What if an event in history did not happen?

If I were a history teacher, I think I would gauge how students think by asking them to respond to a simple question – what would have transpired if an event in history did not happen?  This would show the importance of that event on world affairs, as well as revealing the influence certain events have on decisions to act or not act on subsequent issues. For example, the US delayed getting into WWII as a result of being involved in WWI, which was used as an argument by isolationists not to participate.

Here are few examples to think about. Pick one or two and tell me what you think may have transpired.

  • What if Japan never bombed Pearl Harbor?
  • What if President George W. Bush and team did not fabricate the Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) story as a reason to invade Iraq?
  • What if Robert F. Kennedy was not assassinated?
  • What if the Robber Baron period in the US continued without check?
  • What if the verdict in Brown v Board of Education said separate but equal schools were constitutional?
  • What if President Teddy Roosevelt did not sanction the building of the Panama Canal?
  • What if the South prevailed enough in the Civil War to remain separate?
  • What if President Ronald Reagan had not made his famous speech in Berlin and ad-libbed, “tear down this wall?”
  • What if Senator Joseph McCarthy was stood up to earlier by other leaders?
  • What if Great Britain prevailed in the War of 1812?

Although, there are some global questions, most of these questions are US centric, so please forgive. If the reaction is good to this, I may follow-up with less US centric questions.  I would love to hear your thoughts. Keep them reasonably brief, so others can enjoy and react to them.


13 thoughts on “What if an event in history did not happen?

  1. hmmm. i think you tossed out too many ‘what if’s’ and we’re stuck in a merry-go-round of reflective thoughts! i think we probably ponder those ‘what if’s’ on a more personal level, starting with the pearl harbor question… my father, who would not see his firstborn until she was two years old, might have veered in other directions with his life.

    the second question made me wonder how many people would have the backbone to speak up and agree with your statement! people tend to pull back and stay quiet than to publicly state their views on controversial issues.

    i paused longer on the one about the panama canal, because it made me think of nicaragua’s plan for a new canal near the route that vanderbilt used during the california gold-rush era. so another question might be, ‘what if vanderbilt had built the canal that linked lake nicaragua to the pacific coast?

    even if few people reply, you’ve made many ponder history and what might have been if only some things had not happened.

    • Thanks Z. I hope I get some more takers on comments. I will share a few of mine once I have seen others. I like that you started with the personal and moved to a larger context. On the Panama Canal, many don’t know that a French led team failed horribly to build a canal across Central America. This is why the Roosevelt sponsored undertaking was fraught with debate, conflict and challenges. On the more recent WMD front, I can say that Scooter Libby who worked for Karl Rove in the Bush White House went to jail for outing a CIA operative named Valerie Plame, to discredit her husband who as a former ambassador saw his reconnaissance data misused to validate WMDs when his finding were the exact opposite. He wrote an op-ed piece called “What I did not find” which led to the maneuver that landed Libby in jail. So, if that piece of evidence was not true and was intentionally misused and folks were caught in the lie…..

  2. I agree with Z. There are just too many possibilities to ponder.
    What if the South had won the civil war? That’s an interesting one. I think slavery would have continued and we would have had, at some point in time, an uprising like what has happened in various European held parts of the African continent. Bloodshed would have happened sooner or later. It might have pitted American against American but later in time. Maybe it would be a lot like Palestine/Israel.

    • Linda, thanks for your comments. I think you are headed down the right path, as the disparate factions would cause problems. I stopped short of saying “winning” as I don’t think they could have won, even though they had the better generals and commanders. The industrial engine in the north was too much for the agrarian south and with all of the fighting going on, fewer crops were grown to pay others for munitions. Their only chance of winning would be to have an unhealthy alliance with another country to whom they would have been beholden. Yet, if they were to battle to a stalemate which ended in truce and divided country, in my view it would have exposed one or both to invasion, especially with such depleted ranks. Or, maybe not invasion, but loans from another country to make ends meet. For the reasons noted above, the south would have been extremely vulnerable, as they made far fewer manufactured products. Either way, the US would be a far different place. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. BTG

  3. Great questions. I will talk briefly about the first and last! I think if Japan had not bombed Pearl Harbor we would have found another excuse to get involved. FDR had already made a number of commitments to Churchill and England was in dire straights and needed our help.
    If Great Britain had prevailed we might have once again become a British possession and we would now all speak much better English and be just a bit less boorish! Just a bit….

    • Thanks Hugh. I agree on both counts, but if we were too late on the help to Churchill, we may all be colonies of Deutschland, or at least Great Britain would be.

  4. Perhaps this will be an unpopular opinion, but I would change the Pearl Harbor what if to “what if the United States had not frozen Japanese assets and imposed trade sanctions and embargoes on Japan prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor? Japan was engaging in expansionist activities in China, and were terribly brutal, but the US engaged in similar conquests, including the islands of Hawaii. The history of war between Japan and China reaches back to ancient times. Roosevelt was fully aware that Japan’s hand would be forced by the embargo and that in light of imminent war between Japan and Russia, the US wanted a say in how things went in the far east. Perhaps the Pearl Harbor attack would not have occurred and the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki would not have been incinerated. As Hugh said, we would have had to find another reason to assist Britain against Germany, which was the stated primary objective of Roosevelt.

    An unchecked Japanese Imperial Army would have created a different political landscape in Asia. Would it have been better or worse and do we have the right to have a say in it? The same questions could be asked in regard to Iraq and Saddam Hussein.What would China look like today? Korea, which at the time was under Japanese rule (until this point the US had no problem with the occupation), would not have been partitioned into communist and democratic regimes. What if Russia and the US had left Korea to its own devices?

    On the flip side, under Reconstruction, Japan succeeded in becoming an economic powerhouse under the protection of the United States. Japanese women, despite the high incidence of rape by American servicemen and the sharp uptick in prostitution following the war, arguably enjoyed a sort of liberation in later years, which could be attributed to the influence of Western democracy. I’m making no moral judgments here, but framing the question a bit differently to reflect the depth of influence that the actions of the United States and Soviet Russia have had on Sino-Japanese and Korean relations and the fates of many countries around the world.

    Your other what ifs were thought provoking as well, but you said keep it brief;)

    • Amaya, very well done and I learned a few things. Thanks. My main thrust of the question was if the US delayed getting into the war, Germany and Italy would have been harder to overcome and Great Britain may have surrendered. You made it a deeper question. What is interesting is Japan is one of our best allies and South Korea is flourishing. If we can make this more about global trade, fewer folks will want to upset the applecarts. Well done. BTG

  5. You’ve included two of the “Great Questions” that are easy for students to relate to: What if (Person X) did not die? What would have been the outcome of their initiatives if they had lived to see them through? and, What if the other side won the war? Or, what if we hadn’t fought that war at all? These kinds of questions are great hooks to create an interest in history.

    • Many thanks. I started to say what if JFK or MLK did not die, but I thought I would pick the younger Kennedy. I will share my thoughts later today on all, but if RFK lived, we may not have had a Nixon presidency with all of that entailed.

  6. Note to Readers: Great responses. Many thanks. I especially liked Amaya’s who gives a non US centric response, which is not known as well here. Here are a few thoughts, which are pure speculation.

    ◾What if Japan never bombed Pearl Harbor? See Amaya’s comments and my response.
    ◾What if President George W. Bush and team did not fabricate the Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) story as a reason to invade Iraq? See Z’s note above and my response. Al Qaeda was not in Iraq and now we have ISIL which is an even worse strain. Trudy Rubin, who is one of the best global issues correspondents, said even when you get past the WMD storyline, we did not have a clear cut mission, we listened to the wrong advisors, we fired the police force who could have helped and we did not understand the history of the area. Bush and Cheney felt the need to invade something as they let Osama Bin Laden escape from Afghanistan. Saddam Hussein was an easy target. What the reconnaissance seemed to indicate, and as evidenced by not finding WMDs, is Hussein more than likely leaked stories to portray a greater capability than he had. So, Hussein would have remained in power and, while hated by many, would have kept his iron thumb over disparate factions. I am not saying this is preferable, but that is likely what would have happened. And, the reputation of the US would be less tarnished.
    ◾What if Robert F. Kennedy was not assassinated? I believe he would have carried the Democratic nomination and defeated Nixon for President. While Nixon did open up China and implement the EPA, his presidency is known for its corruption and criminality that included Watergate. Twenty one people went to jail under Nixon and he would have as well, had he not be pardoned by President Gerald Ford. The sad truth is RFK would have likely never gotten the chance, if the first attempt failed. While viewed as voice of change, he scared people and made too many enemies, so there would have been other attempts.
    ◾What if the Robber Baron period in the US continued without check? We may have had a rebellion like they had in Russia. Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle” ably defines the plight of the American worker. The rights of a laborer were not many and he/ she was beholden to the factory owners who exploited them. If we did not have rules placed to limit monopolies, collusion, unfair trading and labor practices, the workers might have reacted in a more pronounced way. Ironically, we have some in our country who are advocating lessening or getting rid of rules that govern the owners and executives under the guise of unfettered capitalism which would return us to the Robber Baron era.
    ◾What if the verdict in Brown v Board of Education said separate but equal schools were constitutional? This ruling was an important cog in the wheel on the civil rights fight. If it had been ruled in the opposite way, African-Americans would have been fighting an even more uphill battle, mentally, emotionally and physically. This ruling was the first ruling in over 90 years that said the rights of African-Americans were important.
    ◾What if President Teddy Roosevelt did not sanction the building of the Panama Canal? In the book “Water” by Steven Solomon, he notes Teddy Roosevelt as the greatest water resource presidents, followed closely by FDR. He notes that the Panama Canal gave the US access to two oceans and aided the country in becoming both a naval and global trade power. Without it, the cost of sailing around South America or sending goods by rail from each coast would have made trade harder and our naval might would be less.
    ◾What if the South prevailed enough in the Civil War to remain separate? Please refer to Linda’s comments and my reply.
    ◾What if President Ronald Reagan had not made his famous speech in Berlin and ad-libbed, “tear down this wall?” This apparently was an ad-lib line, but irrespective of how you feel about Reagan, this was one of his finest moments. The wall would have likely come down eventually, but timing is everything and he was on the side of the Angels with this comment.
    ◾What if Senator Joseph McCarthy was stood up to earlier by other leaders? McCarthy said if you disagreed with him, then you must be a communist. The answer that should have been given is “So, what? This is the United States and if I choose to be one, that is acceptable in our constitution.” It wasn’t until newscaster Edward R. Murrow had McCarthy on his national news that people began to see McCarthy for what he was.
    ◾What if Great Britain prevailed in the War of 1812? See Hugh’s response. We would likely be a British Colony again. It would be interesting to see how the slavery issue played out. Would the North British Colony and Great Britain have to squelch a rebellion which led to the Civil War?

  7. What a great idea for food for thought. As many noted, I think you included too many questions for the first time, out; list only a few so that the responses center on each other and carry a theme.

    GW Bush and the WMD question is similar to an earlier part of our history of forcing our ideas on others. The question, what if the US had not overthrown the Iraq government and installed the Shah in power? Because of the ease of doing so, the US took on a series of these “coups” under the rule of John Foster Dulles and with the implied consent of Eisenhower. Then they jumped across the pond to central American, and Guatamala, Nicaugura, Panama. And we know how all that turned out. It also lead to the fateful decision to aid the French in Vietnam, who by that time just wanted out. We followed a disastrous plan there to “Stop Communism” wherever it was in the world. And before the French and Vietnam, was Korea.

    I think what I’m saying is that as disastrous as GW Bush and the Iraq/Afghanistan invasions were, over the course of history, he was only the last of a series of American egotistical blunders, that killed well over a hundred thousand youths, and kept the armchair warriors, who had no personal investment is the actual fighting, in power and deluded. Watch out for McCain, a senator who never met a war he didn’t love.

    • Great comments! You spell out a history of sticking our nose in places because of business interests or some fossil fuel advantage. One of my favorite movies is “Missing” with Jack Lemmon and Sissy Spacek regarding a coup we helped with. Thanks for your thoughts.

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