Virtual History

Alternatives and Counterfactuals edited by Niall Ferguson

Basic, 560 pp., $ 30

What If?

The World's Foremost Military Historians Imagine What Might Have Been

edited by Robert Cowley

Putnam, 395 pp., $ 27.95

Many years ago, my father-in-law bumped into an old Korean War buddy in a Hong Kong street. The friend, now a general, offered to fly him back to North America on a military plane. Wanting to buy more souvenirs, my father-in-law declined. So they exchanged addresses and promised to get in touch when they returned home. That evening, the general's plane vanished over the Pacific.

Who doesn't have a story like this? Who has never wondered about how our lives and the lives of those we love would have been altered had we made another choice than the one we did? Footfalls echo in the memory, as T. S. Eliot wrote in "Burnt Norton," Down the passage which we did not take, / Towards the door we never opened.

But though it's natural to speculate about the paths we personally did not choose, historians have warned for decades that it is futile and misleading to engage in such speculation about humanity as a whole. "Cleopatra's nose: Had it been shorter, the whole face of the world would have been changed," Blaise Pascal mused -- and ever since, the idea that something as contingent as one woman's beauty might be responsible for the rise and fall of kingdoms has been damned by the historical profession as the "fallacy of Cleopatra's nose."

Historians have objected to Pascal's proposition for two opposite reasons: some because they believe that the shortening of Cleopatra's nose would have changed too little to make a difference; others because they believe that it would have changed too much for the human mind to reckon with.

Those who disparage the effect of the nose-change think that historical developments are vast, virtually irresistible tides, channeled within bounds that no individual can alter. Suppose Cleopatra had been less seductive, and that as a result Mark Antony rather than Octavian had emerged the dictator of Rome. How could that make a difference? To succeed, Antony would have had to govern more or less as Octavian did; had he failed to do so, his regime would have swiftly collapsed, as the three military dictatorships before Octavian's collapsed. In other words, had Cleopatra's nose been shorter, the names on the busts in the Capitoline museum might well have been altered. But the face of the world? Hardly a jot. According to this deterministic objection, historical counterfactuals are useless because they fail to take account of how little difference any single human being can make.

The other theory, by contrast, complains that Cleopatra's nose counterfactuals are useless because they fail to reckon with how much difference a single human being can make. Ray Bradbury has a famous science-fiction story in which a character travels back in time to the age of the dinosaurs, accidentally steps on a single butterfly, and returns to the present -- only to discover the world entirely changed. It's ridiculous, goes this theory, to ask how Mark Antony's empire would have differed from Octavian's. Alter one fact of history and all of history is put up for grabs, in such a radical way that we here in North America could easily be pondering in Chinese what-if scenarios about our Han dynasty ancestors.

The Italian historian and philosopher Benedetto Croce delivered an especially eloquent expression of this point of view, which is disapprovingly quoted in Niall Ferguson's introduction to Virtual History: Alternatives and Counterfactuals, a recent collection of essays on the topic. The Cleopatra's nose problem, Croce complained, "arbitrarily divides the course of history into necessary facts and accidental facts." A supposedly accidental fact is then

mentally eliminated in order to espy how the first would have developed along its own lines if it had not been disturbed by the second. This is a game which all of us in moments of distraction or idleness indulge in, when we muse on the way our life might have turned out if we had not met a certain person, . . . cheerfully treating ourselves, in these meditations, as though we were the necessary and stable element, it simply not occurring to us . . . to provide for the transformation of this self of ours which is, at the moment of thinking, what it is, with all its experiences and regrets and fancies, just because we did meet that person.

And yet despite all these wise admonitions, people continue to engage in just the sort of speculation Croce and others condemn. They use it as a teaching device, to jolt people out of the complacent assumption that events had to happen as they did: The British historian Conrad Russell has a marvelous essay about how, if the wind had not abruptly shifted in 1688, the Glorious Revolution would have failed and a Catholic king would have been preserved on the English throne. At still other times it serves a moral purpose, prodding us to appreciate the importance of individuals in history: What if the car that struck Winston Churchill when he looked the wrong way before crossing Fifth Avenue in 1931 had killed him? Alexis de Tocqueville warned that because men in democratic societies feel themselves to be small and weak, they are dangerously tempted by explanations of historical events that stress inevitability. Alternative history at its best can encourage us to appreciate the daunting contingency of history -- and the supreme importance for good or ill of individual moral choice.

This point is effectively made by the best of the essays anthologized in Ferguson's book, Mark Almond's "1989 Without Gorbachev." With bitter irony, Almond argues that we do indeed owe the end of the Cold War to Mikhail Gorbachev. "After generations of dullard apparatchiks had safely guided the Soviet Union to super-power status, it was the bright-eyed Gorbachev who grabbed the steering wheel and headed straight for the rocks." Repression could still have worked in the mid-1980s, and would have found no lack of apologists in the West.

Gorbachev's perestroika, by contrast, wrecked the stagnating Soviet economy while his glasnost discredited his regime. "Gorbachev's belief that a relaxation in international tensions was in the Soviet Union's interest was profoundly misplaced. Only the 'two camps' division of the world provided the kind of global scenario in which such a strange animal as the Soviet economy could function." Had Gorbachev only held on a little longer, he would have discovered that ideological help was on its way.

The long march through the institutions of post-1960s pacifism and fellow traveling combined with nuclear panic was just about to reach its goal. It was only the surprising and total collapse of Communism . . . which brought much of the Western intelligentsia to admit that the Right had been correct. . . . Had the Wall stayed up, much of the Western elite would have remained oblivious to Communism's failings, moral as much as material, for at least another generation.

But alternative history is seldom at its best. More often it turns into heavy-handed academic drollery -- like the 1932 collection If It Had Happened Otherwise, in which (among other heavy-handed drolleries) Benjamin Disraeli becomes grand vizier to a rejuvenated Muslim kingdom in Spain. Or else into ponderously detailed constructions of imaginary societies -- science-fiction without the robots and deathrays -- as in Robert Sobel's For Want of a Nail, a prolonged counter-history of a world in which American independence was snuffed out at the battle of Saratoga in 1777.

And of course, sometimes it back-fires altogether. Reading through many counterfactual histories, one tends to find reinforced one's Tocquevillian feelings of inevitability. In Robert Cowley's What If? The World's Foremost Military Historians Imagine What Might Have Been, another recent anthology of hypothetical history, Alistair Horne considers how history might have been altered had Napoleon halted his career of conquest after the Peace of Tilsit in 1807. But to suppose that Napoleon could have somehow quit the roulette table while he still held all his winnings is to endow him with a personality entirely different from the one he actually had -- and such an unnapoleonic Napoleon would never have adventured the first profitable spin. And even if Napoleon could have gotten a grip on his egotism and refrained from starting further wars himself, his empire was so ruthless, exploitative, and menacing that sooner or later the Russians, Austrians, and British would have resumed the war against him.

As for the old chestnut about Napoleon winning at Waterloo, not even Horne can bring himself to believe it. "There were vast fresh forces of Russians, Austrians, and Germans already moving toward France. A second battle, or perhaps several battles, would probably have followed." And behind these battles would have been the strangulating power of the Royal Navy and the superior financial resources of a Britain already embarked upon its industrial revolution.

It could be said that alternative history performs as great a service when it shows that a result was inescapable as when it shows that things might have turned out otherwise. One of the most sensible essays gathered in these anthologies is Theodore F. Cook's in What If?, which convincingly argues that the likeliest result of a Japanese victory at the battle of Midway would have been not an Axis victory, but a prolongation of the war and the devastation of the Japanese Home Islands by atomic bombs. Another is Alvin Jackson's in Virtual History, which concludes that Anglo-Irish relations would have followed the same tragic course in the twentieth century whether or not the British Liberals had been able to push through the plan for Home Rule for Ireland. "Ireland under Home Rule might well have proved to be not so much Britain's settled, democratic partner as her Yugoslavia."

But what is no service to anyone is the kind of wish-fantasy that predominates in both books. Eminent historian that he is, Stephen Sears is kidding himself to imagine in What If? that a Union victory at First Bull Run would have knocked the Confederacy out of the war before it began. In Virtual History, Niall Ferguson repeats the assertion (made in greater scope in his 1999 book The Pity of War) that British neutrality in 1914 would have brought us something very like the European Union eight decades ahead of schedule while preserving England as a great power -- a hypothesis that more closely resembles the daydreams of Civil War reenactors than the realities of the early twentieth century.

As they so often do, in fact, these fantasies reveal more about the fantasizer than they do about the thing fantasized about. Ross Hassig contends in What If? that an independent Native American state could have survived in Mexico had Hernando Cortez been captured and sacrificed by the Aztecs (as he very nearly was) in the climactic battle for Tenochtitlan in 1521 -- a contention that tells us more about the historical profession's born-again enthusiasm for Indian culture than about the real-life prospects for a stone-tool kingdom whose people lacked immunity to European diseases. Alternative history is the last redoubt of the historical traditionalist -- the sort of historian who still cares about high politics, wars, and battles -- but dreamy multiculturalists are forcing their way into even this cloistered subgenre. Makes you shudder to think what the rest of the profession must be like.

David Frum is a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD.

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