OK, now for the more serious discussion of today.
I’m a big history buff. I didn’t know that growing up, as my mom and younger brother made me feel inadequate in this area. (You live with a younger brother who fights Civil War battles in his sleep!) But I am. I realized that the first time I met someone who said, “Oh, were there *two* Presidents named Roosevelt?” In all innocence, she asked that. Coulda knocked me over with a teddy bear.
So I find history often fascinating. And to my mind some of the most interesting stuff is the “what ifs”.
What if Lee Harvey Oswald had missed? (And, by the way, why didn’t he? That’s some shot! I think Atticus Finch would have had trouble making that shot.) What if Martin Luther King, Jr., or Bobby Kennedy had survived? What if Reagan hadn’t?<shudder> Those are obvious. There are others. What if Robert E. Lee had fought on the side of the North? He nearly did. What if he’d lived for some time after the Civil War was over? He was not a big fan of slavery or of secession.
Wars and assassinations are easy what ifs. What if Robert Bork had been affirmed to the Supreme Court?<shudder> And so on.
There’s a whole genre of literature about this, actually, called Alternate History. Most of it I totally hate, as too often it seems the authors don’t know much about the history they’re writing about. (This strikes me as a strange genre to write in if you’re not a history buff!) But there is one author I generally do like. Harry Turtledove. (One of the odd things about this genre is that it’s shelved as science fiction. The best stuff involved no true science fiction at all.) The first Harry Turtledove book I read was Guns of the South. In this book, the what if is, what if somehow the South had gained better weapons, and the capacity to make them, than the North had? It’s well thought out and well written, and a pretty decent education on why the South lost in the end. (And who Robert E. Lee *really* was, rather than the inaccurate popular culture version.)
Another of his that I liked OK (I’m having more trouble with his style; his ideas are first rate, though) is Days of Infamy. (Which I just discovered has a sequel. The bookstore awaits my getting better!) The question here is, what if the elite tacticians in Japan had followed the bombing of Pearl Harbor with an invasion?
Because really, why didn’t they? There are a lot of questions here I never thought to ask. The bombing is before my time, so it was always just a historical fact to me. But why *did* the Japanese attack us in the first place? Seems a rather stupid thing to do, really. America was still being firmly non-interventional, even though FDR was *trying* to talk the country into the war in Europe. Attacking us gave FDR all the help he needed to get the country behind the war.
Part of the answer is that we had cut off oil shipments to Japan. And they didn’t have an alternate supplier. Plus, their economy and, more importantly, their war machine required oil. But they’d have been smarter, I’d think, to have attacked somewhere closer to home that actually had oil. But the Japanese military doesn’t seem to have had common sense as a salient characteristic.
And why, if what you want is your oil shipments back, would you *bomb* the country? Doesn’t seem like a smart negotiating tactic to me. In fact, it seems clearly foreseeably suicidal. What chance does a small nation without the resources to keep its economy going have going up against one of the biggest nations in the world?
Well, let’s remember that Japan had already spent the previous decade seriously annoying Russia, without Soviet response worth naming, and *invading* China successfully. I believe they were mistreating several other neighbors at the same time. That sort of thing could make a military pretty cocky, I guess. (Of course, it also strained their resources – a topic our current President could take a lesson from.)
But did they really think they could just bomb our military, run away, and we’d just sit there, saying “You’re being mean to me!”? I guess they did. Cause they didn’t do the one thing that would have made some sense. They didn’t divert any of their military to invading Hawaii when it was lying there helpless.
And that’s what Days of Infamy (and the sequel) are about. What if they had thought it through better? Cause launching an attack on Japan was hard enough when we had Hawaii as a base (after it was rebuilt). Doing it from California would have been much, much harder.
(One of my favorite bits of Days of Infamy is a point wherein a local surfer, who’s been using his surfboard to fish from, gets the bright idea to put a sail on the thing and invents windsurfing. My husband’s a windsurfer.<g> Another part I really, really liked was when a couple of surfers are surfing into the beach in the middle of the invasion, with the Japanese invaders and the beachside defenders shooting at each other. It’s a pretty funny bit, and would certainly make an interesting scene in a movie!)
So. The other what if I’m particularly fond of is the basis for a long series of Turtledove books (beginning with How Few Remain). The South winning the Civil War is a favorite what if for alternate history writers, and most of what I’ve read in the area can only be described as Bloody Awful. This book (the best of the series) is not, in part because it could so easily have happened.
We’re taught that the South could not have won. The North had Right on their side, had more people, had more manufacturing capacity, and had the allies. All they had to do was hang in there.
But hanging in there was difficult. Not everyone in the North thought the whole thing was a great idea. Abolition was *not* a popular cause – which is why Abraham Lincoln didn’t push the war on that basis. And many people thought that letting the South secede was not a bad idea. (Even I think they had the *right* to secede, even if why they wanted to was just Wrong.) And the allies we had were not so firmly on our side in the beginning. Lincoln had some trouble selling the whole thing to both the American people and Europe. (Not many people realize that Lincoln said that if he could preserve the Union by freeing all the slaves, he would. If he could preserve it by freeing none, he would. If he could preserve it by freeing some and not others, he’d do that. He was an abolitionist, but not primarily. And, I can’t right now find the exact quote, so you’ll have to take my word for this.)
How could the South have won? Well, back in 1862, before Grant was put in charge of things and began winning battles, things looked pretty black. The War wasn’t over in 6 weeks, as both sides had confidently predicted (where have I heard that before?), and the South was withholding its oh-so-important cotton crop from Europe, which was considering seriously intervening and demanding that Lincoln negotiate an end to the war. At that point, General McClellan, despite himself, managed to win an important battle that gave Lincoln some breathing room on the diplomatic front and eased some of the American people’s fears as well.
He won because General Lee wrote down his battle plans for what became Antietam, wrapped them around some cigars, and sent the package to one of his subordinates. The messenger dropped the package and a Northerner found it. The battle plans made their way to McClellan. McClellan nearly lost, anyway, but because Lee withdrew from the battle, McClellan was considered the winner. The English and French decided not to recognize the Confederate government and Lincoln was able to issue The Emancipation Proclamation.
But what if the package hadn’t been dropped? McClellan was capable, in my opinion, of losing to a trained monkey. Against Lee at his best, McClellan had no chance. If Antietam had been fought without advanced knowledge of where Lee’s forces were, he'd have lost and there’s every chance England and France would have forced Lincoln to negotiate a settlement wherein the Confederacy was confirmed as a new nation. And the rest of the Turtledove series follows. It is, I think, brilliant.
Other things that follow: George Custer would not have been (wrongfully) proclaimed a sort of Boy Wonder of generals and sent to the Little Big Horn, meaning he likely could have screwed up things for many years to come. Lincoln wouldn’t have been assassinated. Turtledove presents him as a Socialist. (I was skeptical, till I came across some quotes about people making money from the sweat of other men’s brows. I’ll give him a maybe.) The United States would then have been surrounded by hostile neighbors: Mexico and the Confederacy to the south and English and French Canada to the north. We would have lost a war. We would have been a different country.
The series begun with How Few Remain goes on to include hostilities with both the Confederacy and with Canada. Eventually both the North and the South are drawn into World War I, on opposite sides. Trench warfare, as it existed in Europe, was fought on our soil. Then there’s the Depression, which would be worse on both countries. Now his series is fighting World War II, again with the North and South on opposite sides. Hitler has a clone in the Confederate President. It’s all pretty chilling and in many ways plausible.
(Finally, check out In the Presence of Mine Enemies. What if Germany had not lost World War II – no explanation is given, sorry – and there were still Jews alive in Germany in the 21st century? How would they live? Again, the style leaves a lot to be desired, but the ideas are interesting and chilling.)
What ifs are fascinating.