Why should we care about alternative history scenarios? Isn't it just mindless speculation that teaches us nothing?
British historian Niall Ferguson in his book, Virtual History, pointed out that raising "what if" questions and alternate scenarios are vital ways for individuals to learn from their mistakes and successes. In our personal lives, few human beings can avoid pondering "what if's" -- what if I didn't show up for that fateful encounter with the love of my life? What if my parents didn't meet and conceive me? Or as Ferguson speculates, "What if I had observed the speed limit, or refused that last drink?" And yet teachers of history often present material as if "events are in some way preprogrammed, so that what was, had to be." It makes the study of history deterministic, boring and often lifeless.
William Holmes, in reviewing What If's of American History on Amazon.com, points out that "History is often written as if outcomes were inevitable, as if the colonies were ordained to win the American Revolution or the Union to prevail in the Civil War. But history is contingent, and the only way to fully appreciate the significance of a given event is to think about what might have happened if things had turned out differently." Explaining the historical context of a given occurrence and then engaging in limited speculation about what might have happened if that event hadn't turned out the way it did can be "very illuminating," Holmes writes.
Grounding the "What If's" or alternate histories in conveniently forgotten facts, the small and seemingly insignificant decisions that have changed the course of nations and the world, we learn that details do matter and individuals can make a huge difference. They motivate us to be involved, to prepare the best we can, to discipline ourselves, to keep our minds open, not closed. Or that sometimes, even courageous individuals swimming against the tides of history cannot forestall the disasters that await, hence the nobility of the quixotic quest, to dream the impossible dream, that is worth the effort whether you win or lose.
To engage with great historical questions is essential for self-governing people. If we do not engage, we could find ourselves to be mere chattel or pawns in the power grasps of others. Because you didn't study the past or ask the right questions, or delve deep enough into the consequences of war, you might be asked to die for a mistake, in an avoidable war. Or because you were naive and clueless -- advocating "peace in our time," and "peace at any price" -- or easily manipulated by anti-war sentiment -- you could find your own country under the domination of a despot. Resources you depend on have fallen out of your control, your country's economy has collapsed, your personal dreams and ambitions are in tatters. All because you and your peers didn't study history or pay attention to current events and ask the right questions.
No student of American electoral history since 1960 can argue that voting doesn't matter. In 1960, 1964, 1968, 1976, 1980, 1984, 1988, 1992, 2000, 2004, and 2008, the decisions of a minuscule number of either office-holders, advisors, journalists, or primary or general election voters determined the leadership of the American nation. Different leaders, different decisions, or tiny twists of fate would have led the U.S. and the Soviet Union to nuclear war in 1962. Different leaders would have ended US involvement in Vietnam in the 1960s instead of 1973, saving tens of thousands of American lives and hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese lives. With different leadership, the nation could have avoided the disillusionment of Watergate, the permanent cynicism and disrespect for authority resulting from it, the excesses of the counter-culture and the "culture wars" that have permeated politics since the 1960s.
Different decisions by a handful of office-holders, advisors, or voters meant the US could have lurched to the right in 1976 or to the left in 1980.
Few today remember what a close call the first Gulf War in 1991 was because the outcome seemed so uniformly positive, with few downsides for the Americans. But different leaders -- Michael Dukakis, Ted Kennedy, Jimmy Carter, Gary Hart, John Kerry -- would have decided against it.
One of the bitter ironies of American presidential politics is that with the winner of the popular vote, Al Gore, in the White House instead of George W. Bush, the war likely would not have been launched.
It's true that the average high school student, equipped with hindsight, has more "wisdom" than the most informed leaders who are forced to make decisions on the fly without the benefit of knowing the future. But we can always hope for better informed voters and leaders with better judgment. Examining the "what if's" of recent American history is a way of making them, and ourselves, accountable for our decisions.