Posted by: Dominic | February 1, 2012

History That Didn’t Happen

Gen. Eisenhower's speech in the event of failure at Normandy (image from http://www.archives.gov).

The Atlantic website carries this great article by Swarthmore College professor of political science Dominic Tierney, who discusses what would have happened if the D-Day invasions of Normandy or the 1969 moon landing had failed.

Well, I guess he doesn’t discuss what would have happened, but rather what would have been said.

One day before the invasion, Gen. Dwight Eisenhower drafted this message to deliver if D-Day did not become the victory we now celebrate it as. He mistakenly wrote “July 5” on the paper instead of “June.”

Our landings in the Cherbourg-Havre area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops. My decision to attack at this time and place was based on the best information available. The troops, the air, and the Navy did all that bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt it is mine alone.

Eisenhower originally wrote “the troops have been withdrawn.” He crossed it out and scribbled over it, “I have withdrawn the troops.” He does not seem to be merely following every elementary school teacher’s advice to avoid the passive voice at all costs. As with the last sentence – “If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt it is mine alone” – Eisenhower emphasizes that he bears the ultimate responsibility for the operation and in this scenario he had failed. The troops, by contrast, had fulfilled their duties.

The style of the note is terse and straightforward. On a day that in victory brought many casualties, a failure would have wreaked upon the Allies catastrophic death of even more horrific proportions. The magnitude of such a failure, as Tierney writes, “did not need interpretation.”

By contrast, the speech of Richard Nixon, prepared in the event that the lunar landings of July, 1969 failed and any of the astronauts of Apollo 11 were left stranded in space and died, was more lyrical, relying heavily on imagery. It reads in part:

In ancient days, men looked at stars and saw their heroes in the constellations. In modern times, we do much the same, but our heroes are epic men of flesh and blood. …

For every human being who looks up at the moon in the nights to come will know that there is some corner of another world that is forever mankind.

As Tierney comments, these documents are an important lesson that events which seem to be amongst the most important and seminal of 20th century, and American, history were far from foregone conclusions.

The thought that things could have turned out much different gives us a window to think about this idea of inevitability. Often times one will hear armchair historians claim that if x, y, or z didn’t happen, then this or that event, and very usually our present-day lives, would be completely different. A standard essay question for American high school students is to discuss the inevitability of the Civil War. Does this help us understand history better? I’m not so certain; history is the study of what actually happened in the past, as well as what we think about the past. Alternate history might be an interesting exercise, but it rarely if ever brings us closer to this past. It is perhaps only once events are placed in a narrative that they appear inevitable, and this, maybe, is instructive about the nature and limitations of how we write about history. As it is said, any event, once it has occurred, can be made to appear inevitable by a competent historian.

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