208 – …what if?

Posted on January 30, 2013 by

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Counterfactual history[1] is mostly idle speculation – is Monday night quarter-backing. After all, when we engage is such spinning hypotheses we do not change all the concomitant causes of an event – we select just one to please our reasoning and suit our clever purposes. Alas, mono-causality seldom accrues in history. We cannot control all the changes that would occur when we make history change its course; should we fatuously decide to rewind the tape of history, and let it out again (a favorite expression of Stephen J. Gould) we could never predict the outcome.

With the knowledge of what happened it is easy to imagine after the fact how things could have turned out differently. But what if, before the event was to take place, someone had forcefully and cogently argued a different direction and – after the fact – we might regret that “road not taken”? There are deep lessons to be drawn here, if we can project ourselves into the decision-making process at the time.

I’ve recently come across such an instance – and it has mesmerized my greying cells. Most history is crisscrossing of path-dependent outcomes. Rare are the moments when actors are allowed more than opportunistic adaptation. But such moments, where “the sky is the limit” do exist, and one such moment was in 1943.

Remember: 7/12/1941 – Pearl Harbor. Japan attacks the US and transforms what was a regional war in the West into a global affair. The empires of France, Holland, and most of Britain in the Far East collapse, and India is threatened. 7/6/1942 the battle of Midway is fought: with the Japanese Navy crippled, the outcome in the Far East is no longer in doubt – though it will be a long onslaught. 4/11/1942: Battle of El Alamein, and 2/2/1943: Battle of Stalingrad. In the West too, the outcome is now clear.

The war is being fought in the spirit of the Atlantic Charter[2], which had been issued in August 1941 and transformed on 1/1/1942 into the Declaration of the United Nations. Its principles are clear – and idealistic.

WWII ended in 1945: the German onslaught was rolled back, and German allies in the East (Hungary, Romania, Czechoslovakia) were occupied by the Soviet Union in the course of fighting (Poland, well, it suffered its usual fate). The Japanese Co-prosperity sphere, on the other hand, collapsed like a pricked balloon. Japanese troops were left scattered all over Asia. At Yalta the Japanese empire was divided up into spheres of “influence”. The British forces were to take control of all Japanese-held territories in the West and up to the 16° parallel in Vietnam in trust for the Dutch and the French. Chang Kai-shek was to have control of China and northern Vietnam, after conceding to Soviet territorial demands. The Soviet Union obtained the colonial territories it had lost to Japan in 1904 – and more. Korea was divided at the 38° parallel. The US got the Pacific.

This unseemly (and chaotic) scramble[3] to recreate lost empires and build new ones conflicted with nationalism in most states: Aung San in Burma, Sukarno in Indonesia, Ho Chi-minh in Hanoi. Korea, who had been annexed by Japan in 1910, was torn asunder: coal and electricity were in the north, rice and light industry in the south.

Defeated Japanese forces and US weapons were used to repress insurrections (their involvement in China lasted until 1948). Asia was treated to the spectacle of the US cossetting hated Hirohito. Nehru commented that the US was “underwriting the British Empire”. The disillusionment with US policy was profound, and the effects lasting. One might conjecture that “non-alignment” emerged in Bandung in 1955 from these experiences, even though it was formalized in Belgrade in 1961.

What if… the US has lived up to the principles of the Atlantic Charter? It could have done so, rather than orchestrate and fund the mad scramble to reconstruct Western empires, and allowing the Soviet Union to become preponderant on the mainland. What if it had thrown in Stalin’s face the Soviet Government’s note of 27 October 1920: “The Government of the USSR (…) renounces all the annexations of Chinese territory, all the concessions in China, and returns to China free of charge and forever all that was ravenously taken from her by the Czar’s government and by the Russian bourgeoisie.”

In the end it was all for naught: soon enough most countries of the empires gained independence and sovereignty (China) – if necessary through wars (Vietnam!). Only divided Korea lives on, monument to the perceived “security needs” of the great powers.

Would the perceived “security interests” of the US have been better protected, had it graciously bowed to the emergent nationalisms at the end of WWII, or even supported them with a “Marshall Plan Asia”? What would the people of Asia made of Soviet communism, had it been the only pig at the troth? The enfolding attraction of socialism was also a reaction to the failure of the US to lead with democracy and independence when it had the means to do so. And had the US not blatantly sustained the corrupt regime of Chang Kai-shek, China may not have been lost.

What if… one person asked this question in 1946, and I’ve just come across his book[4]. Harold R. ISAACS is an “internationalist” – who calls for the “universal will of the people for a better future” (pg. 284). But his insight that had the US led Asia to freedom the continent would have gravitated to peace, rather than struggle through so much violence for 30 years or so, is worth pondering: “Whatever the unsettling effects of such a radical change, it would still offer more real security than a restoration of the status quo ante or the acceptance of a long drawn out contest in which the ruling powers would seek to preserve the essence while yielding some of the form of their sovereignty. (…) The reconstruction, in southern Asia as well as in China, would be immensely profitable to American economy, ensuring full American employment and production, and it would be stable and fruitful because built on a new foundation of political equality.” (pg. 234-235)

It is the tragedy of the United States that, having joined the fray of WWII on high principle, it betrayed it in the end, thereby defeating its original purpose – and losing sight of its own long-term interests. Peace did not ensue in Asia, as ISAACS predicted. It took Asia a generation and untold million dead from war, progroms, and famines, to redress this failure to imagine a world without “spheres of colonial influence.”


[1]           Counterfactual history, also sometimes referred to as virtual history, is a form of historiography that attempts to answer “what if” questions known as counterfactuals. It seeks to explore history and historical incidents by means of extrapolating a timeline in which certain key historical events did not happen or had an outcome which was different from that which did in fact occur. It has produced a book genre which is variously called alternative history, speculative history, counterfactual history, or hypothetical history.

A counterfactual thought occurs when a person modifies a factual antecedent and then assesses the consequences of that mutation. A person may imagine how an outcome could have turned out differently, if the antecedents that led to that event were different. For example, a person may reflect upon how a car accident could have turned out by imagining how some of the antecedents could have been different, that is by imagining a counterfactual conditional, where the consequence is preceded by the conditional, beginning with “if” e.g., if only I hadn’t been speeding… or the same even if I had been going slower….

[2]           The eight principal points of the Charter were:

  1. no territorial gains were to be sought by the United States or the United Kingdom;
    1. territorial adjustments must be in accord with the wishes of the peoples concerned;
    2. all people had a right to self-determination;
    3. trade barriers were to be lowered;
    4. there was to be global economic cooperation and advancement of social welfare;
    5. the participants would work for a world free of want and fear;
    6. the participants would work for freedom of the seas;
    7. there was to be disarmament of aggressor nations, and a postwar common disarmament.

Although Clause Three clearly states that all peoples have the right to decide their form of government, it fails to say what changes are necessary in both social and economic terms, so as to achieve freedom and peace.

[3]              For a masterly overview see: Melvyn P. LEFFLER (1992): A preponderance of power. National security, the Truman administration, and the Cold War. Stanford University Press, Stanford.

[4]           Harold R. ISAACS (1967): No peace for Asia. MIT Press, New Haven. The book was re-edited with a new introduction.