The destination for history

Narrow escapes from history


Back in 1993 British newsreader Martyn Lewis caused a measure of controversy when he called for television reporting to feature more ‘good news’ stories. With so much death and destruction around some thought his dream naive. Yet when it comes to studying history it’s actually well worth reflecting on some of the good news stories from our past.

While much historical literature focuses on events and people who have wreaked havoc upon humanity it can be uplifting to look back at the dramatic ways in which we have avoided disaster, sometimes by the skin of our teeth. Often this is down to effort of forgotten heroes who have been given little credit for their actions. But their bravery and quick thinking in ensuring that cataclysmic outcomes were averted should not be overlooked.

Exactly thirty years ago, for instance, the world was almost engulfed in nuclear war – by mistake. On September 26th, 1983 Soviet early warning missile systems indicated that the Americans had launched an attack with multiple warheads. With just minutes remaining it took the presence of mind of one man, lieutenant colonel Stanislav Petrov, to make the decision that his multi-million rouble computer system was malfunctioning. Going against protocol he did not recommend an immediate retaliation. The call he made that night, which remained unknown for years, may well have saved the world. 

Have you ever read about the war between the United States and Great Britain of 1861? Of course not. That’s because, thanks to some deathbed diplomacy by Prince Albert, it never happened. One of his last actions was to tone down the language in a bellicose letter from Lord Palmerston’s government after a British ship had been stopped and boarded by a Union vessel in what became known as the Trent Affair. The two nations subsequently stood back from the brink of war.

What if Lord Nelson had not defeated Napoleon’s sea power at the Battle of Trafalgar? He almost didn’t, because he very nearly wasn’t there. The famous admiral would be no more than an also ran in a list of Great Britons if it hadn’t been for the heroic actions of humble seaman John Sykes who risked his own life to save his captain in an assault on Cadiz in 1797.

These are just three examples of narrow escapes that show how history could have been very different and probably much worse! 

By James Moore and Paul Nero

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