Much like pro wrestling or your last date, war is full of complicated maneuvers, barely missed shots, and near pinfalls. The tiniest change in the course of events could result in a completely different outcome: Imagine if the Nazis had invaded England instead of Poland, or if Napoleon had unleashed a squad of Dinobot Dragoons during the defining moments of Waterloo. We'd be looking at completely different history books.
History is full of these potentially game-changing battles that almost came to be. It's impossible to know exactly what the results would have been, but it's mind-boggling to think that ...
5Stalin's Berlin Antics Almost Started World War III
The year was 1948, and the dust of the Second World War was just settling. After a brief period of kicking Nazi ass with the Allies, Josef Stalin -- Soviet dictator and perennial contender for "Worst Abuser of Mustache of Authority" award -- decided that it was time to start acting like a supervillain again.
"My mustache can no longer abide peace."
Berlin was starting out its new life as a divided city, with the Eastern half in Soviet hands and the West under Allied control. Stalin, however, wasn't about to settle for half of the cake. He blockaded Berlin from all Western military and civilian traffic, a particularly effective dick move, since West Berlin was completely surrounded by the wholly communist German Democratic Republic. Thus, Stalin was effectively giving the Western powers a giant middle finger ... and also about a month until the surrounded West Berlin would begin to starve.
Stalin never wanted to start a war with the West. However, he needed to appear strong, which, with his particular modus operandi, required constant tension with his opponents. However, the United States still remembered the previous mustachioed lunatic ranting about Berlin, and was totally ready to rumble. General Lucius D. Clay, the head of the Occupation Zone in Germany, advocated sending an armed convoy to battle their way into Berlin ... through East Germany. Effectively going to war with the Soviets, in other words.
Lucius Clay, seen here looking like a screengrab from Dr. Strangelove.
Although the suggestion was risky (World War II had shown that the Soviet troops weren't exactly pushovers), the Joint Chiefs of Staff took it very seriously. To counter any resistance, Clay asked Air Force general Curtis LeMay for some air cover. LeMay's war boner was as instant and impressive as Clay's: He recommended that they just up and launch a pre-emptive strike against all Soviet airfields in Germany.
What Stopped It:
Fortunately, rather than start World War III, the Allied forces decided to give peace a chance. They started a 15-month airlift operation, carrying supplies for West Berliners until Stalin got bored and backed off. This, of course, would be the event the world would remember as the Berlin Airlift.
Because "The Berlin Plane Orgy" just sounded gross.
If the War Had Happened:
World War III: Nuclear Boogaloo.
Imagine the collective brick the Allied leaders shat when Stalin pulled his stunt. They were fresh off a fight with a mass-murdering dictator, and were now suddenly facing another who had just kicked the first one's ass. They were not in a chance-taking mood.
We'd kinda had our fill of goose-stepping murderbots by that point.
So if Clay had sent in his convoy and it had been fired upon, not only would LeMay have rained hell upon the Soviets -- President Truman would have gone Hiroshima on Stalin's ass. Even throughout the airlift operation, Truman's finger remained on the big red button: If the Soviets had shot down a single airplane, the U.S. response would probably have been atomic. The Cold War would have ended in 1948, with a series of giant bangs. Harry S. Truman would have gone down in history with a hell of a reputation, and the USSR would have been bombarded into a continent-spanning live re-enactment of Fallout.
4The Soviet Union and China Nearly Destroyed Each Other During the Cold War
Being the two predominant communist superpowers, the Soviet Union and Mao Zedong's China were technically fighting on the same side during the Cold War. In reality, though, the two countries had constant disputes, accusing one another of overreacting to shit and getting into arguments over territory -- hell, they were basically a married couple that only stays together because they are bonded by their mutual hatred of Sam from next door.
Express Newspapers / Hulton / Getty
"... and I'm just saying, clean the damn toilet bowl if your poop gets smeared on it."
By the late 1960s, arguments escalated to the point of silverware-throwing. The Soviets had denied Mao aid to build an atomic bomb, possibly because he was unnervingly comfortable with the concept of nuclear war. Denied his toys and frustrated because the Soviets were ignoring his political views, Mao wanted some goddamn respect. So in 1969, the Chinese military invaded Soviet-occupied Zhenbao Island, which Mao claimed was originally Chinese territory. Things proceeded as you'd assume: Shots were fired, soldiers got killed, both sides moved more troops to the region, and shit got real.
Ownership of the island tipped back and forth, and things got more and more hostile. It looked like the two powers were set to rip each other apart before the baffled democracies they were supposed to be fighting had a chance to make some popcorn.
People's Republic of China
Thankfully, America always has Raisinets.
What Stopped It:
Mao backed the hell down.
When war fever-gripped both the Chinese and Soviet people, Mao realized that challenging an opponent that had a strong track record of kicking dictator ass and a bunch of nuclear weaponry might not be the most solid strategy, even if China had its own nuclear program up and running at that point. Meanwhile, the Soviet leaders were totally cool with a throwdown, calmly checking with the bemused Americans if they would be OK with the Soviet Union pre-emptively nuking the shit out of China.
H.F. Davis / Stringer / Hulton / Getty
We'll just leave this here, shall we?
Mao decided it was time to sit at the negotiations table. Luckily for him, it turned out neither side really wanted to wage war over a tiny island. Still, the conflict created permanent bad blood between the nations. Meanwhile, the U.S. happily abused the situation to make its move at China, bringing flowers, trade agreements, and diplomatic recognition. This helped pave the way for the love-hate relationship currently enjoyed between the two.
Twenty minutes after this picture was taken, they were caught making out in a broom closet.
If the War Had Happened:
Two of the biggest armies at the time would have slaughtered each other, with or without nukes.
A Soviet war with China would have involved two incredibly large conventional armies getting into an epic slugfest. Knowing that both parties had access to tactical nuclear weapons and were led by some fairly ... volatile people, it would not have been impossible that either country would have also used tactical nukes to tip a bloody conventional war in their favor.
Russian Department of Atomic Energy
"Tactical" here means "killing everything, everywhere."