Sometimes, a small, seemingly meaningless decision can change everything.
Some of the biggest moments in the last century hinged on minor decisions. Little things—like a barber leaving out a copy of Reader’s Digest, or a driver taking a wrong turn—sparked a chain of events that changed world leaders and started world wars.
10Elian Gonzalez Caused the Iraq War
When Sadaam Hussein stood at the gallows of Camp Justice, waiting to be hanged, he could not possibly have realized that the events that had brought him there all started because one little Cuban boy got on a boat headed to America—but they did. Because, in a weird, indirect way, Elian Gonzalez caused the Iraq War.
No, Elian Gonzalez is not the one who told George Bush that Iraq had weapons of mass of destruction—but he is the person who got him elected. Bush became President after one of the closest elections in history. He won Florida by only 537 votes—and Florida won him the election.
Bush only got those votes, though, because of Elian Gonzalez. The Cuban-American community in Florida was so mad about how the Democrats handled the high-profile international custody battle that an extra 50,000 Cuban-Americans in Florida voted Republican.
Which means that if Elian Gonzalez had not gotten on that boat to America, Al Gore would have become President. The Iraq War—for better or worse—almost certainly would not have happened, and the whole world would be a different place today.
9Jeri Ryan Made Barack Obama President
Sadaam Hussein might not have realized Elian Gonzalez got him killed, but when Barack Obama first sat down in the Oval Office as the first black President, he probably had a pretty good inkling he was only there because of Jeri Ryan—the woman who played seven of nine on Star Trek Voyager.
Barack Obama’s path to the Presidency started when he was a Senator, and he had to win that seat first. The man Obama ran against was Jeri Ryan’s husband, Jack Ryan. It is hard to say whether he could have beaten him or not on his own—but because Jack Ryan tried to get a little pervy with his wife, he did not have to.
During the election, the Ryans’ divorce papers got out to the press, revealing that Jack Ryan had tried to take his wife to some less-than-wholesome clubs. “It was a bizarre club with cages, whips and other apparatus hanging from the ceiling,” Jeri Ryan described in the divorce. Jack, she said, “wanted me to have sex with him there, with another couple watching. I refused.”
In the ensuing scandal, Jack Ryan dropped out of the election, and with him out of the way, Obama won handily. With his spot as Senator, he started moving toward becoming the first black President—all because someone tried to take seven of nine to a sex club.
8Woodrow Wilson Ignored a Letter and Caused the Vietnam War
In 1919, Woodrow Wilson was in Versailles attending the Paris Peace Conference when he got a letter from a young socialist asking to meet him. Wilson had a busy schedule; he ignored him—and set in motion a chain of events that led to the Vietnam War.
The young man was Ho Chi Minh, and at the time, he was still quite open to different ideas. All he wanted was independence for Vietnam. He had been inspired by the American Declaration of Independence, and hoped the American President would sympathize with Vietnam’s plight, and help them win independence from France.
Wilson, though, ignored him, and Ho Chi Minh started to get disillusioned with America. He went to the Soviet Union instead, where he studied Marxism, met with Trotsky and Stalin, and became a dyed-in-the-wool communist.
When Vietnam won independence from France, Ho Chi Minh led the Communist group that split Vietnam in half. The Vietnam War began—but it might never have happened if Woodrow Wilson had just given a young man the time of day.
7A Bar Fight Caused Brexit
When Great Britain voted to break free from the European Union, they left everyone scratching their heads as to how in the world it ever could have happened. The answer, though, was not too far away—it was in a little drinking hole in the Palace of Westminster called Stranger’s Bar.
That was where, in 2012, Labour MP Eric Joyce got drunk, shouted out that there were “too many Tories” in the bar, and started throwing punches at anyone his fists could reach. He ended up getting arrested, yelling “You can’t touch me! I’m an MP!” at the police, and the Labour Party realized they needed to replace him.
Joyce’s drunken punches sparked a chain of events that would end with the country leaving the EU. First, the Labour Party was accused of letting a generous donor decide who got Joyce’s seat. Then, to fight that reputation, Labour leader Ed Miliband started letting anyone willing to pay £3 join the party and vote. Thousands of people did just that—and they voted in a new leader: Jeremy Corbyn.
Corbyn would not have had those votes without the £3 rule change, and a lot of people blame him for Brexit. His party definitely blames him—they passed a no-confidence motion against him after Britain voted to leave.
By then, though, it was too late. Great Britain will separate from the EU, all because a drunk guy swung a punch in a bar.
6The King’s Speech Therapist Created Fox News
You know Lionel Logue from the movie “The King’s Speech.” He was the speech therapist who helped King George VI overcome his stammer. He must have thought that helping a monarch was the greatest impact he would have on the world—but, without even knowing it, he did something else. He is responsible for modern American politics.
Before he was working for kings, Logue was helping an aspiring reporter named Keith Murdoch overcome a heavy stutter. He did it—and thanks to him, Keith Murdoch went on to a successful career as a journalist and newspaper magnate.
When Keith died, he passed his company on to his son, Rupert Murdoch. Rupert ended up creating the News Corporation, and ultimately, Fox News.
Fox is more than just a news station—it is a force that has changed the way Americans think. According to one study, up to eight percent of people who have seen Fox News switched from Democrat to Republican because of it. It has been called the “single most important player” in American elections.
Without it, the Tea Party movement never would have happened. And George W. Bush would have lost the 2000 election—so it is not fair to put all the blame for the Iraq War on Elian Gonzalez. We should blame Lionel Logue, too.
5Franz Ferdinand Was Assassinated Because of a Wrong Turn
The death of Franz Ferdinand sparked the First World War. It is one of the biggest butterfly effects in human history—and it would never have happened if his driver had just checked the map.
Ferdinand was already having a bad day. Everyone he saw in Sarajevo kept trying to kill him, and he was starting feeling a little unwanted. A bomb had gone off a little earlier in an attempt on his life, and while he had gotten out okay, some of his entourage were in the hospital.
He probably should have taken that as a sign that it was time to go home, but Ferdinand, instead, insisted on visiting his wounded friends. His driver, though, unfamiliar with the route, took a wrong turn and ended up rolling the car right by where one of the men who had been trying to kill him, Gavrilo Princip, was sitting outside a café.
Princip, blindsided by his own luck, had to stagger to his feet and rush through a mob to get his shot in. He managed to do it just in time, and let out the shot that was heard around the world.
4A Spokesman Made a Mistake and Brought down the Berlin Wall
When thousands of people flooded through the checkpoints on the Berlin Wall, it was the end of an era. The years of a divided Germany were at an end, and the fall of the Soviet Union was not far behind. And it all happened because a man named Günter Schabowski made a mistake.
Schabowski was a spokesman for the Communist Party, and on November 9, 1989, he was handed a piece of paper announcing a major change. As a temporary measure, East Germans were going to get the right to visit the West, as long as they applied for permission and were approved. They would announce the start of the program at a later date.
The paper, though, did not make all of that clear. Schabowski read what it said, and to the audience, it sounded an awful lot like anyone with a passport could cross the Berlin Wall whenever they wanted. When one reporter asked when the new rule took effect, Schabowski scanned the paper, and not finding the answer, gave it his best guess: “Straight away.”
Thousands of people flooded the checkpoints, trying to cross over. The border guards, unsure what to do and unwilling to use force, ended up just letting them go through. The Berlin Wall was effectively gone, and the days of division between East and West Germany had come to an end.
3A Barber Shop’s Reading Selection Got Bill Clinton Elected
In 1962, a young man named Ross Perot was sitting at the barber shop waiting to get his hair cut, flipping through a copy of Reader’s Digest that would change his life. He was working at IBM, where he felt like his ideas were being ignored, and he was not happy. A quote in the magazine from Henry David Thoreau hit home: “The mass of men live lives of quiet desperation.”
Reading that sentence, Perot would later say, was the “epiphany that changed his life.” He quit IBM the next day and soon founded his own company, EDS. Perot became fabulously wealthy, and in 1992, became the most successful independent candidate for President in American history.
He was running against George Bush and Bill Clinton, and he won 18.9 percent of the popular vote. Most of those votes came from people who would have voted for Bush otherwise. We can not say for sure that enough of those people would have voted Bush to change the election, but Perot’s constant smears against Bush had an impact, too—and combined, it is pretty safe to say that without Perot, Clinton would have lost.
Not only would that have changed the eight years of American history, but it would have cut short the careers of Presidential hopefuls Al Gore and Hilary Clinton. If that barber had put out an issue of People instead, the last 25 years of American history could have been entirely different.
2A British Soldier’s Act of Mercy Caused the Holocaust
In 1918, Henry Tandey was fighting for the British Army in France. There, he made the decision to spare one man’s life—and because of it, more than 60 million people died.
He was fighting in the capture of Marcoing, and the Germans were starting to give ground. Enemy soldiers were turning and fleeing, and one of them wandered into his line of fire. Tandey aimed his gun at the fleeing German, but this man was injured and running for his life. He could not bring himself to pull the trigger. He lowered his gun, the German nodded in thanks, and he let him get away.
Tandey’s spirit and good looks would later end up on a propaganda poster, and twenty years later, that poster would show up in the last place anyone would expect: Adolf Hitler’s country home.
When Neville Chamberlain visited Hitler and saw the poster on his wall, he asked why in the world he had a British propaganda poster. Hitler, in response, pointed to the picture of Tandey and said, “That’s the man who nearly shot me.”
The story is so incredible that some people doubt it, but years later, the Green Howards Museum found proof. They had a letter from Hitler’s assistant, written in 1937, thanking them for sending the poster. He had sought it out, he explained, because “the Fuhrer is naturally very interested in things connected with his own war experiences.”
1A City Councilman Killed a Dog and Created Modern Terrorism
In 1933, a Texas councilman named Charles Hazard was getting fed up with his neighbor’s dog. The little mutt kept peeing on his flower bed. Hazard resolved to take care of it. He mixed up shreds of glass into the dog’s food bowl, killing the dog—and in the process, completely changed the history of the world.
That dog belonged to a 13-year-old Charlie Wilson, and he vowed revenge. Hazard was up for re-election, so Wilson went door-to-door telling people what he had done to his dog and offered to drive them to the polls. He swayed 95 voters against Hazard, who ended up losing by 16 votes. For the first time in his life, Charlie Wilson changed politics.
That moment inspired Wilson to become a politician. He grew up to be a Congressional Representative, and when the Soviet-Afghan War broke out, he changed history. He campaigned to get American help for the Afghans, putting stinger rocket launchers in their hands, turning the tide of the war.
Because of Wilson, the Afghan Mujahideen won the war. The USSR lost—one of the leading causes of the fall of the Soviet Union. The Taliban and Al-Qaeda were formed, and Osama bin Laden was able to launch the biggest terrorist attack in history. The modern era of terrorism began.
And all because one cranky councilman poisoned a kid’s dog.