I read an interesting passage in The Miracle of Language by Richard Lederer. Tomorrow will be the 66th anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing, and, according to Lederer, it could have been avoided.
The end of World War II began with Victory in Europe on May 8, 1945. Japanese resistance on Okinawa ended seven weeks later, and an end to the war seemed imminent. On July 26, 1945, through the Potsdam Declaration, Truman, Stalin and Churchill demanded that Japan should surrender unconditionally or accept the consequences.
The Japanese are a proud and tenacious people. While the Japanese cabinet appeared in favour of a settlement, they wanted more time to consider. They issued a statement saying that they were giving the offer mokusatsu. This word could mean two different things, depending on context. It could mean that the Japanese were considering the declaration, or that they were ignoring it.
While most Japanese assumed the first meaning—considering—the man who prepared the English translation used the second meaning—ignoring.
Thinking that the declaration was being ignored, on August 6, 1945, an atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. In the first three weeks after the blast, and the subsequent bombing at Nagasaki, 150,000 people died.
All because of one word.