Epic Failures: 50 Spectacular Backfires Throughout History

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1 Operation Pastorius Sabotage Failure

Operation Pastorius Sabotage Failure

Operation Pastorius was a German WWII sabotage mission inside the United States that smuggled eight agents into the U.S. via a U-boat in 1942 with the intent of conducting acts of terrorism. The coast guard spotted them, and two of the agents later defected, so the plan failed miserably. It was compromised right from the start when one of the agents, in a drunken moment, announced in a Paris bar that he was a secret agent. Finally, the mission was betrayed when George John Dasch, one of the conspirators, walked into the D.C. FBI headquarters, dumped $84,000 in cash on the Assistant Director’s desk, and demanded to be taken seriously.

2. In 2012, Northern Ireland initiated the Renewable Heat Incentive, a government program aimed at promoting renewable energy by subsidizing energy costs. However, the program backfired as it incentivized businesses to install multiple small heating systems to maximize subsidies, ultimately costing taxpayers £490 million and leading to the collapse of both the renewable energy industry and the government that introduced the scheme.

3. During the Cold War, the CIA launched Operation Kitty, surgically implanting cats with bugging devices to eavesdrop on Soviet conversations, as no one would suspect a cat of wearing a wire. The first mission failed spectacularly when the cat was run over, leading to the abandonment of the operation.

4. Between 1941 and 1942, the Soviets attempted to train “anti-tank dogs” to blow up German tanks by strapping them with explosives for kamikaze-style attacks. The concept backfired horribly, with dogs often running back to their trainers in fear, killing them.

5. The “Made in [Country]” mark was first established by the UK in 1887 to encourage domestic consumption, but it backfired as consumers specifically bought products made in Germany as they were considered reliable and cheap.

6 China’s Great Sparrow Campaign

China's Great Sparrow Campaign

In the late 1950s, China’s government launched a campaign to kill millions of sparrows because they ate crops. The resulting ecological imbalance led to a huge increase in crop-eating insects, ultimately causing the Great Chinese Famine, in which millions of Chinese died of starvation.

7. During an attempted plane bombing in 1985, the bomb planted by the terrorists went off an hour early while still at the airport in Japan. The perpetrators failed to realize that Japan does not observe daylight saving time, causing the bomb to detonate before it could make it onboard.

8. In 1939, German health establishments were instructed to survey their patients for certain conditions. Believing it was a prelude to a labor draft, many doctors overstated their patients’ disabilities to protect them. In reality, the survey was part of Aktion T4, a eugenics-based murder scheme that led to a 5-figure body count.

9. In 1960, the CIA recruited one of Fidel Castro’s mistresses to kill him, giving her poison pills, but Castro ended up figuring it out. Handing her his gun, he dared her to shoot, but her nerves failed, and they had sex instead.

10. Operation Merlin was a U.S. operation intended to sabotage Iran’s nuclear program by presenting flawed warhead schematics through a defected Russian scientist. The plan backfired when the defector identified the flaws and alerted the Iranian scientists. This unexpected turn of events enabled Iran to rectify the schematics, inadvertently helping their nuclear program rather than hindering it.

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11 Nazi Degenerate Art Exhibits

Nazi Degenerate Art Exhibits

In 1937, the Nazi government organized two art exhibits: one showcased art considered degenerate by the state, while the other exhibited works promoting Nazi ideology. This strategy backfired when over three million people flocked to see the so-called degenerate art, while only 800,000 visited the exhibit aligned with Nazi ideals.

12. In 1956, Britain, France, and Israel invaded Egypt to regain control of the Suez Canal after the Egyptian President nationalized it. Led by a British colonel lacking prior psychological warfare experience, they dropped leaflet bombs over villages to persuade ordinary Egyptians to support the invasion, promising it would stop the spread of communism and improve their lives. However, due to a failure to account for barometric differences between England and Egypt, the bombs detonated at head height instead of 300 meters in the air. This denied the invaders the favor they had hoped to receive from the Egyptians.

13. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union could distinguish fake passports from real ones based on staple quality. Real passports had poor-quality staples due to the lack of quality metal in Soviet Russia. Many American agents were exposed because the staples on their passports corroded, as the U.S. used higher-quality materials for these fake passports.

14. During World War 2, the U.S. developed Bat-Bombs, which were casings filled with bomb-carrying bats intended to set fire to wooden buildings in Japanese cities when deployed. However, it backfired when the bats ended up blowing up fuel and ammo facilities when deployed at a U.S. airfield.

15. Designers of the 59-story Citicorp Center in New York City failed to account for quartering winds and power loss, leaving a 6.25% annual chance of collapse. An undergraduate architecture student discovered this flaw in 1978, which led to overnight repairs. The entire incident remained a secret until 1995.

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16 J.C. Penney’s Pricing Debacle

J.C. Penney's Pricing Debacle

In 2012, J.C. Penney, under the leadership of new CEO Ron Johnson, unveiled an ambitious retail strategy, including a novel pricing approach called “fair and square pricing.” This strategy aimed to eliminate deceptive discount pricing and introduce straightforward, honest pricing. However, it backfired spectacularly, causing the department store to lose nearly 1.5 million customers and $700 million in a short period of time.

17. During World War 2, the British Special Operations Executive printed and distributed stamps featuring Heinrich Himmler in Germany to destabilize the regime by fueling rumors of Himmler’s ambition to replace Hitler. However, the scheme failed as Germans never cared and continued using these stamps, which have since become collectible.

18. In 1987, the Baltimore Gas and Electric Company sent out scratch and sniff stickers to educate the public about the smell of a gas leak, but it backfired when the unopened envelopes emitted a smell mistaken for a gas leak, prompting several hundred customers to call the fire department.

19. In 1993, Pepsi ran a contest in the Philippines, promising 1 million pesos for finding the number 349 inside a bottle cap. They mistakenly printed 800,000 winning caps, leading to outrage, death threats, riots, and even grenade attacks that injured dozens and killed five people.

20. During World War II, Nazi anthropologists attempted to infiltrate U.S. Indian Reservations to study languages for decryption and deter enlistment. They even went so far as to label the Sioux as “Aryans,” but the Indians were aware that the Nazis would enslave them because they were a “Mongoloid race.” Instead of dissuading enlistment, it backfired and increased their willingness to enlist.

15 Most Controversial & Costly Blunders in History

21 Unsterile Freshmen Condoms

Unsterile Freshmen Condoms

In 2013, the University of Brunswick and St. Thomas University in Canada provided free condoms to freshmen during orientation, but their well-intentioned effort backfired when information sheets were stapled to the condoms, puncturing the packaging and rendering them unsterile. Despite warnings, 80 of the damaged condoms were distributed, potentially leading to unintended consequences for some students.

22. The US government attempted to deter alcohol consumption during prohibition by poisoning it, but this strategy backfired when people didn’t stop drinking, resulting in thousands of deaths before prohibition ended.

23. The Soviet Union initially allowed theaters to screen the American movie “The Grapes of Wrath” due to its depiction of the poor under capitalism, but later withdrew it because Russian audiences were astonished that even the poorest Americans could afford a car.

24. On August 28, 1957, US Senator Strom Thurmond conducted the longest speaking filibuster ever by a lone senator, lasting 24 hours and 18 minutes, in opposition to the Civil Rights Act of 1957. The filibuster failed to prevent the passage of the bill.

25. In 2012, the Koch brothers funded a prominent global warming skeptic, Richard A. Muller, hoping this scientist would help them deny the existence of global warming. After two years of research, Muller concluded that scientists were right about climate change, confirming that the world was indeed warming up.

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