For every terrible tragedy history has handed us, there is an infinitely long list of disasters that we narrowly missed. The geopolitical complexion of the entire world can change radically due to one leader's spur-of-the-moment decision, or just pure dumb luck.
Here are five ways history almost took a turn for the awful.
5Japan Was Almost Invaded -- and Maybe Divided -- by the Soviets
Imagine if Japan were in the same situation as Korea -- split in half, one part the free anime-loving country we know, the other half a backward communist nightmare. That might have been just days away from happening at the end of World War II.
As the war drew to a close, the next conflict was already emerging, with the Soviets and the rest of the Allies each trying to gain control over the defeated Axis countries. That is, of course, why some wound up getting divided, like North and South Korea and East and West Germany. Well, that exact thing almost happened to Japan.
"The southern half will be known as South Japan. The northern will be known as Eastern Kentucky."
In August of 1945, the final days of the war, the Soviets rolled a fearsome ground army into Japanese-controlled Manchuria to push the outlying forces back. This was part of a joint Allied strategy and actually began the same day as the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Nagasaki, because this strategy was apparently codenamed Japan Can Go Straight to Hell. Japan was thoroughly crushed by the combined offensive (we daresay probably more so by the two doomsday explosions leveled at them with weapons that no one had ever seen before) and surrendered six days later, signing the official surrender documents in early September.
However, according to some historians, the USSR originally had no intention of stopping at Manchuria. It was supposed to be the pre-game show of a full-scale invasion of Japan itself, which would've seen the Red Army folk-dance its way across the Pacific Ocean and squat-kick the island nation into submission.
It would have looked exactly like this.
The Soviets planned to begin their invasion in the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido in late August, a full two months before the Allied invasion, Operation Olympic, was scheduled to take place. However, Stalin kept his plan a secret from the other Allied forces and had absolutely no intention of telling them anything about it, preferring to wait until the forces of Operation Olympic stormed the shores of Japan to find him sitting in the emperor's palace watching cartoons. In fact, some theorize that Japan surrendered not because they were afraid of more atomic bombs from the U.S., but because they were afraid of the Soviets.
So what would have happened if Stalin had managed to plunge his forces into Japan before the war had ended? We'll never know, but based on how it went down with the other disputed territories, it's easy to guess. Stalin would've had a legitimate claim to, if nothing else, split the island in two once the war was over, maybe with a North and South Japan (possibly even a partitioned Tokyo), with a hotly contested border constantly patrolled on either side by varying groups of aggressively non-Japanese people.
We'll let you guess which side this would have been.
How would that have changed the complexion of the Cold War? Would Japan have still become the economic and technological powerhouse it is today? Would there have been a weird Japanese version of Kim Jong Il? It sets so many dominoes in motion that it hurts the brain to think about it.
4Lincoln Was Nearly Assassinated Before He Took Office
As you probably can guess from the whole "country almost split in two during his administration" thing, Abraham Lincoln was one of the most polarizing presidents in American history. People threatened to kill him pretty much all the goddamned time -- by some estimates, he received more than 10,000 death threats during his first term alone (keep in mind that this was the 1860s, before death threats became the currency of the Internet). Chief among those threats was the Baltimore Plot, one of the earliest and most serious assassination attempts ever hatched against the president. Had it been successful (as it very nearly was), Abraham Lincoln would have been murdered before he'd ever served a single day as president, and Bill and Ted would've definitely failed their history project.
Daniel Day-Lewis might have had to content himself with starring in Davis.
According to the CIA, the plot called for Lincoln to be assassinated while passing through Baltimore by train en route to his inauguration in February of 1861. Baltimore was already a hotbed of Confederate-leaning Abe haters, so the conspirators simply hired a bunch of them to stage a riot as the president-elect's train passed through, thus creating enough chaotic distraction to allow an assassin to appear out of the crowd and blast Lincoln. It's not like the Secret Service existed yet, so the deed wouldn't have been too hard to accomplish.
Once the plot was discovered and confirmed by several independent investigators, Lincoln's itinerary was changed at the last minute into a circuitous riddle involving multiple train changes, carriage rides, and telegraph offices to keep his location secret. He arrived in Washington in complete anonymity. That's right: This was the president-elect of the United States, and they had to hide him to keep him from being killed.
Let's not even imagine America with a beardless Lincoln.
When Lincoln was finally sworn in on March 4, 1861, it was under the protection of a standing army complete with rooftop-haunting sharpshooters fucking daring Baltimore to come and try something.