The 7 Biggest Political Blunders of All Time


We all make bad decisions. Thankfully, most of us don't have armies to command or nations to rule. Read up on some of history's most major missteps, then watch Craig Ferguson and his celebrity panelists debate more of history’s biggest political blunders —plus other world-changing people, events, and inventions—on HISTORY's new late-night show, Join or Die with Craig Ferguson.


The ruler of Macedonia made many savvy decisions during his years of conquest through Persia, Asia Minor and northeastern Africa. But his greatest mistake may be responsible for the unraveling of his empire after his death in 323 BCE. Against the urging of his advisors, Alexander never gave much consideration to what would happen to the empire after he was gone. For years, the young king charged off to battle without a Plan B, perhaps confident that he would rule forever, or at least procrastinating on the matter. When he fell deathly ill in Babylon, his generals urged him to name a successor, but still he refused—after being asked who he would leave his kingdom to, some of Alexander’s last words were said to be “To the strongest.” After he died, the generals declared that Alexander’s half brother and unborn child (assuming he was a son) would share the throne. But both were eventually killed, and the Macedonian commanders descended into decades of warfare with one another. 


After the Boston Tea Party in 1773, the British Empire decided to show the American colonists who was boss by instituting a series of punitive measures. The Intolerable Acts, as they became known, included the closing of Boston Harbor, the revoking of Massachusetts’ charter, and the return of the much-hated Quartering Act, which required colonists to house and supply British troops. The decision to play tough came too late, however, as the Americans had already endured years of objectionable measures like the Sugar Act and Stamp Act and were fed up with the Crown. Contrary to British intentions, The Intolerable Acts served as a unifying force for the colonists. The situation became increasingly tense until 1775, when the first shots of the American Revolution were fired at Lexington and Concord. 


When he inherited the throne in 1774, Louis took charge of a government that was deeply in debt and increasingly loathed by the French citizenry. The indecisive ruler did little over the next 15 years to help matters. Instead of raising taxes on the nobility or instituting austerity measures, Louis and his ministers borrowed heavily from foreign lenders. When the French king finally did attempt to implement tax policies, they fell heavily on the commoners, known as the Third Estate. Poor Louis never did feel adequate to the task of turning around the country’s fortunes, and would often depart Versailles on long hunting trips. When he returned to find that citizens had stormed the Bastille, Louis asked an aide if this was a rebellion. “No,” the aide reportedly replied. “It’s a revolution.”   


For his second term in office, Abraham Lincoln chose a running mate he felt would help bridge the divide between North and South following the Civil War: Southern Democrat Andrew Johnson. During the war, Johnson was the only Southern senator who remained with the Union after his state seceded, making Lincoln’s choice understandable in one sense. However, while he supported a unified nation, Johnson’s views on slavery and black rights were firmly in line with the Confederacy. After Lincoln’s assassination, Johnson took the oath and proceeded to bog down reconstruction efforts. He offered amnesty to Southern states and vetoed bills aimed at protecting newly freed black citizens. Republicans in Congress grew so frustrated with Johnson, they that they passed a law that Johnson was virtually guaranteed to break, setting him up for impeachment—a first for an acting U.S. president. After a months-long trial, Johnson kept his job by a single vote. For the rest of his tenure, Johnson continued to veto reconstruction efforts, but Congress overruled his vetoes. At a time when America needed a strong, progressive leader, it got a man who has gone down in history as one of the worst U.S. presidents. 


In 1519, the ruthless conquistador Hernan Cortes and his men advanced upon the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan, where the emperor Montezuma (sometimes Moctezuma) presided. One would think the Aztec ruler would have greeted Cortes, who had recently sacked the neighboring city of Cholula, with a volley of arrows. But Montezuma instead welcomed Cortes with gifts and a warm greeting outside the city walls. Why? Historians believe Montezuma bought into the prophecy that said Cortes was a visiting deity (a belief Cortes was savvy enough to exploit). An undisputed king his entire life, Montezuma was probably naïve about any challenges to his power, too. In any case, Cortes took the audacious step of making Montezuma his prisoner. For weeks the small company of Spaniards held the emperor hostage inside his own palace as they pillaged the city for gold. 


At the time, it seemed like a practical decision: Divide the world’s largest empire in two, thus making each side easier to rule. And in the short term, Diocletian’s move was hailed as an efficient reorganization of power. Although Emperor Constantine would reunify the two empires relatively soon afterwards, the split effectively alienated the two sides from each other. Around a century after Diocletian, the Empire was formally split between East and West for the last time. The Latin-speaking, largely agrarian Western Empire, with its capital in Milan, struggled through a series of poor harvests, while the Greek-speaking Eastern Empire thrived. When the two sides did communicate, it was usually to argue over resources and military aid. When outside invaders threatened, East and West failed to coordinate defenses, and often the wealthier, better-fortified Eastern Empire would divert attackers to the Western territories. Within two centuries, the Western region came apart, bringing an end to an empire that had ruled for nearly 500 years.


In the early 13th century the Khwarezmid Empire was thriving, and positioned to be a lucrative trading partner with the dominant Mongol Empire. But Khwarezm's emperor, Ala ad-Din Muhammad II, didn't trust the Mongol ruler Genghis Khan. When one of Khwarezm's governors began executing Mongol traders traveling along the Silk Road, the emperor refused to apologize to the great Khan. Still hoping for a cordial relationship, Khan responded by sending an emissary of three ambassadors to meet with Muhammad. The emperor made them wait for weeks before finally granting them an audience. After welcoming the men into his throne room, Muhammad had their beards set on fire and beheaded the lead ambassador. Tired of diplomacy, Genghis Khan repaid the insult by sending 300,000 Mongol horsemen storming across the Khwarezmid Empire, essentially wiping it off the map.   

Catch the premiere of Join or Die with Craig Ferguson this Thursday, February 18 at 11/10c on HISTORY. Disagree with our ranking? Here’s a different take on the world’s worst political blunders ever.

On This Day in 1953, Jonas Salk Announced His Polio Vaccine

Getty Images
Getty Images

On March 26, 1953, Dr. Jonas Salk went on CBS radio to announce his vaccine for poliomyelitis. He had worked for three years to develop the polio vaccine, attacking a disease that killed 3000 Americans in 1952 alone, along with 58,000 newly reported cases. Polio was a scourge, and had been infecting humans around the world for millennia. Salk's vaccine was the first practical way to fight it, and it worked—polio was officially eliminated in the U.S. in 1979.

Salk's method was to kill various strains of the polio virus, then inject them into a patient. The patient's own immune system would then develop antibodies to the dead virus, preventing future infection by live viruses. Salk's first test subjects were patients who had already had polio ... and then himself and his family. His research was funded by grants, which prompted him to give away the vaccine after it was fully tested.

Clinical trials of Salk's vaccine began in 1954. By 1955 the trials proved it was both safe and effective, and mass vaccinations of American schoolchildren followed. The result was an immediate reduction in new cases. Salk became a celebrity because his vaccine saved so many lives so quickly.

Salk's vaccine required a shot. In 1962, Dr. Albert Sabin unveiled an oral vaccine using attenuated (weakened but not killed) polio virus. Sabin's vaccine was hard to test in America in the late 1950s, because so many people had been inoculated using the Salk vaccine. (Sabin did much of his testing in the Soviet Union.) Oral polio vaccine, whether with attenuated or dead virus, is still the preferred method of vaccination today. Polio isn't entirely eradicated around the world, though we're very close.

Here's a vintage newsreel from the mid 1950s telling the story:

For more information on Dr. Jonas Salk and his work, click here.

Drunken Thieves Tried Stealing Stones From Notre-Dame

Athanasio Gioumpasis, Getty Images

With Paris, France, joining a long list of locales shutting down due to coronavirus, two thieves decided the time was right to attempt a clumsy heist—stealing stones from the Notre-Dame cathedral.

The crime occurred last Tuesday, March 17, and appeared from the start to be ill-conceived. The two intruders entered the cathedral and were immediately spotted by guards, who phoned police. When authorities found them, the trespassers were apparently drunk and attempting to hide under a tarpaulin with a collection of stones they had taken from the premises. Both men were arrested.

It’s believed the offenders intended to sell the material for a profit. Stones from the property sometimes come up for sale on the black market, though most are fake.

The crime comes as Paris is not only dealing with the coronavirus pandemic but a massive effort to restore Notre-Dame after the cathedral was ravaged by a fire in 2019. That work has come to a halt in the wake of the health crisis, though would-be looters should take note that guards still patrol the property.

[h/t The Art Newspaper]