history, captivity by the Nazis, a firestorm that reduced a city to (as Vonnegut described it) "the surface of the Moon" and hard-labor digging mass-graves for the Germans at Dresden, Kurt Vonnegut returned to the U.S. to receive the Purple Heart for what he described as a "ludicrously negligible wound," and eventually wrote a dark comedy about the whole episode.

It's all so fucking hysterical.

Not only does the book that resulted--Slaughterhouse-Five--remain one of the most game-changing works of science fiction and dark comedy ever put to paper, but Vonnegut himself became such a noted anti-war figure that Fox News had no choice but trash him during his obituary.

Thomas Paine

When he wasn't busy living it up as a corsetmaker, English-born pamphleteer Thomas Paine was a major player in the American Revolution, sort of like a colonial Che Guevara.

Meaning his face was featured on t-shirts worn by college girls that had no idea who he was.

After smacking the 13 Colonies every which way towards independence with his manifesto Common Sense, Paine turned his shit-stirring eyes towards Europe, where he was literally kicked out of Great Britain for his radical ideas.

"And take your fucking book with you!"

Came Within Inches of Death When:

Paine landed in France and became a major influence in their Revolution, sticking the dick of freedom into the mashed potatoes of the Bourgeoisie. However, the group that eventually gained control of France decided that Paine was too dangerous and incendiary, so they threw him in prison with the intent of chopping his head off.

Right the fuck off.

Strangely, Paine was feeling a little less than decapitastic the night before his execution, so he slept with his door open to try and cool his fever, presumably after pinky swearing to the guards that he would stay in his cell. The official that went around that night marking the doors of those prisoners meant for the guillotine the next day mistakenly marked the inside of Paine's.

So, when his door was closed the next morning, the chalk mark was hidden from view. The guards missed it and literally left Paine alone to sleep through his own execution.

"The chime on this thing sounds like a bunch of people getting their heads cut off outside my room."

Paine was eventually released from prison, possibly because the French were too, well, French, to admit they had made an embarrassing oversight.

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Secretary of State William H. Seward

The assassination of President Abraham Lincoln in 1865 was one big Burger King toilet full of shit hitting an industrial fan, but the truth is it could have been a whole lot worse.

John Wilkes Booth's cabal called for a wider assassination attempt than just President Lincoln--he aimed to kill both Vice President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William H. Seward as well.

Evidently Booth was insanely jealous of Seward's top hat collection.

Seward isn't as famous as some of the other names on this list, but maybe he should be. He's responsible for adding Alaska to the USA, completely changing the natural resource equation in the country ever since. Also he sort of gave us Sarah Palin, but anyway...

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To kill Seward, Booth hired a real whizz-kid named Lewis Powell, who once suffered a severe case of getting kicked in the face by a donkey. Seward had recently broke his jaw in a carriage accident, so Powell got into Seward's house by pretending to be a man from the drug store bringing medicine. Powell bullshitted his way around long enough to draw a gun on Seward's son Frederick.

The gun didn't fire, though, so Powell broke it on Frederick's head and went forward with Plan B.

Plan B.

He rushed forward and proceeded to literally stab everyone in the entire house, including Seward himself, catching the Secretary of State several times in the face and neck.

Powell ran out of the house, leaving a trail of knife wounds in his wake, but miraculously not a single person died. Seward himself was saved by the neck brace he was wearing because of his carriage accident--the brace prevented Powell's knife from severing his jugular.

After narrowly surviving Powell's batshit insane hit, Seward continued to serve as Secretary of State for President Andrew Johnson, during which time he bought Alaska.

"I'll take it."

Nobody knew about the enormous deposits of gold and oil Alaska contained, and had it not been for Seward's maverick diplomacy, it is quite possible that the British or even the Russians would have been all over that shit instead. If the Soviets had been able to launch their invasion from Alaska in Red Dawn, they might have not lost the war to that football team.

John F. Kennedy

Historians spend so much time thinking about how history would have been different should JFK have survived the assassination attempt that we forget that the man almost didn't survive long enough to become president in the first place.

Came Within Inches of Death When:

Long before he got into politics, Lieutenant John F. Kennedy of the U.S. Navy survived a shitstorm that would have killed a cybernetic dinosaur.

After Kennedy's motor torpedo boat PT-109 was rammed in half by an Imperial-Class Japanese destroyer in the South Pacific, he and two of his injured crewmates were left floating in the debris. There were more explosions roaring around them than a Michael Bay movie, the water was being patrolled by sharks and crocodiles, and every island in a 20 mile radius was occupied by hostile Japanese.

The only option for Kennedy was to swim almost four miles while dragging one of his crewmen with his teeth to an island only a few hundred yards long, just so they could swim another three miles in search of food. Eventually Kennedy came across enough coconuts to sustain his men for another six days of hell.

Kennedy had a thing for coconuts.

They were eventually spotted by a team of Solomon Islanders, men armed with Tommy guns, hated the Japanese, and operated on a rule of engagement that involved "all white people looked the same." Kennedy was somehow able to turn this stroke of death into a helping hand.

No doubt using his whiteness.

The Islanders finally agreed to help send, at great personal risk, a secret dispatch 35 nautical miles to the Allied forces via coconut.

"Can... can anyone tell what the hell this says?"

Had Kennedy been killed in the shipwreck, shot by the Japanese, eaten by the sharks or the crocs, killed by the islanders, starved or drowned while swimming between a couple dozen square miles of World War II, either Lyndon Johnson or Richard fucking Nixon would have been president during the Cuban Missile Crisis, which is a very long way of saying we would all be totally fucked.

Do you have something funny to say about a random topic? You could be on the front page of Cracked.com tomorrow. Go here and find out how to create a Topic Page.

For more amazing stories of people almost biting it, check out 7 People Who Cheated Death (Then Kicked It In The Balls). Or find out about some soldier stories more badass than Kennedy's, in 5 Real Life Soldiers Who Make Rambo Look Like a Pussy.

Stop by our Top Picks (Updated 4.12.10) to see Seanbaby's brush with Death (which was followed by Death crawling away and crying).

And for something even more historic, check out The Chive's exclusive look at a Penazzling.

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