WHAT’S MORE FRIGHTENING THAN ghosts stories and Halloween tales of battlefield hauntings? How about the grim spectre of war itself? In honour of Oct. 31, MHN thought we’d share this list of of history’s most famous military crises, diplomatic showdowns and outright war scares.
BRITISH INVASION OF 1859
On the evening of Jan. 14, 1858 a 38-year-old Italian nationalist named Felice Orsini stepped out of a crowd on a busy Paris street and lobbed three bombs at the carriage of emperor Napoleon III and his wife. The French monarch, who was on his way to see Rossini’s William Tell, was unharmed in the attack, however eight others died and more than 140 were wounded. A follow-up investigation revealed that Orsini, who blamed France for the many failures of the Italian independence movement, had obtained his explosives privately during a trip to England just weeks earlier. The French public was outraged by the attack on their emperor and saw it as part of a wider British conspiracy. Not surprisingly, the nation clamoured for war. The growing crisis caught London off guard. Worse, with the bulk of the national army deployed in the far-flung reaches of the empire, England was largely un-defended. The crisis touched off a volunteer movement throughout the U.K. which saw the raising and arming a national citizens’ army. That year, rifle regiments sprung up across the British Isles. Fortunately, Napoleon III had no intention of attacking. In fact in 1859, he found himself at war with Austria. Eventually the emergency subsided.
THE TRENT AFFAIR
On Nov. 8, 1861 the U.S. Navy warship San Jacinto overhauled and boarded the British mail packet Trent in Caribbean waters. An American sailors searched the vessel and detained two Confederate diplomats hiding below. The envoys had hitched a ride on the Trent in hopes of bypassing the Yankee blockade that encircled the Rebel states. Their mission was to open diplomatic relations between Richmond and both Paris and London. The Confederates sought official recognition and to even hoped to bring the two European powers into the war against the North. Britain demanded an apology from Washington for what it deemed to be the unlawful harassment of one of its ships on the high seas. When none was forthcoming, London dispatched 14,000 troops to Canada and ordered authorities in the colonies of Ontario and Quebec to raise 40,000 militia troops for a possibly war with the United States. The Confederacy was elated and foresaw an Anglo intervention in the Civil War. Lincoln, hoping to avoid an expanded war, defused the situation by releasing the two rebel diplomats. He stopped short of issuing an apology.
THE “WAR IN SIGHT” CRISIS
Following its crushing defeat at the hands of Prussia in 1870, France hoped it could avoid similar humiliations in the future by building an even larger and more formidable army. By 1875, its rearmament program had aroused the suspicion of the newly unified Germany. In fact, Chancellor Otto von Bismarck set out to build support for a preventative strike against France through what would today be described as a PR offensive. An article appeared in an influential Berlin daily newspaper that was likely ordered by the German leader himself. It was entitled “Is war in sight?” The piece touched off a wave of war fever throughout Germany; many expected a new round of fighting against the French. The war drums were only silenced by the mounting diplomatic pressure from Britain and Russia. Suddenly facing the prospect of a two-front war, Bismarck scaled back the rhetoric and let the public’s fervour subside. The entire affair succeeded in convincing Germany to formulate a new master strategy to fight a conflict on both its eastern and western borders. Berlin would have the chance to apply that very plan in 1914.
AMERICA’S COLD WAR… WITH CHILE
By the late 19th Century, America’s expanding influence in the Pacific was facing challenges from the most unlikely of adversaries – Chile. After leading a successful regional war with Spain, the budding South American power had amassed a sizable navy and was actually keen on building an empire. In 1885, Chile began by occupying parts of Panama, much to the annoyance of Washington. Three years later, it seized Easter Island in the South Pacific. By the end of the decade, America and Chile seemed to be on a collision course for war. Then in 1891, a mob in in Valparaiso killed two American sailors on shore leave from the USS Baltimore. The U.S. government lodged a protest with Santiago. It as all but ignored. The Benjamin Harrison Administration mobilized the fleet and for a while it seemed that all out war might be in the offing. facing certain defeat, Chile backed down and offered to pay reparations of $75,000. The entire affair went down in history as the Baltimore Crisis.
A DISAGREEMENT BETWEEN “GENTLEMEN”
In 1905, Japan was riding high following its victory over Russia. In just a few short decades, the long-time feudal kingdom had evolved out of its medieval slumber and burst onto the world stage as a budding military and industrial juggernaut. After thrashing the Tsar’s forces and expanding its reach into Manchuria and Korea, Japan’s influence (as well as its sense of national pride) only continued to swell. When in 1907 the state legislature in far off California enacted a series of punitive laws that all but excluded Japanese immigrants from participating in society, the government in Tokyo took offense. When racist mobs in San Francisco attacked Japanese-owned businesses that offense turned to outright anger. With the nation’s honour at stake, the Japanese government began rattling sabres; many within the halls of power were calling for war itself. America, which had growing commercial interests throughout the Pacific, namely in the Philippines, hoped to avoid any situation that threatened a disruption. The Roosevelt Administration agreed to press California to strike down the bigoted laws if Tokyo slowed the flow of emigrants to the United States. These diplomatic overtures, known as the Gentleman’s Agreement, smoothed things over.
STALIN CRIES WOLF
In 1927, Joseph Stalin and other high-ranking Soviet officials hit the panic button. The newly established U.S.S.R. was surrounded by enemies, the dictator warned — enemies that might invade at any moment. Stalin accused Britain and even China of massing troops just beyond Russia’s borders. Soon these foreign armies would be pouring into Russia to topple the people’s government, the official state media reported. It touched off a wave of hysteria throughout the Soviet Union, but it was pure spin. In reality, most western powers had largely renounced war following the slaughter of 1914 to 1918 and after the abortive Siberian Intervention had adopted a peaceful coexistence foreign policy towards Moscow. However Stalin deftly used this spectre of invasion to further consolidate the communists’ grip on society and even to marginalize political opponents within the party itself. The ruse succeeded and history’s worst despot’s power over Russia was all but cemented.
THE EBS SNAFU OF 1971
It was a peaceful Saturday morning in February of 1971 when television and radio stations across the United States received a rather strange dispatch from the Emergency Broadcast System. The EBS had been established by Washington just eight years earlier as a means for the U.S. government to pre-empt regular programming nation wide in the event of a nuclear attack. As part of the program, federal regulators compelled broadcasters to run a drill of the system each week. During these exercises, the EBS’ all-too-familiar taped message announced: “This is a test of the Emergency Broadcast System”. It was followed by a high-pitched ringing tone, known as the ‘attention signal’. On this particular Saturday, an error by an EBS dispatcher resulted in the transmission of the official attack warning to TV and radio stations across the country. “This is an Emergency Action Notification (EAN) directed by the President,” read the message. “Normal broadcasting will cease immediately. All stations will broadcast EAN Message 1 preceded by the Attention Signal, per FCC rules. Message Authenticator: Hatefulness/Hatefulness”. While the majority of stations across the U.S. either ignored the message or missed it entirely, a handful, most notably an AM radio station in Fort Wayne, Indiana and one in Minneapolis, Minnesota dutifully announced to their audiences that the United States was under nuclear attack. Tape of one of these faulty broadcasts can be heard here. The entire incident precipitated an investigation by Civil Defense authorities who sought to uncover how such an error occurred, and more importantly why so many broadcasters had failed to issue what appeared to be a genuine warning.
Military History Now has covered a number of other famous war scares, including:
- the 1859 crisis between Great Britain and the United States in the Pacific Northwest over the shooting of a pig… that’s right, a pig!;
- the 1885 showdown between the German and American navies over control of the tiny islands of Samoa;
- the 1902 standoff between Holland and Venezuela; and
- the various Cold War close calls that very nearly led to all out nuclear Armageddon.