The Magazine

History As It Wasn't

What if Napoleon had won at Waterloo? What if Cleopatra had had an ugly nose?

Nov 27, 2000, Vol. 6, No. 11 • By DAVID FRUM
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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.