A few years ago an interesting book was published under the editorship of J. C. Squire. It consisted of a series of studies by distinguished historians and men of letters on some crucial events of history as they might have been.[1] The conception behind the book was brilliant; properly executed, it could have displayed many insights into the dynamics of the historical process. Unfortunately the performance was extremely disappointing. Most of the essays were flights of imagination rather than attempts at scientific reconstruction. Among others, Guedalla speculates on what would have happened if the Moors had won in Spain; H. A. L. Fisher on “If Napoleon Had Escaped to America;” G. K. Chesterton on the marriage of Don John of Austria to Mary Queen of Scots; Nicholson on Byron as King of Greece; Belloc on the successful escape of Louis XVI. from revolutionary Paris; Van Loon on continued Dutch rule of New Amsterdam; Winston Churchill on the consequences of a victory by Lee at Gettysburg.

Under what circumstances can a scientifically credible rather than an imaginatively credible answer be given to questions of this sort? In order to work out the answer, we shall consider a series of hypothetical situations concerning which we believe credible results can be won. We shall then examine the procedure of these essayists who admits the legitimacy of “if” questions but apparently only as an exercise in imagination, controlled not by historic fact but by the same kind of inherent plausibility exhibited in a well-told story. But prior to this, we must deal with the position that denies it is scientifically meaningful to ask “if” questions.

Some philosophers of history, but no practising historians, have held that the pattern of historical events is an intricate crisscross of what is technically called “internally related” happenings. Two happenings are internally related if the occurrence of the first necessitates the occurrence of the other, and vice versa. Consequently any change in one will of necessity be followed by a change in the other. The relation of necessity holds between any two events if it is literally impossible for one event to occur if the other does not, or for the first not to occur if the other does. In short, the two events logically entail each other. Now if all events are related to one another in this way, once we assume that any event happened differently from what it did—or even that one single detail of it happened differently—every other event would have had to happen differently. But on such a supposition, whenever we ask an “if” question, we cannot intelligently say what would have happened, for anything might have happened. We can no longer rely upon relationships observed to hold in other situations to enable us to tell what will now ensue—for these relationships themselves have been automatically altered the very moment we have assumed a hypothesis contrary to fact. From this point of view, all situations or events are mutually interdependent—parts of one total situation or one great event. A hypothesis contrary to fact cannot be stated without self-contradiction. And since it is a self-contradictory statement, anything can be tied to it no matter how fanciful.

This philosophy of history is a specific application of a metaphysical world view. It is occasionally suggested by some forms of theological determinism, but more expressively developed in the Hegelian system of absolute idealism and its variants. It is never carried out consistently, nor can it ever establish its basic assumptions that all things are necessarily involved in each other and that any true judgment, therefore, entails the totality of all other true judgments. Why, indeed, should the conjoining of any two historical statements like “Wellington fought at Waterloo” (which is in fact true), and “Gold was not discovered in California” (which is in fact false), result in a contradiction? Or can one seriously believe that if my dog whose name is “Trailer” had been called “Tiger” everything else in the world would necessarily have been affected? Here is not the place to criticize in detail the metaphysical theory of the block universe. Its consequences for history reveal its weaknesses sufficiently for present purposes. For it implies that there are no objective possibilities in history, that the future is already actual but unborn, that human effort or the lack of it is predetermined, and that intelligence can never make a difference to what is in the process of becoming but “like the owl of Minerva begins its flight only when the shades of twilight have already fallen” (Hegel).

The degree of interrelatedness between historical events is an empirical matter. When we assert a specific interrelatedness between events, we mean that they are confirming instances of empirical laws that function as hypotheses in the specific problem under inquiry. One way of testing the extent of the interrelation or the validity of the laws is to ask a relevant “if” question. When an answer to the “if” question tells us that the course of events would have followed substantially the same pattern even if the particular occurrence we ask about had not taken place, we may conclude that there is no integral connection between this occurrence and the constellation in which it figures. For example, if Alfred E. Smith had been President in 1928 instead of Hoover, what would the state of American economy have been like during the presidential term? Without any fear of contradiction we can safely answer that it would have been very much like what it was under Hoover. The phases of the business cycle do not depend upon presidential policy. We might even go so far as to say that, no matter who had occupied the White House, in all likelihood the crisis of 1929 and its consequences would have occurred approximately when they did.

On the other hand, suppose we ask whether the social welfare legislation and the business restrictions associated with the New Deal from 1933 to 1938—measures that banished the era of relatively uncontrolled big business—would have been adopted if, by some chance, John Nance Garner had been President during these years. There is no reason to believe that they would have been adopted in anything like their entirety. We can justifiably assert, however, that the failure to adopt remedial economic measures would have resulted in a tremendous growth of indigenous Fascist sentiments and movements out of which a Huey Long could have made great political capital. Sometimes what counts most is the situation, sometimes the man. In 1929 Roosevelt would have been as helpless as Hoover; in 1933 he had his opportunity. He threw his campaign platform of 1932 away because the situation gave him freedom of action, just as Willkie if elected would have thrown away his campaign platform of 1940 because the situation did not give him freedom of action. Citizen Drouet was a modest French provincial who, by dragging a cart across an arched gateway near the bridge at Varennes, foiled the attempt of Louis XVI. to flee Paris. The king was in sight of safety when his coach was halted. Hilaire Belloc asks what would have happened if Drouet’s cart had stuck and the king had escaped. He blithely answers that the whole history of Europe would have been different, culminating at last in our own day in a “Golden Age of Christendom.” Even for Belloc, whose historical excursions have been one long vendetta against post-Reformation Europe, such a judgment lacks sobriety. He is led to it by the ungrounded assumption that, had he escaped, Louis XVI. could have defeated the armies of the Revolution, out-generalled Napoleon, stopped the consequences of the industrial revolution, and changed not only the leopard spots of capitalism but its very mode of functioning. “Drouet’s cart it was that did the trick!” he laments. “Through it the monarchy fell, the Revolution survived, the modern world, its mechanical development and social insecurity became possible.” Yet the whole weight of evidence compiled by generations of historians testifies that neither Drouet nor Louis XVI. had anything to do with the industrial expansion of Europe in the late eighteenth century and its vast ramification of social effects. Belloc places too great a weight of historical interrelatedness on two inconsequential pivots, royal and common. A much more topical “if” question is provided by the situation of Napoleon poised on the English Channel ready to strike at England. What would have happened if, on a day that the English fleet was becalmed, Napoleon had steamed across the Channel and realized his long-unfulfilled dream of invading England? Would Napoleon have avoided his Waterloo, and would England have been transformed into a French province?

The following excerpts from two communications prove that the possibility of Napoleon’s steaming across the Channel was not far-fetched, but hung on a thread of bureaucratic red tape. The first is from a letter of Robert Fulton, the inventor of the steamboat, to Napoleon: “I can remove the obstacles—wind and storm—which protect your enemies, and, notwithstanding his fleet, transport your armies to his territory at any time, and within a few hours.” The second is from a letter of Napoleon to his Minister of the Interior on July 21, 1804. The date is significant because it indicates the years Napoleon had before him in which to avail himself of Fulton’s invention: “I have just read the proposition of the Citizen Fulton, engineer, which you have sent me much too late, since it is one which may change the whole face of the world. Submit it instantly for examination to a special committee.”[2]

Let us assume that Fulton’s invention had not been buried in committee but had been acted upon, a fleet of steam transports equipped, and Napoleon’s army ferried across the Channel. Would his invasion have been successful? Whatever our answer, it will have to be made in terms of certain principles or laws of military warfare as these have been established in comparable situations. Since an army lives on its stomach, supplies, and reinforcements, Napoleon would have had to keep open at all costs his line of communications. So long as the British fleet remained in existence, that would have been impossible. Since he could not count on the wind to hold the English fleet permanently becalmed, he would have had to destroy it. By the time he had equipped a steam battle fleet, the English with their greater shipbuilding and industrial capacities would have met him on at least equal terms. We may, therefore, conclude that even if Napoleon had landed in England, he would still have been far from victory. This conclusion would, of course, be much more assured if he had managed to reach the English shore only with sailing vessels. One of the most famous of all “if” questions was originally raised by the German historian, Eduard Meyer, and used as a key illustration by Max Weber in his discussion of “objective possibility” in history. What would the subsequent history of Europe have been like if the Persian hosts had been victorious at the battles of Marathon, Salamis, and Platea? Meyer maintains with justification that the political history as well as the cultural values of Greek and European civilization would have been profoundly different from the legacy that has come down to us. Since the settled policy of the Achæmenian Empire was to impose its own autocratic and priestly rule upon the territories subjugated by its armies, the Greek city-state with its traditions of autonomy and limited democracy would in all likelihood have disappeared from Europe, and the great efflorescence of Greek culture that followed the emancipation from fear of the Persian yoke would have been frozen in the bud. Most but not all historians of the ancient world agree with this. James Breasted follows Meyer there, but H. A. L. Fisher, the English historian, believes that the Persian victory would not have undermined genuine Greek traditions because both Darius and Xerxes were prepared to use renegade Greeks as puppet rulers. Under these puppet Greek rulers, what was distinctive in Greek culture would have been preserved.

But this overlooks the fact that not all Greeks were devoted to the Greek city-state any more than all Frenchmen accept the heritage of the French Revolution. Some Greeks preferred the stability of Persian despotism to the turbulence of Greek democracy. In addition, Fisher disregards the ruthless punitive measures taken by the Persians against the revolting Ionian cities and all who aided them. The same fate would have befallen the rest of the Greek cities if the Persian tide had broken through their defence.

The possibility envisaged by Meyer is credible and likely because it is based on the settled political and military policy of the Achæmenian Empire, as evidenced in a whole series of other actions in its history. That this policy would have remained constant is, of course, an assumption. But there is no reason to justify the belief that it would have been abandoned by a triumphant Xerxes, while there are good reasons for believing that such a policy, where it could be enforced, strengthened the Persians. If we are not justified in making assumptions concerning the relative constancy of certain determinate relationships in any historical situation, it would be hard to draw a line between fantasy and scientific reconstruction.

A disregard of this line between fantasy and scientific reconstruction mars at every crucial point Winston Churchill’s well-told tale of the result of hypothetical Confederate victory at Gettysburg. The high points in his hypothetical account of the consequences of a lost battle at Gettysburg are: (1) defeat of the North and the peaceful existence of two nations in the area now comprising the United States; (2) Lee’s abolition of slavery, immediately after the victory at Gettysburg, which reconciled the North to peace and brought an alliance between England and the South; (3) the formation at a moment of crisis around 1905 of an English-speaking Association. “The Re-United States” of Britain, the North, and the South—one great union of the Anglo-Saxon peoples, “members of one body and inheritors of one estate”; (4) the peaceful resolution of the incident at Sarajevo in 1914 by the open threat of the English-speaking Union to declare war against any power whose troops invaded a neighbouring country.

1. The military consequences to the North of a lost battle at Gettysburg would have included not a lost war but a prolonged one. The industrial equipment of the North, its much denser population, its command of the sea—not to mention the fall of Vicksburg and the control this gave of the Mississippi—spelled defeat in the end for the South. The capture of Washington and the threat to the Northern States would have unified sentiment in those regions and led to a more vigorous prosecution of the war. It might even have converted Lincoln into a Radical Republican. We agree with Churchill that “Once a great victory is won… all the chains of consequence clink out as if they never would stop.” But a victorious war for the South would not have been a link in the chain of consequences of a Northern military defeat. If great victories had been able to ensure final triumph in the Civil War, the South would have won easily, since it won most of the battles, as did the German Imperial forces in the First World War. If disastrous military defeats of the magnitude hypothetically suffered by the North were always a prelude to a lost war, there would to-day be no British Empire.

2. That Lee would have proclaimed the emancipation of the slaves after a Confederate victory at Gettysburg is a pretty conceit of a dramatic historian. There were plenty of victorious battles in whose wake he could have done this but did not. He did not because it would have disrupted the plantation economy in whose behalf the Southern States went to war. That England would have actively intervened on the side of the South in the event of a victory at Gettysburg is unlikely. So far as the working class population was concerned, its sympathies were actively for the North. To the extent that foreign policy in the hands of the ruling classes could proceed independently of this sentiment, the line of diplomatic strategy during the century was to play off one side against the other in order to weaken both—not only in the Civil War but in every war on the Continent.

3. To believe that in 1905 two mutually jealous sovereign states, the United States of the North and the Confederate States of the South, whose interests conflicted at many points, would surrender their sovereignty for union with a third, the United Kingdom of Great Britain—regarded as a hereditary enemy by at least one of them—is a tribute to Mr. Churchill’s high hopes and aspirations, not to his insight as a historian. It has no precedent in human history. Its failure to take place would be more in keeping with the record. Indeed, it would certainly have been much easier to achieve union between the indivisible United States and Great Britain after the First World War, in which they were close allies. Nothing like it ever happened, or was officially proposed, or was even suggested until the time of Mr. Churchill’s essay. On the basis of this essay, however, he must be credited with being the original, albeit indirect, sponsor of the programme of Union Now.

That an event has no precedent in human history is not, of course, an objection to its occurrence. Otherwise there would be no history. But the likelihood of such an event depends upon the nature of the situation that leads up to it. The Union that Mr. Churchill envisages in his reconstructed tale was unlikely because at the time there was nothing to lead up to it in terms of common history, activity, and interests. It comes as a suggestion out of the blue. Because at the present time the situation is different in these respects, his idea is an objective historical possibility even if it is not acted upon.

4. It is undoubtedly true that the First World War would not have broken out in August, 1914, if a union of English-speaking nations had delivered its ultimatum to Europe. There is evidence that Germany definitely counted on English–American neutrality during the time assigned by its High Command for finishing off France and Russia. Nonetheless it would have required more than an English–American démarche to banish the likelihood of a better-prepared-for war in the next few years, even if the crisis of 1914 had been peacefully settled. What was required was a permanent solution of the Balkan problem, agreement of all interested parties on the existence and control of the Berlin–Bagdad railroad, a redivision of the raw materials and colonial markets of the world, Germany’s return to Bismarck’s naval policy, and considerable military disarmament all around—not to speak of profound modifications in the internal capitalist economy of the major powers. There is not the slightest evidence that these requirements stood an appreciable chance of being fulfilled. One of the recurrent weaknesses of the imaginative reconstructions of a hypothetical past is that the line of inference is often drawn too far into the future. Not satisfied with reconstructing the given situation for a limited period, in which the succession of alternative happenings can be clearly envisaged, those who think through the process of reconstruction carry it indefinitely forward. They therewith tend to disregard the increasing possibilities of alternate developments as more and more elements enter the story. If a reconstruction over a period of a few years is risky, a reconstruction over a period of a hundred years is much more than ten times as risky. The following illustrations may make this clearer.

If Quebec had fallen to American assault in the War of Independence, we can safely predict that the war would have ended sooner than it did and that Benedict Arnold would have escaped the fate of a traitor. It is a safe prediction but not necessarily true because we are assuming that certain generalizations about the conduct of war and the behaviour of individuals like Arnold are valid. Although we have a right to make these generalizations on the basis of rules derived from past experience, we have no logical guarantee that they will continue to hold or that something new and completely unforeseen will not crop up to prolong the war and make a traitor of Arnold. We are assuming that other occurrences, happenings in other series of events unrelated to the series that followed the fall of Quebec, will not intersect the latter. But they may. That is why our judgment is well grounded and reliable but not certain. We can also predict, but not so safely, that if Quebec had fallen, the Canadian provinces, with their large French population only recently transferred to the English flag, would have raised no insuperable objection at the end of the war to incorporation in the United States of America. Here the possible number of disturbing elements from other series of events is larger, and the period of time over which they could interfere with what would otherwise have been the case is greater. But if anyone were to try to predict the effect of the incorporation of Canada upon the development of American economy and politics down to the twentieth century, his conclusions would be extremely improbable although not necessarily fanciful. He could make out a one-way case for the development of the series of events in relative isolation from other series of events, but we can see, on the basis of our knowledge of other histories, a vast number of other series of events that could have intersected at many points the hypothetical history.

If there had been no Reformation, we could safely predict that there would have been no Counter-reformation, that is, that many of the events which occurred in the seventeenth century would not have taken place. True enough. But if there had been no Reformation, would we now be enjoying tolerance under a universal religion of free-thinking Popes who interpreted sacred Biblical history as morally edifying fairy tales—as Santayana apparently believes? Many other things would have had not to happen before this kind of civilized culture could have developed. So many, indeed, that we can dismiss the suggestion as fanciful.

It is safe to predict, that is, offer valid grounds for asserting, that if at Versailles in 1919 either the policy of Clemenceau or that of Wilson had been followed to the bitter end, instead of compounding the weaknesses of both, the rest of the world world have had less to fear from Hitler. But if Saul had remained Saul, or if, reborn as Paul, he had decided to bring the gospel of the Messiah, crucified and risen, to the Gentiles, what would have been the fate of the Roman Empire, of Europe under Alaric and other barbarian chiefs, of France in the eighteenth century, assuming that there were a France? Would modern science and democracy have developed earlier or not at all? Here only the sketchiest answers can be made with good sense.[3]

When we draw the line of possible eventuality too far out of the immediate period, the mind staggers under the cumulative weight of the unforeseen. That is why prophecy is such a hazardous vocation. We are more alive to the chances of the future because they are still before us, but the past, too, even though it is over, is an exciting story of chances missed. The past closes silently behind us with the awful finality of a divine judgment. But the finality means that historical events are irreversible, not that they are all necessary, and certainly not that they are all good. A deceptive backward glance mistakes the unforeseen for the predetermined. The hypnotic influence of the long-established, of what cannot be changed, often misleads the innocent into believing that it has a hidden purpose and the pious into the blasphemy that the judgment of history is the judgment of God.

If we seek understanding, and not salvation, from the pages of history, we will not fail to recognize the might-have-beens of the past. Some of them may turn out as relevant to the chances of the future as a recognized mistake is to the successful action that follows it. These might-have-beens of history are not ghostly echoes of what people merely hoped for, but objective possibilities that were missed—sometimes for want of a hero, sometimes for want of a horse, sometimes for want of a shoe, but most of the time for want of intelligence, particularly in realizing the objective possibilities of good.

We may compare the process of history to a gnarled ancient tree, still in healthy growth, whose trunk is the human race with interlacing boughs arching in many directions. Along each bough, large and then smaller limbs branch off, down to the very twigs. Here and there signs point to a branch of a twin stem that had been lopped off, while its other has grown to tremendous dimensions. At other places, what started out as an independent bough rounds off to a knotty protuberance. Under its mass of foliage, dead, rotting limbs can be found. A skilful gardener might once have trimmed it into a symmetrical form or other pleasing shapes, but the job would be difficult now. And it would have to be repeated yearly, for new shoots are put forth every season. It is exposed to quick destruction by lightning and to slow death by poisonous fungi. And there is no common agreement about the taste of its fruit.

We can easily imagine boughs of the tree in places where there are none now, less easily the branches that might have forked from these absent boughs, but we can guess only wildly at where the twigs and leaves would stem off from our imagined branches. We can easily see when we look at the living tree, more readily than when we experience living history, because our eyes trace a geometrical pattern, that if any of the actual had hot developed or had been destroyed, everything that grew on it and out of it would be non-existent. From this it does not follow, as we have seen, that the trunk “explains” the bough, the bough the branch, the branch the twig, the twig the leaf. The first is only the necessary condition of the second.

The architectural pattern of the tree is much simpler than the casual relationships of history. The tree of history has no “true” or “necessary” or “predetermined” or “fixed” shape. Neither has it an infinite variety of branchings without law or pattern or mutual support and interrelation. It is not a patch of tangled wilderness where nothing leads anywhere and anything can grow at any place.

  1. If: or, History Rewritten, New York, 1931.
  2. Both excerpt are quoted in Carola Oman’s Napoleon at the Channel, p. 155, New York, 1942.
  3. This is the drawback of all reconstructions of prolonged historical periods, such as Charles Renouvier’s Uchronie—L’Utopie dans l’Histoire, in which he gives us an account of European civilization from the second century to the seventeenth “not as it was, but as it might have been.” Such reconstructions, although of dubious scientific value, may have great moral and pedagogical significance.