edited by Robert Cowley



427pp/$28.95/September 2001

What If? 2
Cover by Lisa Amoroso

Reviewed by Steven H Silver

The idea of having professional historians write counterfactual historical essays is not new.  Not only does counterfactual discussion take place at some point in nearly every graduate seminar, but as far back as Livy, historians have included their speculations within the larger text of their historical musings.  In the 1930s, J.C. Squire collected the musings of several noted historians, including Hillaire Belloc, André Maurois and G.M. Trevelyan.  Robert Crowley revived the format in 1999 following the success of a short project in the magazine MHQ.  He now returns again with the follow-up collection What If? 2:  Eminent Historians Imagine What Might Have Been. 

These essays focus on specific changes in history, both military and political, and examine what actually happened and what a different outcome might have meant for the Western world.  This gives a more balanced feel to the book than there was in What If?, since the first book was specifically made up of military points of divergence.  One of the interesting things about What If? 2 is that fact that nearly all of the postulated points of divergence play into the idea of the Great Man theory of history.

From Victor Davis Hanson's opening conjecture of Socrates' death during the rout at Delium to James Chace's examination of the presidency of Henry Wallace, the historians subscribe to the idea that one man can make a difference.  William H. McNeill bucks this trend with his closing essay in which potatoes do not exist.  McNeill's essay serves to remind the reader that history is not just what humans and civilizations do, but it is also affected by the basic tools and resources which the Earth provides.

One of the weaknesses of the anthology is the fact that nearly all of the essays focus on European history, whether in Europe, North America or Australia.  There is little indication that the history of the rest of the world could have any affect on the way our world has turned out.  The only essay which begins to address this is Cook’s “The Chinese Discovery of the New World, 15th Century,” in which the issue of change is the denial of Europeans from gaining hegemony in North America.

Most of the essayists represented in What If? 2 are professional historians, not novelists.  What this means is that while in many cases the speculations are top notch, the presentation is not as engrossing as it could be.  Presumed exceptions, like the novelist Caleb Carr, defy expectations by focusing mostly on the strategy and tactics of a situation (the invasion of  Europe during World War II) than on the personalities which were involved.

The essays in What If?2 are short, allowing the reader to dip into the book and read a few conjectures without being overwhelmed.  In addition, all of them will provoke the reader to think about the actual course of history (one of the primary purposes of counterfactual speculation), even, or perhaps especially, when the reader disagrees with the course of history stipulated by the essayist.

Victor Davis Hanson Socrates Dies at Delium, 424 B.C.
Josiah Ober Not by a Nose
Carlos M.N. Eire Pontius Pilate Spares Jesus
Cecelia Holland Repulse at Hastings, October 14, 1066
Theodore F. Cook, Jr. The Chinese Discovery of the New World, 15th Century
Geoffrey Parker Martin Luther Burns at the Stake, 1521
Theodore K. Rabb If Charles I Had Not Left Whitehall, August 1641
Thomas Fleming Napoleon’s Invasion of North America
Tom Wicker If Lincoln Had Not Freed the Slaves
Alistair Horne France Turns the Other Cheek, July 1870
John Lukacs The Election of Theodore Roosevelt, 1912
Robert L. O’Connell The Great War Torpedoed
George Feifer No Finland Station
Geoffrey C. Ward The Luck of Franklin Delano Roosevelt
Williamson Murray The War of 1938
Andrew Roberts Prime Minister Halifax
James Bradley The Boys Who Saved Australia, 1942
David Kahn Enigma Uncracked
Robert Katz Pius XII Protests the Holocaust
Caleb Carr VE Day—November 11, 1944
Roger Spiller The Führer in the Dock
Richard B. Frank No Bomb:  No End
James Chace The Presidency of Henry Wallace
Lance Morrow A Tale of Three Congressmen, 1948
William H. McNeill What If Pizarro Had Not Found Potatoes in Peru?


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