They stand as some of the most iconic moments in American history. D-Day. The Apollo 11 Moon landing. The raid to get Osama bin Laden. The first atomic bomb test. We remember them as great successes, the participants hailed as heroes. But what if they’d gone horribly wrong? Officials involved in each of these efforts — even the U.S. president in some cases — worried about that possibility, and drafted doomsday scenario memos or speeches to give in the event of failure. Here are some of those “alternate history” contingency plans that were thankfully never needed.
5. Apollo 11: What if Astronauts Were Stranded?
Television viewers around the world watched this surreal event in July 1969, as Apollo 11 landed on the Moon, and Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first men to walk on the lunar surface. Yet behind the scenes, there were many discussions about what could go wrong. The greatest concern: the astronauts might not be able to launch from the Moon to return to Earth. Various scenarios were discussed, including the horrible possibility that the stranded astronauts would have to say their final good-byes and then commit suicide, rather than starve to death. Richard Nixon’s speechwriter, William Safire, drafted a touching contingency speech hailing Armstrong and Aldrin and vowing mankind would return to the moon: “Fate has ordained that the men who went to the moon to explore in peace will stay on the moon to rest in peace,” the speech begins. “These brave men, Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin, know that there is no hope for their recovery. But they also know that there is hope for mankind in their sacrifice.”
It concludes: “In ancient days, men looked at stars and saw their heroes in the constellations. In modern times, we do much the same, but our heroes are epic men of flesh and blood. Others will follow, and surely find their way home. Man’s search will not be denied. But these men were the first, and they will remain the foremost in our hearts.”
The full transcript of the speech is available in the National Archives.
4. First Atomic Bomb Test Gets a Cover Story
As the United States prepared to explode the first atomic bomb in a test in 1945, officials working on the top-secret Manhattan Project knew they’d have some explaining to do after the blast. To that end, the project brought in New York Times science writer William L. Laurence to witness the test. His mission: Write a series of contingency press releases ready to send out to explain the loud explosion and bright light on the horizon. At the same time, the releases would have to include a plausible cover story, such as the catastrophic explosion of a munitions depot. The release that officials eventually issued seems rather benign; it mentions an accidental munitions explosion, noting, “Property damage outside of the explosives magazine itself was negligible.” But in the worst-case scenario, a press release noted “serious damage” in area communities, and that, “Among the dead were” several of the scientists involved in the test.
3. Bin Laden Raid: Did Obama Want Deniability?
The U.S. Navy SEALs mission in 2011 that resulted in the death of Osama bin Laden was a feel-good moment in recent American history; Americans took to the streets to celebrate revenge on the mastermind behind the devastating attacks on 9/11. Pundits generally gave President Barack Obama bipartisan applause for his decision to approve the mission into Pakistan, despite the huge risks. But around the one-year anniversary of that raid, conservative media outlets began questioning whether Obama had designed an “out” to blame the military if the raid failed. Specifically, some observers claimed a memo written by then-CIA Director Leon Panetta after Obama ordered the raid seemed designed to shield the president in the mission failed. Former U.S. attorney general Michael Mukasey told Fox News it was a “highly lawyered memo.” The president’s supporters vehemently disputed the thought that Obama wanted to shirk responsibility for any failure. Here are the relevant portions of Panetta’s memo:
“The decision is to proceed with the assault. The timing, operational decision making and control are in Admiral McRaven’s hands. The approval is provided on the risk profile presented to the President. Any additional risks are to be brought back to the President for his consideration. The direction is to go in and get bin Laden and if he is not there, to get out. Those instructions were conveyed to Admiral McRaven at approximately 10:45 am.”
In the hyper-partisan world of American politics today, your political views will probably influence how you interpret that memo.
2. Lincoln Vows He’ll Work With New President
We remember Abraham Lincoln today as one of America’s greatest presidents, the man who unified the North and the South and emancipated the slaves. In the summer of 1864, none of those legacies seemed assured. Union forces had suffered heavy losses in fighting that year, and Lincoln feared he might lose his bid for re-election that November; the opposing Democratic Party had vowed to negotiate a peace treaty with the Confederacy. With the outcome of the war and election very much in doubt, Lincoln penned the following memo on Aug. 23, 1864:
“This morning, as for some days past, it seems exceedingly probable that this Administration will not be re-elected. Then it will be my duty to so co-operate with the President elect, as to save the Union between the election and the inauguration; as he will have secured his election on such ground that he can not possibly save it afterwards.”
Lincoln sealed the memo in an envelope, then asked his cabinet members to sign the envelope without reading the message. Less than two weeks later, however, the Union captured Atlanta, essentially sealing Lincoln’s re-election and the Union’s eventual victory.
1. Eisenhower Accepts Blame for D-Day Failure
News of this memo has been around for years. That makes it no less remarkable for its simple but profound message. Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, commander of the Allied forces in Europe, feared German defenses would hold the beach and force the Allies to retreat. The day before the June 6, 1944 invasion, he wrote this short memo:
“Our landings in the Cherbourg-Havre area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops. My decision to attack at this time and place was based upon the best information available. The troops, the air and the Navy did all that bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame attaches to the attempt it is mine alone.”
The memo is dated July 5. Ike can certainly be forgiven if his mind was preoccupied with more important matters at the time.