Backup plans are, by definition, not the best-case scenario. But usually they can be counted on to be reasonably close to Plan A. Sometimes, it ends up being even better than Plan A (Michael Jordan was the third pick in the 1984 NBA draft). Other times, they're far worse (Sam Bowie was the second pick in the 1984 NBA draft). But you rarely hear about the backup plans that are chambered and loaded and just never get used. Here are five that remained in the back pockets of various world leaders that, had they been used, would have changed the world, and possibly the language this article was written in.
In the early 1950s, French Indochina was under attack by communist rebels. Unfortunately for France, this meant fighting a ground war in Asia, which is like fighting a white power gang in the prison showers: You're on their home turf, and winning to them means making sure you leave wearing a straight jacket under your body bag.
After taking a beating for several years, 17 battalions of French Union soldiers went and got themselves surrounded at Dien Bien Phu. This wouldn't have been such a big deal, but the rebels had somehow Fitzcarraldoed a bunch of anti-aircraft artillery through the thick jungle to the border they'd formed around the French. The more the rebels tightened that border, the lower planes had to fly to aim the supplies and ammunition and the more they got picked off by the heavy artillery. It was like a giant noose made of machine guns. At this point, the French had two options: sit back and lament that nobody had used a sufficiently prison-rape-themed metaphor to explain the war ahead of time, or ask America for help.
"Sup dawg? Hey, I'm gonna need you to do me a solid."
Realizing it was the heart of the Cold War and they were fighting communists, the French government picked up the red phone reserved for asking for U.S. military support. The resulting plan, Operation Vulture, would have used three tactical nuclear weapons from the Americans to turn the communist region into New Hiroshima.
The French liked the idea enough to send their top general to Washington to ask President Eisenhower personally for the passage of the plan. America had been building up a pretty bitching collection of atomic weaponry since the end of WWII and was itching to try it out. The plan climbed higher and higher up the chain of command, like the Bill from that "Schoolhouse Rock!" video with a knife in his teeth and a crazy gleam in his eye. Among the notable figures who signed off on it were U.S. secretary of state John Foster Dulles and a youngish Richard Nixon, who had actually helped draw it up. All they needed was Eisenhower, who liked the idea but had the good sense to realize that he and everyone in the government might have lost their goddamned minds over this communism thing. To hedge his approval, he agreed to the plan, but only if the United Kingdom liked it, too.
Churchill and Eisenhower warm up the mood with a game of "pull my finger."
After Britain gave a curt but polite "Are you fucking crazy?" Eisenhower acted like he never liked the idea in the first place, and the French eventually lost the battle so badly that their government resigned. The rebels took over and declared themselves the sovereign nation of Vietnam, and everyone lived happily ever after.
If They'd Gone With Plan B:
OK, America learned nothing from France's defeat, and got their ass handed to them by the same communist soldiers in the Vietnam War. Nixon's involvement in the plan came back to haunt America during negotiations to end the Vietnam War when the North Vietnamese's negotiator noted that they were having a tough time trusting America since "during the resistance against the French, Vice President Nixon proposed the use of atomic weapons." Still, Eisenhower's "we're down if England's cool with it" is probably the closest the U.S. ever came to going nuclear over the course of the entire Cold War.
"I get what you're saying, Dick, but have you considered the possibility that you are pant-soiling crazy?"
Many experts attribute the non-use of nukes to the "nuclear taboo." The longer the Americans and Soviets went without using their atomic weapons, and the more of them they built and aimed at each other, the more disastrous the consequences of using one came to seem.
Since Dien Bien Phu was relatively early in the war, the taboo wasn't quite as strong. But had Eisenhower gone nuclear the taboo never would have existed. Even if Russia didn't immediately retaliate with an atomic bomb of their own, they would owe America one. For instance, if you're the Soviets, the Cuban Missile Crisis looks a lot different if America has shown they're willing to use nuclear weapons if someone asks nicely. It's the difference between being in a Mexican standoff with a guy who you can safely assume is a rational human being who only wants to go on living, and being in a Mexican standoff with a hit man.
"Look, we don't really care about the argument. We just want to see what these bad boys can do."
Not for the first time, America probably owes its very existence to Britain being a total killjoy.
4Huele a Quemado
In 1977, the United States was finally deciding what to do with the Panama Canal Zone, a part of Panama that had been under U.S. control since 1903. Panamanian General Omar Torrijos flew up to Washington to meet with President Jimmy Carter to insist that America return control of the canal zone to Panama and withdraw U.S. forces from the country.
The two sides eventually came to an agreement, and Carter put his name behind a treaty that would give the canal and canal zone back in 1999 under the "1999? Ha, that's so far in the future we might as well be agreeing to give it back to them in heaven" theory of international relations. The controversial treaty went to Congress for approval. Little did the U.S. know that, in the event of Congress voting to not let go of the canal, Torrijos and Panama had a backup plan, which reasoned that if Panama couldn't have it, then no one could.
"Don't let 'em see you crack, baby. This breakup is the best thing for everyone."
A few months prior to the Torrijos-Carter hoedown, future Panamanian president/coke dealer Manuel Noriega, then only a Panamanian army officer/coke dealer, trained troops and put sleeper agents in villages neighboring the canal zone. If the treaty failed, the agents would have launched attacks on the canal.
According to the plan, cleverly code-named "huele a quemado" (Spanish for "It smells like something is burning"), if Panama didn't get the canal zone back, Torrijos would render the canal "inoperable."
Luckily, for all parties involved, Carter had one of his few victories as president, getting the transfer signed and passed in Congress. By a single vote.
"Well I guess we'll have to blow something else up now."
If They'd Gone With Plan B:
If a single vote had gone the other way, a popular radio personality would have delivered what sounded like his ordinary address that night on Panamanian radio. In reality, the address would have contained a coded message to the commandos embedded around the country, who would have launched attacks on the gates and dams that regulate water levels in the canal, as well as the locomotives that pull ships. By the time the sun rose the next morning, millions of dollars in goods would have been stranded on the Atlantic and Pacific sides of the canal, and the U.S. would have been at war with Panama.
As Torrijos mentioned to journalist Graham Greene, while the U.S. would be able to fix the damage in days, you'd need to wait for "three years of rain to fill the canal. During that time it would be guerrilla war waged from the jungle."
Which eventually became the theme to every action movie from the 1980s.
Keep in mind that this was two years after the last Americans were airlifted out of Saigon, and the American economy was failing in such strange and inexplicable ways that Carter eventually took to diagnosing the U.S. with the first case of national depression. This would have meant another costly war between the United States and a communist government in one of the densest jungles in the world two years after the U.S. had just gotten out of one that had crippled its will to fight. And as opposed to Vietnam, the U.S. probably would have needed to fight them for the Panama Canal out of economic necessity.
We couldn't risk losing entire shipments of gigantic ties, is what we're saying.