5 Embarrassing Failures History Class Turned Into Victories
History is written by the winners, as the old saying goes. But that's not exactly true -- sometimes history is written by wishful thinking. When the real event isn't quite inspirational or romantic enough, we just make up a prettier version and call it history.
Just consider the way we remember ...
It was the beginning of the modern era of celebrity activism. Bono would not be out there doing what he's doing without Live Aid.
Which would be a shame.
How History Remembers It:
It was 1985, and the music world got together to raise money for starving children in Ethiopia via an intercontinental 16-hour music festival known as Live Aid. With record sales, merchandise and video sales, it was estimated that Live Aid had raised a massive 150 to 170 million pounds, or $250 million. You can feed a lot of damned children with that kind of cash. Probably more than once.
No question, it was one of the feel-good events of the decade, and was called "the greatest concert of all time." The event played to 77,000 attendees in England, and 100,000 more attended in the U.S. It was beamed to TV sets worldwide to an audience of 1.5 billion people. Organizer Bob Geldof was given an honorary knighthood in 1986, and to this day, the event is heralded as "the standard by which other all-hands-on-deck rock and charity events are known."
"Have fun, but not too much because of the children."
Here is where we learn about the sad, unintended consequences of African humanitarian aid efforts. As is often the case in Africa, the famine they were trying to fix in Ethiopia wasn't just a result of not growing enough food -- it was because people were A) being displaced by war and B) under the thumb of a bullshit government.
Now, when another government gives foreign aid to an impoverished country like Ethiopia, the donor government can set conditions, and enforce them. If you blow the money on weapons to fight your civil war, you don't get any more money.
"Toss the food. We'll break the crates up into cudgels."
But a fundraiser like Live Aid doesn't work that way -- the money is given to non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and in order to do their work, they have to work under, and obey, the bullshit government. In other words, all those piles of well-meaning cash wind up propping up the assholes who helped create the famine. It's like buying Christmas presents for the poor kids down the street, only to see the abusive dad sell them for drug money.
Before inviting Castro over and shooting the breeze.
So for instance, the aid workers who traveled to Ethiopia were forced to exchange the aid money for the country's currency at highly inflated rates, thus inadvertently funding and reinvigorating the evil government. That money also helped fund the government's forced relocation program of thousands of starving people from the south of the country to camps in the north. It is estimated that one in six of those who made the journey died.
Did Live Aid feed a lot of starving people? No doubt. But as others have pointed out, it's entirely possible that the horrible things done with the cash killed as many or more people than the food saved. In the real world, good intentions don't always stand a chance against a bunch of shitheads with AK-47s.
"We're not poor, look at all the war we can afford."
The Battle of Thermopylae (From 300)
You've probably seen 300. We're guessing that you didn't think that it was an exact portrayal of history -- something about the man with the axe for a hand should have given that away. But whatever liberties the filmmakers took with details like the number of monsters in the Persian army, the basic elements are surprisingly accurate.
That's an authentic ancient Persian weapon grafted onto his hand, we'll have you know.
How History Remembers It:
Xerxes actually did lead the huge Persian army to invade Greece via a narrow mountain pass with steep cliffs on one side and the sea on the other. They were met by King Leonidas (who really was a badass that spouted James Bond-like tough guy lines), and 300 Spartans (well, among others -- we'll get to that). Their brave last stand has gone down in history to the point that today, the word "Spartan" conjures connotations of bravery, heroics and dogged survival. Their name is attached to everything from football teams to engine chassis companies. Hell, they even entered our language as an adjective -- dictionaries define "Spartan" as "rigorously self-disciplined ... courageous in the face of pain, danger or adversity."
Waving a sword around your exposed dong is pretty adverse, we'd say.
There's even a Facebook group dedicated to renaming Trojan condoms to Spartan condoms, because "nothin gets thru em." Tell us Leonidas wouldn't be proud of that shit.
"What the hell are condoms?"
Regardless of how brave and selfless the Spartans were in their sacrifice, the facts have gotten a little skewed in the telling. First of all, you need to add a zero to the end of Leonidas's force -- there were about 3,000 troops, if you count the various groups who stayed to help the 300 Spartans.
"This is SPARTA! And THESPIAE! And THEBES! And ..."
But more importantly, here's the part they didn't mention in the movie. In 300, after Leonidas and his men make their valiant last stand and are killed, the film skips forward to the Persians about to get crushed by a wave of Spartan reinforcements. It implies that the brave 300 had delayed the Persians long enough for help to arrive and finish them off. In reality, Xerxes still managed to invade and ravage Greece, completely sacking Athens after the citizens were forced to abandon the city. They leveled the huge temples on top of the Acropolis and destroyed the city and all the surrounding countryside.
"It may look bad now, but come back in 2,000 years and there'll be a tree or two."
The Greeks would eventually get their shit together and beat back the Persians (specifically, the Greek Navy), but the Battle of Thermopylae was more like an amazing, miraculous play to stop the opposing team on the goal line, only to have them go ahead and score the touchdown on the next play. Yes, it makes for a great clip in the highlight reel. But it didn't win the game.
The Tet Offensive
In 1968, the Vietnam War was steadily escalating. The North Vietnamese (the commie bad guys) attempted to make one really big overwhelming push and win the war once and for all. Known as the Tet Offensive, the attack involved more than 80,000 troops attacking more than 100 towns and villages, and was the largest military action at that point in the war.
How History Remembers It:
The Tet Offensive signaled the turning point of the war for the North Vietnamese, and against the U.S.-backed South. Meanwhile, back in the U.S., this had started happening:
The people were starting to distrust their government in a serious way, and President Lyndon Johnson's administration found that it was almost completely unable to convince the American people that the war was still winnable.
"We have fire-breathing tanks! How can we not win?"
CBS anchor Walter Cronkite, who at the time was the most trusted and recognizable name in news, went on TV and declared that the U.S. should basically just "negotiate, not as victors," because at best "the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in a stalemate." Upon hearing this, Johnson was rumored to say, "That's it. If I've lost Cronkite, I've lost middle America."
"I think I left it in Arkansas somewhere."
After coming into office, President Richard Nixon initiated a policy of "Vietnamization" and withdrew troops from the region. This meant the North Vietnamese were free to take over South Vietnam, and the whole thing had been one huge, stupid waste.
"Don't feel bad, guys. One day, they'll turn this war into some pretty great movies."
The Tet Offensive resulted in a huge defeat for the communists.
Though initially the attacks caught the U.S. and South Vietnamese forces off guard, they pushed back hard and inflicted massive casualties, all but crippling the North Vietnamese military. The failure of the North Vietnamese was so great that far from being a demonstration of their imminent victory, American generals such as William Westmoreland believed that, after Tet, the North Vietnamese army was so damaged that it was finally on the verge of defeat.
Again, fire-breathing tanks.
But that wasn't the narrative that would survive in the press. Earlier we referred to these versions of history as "wishful thinking," but it's not that anyone short of the Viet Cong were rooting for the Americans to fail. It's just that those who believed the war was a dead end finally had their proof, whether or not the facts on the ground supported it. This was the story everyone opposed to the war had been waiting to tell.
If you hum "Ride of the Valkyries" loudly enough, you can ignore anything.
North Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh actually called it a few years earlier when he said his side didn't need military victories, but only needed to hang on until the U.S. got sick of the whole thing and bailed out. So, who knows, maybe treating Tet as a disaster, and thus making it politically easier to start getting out, was the best thing that could have happened. But it's giving a whole bunch of credit to a North Vietnamese army that kind of got its ass kicked.
The Miracle at Dunkirk
Hitler wasn't a very nice guy, and he knew how to organize an invasion. In 1940, it was France's turn to experience the blitzkrieg of the Luftwaffe, the Panzer corps and bratwurst.
For any readers out there who have at some point been alive, you know that the French lost. Badly. The entirety of France was overrun in days and there were over 350,000 casualties between the French and the British. Less than a year into World War II, the Axis were disturbingly close to winning the war. British and French troops retreated until they had no room to retreat any farther, their backs to the English Channel.
But in a remarkable last ditch effort, the British managed to rescue over 300,000 of their troops from the beaches of Nazi-occupied France, frantically enlisting the help of everybody and anybody with a boat. More than 850 fishing boats, lifeboats, canoes, jet skis, anything that floated, worked for a solid week to carry troops to safety in England.
"Last one to the sea gets shot by Nazis!"
The rescue effort would come to be called the Miracle of Dunkirk.
How History Remembers It:
The Daily Express declared in their headline, "Tired, dirty, hungry they came back -- unbeatable." Churchill himself was soon to jump on the Dunkirk bandwagon, delivering his famous "We shall fight them on the beaches" speech. While he was clear that this was no victory, the British public didn't quite see it that way. Across the pond in America, New Yorkers were told, "Between flights, the young pilots of the RAF calmly sipped tea at their home fields."
It's hard to look cool in a fishing boat.
Almost immediately, papers like the New York Times were joining in. The defeat was spun into a tale of Allied heroism, and it quickly became a rallying point across England and France. It spread from person to person, growing in fame until it resulted in a major morale boost, coining the term "Dunkirk Spirit," which held all the connotations of "solidarity in adversity" and the idea of the stiff upper British lip.
Manly hug? MANLY HUG.
Meanwhile, the German newspapers simply declared: "Dunkirk Taken."
"Left behind hats."
Not only had the Germans easily won the battle (only a three-day halt order on their part allowed the escape to happen at all), but also while the ragtag fleet of boats were carrying the soldiers to safety, all of their weapons were left behind. And we're not talking about a pile of rifles and some grenades -- the vast majority of the British army's weaponry was abandoned at Dunkirk, enough to arm eight to 10 divisions. The Germans captured more than 84,000 vehicles -- that's not a typo, 84 thousand, and more than 657,000 tons of ammunition and supplies (or 1.3 billion pounds). In short, a veritable treasure trove of supplies as a nice birthday present to arm the Nazis.
"What's this? An arsenal big enough to conquer all of Europe? You shouldn't have!"
It left the British desperately low on equipment. The whole affair was an absolute disaster from top to bottom, and one of the low points of the war.
The only saving grace is that it could have been much worse. And, when you're looking for a story to boost morale, sometimes that's all you've got.
Captain Scott's Expedition to the South Pole
Captain Robert Falcon Scott set out to reach the South Pole, probably figuring that it would be a crime against nature for a guy with the middle name "Falcon" to not be a global adventurer. Antarctica was, and still is, very cold and inhospitable, so this was certainly no mean feat. Previous expeditions had failed -- even one of his own crew, Ernest Shackleton, had attempted the same only a few years before. The man who could successfully make the trip would be world famous.
At almost exactly the same time as Scott set out, another explorer named Roald Amundsen was making his own effort across Antarctica. Obviously, the race was on.
"First one to the middle of nowhere wins!"
How History Remembers It:
Scott's expedition had been incredibly carefully planned, with drop-off points for supplies arranged. Unfortunately, all the plans disintegrated. Conflicting orders were given, much of the communication got mixed up and transportation arrangements failed.
"Dear diary. Got hungry, ate the dogs. Dimitri pissed."
Yet Scott overcame all of this and made it to the South Pole. But he could not make it back -- he and his team paid with their lives, eventually freezing to death in their tents.
As for how the story was reported back home, well, imagine if Neil Armstrong and the crew had died coming back from the moon. Scott was instantly lionized and celebrated as a British national hero. For 50 years, Britons erected monuments to his name across the country, and over a million pounds were raised for the dependents of the expedition. Celebrities heaped praise upon him by the truckload -- an 8-year-old even wrote a famous poem about him. Though you can't be posthumously knighted, they granted his wife the rank of knight widow.
Who then sculpted this.
Scott had a research institute named after him at Cambridge University, the current U.S. scientific base there bears his name and he was the subject of a film portraying his heroics in 1948. And so on. Yeah, it was kind of a big deal ...
... for the guy who lost the race.
Remember that other team that was also racing toward the pole? Yeah, when Scott arrived, he discovered that Amundsen had beaten him there ... by five freaking weeks.
So now these are more like vacation photos than anything else.
Amundsen returned from his successful expedition, the one that didn't kill him and his crew, to be greeted with utter indifference by the public. At a banquet for Amundsen that was allegedly to honor the winner of the race to the South Pole, the host sarcastically toasted Amundsen's sled dogs.
Culturally, the difference between Scott and Amundsen was the difference between Kurt Cobain and Billy Corgan -- nothing romanticizes a person's accomplishments like dying in their prime. The fact that Amundsen actually did a better job of planning and executing his trip, and as such, actually survived it, meant he had the same reputation the Titanic would have today if it had completed its journey and served a long career as a cruise ship for rich assholes. Which is to say, none at all.
"Well, this feels a bit anticlimactic."
Amundsen, who might have been just a little bitter about the whole thing, later said, "Victory awaits him who has everything in order -- luck, people call it. Defeat is certain for him who has neglected to take the necessary precautions in time; this is called bad luck."
Scott never got around to replying to this barbed comment. Because he was dead.
Don't give us that magnificent facial hair, Amundsen. You're still a dick.
For more instances of lies everyone believes, check out 7 Fighters Who Lied Their Way to Legendary and The 5 Most Widely Believed WWII Facts (That Are Bullshit).
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