Great historical blunders that were actually good decisions.

The recent controversy over coach Bill Belichick’s unconventional, disastrous decision in last Sunday’s game got me thinking about analogous historical situations.

Basically, we’re looking for decisions which had terrible consequences and are generally considered to be awful mistakes, but which, given the information available at the time to the person or people making the decisions, were in fact the most attractive alternatives (or were at least debatably so). There are two ways this could work:

  1. The choice was wrong, but knowing it’s wrong requires more information than the decider should reasonably be expected to have had. (We flip a coin for money, Heads pays $200 and Tails pays $100; it’s actually a trick coin that will always land Tails but, given that I have no way to know that, choosing Heads is entirely reasonably.)

  2. The choice was right, but because of luck or the effect of some separate, unforeseen event it turns out to have worse consequences than an alternate choice would have. (Same as above, except it’s a fair coin that just happens to come up tails – here, no matter how the coin actually lands, calling “Heads” was the right decision.)
    Ok, I’ll start: the Munich Agreement. Because we know how things turned out and exactly what kind of leader Hitler was, we see it as foolishness, cowardice, or both. At the time, however, Chamberlain’s acquiescing to Germany’s seizure of the Sudetenland was probably the most responsible course of action. The U.K.'s armed forces were woefully unprepared for war (and they did use the intervening year to modernize and expand). Since it would seem extremely unlikely that Hitler was actively, specifically seeking a general war with England and France (which he was), the assumption that acceding to this demand stood a fair chance of being the difference between war and peace was a reasonable one. And there were, in fact, a high proportion of ethnic Germans in the region who were agitating to be joined with Germany or granted independence.

Most importantly, though, we draw our historical lessons largely from the second world war. Chamberlain et al would have been drawing their lessons primarily from the first, the most obvious one being the importance of not letting relatively small disputes snowball into continent-spanning wars in which millions will be slaughtered. Keep in mind that Chamberlain received a hero’s welcome upon his return to England; had he returned to London with a declaration of war rather than a peace treaty, he would have been lynched on the tarmac (hyperbolically speaking).
Other examples?

The holocaust of the Native Americans.

  • Honesty

The contraction of the money supply by the federal reserve in the early days of the great depression. I do not know the exact reasons for it but it supposedly helped to snowball the depression and make it far worse.

Repealing the Glass-steagall act in 1999 with 90% majorities in both houses of congress and may’ve helped cause the current financial collapse by allowing too many cross investments.

The US giving aid and support to Mujahadeen fighters in Afghanistan during their war against the Soviets, fighters who went on to form Al Qaeda.

Letting Mao run China

The domestic purges of Hitler and Stalin. These weren’t exactly ‘good’ decisions (they were good in the eyes of Hitler and Stalin), but after Stalin purged his military leaders (out of fear of espionage) the Russians couldn’t defend themselves against the Nazis.

The Nazis, by kicking Jewish scientists out of the country ended up losing the race to create an atomic bomb.

The Nazi invasion of the USSR.

Here is a very obvious and most notable example :

defending the Alamo (1836)

Seward’s Folly

That’s rather the opposite of what we’re going for, I reckon.

I don’t know if this fits the definition of what you are looking for but I’ll throw this out there:

The GHB decision at the end of the first Gulf War not to take Baghdad and overthrow Saddam Hussein. It was a huge blunder to have sent the wrong message to the Kurds. That resulted in an unnecessary massacre. However, based on what his son did (under the influence of the neoconservatives) it looks like he made the right decision even though it was a blunder in the way it played out.

Some say that the UN mandate prevented GHB from taking Baghdad. True, but that didn’t stop GWB from waging war without a UN mandate. GHB could have gotten away with it but made, what seems in hindsight, a wise decision despite the blunder.

Well, he ain’t the man his daddy is.

Actually, I’m thinking of those paintings of friendly natives greeting the just-disembarked Europeans. And the ones who traded away Manhattan.

Atahualpa’s letting Pizarro get to Cajamarca without opposition

More generally, getting involved in a land war in Asia. It seems like a good idea at the time, but…

I respectfully disagree. Back then was exactly the right time to do it, with 500,000 troops in the theatre and the support of the rest of the world already established.

The Iraq war isn’t a disaster because Iraq is the middle east version of Vietnam. It is a disaster because it was done on the cheap and chaos was allowed to rein. The months of saber-rattling before the the Iraq war gave Saddam lots of time to bury guns and explosives and get his best saboteurs and soldiers blending in with the general population. This would not have been the case in 1991. Saddam and what little was left of his army would have been steamrolled and the 500k Allied troops would have been much better able to maintain order in the aftermath.

I am of course only looking at it from a practical point of view and not taking into account the influence of the neocons who came up with some of the more harebrained schemes of the Iraq war. Would they have tried the same shenanigans in 1991? That I don’t know. But I think invading Iraq at that point would have been a lot smoother than it went in 2003.

I can’t quite follow what the OP wants. The Munich Agreement was at the time (with the information then available) a good decision. In hindsight it is still a good decision. I can’t follow that it was a blunder- it may have been painted that way but it never was.

Similarly, I can’t see why Stalin’s execution of his top military was a good idea at the time. Even with no Nazi invasion it hardly seems a brilliant idea.

I can think of a few land wars in Asia.

It would have gone much smoother. However, it appears that GHB and his advisers understood at some level the danger of getting in between the Sunnis and the Shiites. He didn’t want to get into the morass and expense of nation building.

Because the attention is on Afghanistan people think that Iraq has stabilized. Look at this recent story: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/21/world/middleeast/21reconstruct.html $53 billion in US tax money into the Iraq crapper.

GWB and the neocons didn’t get it. It looks like Poppa was right.

Releasing rabbits in Australia probably seemed like a good idea at the time…

The Maginot Line - Of course there were some diplomacy and financial issues that kept the Maginot Line from being built all the way to the North Sea but it was never meant to be an entirely static defense and the French weren’t ever stupid enough to think that was all they needed. The idea was to have a solid defensible half and a mobile half that could strike back on the plains of Belgium. The Ardennes were considered impassable by a massive modern army based on decades of experience and the Maginot Line would protect and support those in the trenches like the last war didn’t. EVERY nation prepares for the last war, always has and always will, as far as I’m concerned the Maginot Line has gotten the worst of the PR from the ‘French are military failures’ meme.

No. The line itself wasn’t a blunder per se. Rather, the French commanders were grossly incompetent and useles, and failed to prepare at all despite huge changes in technology. Claiming that they “prepared to fight the last war” is correct but not excusable, as several other nations didn’t. Moreover, the Ardennes are not impassable by a long shot, and are not some universal barrier to all traffic north of the German-French border. The French generals simply didn’t do their job worth a damn.

It was an excellent idea at the time–they didn’t “own” it, a hunting ground used by several tribes, so they probably had a laugh around the campfire at the expense of the rubes, just as later grifters laughed at the rubes they sold the Brooklyn Bridge to. And if they had socked away the $24 in a CD with a decent rate, well, it’s fun to calculate 400 years of compound interest to see the nest egg their descendants would be sitting on.