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 ...
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.
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."
The Mexican Revolution was a 10-year chain of chaos that turned Mexico upside down on a monthly basis. Military leaders rose and fell like boy bands: Brief bursts of glory were followed by long declines filled with drinking, bitter interviews, and the occasional firing squad.
Good times were had by all.
By 1916, one of these former revolutionary stars -- a certain Pancho Villa -- was hoping to get back in the game by destroying the current big dog, Venustiano Carranza. Villa decided on a desperate comeback tour of a plan: He'd launch a major raid on the United States, thus tricking them into thinking Carranza did it and angrily war-murdering the man in retaliation. Because nothing shows your love for your country better than letting a huge foreign army tear it a new one.
On March 9, 1916, Villa raided and burned parts of Columbus, New Mexico, which unsurprisingly sparked a massive "Oh no he didn't!" from the United States. Two columns of the U.S. Army were sent into Mexico to find Villa, who had tragically forgotten to wear a Carranza mask during the raid. Also, a large number of U.S. reservists were called up along the border. There were clashes between the invading American forces and the Mexican army, who were understandably pissed off to find armed American soldiers deep within their territory. Everyone was totally ready to go.
Two guesses as to which country produced this cartoon.
What Stopped It:
Clever leaders. Venustiano Carranza gave the Americans the "Ignore the Annoying Roommate" treatment, whereas Woodrow Wilson kept his eye on the big picture. Carranza realized he was treading on hot coals and resolved the situation by not reacting to it. The invading portion of the U.S. Army and its commander, General Pershing, were largely left to roam Northern Mexico as much as they liked. Carranza kept his military on a tight leash, only letting them loose when Pershing pushed too far south.
Columbus, New Mexico, after Villa's raid, looking much like Columbus, New Mexico, today.
Meanwhile, Wilson realized he couldn't afford to let the Mexican adventure turn into a real war, what with an actual big-ass world war threatening to draw America in. By February 1917, Wilson had pulled out Pershing and his troops, ending the conflict without bothering to capture Villa.
If the War Had Happened:
The United States would have been unable to play their game-changing role in the World War I theater. This, in turn, would have given Germany an excellent chance to win the whole thing.
Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-R11105 / CC-BY-SA
They weren't Nazis yet, so it's cool.
By 1917, France and Great Britain were in serious trouble. Russia had dropped out of the war, thus freeing huge numbers of German troops to fight in the Western Front. With these newly freed troops, Germany went into ass-kicking mode and nearly knocked France and Britain out of the war. The only thing stopping Germany from delivering a finishing move to its opponents was the timely arrival of U.S. forces, which helped stabilize the Western Front.
Had the U.S. instead been drawn into a major war in Mexico, you'd have to think those fresh American soldiers wouldn't have been available to soak up Germany's nearly successful attempt to own Europe. Then maybe World War II ... wouldn't have happened? That's the thing about dreaming about alternate history -- you change one thing, and who knows where shit ends up?
Our guess: Patton cock-slapping Stalin over the burning ruins of Toronto.
For another example of that, there's ...