IT SEEMED LIKE A
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
It Seemed Like a Good Idea. . . is one of those books which begs to be dipped into time and again, but not read through cover to cover. Editors William R. Forstchen and Bill Fawcett have selected fifty historical decision which any reasonable person would have made based on the available knowledge, but which turned out to be the wrong decision. Their selections range from the decision which led to Philip of Macedon’s assassination to George W. Bush’s decision to permit Saddam Hussein to remain in power.
Perhaps not surprising is that Eurocentric view the editors have taken. Only a single selection, the Khwarezm Shah’s face off with Genghis Khan, is not a product of European culture, although it did have a major effect on Europe in the decades which followed.
The editors have chosen to avoid including battlefield decisions since what the commander knew was not necessarily accurate, or complete, enough to make an informed decision many of their choices, however, are related to battle and warfare, taking a more political view of the mistakes.
Many of the decisions discussed in the book will be well-known to anyone who is versed in European history, from the decision to assassinate Julius Caesar to Archduke Ferdinand’s assassination in Sarajevo. Others are more obscure, but, for the very fact, are more interesting. These include Leif Ericson’s decision not to colonize North America and Michael Bilandic’s failure to get snow removed from Chicago streets.
Other mistakes are a little dubious. Philip of Macedon and JFK’s decisions to travel without their bodyguards, something which was not beyond normal behavior, are included, but not Abraham Lincoln’s decision to go to the theater, William McKinley’s gladhanding or James Garfield’s decision to reject Charles Guiteau’s application. Why choose one but not the others.
Although assassination appears to loom large throughout the book, there are numerous “errors” which did not result in the death of the perpetrator. Most notably Kim Philby’s role as a counter spy for the Soviety Union, which eventually resulted in his defection to the USSR (although Vidkun Quisling, whose name became synonymous with treason, isn’t mentioned).
It Seemed Like a Good Idea. . . is at its best when the authors simply report on the facts of the mistakes which were made. When the authors attempt to introduce counterfactual interpretations, they fail, partly because the three or four page descriptions of events don’t fully permit them to explore the implications of the changes they suggest.
Forstchen and Fawcett had in interesting idea which, with any luck, will spur readers on to look more deeply into the events which led to the fiascos which they document. The book could also serve as a starting point for several intriguing alternative history stories based on the decision going the other way. Of course, while the title and theme of this anthology imply that other decisions would have worked out better, the truth of that implication can never be known.
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