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.